By Mümtazer Türköne
November 17, 2014
The video shared with the media by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) showing the beheadings of 15 Assad-supporting officers is horrifying. What's more, it's important not to lose sight of the fact that the “horror” served up in this video has been professionally produced.
The descriptions heralding these videos as “running rings around Hollywood” belong to the very same websites that support ISIL and are broadcasting their videos first-hand. And if truth be told, the details, the lighting, the angles, the montage -- everything is professional in these visuals. And this professionalism has just one goal: to create fear. Has it been successful in doing this? Well, to judge by the influence they are having globally and the boost in the organization's popularity among certain circles, the answer is “yes.”
Somewhat akin to the anti-globalization movements that we saw emerge in Seattle in 1999, ISIL is a whole new kind of Islamism, one at whose centre lies social media. The film clip showing the killings of 15 Syrian officers is one people are watching online, captivated by the details in different ways. It is almost as though people are falling into pre-assigned roles -- the killers and the killed. But what really makes it different is that the variety of emotions falling across these “actors'” faces -- fear and anger -- are ones that no actor in a real film would ever be able to recreate this successfully.
These sorts of websites -- the ones that proclaim support for ISIL -- are the same places where the final moments of suicide bombers headed out onto missions are broadcast. You can see here the serenity and smile on the face of a young person as they sit behind the wheel of a truck loaded with explosives. You might watch the photograph taken immediately after the truck explodes and the ball of fire as everything around it is decimated. The feel is truly cinematographic. But critically, everyone who watches such moments becomes -- whether or not they are opposed to what is happening -- a piece of the story.
There are many important writers who have addressed the issue of the relationship between instruments of mass communication and the rise of nationalism. But these days, we have an urgent need for academic work to be done on the relationship between this new sort of Islamism, which raises community spirit and awareness through the tool of social media. Traditionally, we speak of the “Ummah” of Muslims -- in other words, the spiritual community. But nowadays, we see this Ummah nearly single-handedly created by social media. Can you imagine an ISIL without the help of social media?
It would be a great error to try and compare this new situation to anything from the past. The sort of Islamism that we are getting used to today is actually a creation of the Cold War. In a world of two poles, Islamism as a “third path” took shape sometimes as a cell-type structure resembling leftist militant groups and sometimes within a framework of democracy and legality. Mass support emanating from the people combined with the propaganda of dictatorial leaderships pushed Islamism toward vague but wide-reaching mass organizations. Violent methods always remained marginal as such because illegal organizations have never had a real opportunity to reach the masses. We can see this in the past in Turkey's National View, Pakistan's Jamaat-e-Islami and the Ikhwan movement in Egypt. But nowadays, these models no longer stand. Legal, democratic and moderate Islamic organizations as well as radical groups all exist now in a very different world. The violence we witness in the ISIL videos -- with all its refined details and carefully calculated moves -- is a creation of this new world.
This new world is definitely a modern world. Like the resurgence of European nationalism with its terror reminiscent of older eras -- though repackaged in modern forms -- the Salafi-Jihadist organizations we see springing up are recreating an old sort of violence, serving it up to us through the tool of social media.
And no matter how arcane the rhetoric and mentality of ISIL may seem, it is actually making a direct appeal to this new world we inhabit. What's more, the real target of ISIL is not the people who live around the peripheries of society, people who have not been able to throw off the shackles of tradition or village life; no, instead, the real target is those people isolated and alienated in the shadows and surroundings of modernity. While these people search for an escape from this modern prison which leaves them so unhappy, crushed and without hope, they rush to the calls made by organizations such as ISIL. And so it is that social media is not just a method of communication now; it is the main factor giving shape to radical Islamism. We are facing a whole new kind of Islamism, and we can no longer use any of the tools of analysis that we depended upon in the past to view it.