What makes the (un)Islamic State monstrous?

“They are not Muslims, they are monsters,” David Cameron said on September 14 of the so-called Islamic State, after it released a video showing the execution of aid worker David Haines. 

What is it that makes the group monstrous? First of all how it compels us to look at it. 

The word monster derives from the Latin monstrare, which like montrer in modern French and mostrare in Italian means to show. Monsters attract our attention. During the middle ages in Europe, monsters -- deformed children, conjoined twins -- were put on display for the entertainment and religious edification of crowds. 

It is both hard to watch and hard to turn away from the nightmarish spectacles IS shares online. Young Shia men plead to camera; their prone bodies twitch as they are shot one by one. YouTube and Twitter’s decision to block these videos shows how anxious we are about their power. Regardless, the image of a man in orange and kneeling before a black-clad executioner, mouthing well-rehearsed propaganda as a hand with a knife dangles in the background, is etched in our minds now. 

The word monster may also derive from another Latin verb, monere, meaning to warn or advise; a monstrum was something people pointed out to each other but also a “supernatural being or object that is an omen or warning of the will of the gods.” This is quite close to how IS sees itself: the bearer of a dire divine message. Even to those of us who do not share its religious beliefs, the group may seem a dark portent of our times. Its existence is a remonstration, divine or not -- how could we let this happen? 

Ancient monsters were freaks of nature. Modern monsters are reflections and composites, created by men from parts of themselves (think of the doctors Jekyll and Frankenstein). The more they resemble us, the scarier they are. 

Osama Bin Laden was partly created by US support to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and by the Western media after 9/11. But, lecturing in Arabic from a cave, with his beard and his funny clothes, he seemed exotic. 

The Islamic State is creepily familiar -- speaking to us in our language and on our terms, Tweeting about how great living under Sharia is. Some of the parallels seem purposeful on their part: Carrying stolen US-made weapons, they water-board their prisoners and put them in orange jumpsuits. They make the men they are about to kill into mirrors, faces we can’t help imagining as our own. 

The members of the Islamic State bear full moral responsibility for their crimes. But the organization could only have arisen out of a particular, devastating vacuum. The forces that converged to bring this gang of zealots and murderers to prominence includes the US invasion of Iraq; the Assad regime’s limitless brutality; the Gulf States’ oil-fueled bigotry; the paranoia of the Russians. On some days I let my imagination run away with me and think of IS  as a compendium of all the worst tendencies and motivations of Arab regimes and their foreign backers; of every sordid calculation, every feckless decision, every strain of arrogance and intolerance and injustice. Above all of the inconceivable cruelty and stupidity it has taken to push two entire countries into their graves, their cities turned to dust and their people, for years now, bombed, butchered, terrorized, and driven from their homes. 

Who else could we expect to thrive there but these monstrous young men (and women), these children of our age? 


Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.