Deconstructing the “Islamic State”

Sarah Olsson interviews Musa al-Gharbi about ISIS, Islam, and the media


Why has ISIL become so famous?

Basically, there are a few reasons ISIL generates so much interest.

One reason is because they are successful. While they have importantly different methods and goals than the group they spun from (al-Qaeda), and the areas they’ve seized have been largely sparsely populated or otherwise “soft” targets they have nonetheless managed to occupy a significant portion of Iraq and Syria, and have proven difficult to dislodge. And they’re great about broadcasting these successes to the world, via their online platforms and the mainstream media.

Second, they go out of their way to become the exact specter that Westerners are paranoid about, deliberately evoking Islamophobic and Orientalist tropes through elaborate and grotesque spectacles in order to manipulate Western publics and policymakers. They’ve been very successful on this front as well, unfortunately.

As a result of ISIL playing into this sensationalism, Western media is virtually obsessed with the group–magnifying their significance while putting forward ISIL’s own narratives fairly uncritically. And again, ISIL is great about piggybacking on this mainstream media coverage through their own rather impressive social media and public relations operations. And so there is this real and problematic synergy with sensational media and the attention-hungry extremists feeding off of one another.

This is a problem with terrorism and extremism in general, vis a vis the media. But it is especially pronounced in this case, because we are not talking about a single individual or act, but a sustained campaign by both ISIL and the media to keep this story at the forefront—with the network pursuing higher ratings and ISIL seeking to advance its cause internationally.

To be clear, the problem isn’t that the media covers ISIL, it’s the way the media covers ISIL (and also, perhaps, the frequency). Far too late, President Obama has cautioned the media against exaggerating the ISIL threat—but its good advice to heed.

 Assuming reporting about ISIL makes hate against Muslims grow and gives Nazi movements an argument, what should the media do? Should they not report about ISIL?

What is interesting, as I point out in my recent Middle East Policy article, is that one is seeing not only a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment, but also anti-Semitism in Europe, largely from non-Muslims.

Meanwhile, ISIL has wide appeal with American and European youth.

The media is culpable for both of these trends. First, by creating a climate of fear against foreigners which targets not only Muslims, most of whom reject ISIL, but also many other minority groups. Second, by glamorizing and sensationalizing ISIL in order to create this climate of fear (which drives ratings)–thereby making the group more appealing for those who may be susceptible to extremism.

The trick is not to censor reporting on ISIL, but to just portray the group more realistically, more responsibly, and with better context. Of course, that may be too much to hope for in many media outlets, certainly here in America.


 Why is the West so concerned about Muslims?

I’ll answer this question with regards to America, because I know it best. Although I’m quite sure this answer echoes in Western Europe as well, as expressed well by French theorists like Foucault and Baudrillard.

Basically, the Iranian Revolution sent a shockwave through the Western world. It represented not only a rejection, but an alternative to, European interpretations of value and liberal norms–and one which had the potential to be exported widely not only across the Middle East (which would have been disturbing enough for many given how critical the region is), but also to Central and some parts of East Asia, Eastern and Southern Europe, all of which have large Muslim populations (it began as a pan-Islamist movement rather than a Shia movement, and one which rejected both communism and capitalism as useless European constructs). And of course, Islam is now the 2nd largest and fastest-growing religion worldwide, to include within Europe. The idea that this alternative paradigm could be adopted by so large a population was terrifying.

And so the immediate impulse was to try and contain it–both through sanctions and other measures intended to isolate Iran geopolitically, and also by propping up dictators and monarchs throughout the region who were hostile to Islamism. The thinking was that Islamism was one of the only major threats to the world order set up in the aftermath of the World Wars–especially after the fall of the Soviet Union. This was widely expressed in Western literature, for instance, Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations,” or Fukuyama’s “The End of History.”

This is actually part of the reason ISIL attracts so many Westerners, many of whom are either neither Muslims nor immigrants–and if Muslims, are recent converts who know very little about the religion, or lifelong “cultural” Muslims who only recently became “devout.” They view Islam as a means to “fight the system,” especially given the failure of movements like “Occupy” and given the growing inequality in Europe and beyond.

But also, 9/11 was especially traumatic for Americans. As Kaplan (Revenge of Geography) and others have argued, the U.S. has always been rather impervious to attack due to its location far from the other main powers. This is one reason America emerged so strong after WWII: they had to do very little with regards to rebuilding, etc., unlike the rest of Europe which was decimated by the conflict. And so after the fall of the USSR, America truly felt more-or-less invincible.

Given this psychology, to have a handful of people cause not only such a profound loss of life, but wreak economic havoc and strike at America’s most iconic and significant centers of power–Americans have really never had to deal with that sort of thing. Even during the great wars: 9/11 killed more Americans than Pearl Harbor—it was the single greatest attack by foreigners on U.S. soil.

So it was a profound comedown: we were not invincible after all–and to have this lesson brought to us by people animated by the faith that many have, and continue to believe, is the only ideological force capable of posing a severe threat to the world order–well, that was all the more frightening.

And then America’s ill-conceived and reactionary responses in Iraq, Afghanistan, and really across the Middle East and North Africa (backed by many Western European powers)–despite the massive investment of Western lives and treasure, only exacerbated the problem of terrorism. This reinforces the narratives and paranoia.

Regarding Western Europe, the Europeans colonized and brutally exploited the Middle East–and resistance to this oppression often found religious expression. It should not be surprising that many of the Muslim extremists in France, for instance, while many are born and raised in France, their families hail from former colonies.

It was England and France’s dividing up the Middle East in the aftermath of the Great Wars that helped give rise to many of the sociological problems facing the region today. ISIL is explicit about defying this system, for instance, bulldozing the lines between Iraq and Syria set up by Sykes-Picot–again, playing explicitly to Western fears. And of course, unlike America, Southern Europe is only divided from this tumult they helped create in the Mideast by the Mediterranean Sea.

But for all that, terror incidents are rare, generally result in few casualties, and are overwhelmingly concentrated in a handful of countries. So the terror threat in general is wildly overstated, and the threat from Muslims to Western countries, more so.

As an example, in America, the chances of being a victim of terrorism are vanishingly small—but in the event you are, it is much more likely that you will be killed by “white terror” than Muslim extremism. There is a similar analog in Europe.

You are based out of Sweden; the first Islamic suicide bombing in Nordic countries was the 2010 Stockholm bombings which killed only the bomber and injured 2 others. The biggest terror attack faced in your neck of the woods was neighboring Norway, where Anders Brevik conducted a bombing and mass shooting that killed 77 people—ironically, driven by anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiment and his Christian fundamentalism.

But all said, you are much more likely to be killed by getting struck by lightning than from a terror attack; 8x more likely to be killed by a cop than a terrorist in America; 40x more likely to be killed by homicide worldwide than terrorism—to say nothing of natural disasters, traffic accidents, workplace hazards, etc.

And I should add that while there is all of this international focus on the Middle East, millions continue to be affected worldwide by wars which receive no public attention, many of them in non-Muslim majority countries.


Can you draw any parallels and/or see any similarities on how we see and talk about Muslims today to how other group(s) have been treated through history?

It is a common practice in times of conflict to dehumanize. The Japanese in America during WWII, leftists were persecuted in America during the Cold War: spied on, subjected to arbitrary detention, etc.

In addition to being dehumanized, minorities are often used as scapegoats. So in America, many blame a lot on Mexican migrants. Before that, it was other immigrants. In the American South, it was black civil rights activists.  In Europe, it is Muslims. Before it was the Muslims, it was infamously the Jews–although anti-Semitism remains prevalent in Europe to this day, perhaps more so than most would care to admit.

So what’s happening now with Muslims is an intersection of these wider trends. Historical and contemporary examples could be produced ad infinitum in myriad contexts. But it is dangerous, in part because it can enable societies to commit all manner of horrors against these populations–but also because it feeds the narratives of extremists from within these groups, giving rise to self-reinforcing cycles of persecution and radicalization.


You mentioned that ISIS is not mainly driven by religious means, but rather economic and political concerns, could you develop that? 

So one has to look first at who is joining ISIS.

Most of their members are native Iraqis and Syrians. ISIS’ religious expression, salafism, is relatively unpopular in the Middle East, around 8% of Sunni Muslims in the region (4% of Muslims overall in the Mideast) subscribe to the ideology, concentrated most heavily in the Gulf and North Africa. Salafism was not popular in Iraq or Syria, and even in jihadist theological circles, al-Baghdadi is not well-respected.

The sense in which ISIS has legitimacy is as an opposition force to the governments in Iraq and Syria–insurgencies which were underway before the rise of ISIS. Upon joining these rebellions, ISIS quickly distinguished themselves as one of the most effective fighting groups there, which is why people began to join them: to advance their uprisings against their respective governments, animated primarily by local socio-economic concerns.

ISIS also pays great salaries–far more than other insurgent groups, and even more than the local governments in most cases. And in some areas most decimated by the wars, ISIS is one of the only employers around.

Most of those who join are not fighters, but instead operate ISIS’ various economic enterprises. Additionally, ISIS tries to provide social services and governance for the areas they conquer, and this requires a lot of administrators. And then there is their large propaganda team. So when people say ISIS has 30,000 people at their disposal, most of these are basically reserves who are doing other things and could, in principle, be called to the front lines to fight.

In fact, there is this trend of foreigners, especially Westerners, becoming disillusioned–and frankly, bored–when they go to Iraq or Syria. They think they’re going to be fighting, but most of them are cleaning trash, directing traffic, distributing food, etc. In fact, ISIS is actively seeking out professionals like doctors, accountants, and engineers more than fighters.

The Westerners who join–most of them are native born, not immigrants. Most of them are recent converts to Islam, who became Muslims as a symbol of their pre-existing support for ISIS, rather than joining ISIS because of their religion. There have been all sorts of reports of arrested ISIS hopefuls with books in tow like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Islam, or The Koran for Dummies. Again, they seem mostly motivated to join as a means of “fighting the system” rather than having any deep knowledge or experience with Islam, or the local grievances that animate most indigenous members.


You mentioned that they deliberately evoke Islamophobic and Orientalist tropes, can you elaborate on how and why?

Let me just use an example.

So there are a lot of tropes about how Islam is inherently misogynistic. In April 2014 the jihadist group Boko Haram seized hundreds of Nigerian school girls, sparking the “Bring Back our Girls” campaign, as well as all sorts of truly horrendous “analysis” about Islam and women. Although Boko Haram has always had a tenuous relationship with al-Qaeda, and much like the group ISIS spun out of, was often criticized by al-Qaeda’s leadership for being deviant and extreme—to include in the case of abducting the schoolgirls–the media is fond of claiming acts like these as typical of Islam or jihad.

Riding on this fetishized news coverage, ISIS propelled itself back into the spotlight by capturing, and highly-broadcasted their capture of, hundreds of Yazidi women–whom they very publically held as slaves, forced into marriages, etc.–again, explicitly evoking Western tropes about Islam and women. Prior to the “Bring Back our Girls” campaign, this sort of gesture was not common for ISIS. They started doing it because it was headline-grabbing. And again, it was intended for the international, rather than the domestic audience—most Muslims in Iraq and Syria would find these actions reprehensible.

Many of these practices are condemned even by most jihadist organizations. As an example, Mullah Fazullah heads the Pakistani Taliban, and infamously orchestrated the shooting of Malala Yusefzai, after having long condemned the education of women.

He got so much blowback for the strike on Malala that when he orchestrated the recent attack on the Pakistani military school which killed more than a 100 children–it was a co-ed school, but only the boys were targeted. Not one single female student was captured or harmed despite Fazullah’s long history with targeting women in education (although some female staff were killed). They announced they finished their assault after killing the boys, and then sought to attack the (male) soldiers who came to respond.

And even in this case, al-Qaeda was quick to condemn them for targeting children. ISIS, on the other hand, goes out of their way to display their use of child soldiers. They are trying to be provocative, even by jihadi standards.

A second and related example about how these tropes are misleading: Western media focused so intensely on the Kurdish female fighters, almost as though they were having a disproportionately large impact on the battlefield versus their male counterparts (no evidence to that effect)–arguing repeatedly that the very presence of these fighters somehow undermines or intimidates ISIS.

But in fact, many of ISIS recruits are women–and from the West, converting to Islam and travelling to the Middle East to be “brides of ISIS.” In fact, ISIS relies on these women to enforce gender and sex regulations. But again, as most of these women did not grow up on the Middle East and are not well-educated on Islam, obviously most of what they are doing when enforcing these norms is aping and pantomiming ridiculous stereotypes. For instance, having women dress in a fashion that is uncommon outside of Saudi Arabia or rural Afghanistan, and holding that up as the “proper” way women are supposed to be “according to Islam.”


Are ISIL’s crimes unique and especially cruel? What other groups are similar to and/or worse than ISIL?

As I pointed out in my Al-Jazeera column, “Mexican Drug Cartels are Worse than ISIL,” there are a number of groups whose scale, depravity and threat surpass ISIL by good measure. Literally every single type of atrocity committed by ISIL is carried out on a larger scale by Mexican drug cartels, and right on the American border. The cartels kill hundreds of Americans every year on both sides of the border and have infiltrated virtually every major American city. By comparison, ISIL has killed a handful of Western Europeans–all of them people who were in the Middle East, rather than in America or Europe. I spelled all this out well in the article, so I’ll refrain from duplicating it here.

But Africa is also replete with groups that carry out these sorts of crimes, many of them Christian or subscribing to tribal religions. In fact, the most lethal terror groups after the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram are the Indian Maoists, the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Tamil Tigers, and FARC.

But as I point out in a recent column in Middle East Policy–for ISIL, and most of these groups, religion may not be the primary driver. Instead, economic and political concerns are more salient.

But there is a problem with focusing so much on non-state and sub-state actors—namely that it overlooks atrocities committed by state actors. In fact, irreligious governments have been the worst offenders. Literally millions of people have been killed, tortured, and exploited by the atheist/secular regimes of Russia (under Stalin), China (Mao), Italy (Mussolini), the Kim Dynasty (N. Korea) and the secular dictators of the Middle East and Latin America (propped up by America during the Cold War).

Even France during the Reign of Terror looked very much like Iraq or Syria, with the same kinds of atrocities—albeit in the name of fighting religion. Robespierre was as authoritarian and brutal as they come. Speaking of decapitations, the French cut off so many people’s heads that the guillotine became the symbol of the revolution—with up to 40,000 beheaded in a single year. And while Napoleon would end the Terror, he would also spread lacite through the sword across Europe causing destruction that would not really be surpassed until the World Wars.

And of course, there are always the Nazis to point to.

ISIL could never dream of killing people at the scale of these other groups, which were obviously not motivated in any way by Islam. Again, most of them were against religion altogether and carried out their crimes in the name of atheism or secularism.

I think it is a comforting narrative to talk about these atrocities as a problem for Muslims, or religious extremists, or non-state actors because it whitewashes history while reinforcing notions that “we” Western, secular, nation-states are above all that. But reality is far more messy and complex.

As an example, while there is no reliable statistic on how many worldwide have been killed by U.S. forces since 9/11 (understandably, this is not a number U.S. policymakers are keen to track, let alone publicize)—the death toll is likely well into the six-figure range, with tens-of-thousands killed just in the initial invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. In contrast, 107k have been killed by terrorism worldwide since 2000, by all groups, regardless of ideology–again, this stat includes the 9/11 attacks.

In short, Western operations sold as “counter-terrorism” may well have killed more people than terrorism itself (in fact, the comparison is even worse because these counter-terror actions actually generated a good deal of the current terror threat). And in any case, Western countries pose a far greater threat to citizens of the Middle East than Middle Easterners or Muslims pose to “the West.”


Many people argue that Islam in general, and Islamist groups in particular, differ from other religions and groups in the way they are detracting/devalue women. What is your opinion on that?

So there are a few responses. First, a lot of practices associated with Islam are not intrinsically or even predominantly Islamic.

As an example, female genital mutilation is practiced predominantly in Africa’s Sahel region. The practice predates Islam by, literally, millennia; it is not widely-practiced in the Middle East “proper,” and it continues to be practiced by many African Christians and pagans. Nonetheless, the practice is seen as somehow being intrinsically Islamic.

Returning to our example about the Kurdish women–the ironic thing about holding up the Kurds as a paragon of feminism in virtue of having female combatants is that, while FGM is not practiced by most people of Iraq, Iran, Syria or Turkey–it is an extremely common practice in the Kurdish regions of all of these countries–again, trending more with culture and ethnicity than religion per se.

Women in China have been heavily subjected for some time in an overtly atheistic society. In fact, female children have and continue to be killed en masse–according to UN estimates, tens of millions have been terminated just since China put forward its one-child policy in 1979.

Female infanticide is a problem in Hindu India as well, where women are widely seen as being part of a lower caste. Women are sexually assaulted and even gang-raped very publically and brutally by Hindu men in India, on busses, etc. with widespread impunity. This atmosphere is created in part as a result of the warped balance of the sexes in as a result of the aforementioned practice of female infanticide in Hindu.

Despite India having more than three times the population of the United States, America has three times as many reported rapes per year (although part of this may be due to a better atmosphere for reporting in America—although the overwhelming majority of reported assaults in America do not result in prosecutions, and often the accuser faces retaliation).

To return to other religions and their potential misogyny: in fundamentalist Mormon areas in the Americas, there is plural marriage, child marriage, women are covered and dressed conservatively, their activities and movement are heavily monitored and restricted. In some Orthodox Jewish communities women are forbidden from driving, a la Saudi Arabia.

And all of this is to say nothing of the worldwide trafficking of women and girls, largely for sexual purposes.

So sexual violence, the exploitation and subjugation of women–this is not a problem of any particular religion, region, or culture. It is tough to be a woman anywhere. And actually, focusing so heavy on abuses in the Muslim world obscures the greater prevalence of many of these practices elsewhere.

And again, within the Muslim world, many of the practices associated with Islam are not predominantly Islamic.

Other practices may not be oppressive or exploitative at all. As an example, the idea of women covering their hair and dressing conservatively: non-Muslim women continue to do this in Russia, many parts of Europe. In most synagogues, men and women pray separately (towards Jerusalem); married Jewish women are often expected to cover their hair. Across the world, nuns dress more-or-less in the Saudi abaya, all in black with most of their skin and hair covered.


This is seen as a sign or respect for themselves and God (that is, for the same reason Muslim women do). Even most Western and Christian depictions of the Virgin Mary, she is wearing a hijab.

In general, most conversations about Islam and women are reductionistic and ill-informed—and again, the narrative about Islamic misogyny is a comforting narrative that helps gloss over the plight of women elsewhere, including (perhaps especially) in the West.


Let’s close on another organizational question: how is ISIS financed? 

Much like the cartels, ISIS funds itself by a number of criminal enterprises, including  looting, trafficking, extortion, taxing religious minorities, and seizing critical resources (such as oil-fields). This is actually one of ISIS’ big revolutions, is an emphasis on economic self-sufficiency.

Al-Qaeda relied heavily on Bin Laden’s personal fortune, and then on the donations of private wealthy citizens of the Gulf (Saudi Arabia, UAW, Kuwait). But this left them extremely vulnerable to changing public opinion against them, or to the governments of these countries interrupting their revenue streams by breaking down financial networks. This is much harder to do with ISIS.

They had a bit of startup capital from the Gulf to fund their operations in Syria and Iraq (as part of the proxy war against Iran), but quickly became entirely self-sufficient. They now receive very little in terms of funding from those traditional benefactors–and although they are now raising some money through crowdfunding on social media (largely from Western countries), apparently pretty effectively, they are still more-or-less sustainable without any kind of donations.

However, if oil prices continue to fall or remain low, their funding mix is likely to change.


Part 1 (Swedish) published 12/22/2014 by Fria Tidningar
Part 2 (Swedish) published 1/2/2015 by Fria Tidningar

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