ISIS and atrocity pornography: politics of horror
The new ISIS propaganda video showing the immolation of a captive Jordanian pilot is very professionally done, its special creepy quality coming from the mix of slick production and utterly barbaric content. Before the big climax, we are shown several images of mangled children, purported to be victims of bombardment by the US-led coalition. Each image is engulfed by photo-shopped flames, symbolizing the explosions that left them dead or maimed. Then the eerily ritualistic finale, in which the pilot stands erect in an orange jump-suit, inside a metal cage in a bombed-out site, surrounded by an impassive phalanx of masked thugs with machine-guns. One thug approaches with a torch, and it becomes clear the captive has been drenched with gasoline. His body is quickly engulfed by real flame, and the camera lovingly details his agonizing death. The implication is that this is just retribution for the lives claimed by the air-strikes. Fox News is one of the few media outlets to display the full video (with the warning: "EXTREMELY GRAPHIC VIDEO"). Fox only wants to make the point that ISIS is a barbaric enemy (as if we didn't know), but there are other points to be made here too...
One is the propaganda assistance that is loaned to ISIS with every US missile that falls. US air-strikes may be fueling the growth of ISIS, conveniently providing civilian casualties to be thusly exploited (although nowhere near Assad's level, it should be noted). Another is the inherently dishonest nature of atrocity pornography. There is no way to confirm that the images in the video are really victims of coalition bombing. They could be, but they could also be victims of Assad's bombings, or of Israeli air-strikes in Gaza for all we know.
Another is the unhelpful reaction of Jordan, immediately putting to death two prisoners whose freedom had been demanded by ISIS, not even making a pretense that it was other than vengeance. One was Sajida Rishawi, convicted in triple hotel bombings in Amman in 2005; she was closely linked to the ISIS predecessor organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq. ISIS had offered to spare the life of the pilot, Muath al-Kassasbeh, and free Japanese journalist Kenji Goto in exchange for Rishawi's release; Goto was beheaded before any such deal was negotiated. The other was Ziad al-Karboli, sentenced to death in 2007 on terrorism charges, including the killing of a Jordanian in Iraq. (Al Bawaba) Amnesty International rightly condemned these "revenge exectuions," warning: "The IS's gruesome tactics must not be allowed to fuel a bloody cycle of reprisal executions."
Conservative blogs with names like RightScoop are ga-ga over King Abdullah's posturing—he had himself photographed in fighter-pilot gear (recalling Dubya's "Mission Accomplished" stunt), and said he would personally fly sorties against ISIS. (We'll see if he follows through.) Of course, despotic regimes like his fuel the mass alienation that is exploited by ISIS. Even more egregious is Saudi Arabia, which fears ISIS, but has been on a horrific beheading spree of its own, carrying out overtly sectarian executions, and ordering a refreshingly impious blogger to be imprisoned and flogged for "blasphemy." And odd enemy for ISIS.
ISIS, true to form, has executed two Muslim clerics and beheaded four other civilians in Mosul for condemning the immolation of Kassasbeh. A "security source," presumably in the Peshmerga, told independent Kurdish news agency Rudaw: "ISIS executed the Imam of Nabi Yunis mosque, Sheikh Abdullah Fahad, and the Imam of Kabir Mosque, Sheikh Ayub Abdul Wahab in Mosul." He said the clerics were executed by firing squad. The four civilians who protested the immolation were beheaded.
It is not a coincidence that the one place in Syria where ISIS has been dealt a significant defeat is Kobani—where the forces opposing them have the best politics. In Iraq, their most significant defeats have come in the Kurdish areas of the north, where secular-revolutionary forces in the orbit of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have likewise had a hand. After touring the Kurdish autonomous zones in the sway of the PKK, both in northern Syria (Rojava) and Iraq's Qandil Mountains, David Romano writes on Rudaw that this social experiment is "different from the Marxist-Leninism and militant nationalisms of the past" and "also stands in the starkest possible contrast to the ideology of the Islamists, whether of the Islamist State variety or the somewhat less extreme variants..." He jokes about use of lefty jargon like "application of a democratic ecological paradigmatic," but, more seriously, writes:
Free of jargon, the idea is to pursue a bottom-up, Athenian-style direct form of democratic governance. Local communities from the village level upwards take on as much self-government as they can, eschewing the strong central government model so favored in the region. Elections form councils whose members can be recalled at any time. The states people live under would thus become increasingly less relevant as each community seeks out its own preferred arrangements.
And of course, this left-democratic model which actually stands the best chance of defeating ISIS is also the most imperlied. The Erdogan regime in Turkey has been conniving with ISIS and other jihadist factions in Syria, while cynically equating ISIS and the PKK-aligned forces as equally "terrorist" (sic!). After the Kurdish forces finally drove ISIS from Kobani last month, Erdogan quickly had a giant Turkish flag raised along the border overlooking the town (see this Tweet), in an unsubtle message that he would not allow the emergence of a free Kurdish state. Now AFP reports that Turkish authorities detained Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink last month, raiding her home in the Kurdish-majority southeastern city of Diyarbakir. She's accused of posting pro-PKK messages on social media, and may face five years in prison.
And, predictably, no representatives of the Rojava cantons were invited to Russia to take part in the Moscow Conference—a (predictably) fruitless effort to bring a negotiated end to the Syrian war—even though it came immediately after the victory in Kobani. (Rojava Report)
Whatever alliances are being made now under the imperatives of survival in the face of ISIS, this totalitarian cult will not ultimately be defeated by the Great Powers like the US or Russia; local despots like Assad, Erdogan and Maliiki; or reactionary monarchs like Abdullah and Salman. Military victory is linked to moral authority; ISIS use of atrocity pornography as propaganda appeals to those desperately alienated by the oppressive order in the region. It can only be effectively countered by those who really have something better to offer.