Islamic State has more in common with the West than we think

The reality is that due to its massive loss of territory in Syria and Iraq, ISIS will increasingly only really exist as an idea.


2017/06/18 Issue: 111 Page: 19


The Arab Weekly
Stephen Starr



It may be unthinkable to many but the degrees of separation that divide Western values and Islamic State jihadists may not be as dramatic as they are thought to be.

Two features made the Islamic State (ISIS) stand out when it appeared in northern Syria four years ago. First, a ruthless sav­agery saw it purge rival factions from large areas of territory; its second, more consequential, move was, remarkably, to market itself in a way that attracted thousands of young Muslim men and women from around the world to a dilapidated war zone in Syria — an advertising feat political candi­dates and leaders of the capitalist world would love to duplicate.

ISIS rose to global notoriety because it works hard to place its shock footage in front of as many eyeballs as possible. Moved by the grisly and creative nature of its killings, journalists wanted to know more about who and what this ultraviolent organisation stood for to be able to tell the world what the uprising in Syria had spawned.

The idea that modernity and ISIS share anything may be antitheti­cal. It says it wants to restore a medieval system of governance and its actions — caged drownings, decapitations and mass execu­tions — suggest that indeed may be the case. Despite the violence, however, its real goal, to simply endure, can only succeed through modern methods of communica­tion.

“There’s nothing medieval about this mix of ruthless business enterprise, well-publicised savagery and transnational organised crime,” writes political philosopher John Gray. “Though they’d hate to hear it, these violent jihadists owe the way they organise themselves and their utopian goals to the modern West.”

The cinematic detail of its shock footage only tells part of its success story. Testimonies from returning foreign ISIS fighters never reference a desire to take part in its violence as the compel­ling reason to travel from France or Britain to Raqqa. It is the smart use of modern technology — the ability to seek out and engage disaffected young Muslims in the West — that has made it such a terrible and terribly successful force.

With it on the back foot from Syrian Defence Forces advances in Syria and an Iraqi forces’ offensive in Mosul, for it to stay relevant ISIS must increasingly turn to modern technology. The degree to which it will rely on Western-made, 21st-century technology will grow in the coming years through a thoroughly modern form of communication that is open and liberal — not repressive — in nature.

Whether the terrorists who committed the massacre at a Florida nightclub last June or in Manchester last month were, in fact, ISIS soldiers — and the likelihood is that they were not — is no longer the point. What matters is that there are young Muslim men, some of whom have never traveled to the so-called caliphate, in their last moments of life who decide to declare alle­giance to ISIS. A large part of this is down to their desire to be remem­bered forever as an affiliate of the group and not be forgotten, cast aside as just another unbalanced individual with easy access to powerful weapons.

The reality is that due to its massive loss of territory in Syria and Iraq, ISIS will increasingly only really exist as an idea. It will depend more and more on the online world, a world built by Western technologists. As its so-called caliphate shrinks, the internet will become the only venue with which to maintain its profile, recruit and thus, claim relevance as a terrorist force.

The young men and women in Silicon Valley responsible for giving the world Twitter, Kik and Telegram — some of the messaging applications favoured by jihadists — are individuals whose ideas are thoroughly at the forefront of modernity. ISIS is a fundamentally modern organisation rooted to surviving in a 21st century, Western-built online world.

Perhaps the sooner we begin seeing it as less a mindless cult and more as successful opportunists shaped by our capitalist ideology, the closer we will be to finding lasting solutions that bring about its demise.


Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).


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