The Islamic State and the Arab media: violence and ridicule

I was in just in Rome for a conference put on at the foreign ministry there by Reset, a publication dedicated to inter-cultural dialogue, and the Arab Media Report, an excellent Italian observatory. The conference was about media, censorship and dialogue in the Arab world, Iran and Turkey. Olivier Roy, Fawaz Gerges, Donatella Della Ratta and I spoke about various aspects of the Islamic State's propaganda and about reactions in the Arab media.

Cartoon in egyptian newspaper al masry al youm following assassination of egyptian coptic christians in libya in february 2015. "american products: daesh, al qaeda, apple laptops." (courtesy mada masr press review)

Cartoon in egyptian newspaper al masry al youm following assassination of egyptian coptic christians in libya in february 2015. "american products: daesh, al qaeda, apple laptops." (courtesy mada masr press review)

Professor Roy emphasized that the Islamic state is a youth movement more than a social movement or an Islamic movement and that those who join are in rebellion against their families (rather than participating in a socially recognized form of militancy). Professor Gerges warned that the side-effect of the focus on the savagery of the Islamic State is the legitimation of "good" salafi-jihadist movements like Al Qaeda and Al Nusra. Professor Della Ratta argued that the media of Sunni Arab countries has not been able to condemn the Islamic State fully because it views it as its deplorable but necessary proxy in the regional Sunni-Shia (KSA-Iran) war. 

Everyone agreed that it is much too soon to measure the impact of ISIS propaganda on recruitment and public opinion -- the data just isn't there, and the question is complicated by how much media of different kinds for different audiences they produce. And that one shouldn't rush to try to craft a "counter-narrative" to the Islamic State before even understanding what their narrative is (and that in any case that narrative cannot come from the West, and that it will not be enough unless political and material conditions in Syria and Iraq change as well). 

"what ISIS?" by Andeel, published on mada masr

"what ISIS?" by Andeel, published on mada masr

I spoke a bit about the spectacular violence of the Islamic State and the way it is designed to capture and dominate the imagination. The responses meanwhile have ranged from retribution (retaliatory strikes and executions by Egypt and Jordan after their citizens were murdered) to conspiracy theories (a very common claim, based on some elements of truth, is that ISIS is a Western creation) from condemnation to ridicule. The Islamic State is already a joke in many editorial cartoons and TV sit-coms. This satire ranges from a healthy subversion of the sick mises-en-scene of which ISIS is so obviously proud, to a more disturbing sort of denial. One very interesting example of depictions of the Islamic State in Arab popular culture is the Saudi sitcom Selfie, in which a father travels to find his jihadist son and pretends to join ISIS to get close to him and persuade him to leave. Lots of of fun is poked at the Islamic state, but the intergenerational conflict is played straight; the satirical show ends in tragedy. The main comic actor who plays the father has of course received death threats from ISIS. 

"Selfie" aired on MBC satellite TV channel last Ramadan

 

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.