By Yoram Kannangara The commencement of the new millennium and the age of global networks, 9/11, The Gulf War(s) semantics, Al-Qaeda, and incessant turmoil in the Middle-East. These are all small pieces of the puzzle that, put together, shows a fragment of the Islamic State’s (IS) rise. Ultimately it becomes trivial to question how and why IS came into existence and who is to blame, a vicious circle many an academic has tumbled into. That would be similar to attributing the puzzle’s image to a starting piece, a redundancy because it doesn’t matter where one starts as in the end all the pieces will come together anyway displaying the same picture.
Of far greater importance whilst examining IS would be how the Islamic State as an organization has continued to proceed upon genesis, and fed off of global sentiment in and against its favor so as to grow all the more. The answer to that question is relatively simple, albeit difficult to fathom for some. The Islamic State has made itself master of the most conniving and manipulative weapon of choice, a tool employed by many before them, namely propaganda.
The Islamic State in recent years has employed propaganda of many forms, in order to propagate its cause. They send out Jihadist tweets, or they produce sophisticated documentary films such as Flames of War or Clanging of the Swords. They even bring out their own glossy periodical magazine Dabiq, which is like a Playboy for Jihadists. These images put the core values of IS and its self-proclaimed caliphate on display: oneness, the finding of truth, the allegorical migration from Mecca to Medina, responsibility to uphold Islam, and community.
The purpose of their imagery is twofold. Their propaganda appeals to their target audience, essentially potential suitors to their cause, through a seductive romanticism. The romanticism speaks to innate human nature in all its simplicity through displays of camaraderie and purpose, playing with emotion and shaping it in accordance with its own norms. The essence of the IS message is the propagation of romance, a romance which can appeal to anyone in search of love as well as a better life. That is what the Islamic State has to offer: romance and a better life. At least it is what they propagate as having to offer: an imagery so simplistic grounded not in religious fundamentalism but in love and paradise.
The West has been so quick to write the Islamic State off as the embodiment of sheer evil, but they might do well to recognize its complex sophistication and ability to manipulate matters and emotions to its advantage. Maybe then, upon opening shunning their biased ignorance, will the West be able to piece together a puzzle in which the Islamic State has begun to fade away.
Yoram Kannangara is a student at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology (VU). His Bachelor thesis (2015) dealt with the use of media by the Islamic State.