Despite what we are repeatedly told ISIS is not a “death cult”.
In a media environment governed by clickbait and eye catching news snippets it sometimes feels as if news organisations and various political opportunists are simply operating as an extension of the public relations arm of ISIS when they employ inaccurate and emotive language to describe it. This matters because the language we use to describe something helps us to understand it.
The complicity of the media and political opportunists in ISIS propaganda
The ISIS controlled regions of Iraq and Syria represent at best a primitive kleptocracy built on extortion and bootleg oil which has filled a power vacuum on the now stateless Syrian and Iraqi border. All ISIS propaganda about a “caliphate” and a “march to Rome” is a slick marketing ploy designed to attract new recruits and when the media and opportunists irresponsibly regurgitate this propaganda they become complicit in the ISIS marketing machine and the survival of ISIS itself.
There is no “clash of civilizations” and every time a scatterbrained commentator in the West feeds this lie they are rhetorically putting the primitive ISIS kleptocracy on an even footing with the entirety of Western civilization. This is painfully counter productive because it only serves to legitimize ISIS while simultaneously making it appear a bigger threat than it actually is.
In reality ISIS needs a veneer of fake religious and historical legitimacy because it has none in terms of the international state system – no other legitimate state recognizes ISIS controlled territory as meeting the preconditions for a ‘state’ and current international norms dictate that there is no prospect of this happening.
Legitimacy is crucial to the survival of ISIS
ISIS desperately depends on legitimacy because its leadership need young alienated Muslims from around the world to come and die fighting in Syria because, just like the rest of us, the ISIS leadership is afraid of death.
The leadership of ISIS is comprised of ex-Saddam loyalists from the now disbanded Baathist controlled Iraqi military. These same Iraqi’s led the Sunni insurgency against Coalition forces stationed in Iraq following the US led invasion in 2003 and they now lead ISIS in its fight against Syrian regime forces. They have been able to survive for so long because they do very little of the fighting themselves. Instead, they put their bureaucratic and logistical expertise to use managing the ever dwindling flow of new ISIS recruits into the region. The wannabe jihadists who don’t desert once they get a taste for life under ISIS – indiscriminate violence against Muslims, endless infighting, corruption, endemic drug abuse – simply become cannon fodder to be used at the discretion of their Iraqi handlers.
The ex-Saddam loyalists who make up the ISIS leadership are rational actors rather than fanatical kamikazes. They understand that if naive Muslims from outside of the region cease coming to fight for ISIS in the name of “jihad” then the leadership will be left to fight and die themselves. These are not the actions of a “death cult”, they are the actions of manipulative cowards who rely upon useful idiots to achieve their military and political objectives.
Defeating ISIS through rhetoric
The term “death cult” conjures up a hoard of fanatical militants who are prepared to use suicidal violence as a tactic in achieving their irrational goals. It implies that those fighting for ISIS represent the ultimate adversary: one who is not afraid of dying, and an army which is not afraid of death is impossible to defeat in the conventional sense. While the term “death cult” may be loosely applicable to the brainwashed cannon fodder who make up the lower ranks, it is certainly not applicable to those actually calling the shots within ISIS.
This distinction matters because we will never understand ISIS, where it came from, and what drives it if we keep pretending that it is irrational, that it came about spontaneously, and that is impossible to understand. The rhetoric we use to describe ISIS also matters because by framing it in its own terms we inadvertently give it the legitimacy it needs to continue to attract new recruits and continue fighting.
We as individuals, but also crucially politicians and the media, should substitute the language we currently use to describe ISIS for language which better reflects the actual threat it poses. ISIS is far from insurmountable and its survival thus far is largely due to disagreement about Syria’s political future – we should be using language which demonstrates this reality.
We should also consider the reasons why sections of the media and political opportunists think it advantageous to exaggerate the threat ISIS poses to Australia. For the media, sensationalizing terrorism is lucrative because it sells newspapers and generates page views. And for political opportunists, the existence of ISIS enables those who oppose multiculturalism to openly scapegoat Islam and Muslims and to create division within the community for political purposes. Both outcomes only serve the interests of ISIS.