What ISIS wants you to see

Shahira Fahmy
Sunday 7 Feb 2016

On the first day of Ramadan in summer 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (also known as Daesh) declared itself the new Caliphate.

A few days later it put out, in print and on-line, its first issue of Dabiq, a glossy magazine, as its mouthpiece to the English-speaking public. Similar magazines were also issued in Russian, Turkish, French and other languages. Dabiq continues to publish, with 13 issues over 19 months so far, averaging 60 pages in an issue.

Dabiq and its cousins are slickly done – extremely polished and professional productions, prepared in an informative and engaging style. Much of its content is presented through pictures. It has been said that if ISIS were an airline, Dabiq would be its in-flight magazine.

As an Egyptian-born authority on visual framing by the media – how the images they select shape public perception – I recently analysed Dabiq’s pictures for NATO’s Strategic Communications Center of Excellence in Riga, Latvia, to try and unlock the puzzle of what the evil geniuses behind them are up to. It had never been done before.

And they are up to whole lot, it turns out.

I looked at a sample of 528 pictures from the first Dabiq issue in July 2014 through the November 2015 issue. Each picture was coded to identify what it intended to portray, from three dimensions: its theme – war, brutality, mercy, victimhood, belonging or utopianism; its purpose – to inform, frighten, unite or solicit support from the viewers; and the nature of its message – political (nation-building), religious or social. I analysed the results over time, matching them to events that could have influenced the visual content of the magazine.

The results:

- More than half of the pictures – 53% – portrayed the theme of war – military parades and gains; tanks and guns. About one-fourth, or 23.9%, showed utopianism – teaching children the Quran; caring for orphans; healthcare; establishing Sharia court; implementing punishments, or belonging – fighters relaxing; camaraderie and brotherhood. Brutality – death, killing and torture – which our news is fixated on, was featured in only 13.8%, or slightly more than one-tenth of all images analysed.

Analysing the visual content by purpose against a timeline of events showed a pattern explaining when an issue emphasised “unite” – such as in October 2014 when the US-led “Operation Inherent Resolve” (the Combined Joint Task Force) was formed, or “frighten” – such as in January 2015 when it claimed to smuggle 4,000 militants into the EU.

Over time, however, and as ISIS doubled the size of its territory, the percentage of visuals intending to “inform” increased, rising from 25% in the first issue in summer 2014 to 75% in the fall 2015 issue. The pattern is one of a state increasingly confident of its permanence.

- Regarding core messages, fully 86% of pictures projected the power of ISIS – either political (49%) or religious (37%), promoting the creation of a new homeland for Muslims. Social messages (quality of life), at 14%, were the least used.

What can these numbers tell us about ISIS’s propaganda machine?

First, the images produced by ISIS follow a narrative central to the organisation’s strategic communications: being a so-called ‘Idealistic Caliphate’.

One image, for example, projects the sense of belonging and contentment that living in the Caliphate brings. It includes the embedded text “Al-walaa wa-l-baraa”, Arabic for “loyalty and disavowal." The phrase refers to the Islamic concept of friendship toward fellow Muslims – and compares it to racism in America. Come live with us in the Caliphate, they say, and you will experience Utopia on earth.

Second, Dabiq, through its pictures, is more than a recruitment tool. It is making the world aware of this aspiring “new nation-state”: strong and confident, based on a foundation of strict Muslim societal norms – and giving readers the impression that the Caliphate is ready to join the world as a rule-based, righteous and responsible nation.

Think of the ruggedly handsome, rosy-cheeked peasants of the Russian and Chinese collective farms of the 1950s, exalting the joys of living under Communism.

But third, notice that the brutality so quickly jumped on by the Western media, pundits and politicians is only a tenth of the images portrayed.
I am speculating here, but it is almost as if the pictures glorifying brutality are there to throw them off the trail, and to let the much larger message directed at the disaffected Muslims in the West get through. 

Like a coded message, the siren song – Join us in Utopia! – is hidden in plain sight from those who are blinded by those images of savagery.

And it is working. While the rest of us are bewildered at how such a barbaric and backward-facing movement can somehow survive in this modern world created as “Western Civilisation”, and that it surely will eventually succumb to reason and force, ISIS shows no signs of withering away.

Maybe this is because the message of living in a welcoming, nurturing, rule-based society is reaching those young people facing empty futures as unwelcome outsiders in an individualistic, materialist-driven culture. Plus they can trade their anomie for the glory and heroism of living and dying for a higher cause.

To counter the ISIS narrative, the data here offer another strategic clue. Almost 90% of the visual messages are projecting power – political and religious – as opposed to social values.

Certainly Christianity-based societies should protect themselves from radical political Islam emanating from the Middle East and the current ISIS threat.
However, it should be recalled that for centuries, Christianity was mainly a religion of Middle Easterners, who then converted Europeans. In that instance, the process was also driven by the promise of a better life.

Perhaps it is time for the Western policy-makers to consider transcending political/religious power narratives that ISIS’s propaganda wizards are using as bait.

Instead, they would do well to re-examine the underlying issues of social harmony and address the integration and racial narratives that ISIS is currently exploiting.

Shahira Fahmy is a professor at the University of Arizona and was a recent fellow at NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, Riga, Latvia. She has a PhD from the Missouri School of Journalism and is the first female Arab-American tenured journalism faculty member at a research university in the United States.

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