And I should know – as part of my academic research, I had to read it all.
The BBC reported last week that “online jihadist propaganda attracts more clicks in the UK than any other country in Europe”. In response, a study by the think-tank Policy Exchange welcomed the criminalisation of jihadist material, which would extend the scope of the law from material that gives direct assistance to planning a terror attack to all material that glorifies terror. This is a category shift: we would move from banning practical material offering specific help to would-be terrorists to blanket suppression of a whole kind of discourse.
Apparently there is broad support from the public for bans on Jihadist content – 74% of the 2,001 adults polled by Policy Exchange supported the criminalisation of “persistent consumption” of Jihadist material. While any attempt to come to grips with the Jihadist problem is welcome, we should always balk at banning ideas we find dangerous.
Rather, I think we should make sure that the banality of this material is as widely understood as possible, and this can’t be achieved by banning it. As well as its notorious videos, Islamic State has now produced enormous amounts of printed material – long tracts and essays that illustrate its worldview. I read through fifteen editions of its ‘in-house’ magazine Dabiq, amounting to thousands of pages of text.
And was I seduced? Not a jot. Not for one iota of a moment.
The propagandists of the Islamic State have not exposed some dark truth at the heart of Western life. After I had read the thousands and thousands of pages, I came to a really odd realisation. I expected some appeal to the purity of an imagined pre-modern Golden Age, or maybe some vision of change for the future. But there really was nothing there. The whole thing said absolutely nothing. I was trying to write a thesis on the group’s ideas, on its motivations and plans to build a better world, but I simply couldn’t do it. The more I searched and searched for meaning, the less I found.
For the followers of the Islamic State, the world wasn’t divided into good and evil, locked into a Manichean struggle. There is nothing ‘good’ to fight for, and nothing ‘evil’ to fight against. The Islamic State fights because it hates everything. By contrast, the IRA hated because they wanted a united Ireland; the Baader Meinhof group hated because they could not come to terms with Germany’s fascist past; even the Breton Revolutionary Army hated because they had some picture of a free Brittany they wanted to realise.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Islamic State, like its closest predecessor Al-Qaeda, is often called an Islamist group. But this is not quite right. The term credits IS with an intellectual seriousness that it simply does not have.
Islamism is a text-driven movement. The fundamentalist movements which gained some success in the UK in the nineties, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, got their ideas from a systematic and careful reading of early twentieth century Islamist philosophers like Sayyid Qutb and Taqi Nahbani.
These Islamists attempted to marry Western secular ideologies like nationalism with the ritual and romance of Islamic revealed faith. They applied modern, highly politicised readings to the history and texts of early Islam. They did not attempt to create Islam as a total way of organising life and society, but sought to accommodate different forms of political life – both western and non-western – within the republic. In Tunisia and Morocco, Islamist parties share power with secular movements. Across the Middle East, Islamist parties stand for election in democratic elections. And even the most extreme Islamist organisations – which push that tension in the other direction towards revealed faith – seem to have the capacity to reform: take Hamas’ decision in May 2017 to remove explicit expressions of anti-Semitism from its founding charter. Islamists can respond to external pressure, and change their objectives to match the imperfect reality of human affairs.
But in the main, the Islamist project has met with failure – both across the Middle East, as it ran up against economic stagnation and intermittent civil conflict, and in the West, with the relative success of the integration of Islamic minorities into political life, who then feel no need to live under different rules from the rest of the population.
Islamic State’s appeal comes in the form of a transformational global ethic. Quite unlike Islamist organisations like Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the Taleban in Afghanistan, which frame their political demands within nation states, it defines itself against all traditional ways of organising politically, including race, nation, ethnicity and language.
Half way through the third edition of Dabiq, we read that the Jihadists “gathered … in spite of the fact that they did not have any common nationality, ethnicity, language, or worldly interests … This phenomenon is something that has never occurred in human history”. In Syria and Iraq, there are “different colors, languages, and lands: the Najdi, the Jordanian, the Tunisian, the Egyptian, the Somali, the Turk, the Albanian, the Chechen, the Indonesian, the Russian, the European, the American and so on.”
Not only does the Islamic State have nothing to do with Islamism, it has even less to do with traditional forms of Islam. The bar is set very high for entry to most traditional Islamic schools of thought. You are required to learn Arabic, master the oral traditions of the Hadith and Sunna, and learn from centrally organised teachers in Mosques. By contrast, the Islamic State magazine is printed in English, and its issues are organised around universally accessible markers like western dates and editions rather than the traditional Islamic calendar.
We mark out our year with important dates – they say something about who we are. For congregations in the Catholic Church, the days, weeks and months pass with different kinds of significance depending on the degree of veneration for local saints. In contrast, Islamic State has no symbolic rituals like this. It marks time rather like the speaking clock. It marks it because it is, because it happens to happen.
Still stranger is the Islamic State’s notorious obsession with iconoclasm. For thousands of years, Islam had vague opposition to figurative depictions of divine figures. This broke out in the odd bout of idol-smashing, most famously in Byzantium. Judaism and Christianity are no different. All three monotheisms have a slightly uncomfortable relationship with graven images.
The main feature of Dabiq’s second edition is entitled “The Destruction of Shirk”. In early Islamic scripture, Shirk meant both idolatry and the crime of association with other faiths. It was used as a way of differentiating Islam from other non-Islamic tribal groups in the Arabian Peninsula, including itinerant Jews and Christians.
Here, Shirk is used as a gloss for all human culture. This edition of Dabiq includes pictures of the destruction of various shrines in Palmyra, like The Grave of the Girl. It sat in the symbolic centre of the city, the subject of veneration in local Islamic folk traditions. We must remember that Palmyra was not just the deposit of antiquities of universal importance; it was also the part of the life of the tribes of that region, the focus of local group rites and veneration.
But in Dabiq, iconoclasm is given absolutely no explanation. The objects are said to associate with another of the monotheisms. And they aren’t labelled as idolatrous. Iconoclasm is described simply as an ever-present obligation. The shrines are destroyed simply because they exist. Islamic State hates the fact that culture exists at all. It does not hate a specific culture, in a specific time and place: it hates culture per se.
Why do Jihadists feel so drawn to suicide bombing? Because the thing they really hate most is being in the world at all. They can’t bear the dumb brute who stares back at them from the mirror. They seem unable to bear the complexity and dilemmas that real life gives us. Jihadists have no memory, no plan and no beliefs. They have nothing to hand on to their children, nothing to regret and nothing to hope for. Of course, Jihadism claims most of its victims in the Islamic world and the Middle East. In broken societies, its nihilistic appeal is fairly easy to explain, because Islamic State is an assault on the fact of humanity, the fact of human culture, and the fact of human political organisation. Jihadist culture is like painting by numbers – not very satisfying and bearing little relation to real life. And just because a few young men have turned to it does not make it particularly interesting or scary. In the West, we have nothing to fear. Plaster this stuff on every billboard. Publish it all over the internet. Put it in bookshops. We have Athens and Jerusalem; they have Dabiq.