The Iconography of Terror: How ISIS Taps into Our Fears

For some time, I have been convinced that ISIS is tapping in to Western fears, using an intimate knowledge of our history, art and myth to stir night terrors for an entire civilization.

ISISSquadThis first occurred to me when I saw this picture, which I and many compared to the einsatzgrupen on the Eastern Front. The helpless victims with their backs to death, the collective nature of the method of of executions so all the killer share equally in the act tie the two scenes  together across time.

Gruppen                                                                 Contrast this to Goya’s rendering of a similar scene. The Spaniards in this painting will all surely die, but they face their killers and defy them. They have not been robbed of all agency. They die, but we know others will live. Beyond the horror is hope. It is if Goya could look across more than a century and see liberty arise from a sea of corpses. Whereas, the equally iconic picture of the the German killers presents no hope, only hopelessness, and shame at that helplessness. We have long thought -or hoped – that Goya’s was, in the end, the clearer vision.

"Third of May"  Francisco Goya.  Napoleon's troops shoot civilians. An archetype for countless atrocities over the next century and a half.

“Third of May” Francisco Goya. Napoleon’s troops shoot civilians. An archetype for countless atrocities over the next century and a half.

ISIS has been described as “sophisticated” in their media output, but the latest from Libya, is in my view, brilliant. Lets have a look at this still from the video of the mass murder of 21 Copts on a Libya shore.

LONSHOTBEACCH

21 Copts murdered. New reports of 21 captives held in cages. A reference to a 21 gun salute? I wouldn’t put it past this bunch.

First we see a line of obviously cowed, despairing men in orange jumpsuits, each escorted by a masked figure who towers above his captive. The use of orange jump suits in beheading videos goes back to at least Nick Berg, and is in part a riposte for the humiliations visited to some prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Beyond that, it is a mockery of our Western notions of justice. Unlike western prisoners, like those you sometimes see out clearing verges along highways, these men will have no lawyers, no work release, no parole. Only death. And this is as decreed in a multitude of Islamic sources. Allah’s law prevails, and the statutes of Pharaoh, Caesar and Parliament are as nothing. Note how the line recedes form the foreground into the distance. No matter how many  “Crusaders” there are, there is a limitless supply of executioners. The setting along the shore is no accident. The shore in question is the southern Mediterranean, a Latin term meaning at the center of the earth, the sea that bound the Roman world together, Mare Nostrum, Our Sea. A sea that Islam cleft in twain for more than a millennium. This is to let us know that the sea is ours no longer, and will once again be theirs.

A shore is the limit of the human inhabited earth, a dead end.  There are no waiting ships, and no escape. Only a brooding sky over an iron sea. A storm is coming.

axeman It is the back cloaked figures who tap most deeply in to our subconscious. The axeman is a familiar archetype. For how many centuries did Europeans live under rulers who could at a whim, send their subjects to the block, where a masked man in black would send them to eternity? In fact, beheading was reserved for the nobility, while the common man was more likely to go via the rope. Certainly, the hangman’s noose, remains a symbol of death, while the hangman is remembered in folklore, but who we see in our nightmares, is the axeman, perhaps because he figured in the last moments of so many famous historical figures. ISIS and others use knives, not axes. This is the tool of halal slaughter, a clear message that the victims are as beasts.

grey

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. Paul de la Roche, 1834

In this painting of the execution of Lady Jane Gray one sees a similar sort of obscene intimacy as that in the lSIS Libyan video, where the executioners each guide their victims with a hand on the shoulder. They proceed in step, both part of the choreography.( Surely this was rehearsed.) While I’m not a cinematography nerd, as a long time consumer of horror movies, the technique in the ISIS short seems familiar. There are a couple of tricks I’m sure I’ve seen in the kind of second tier scare flicks you see on Thirll TV.

Open on an empty beach. Which quickly rushes up to the viewer, then back again, a kind of whiplash view accompanied by  reptilian chattering. Same again, but the line of men is now on the beach. Again, and the beach is empty. Then the men return and the narrative becomes more conventional There is a declaration, the usual tale of victimization and retributive aggression.

See Video: ISIS executes 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya

We are given time to learn their faces, so that we will recognize them in death.

The camera lingers briefly over each face that we will remember them. When the moment comes, the men are shoved on to the sand in a wave action beginning at the far end of the line. Continuity disappears. There is a brief montage of violence, blood, body parts ,screams and exultant shouts. I have seen this before. The violence is such that we comprehend its nature, but so brief that a gag reflex isn’t triggered.  The dialogue may well sound better in Arabic and perhaps a more competent translator might have given it greater power. Nevertheless, it bares examination as some of it has been much in the news.

The beheaded Copts are referred to as Crusaders, which may be read as any Christian in Muslim lands. In this instance,and many others, pundits have referred to the enduring wounds of the Crusades, which is utterly nonsensical. Islam won the Crusades and they were of little import until anti-Catholic historians made much of them and their victimization of idealism Islamic societies, beginning with Edward Gibbon. Another Edward, Edward Said, was notable among many others in the last century who recast the Crusades as the first assault of Western Colonialism upon non-Western peoples.

Equally laughable is the speculation of some that the Jihadi pointing his knife towards Rome is an attempt to enlist Libyan nationalists resentful of Italian domination. The Italians have been gone from Libya since Montgomery kicked them out in 1943. Indeed, the knife wielder makes a point of his geographic proximity to today’s Rome, but Islam has a long history with both the city,and the idea of Rome. Islam arose in th 7th Century decades after the official end of the Western empire, but the City of Constantine, the New Rome, endured until 1453. Beyond, the city, Rum, the polity, and Rumi, the people were for Islam the entire West.

The speaker says that they will take Rome, and Jesus will return to “overthrow the cross.” This demented eschatology is orthodox in Islam. In 1984, Orwell` posited an end to history in which a boot stamped a human face, forever. With Islam, it is a knife to a human neck.

This short film thus uses Western mass communication techniques to at once feed on our ancient terrors and to rally Islam to an interrupted conquest, with the aid of anti-colonial Marxist derived tropes perpetuated by the West itself.

Brilliant.

Koran 3.151

Soon shall We cast terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers, for that they joined companions with Allah, for which He had sent no authority: their abode will be the Fire: And evil is the home of the wrong-doers!seventhSeal

The Familiar Barbarism of ISIS

I write this as President Obama takes questions in Estonia. He just referred to ISIS’ “barbaric and empty vision.”  Barbaric it surely is, but far from empty.

As usual, he makes no mention of the Islamic roots of this world view, and notes that its primary victims are Muslims.  He never will state the truth that Islam began as, and has largely been, a religion of war and conquest.  And thus, it is supremely pragmatic and reflects truths about human nature that we would prefer to forget.

Earlier today, I watched Megyn Kelly of Fox News speak with Maajid Nawaz, former Islamic terrorist, and now a Liberal Democratic candidate for the British Parliament.   She said that ISIS appeared to be psychopaths.  Nawaz quite rightly told her that this is not the case. These fighters make war on behalf of their ideology, he said.

That ideology is again, Islam, which is, as it has always been, about conquest and power, and one might consider that this, the third transnational ideology to afflict the modern world, as did its predecessors, simply codifies the truth behind most of human history.

The strong will terrorize the weak, both to achieve their ends, and for the sheer joy of it.

In this the civilized state and its barbarian enemies can be quite the same.  Consider the Assyrians
Ashurbanipal, in his reduction of Elam, one of his many campaigns:

“According to his inscription, he killed the Elamite king Teumann and his son with his own sword: ‘With the encouragement of Assur, I killed them; I cut off their heads in front of each other.” He then brought the heads back to Nineveh where he hung them in his garden as decoration.”The destruction of Susa in the land of Elam 652 BCE

 “The rest of those living I destroyed…and their carved-up bodies I fed to dogs, to pigs, to wolves, to eagles, to birds of the heavens, to fishes of the deep.”

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Then the Romans, those master engineers and lawgivers, the second element in the hyphenated classical heritage to which we credit the Renaissance and later, the Enlightenment, from the viewpoint of Calgacus, a Caledonian chief, as reported by Tacitus:

“To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”

The incessant dynastic wars of the middle ages, the Wars of Religion, and the Thirty Years War.

And then, The Enlightenment, which  gave rise to what we take as a self evident principle, that humans have natural rights, which they should not need to defend, but enjoy peacefully, simply because they are humans.

The Western European wars of the 18th and 19th centuries, and even the Great War, saw civilians excluded from much of the violence, as never before. Cities were occupied, sometimes destroyed, but not sacked

The second European War reversed this, with civilians targeted and brutalized in spectacular numbers,  often with an up close and personal cruelty that was the equal of any in the ancient world.

And we come to James Foley, Sotloff, and many others, before, and to come.

We are shocked because this does not happen in our world.  Such things are confined to the forests and deserts of faraway lands where languages and customs are so different as to be unfathomable.
Yet ,Islam is quite straightforward:

“Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.”

Qur’an 2:256 al-Saif

Yet the futile search for “why” continues, misdirected by our own natures.  

We refuse to understand that Islam’s resurgence, like the Holocaust and the Stalinist butchery, should tell us that barbarism, as we call it, has been the normal state of humanity.  In the years just before August 1914, European civilization reigned supreme, and progress, both in the metropolitan countries and their colonies was thought to be unstoppable.  Science, comfort, hygiene, and material well being would only continue to improve the lot of humanity.

The horrors that followed need not be outlined here, but following the two European catastrophes and the long tensions of the Cold War we found ourselves once again in the light of optimism. Technology and commerce were – and are – well on the way to bringing most of the world out of poverty.
Yet  in these same decades, the darkness that is Islam gathered strength.  It is easy to forget that the Middle East, benighted as it seems, and eternally embroiled in its hatred of Israel, had, or at least its elites had, not so long ago, embraced modernism, albeit often in their own forms of socialism and nationalism.

Nasser_and_Tahia_wedding

Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdul Nasser and bride Tahia, 1944

Retrogression is never impossible, and has in history often been unstoppable.  The liberal humane and democratic life we treasure, in its varying forms in Europe, North America, Australasia and much of Asia is not the inevitable pinnacle of human progress.  It needs to be understood as precious, and delicate.  And therein is the contradiction.  Comfortable civilizations have arisen before and been shattered as that very comfort fails in the face of the basic human lust for power and domination. The barbarian may sweep in on horseback, or through an electoral victory.

President Obama and his Secretary of State have both referred to ISIS crimes as barbaric, and its outlook nihilist. This is an easy tag to throw around, much as the left enjoys the epithet “fascist,” and it is equally meaningless in this context.

ni·hil·ism
ˈnīəˌlizəm,ˈnē-/
noun
noun: nihilism

the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.

Robert Zaretsky and David Mikics, writing in the Boston Globe on August 31, 2014, I think, correctly argue that, if anyone is nihilist, it is the post religious, post national West.  ISIS certainly cites its religious and moral principles, amply grounded in the Islamic canon.  However, Zaretsky and Mikics might have gone further.

The barbarian could not be more alive.  He knows that life has meaning:  conquest, plunder, and power. Just as the café habitué with his copy of “Being or Nothingness,” cannot understand this, the barbarian could not for a moment understand the intellectual’s search for meaning.

Nor would he want to.  He would simply relieve the searcher of his valuables, woman, and perhaps his head.

The west and its civilizational allies are still in denial.  The civilized man simply cannot understand the appeal of barbarism. We cannot prevail until we acknowledge that it is not ISIS that is aberrant, but we. Should we finally marshal our material and spiritual forces, and defeat Islam, the peace will not be eternal.

The barbarian is always at the gate, without, and within.