The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, grabbed international attention of media this year after inciting a rash of violence throughout Iraq, gaining momentum and inspiring young Muslims to take up arms, even some right here in Central Texas.
Oxford Brookes University modern history professor Roger Griffin tells Texas Standard‘s David Brown that ISIS, unlike their predecessor al-Qaida, has cultivated an international online brand that glamorizes jihad.
“It’s all about the quest for meaningful existence. For something to sacrifice your life to and that’s exactly what the modern world, the modern pluralistic, materialist society really can’t really give people” Griffin says.
Before ISIS’s rise to prominence it was generally believed that terrorist groups were safe havens for the young and impoverished — a segment of society that typically lacked education and opportunity and therefor were more susceptible to psychological or financial manipulation. However, Griffin argues that many of these early perspectives were wrong.
“I think it was one of the great misconceptions of terrorism in the early days, of Islamism, of jihadism, that it appealed to people without prospects.”
This is a fact that ISIS is attempting to capitalize on. The group has slowly begun to set itself apart from its contemporaries by reaching out to recruit individuals from a variety financial and ethnic backgrounds – including westerners. CNN reports that hundreds throughout Europe and the United States may have attempted to join ISIS, with some coming from places like Minnesota, Colorado, and even Texas. Most of these individuals come from middle class environments, with fair access to education, but Griffin thinks the root of the appeal may be more intrinsic.
“It’s precisely people who — even though they are Westernized in terms of education, etc. — still feel this aching void and deep anguished conflicted feelings about their identity, and who they are and what they are dedicating their life to, who can flip from being fairly well integrated to actually becoming dedicated to fighting the system.”
To sell this message ISIS has become deceptively modern with an active social media campaign, mobile apps, hashtags, and well-edited videos. One Indonesian retailer even tried to cash in on the popularity by selling pro-ISIS T-shirts through Facebook.
“They have actually succeeded in creating an image for themselves, which to a generation of people who spend a lot of their time in virtual reality can actually make it quite sort of acceptable to enjoy the spectacle of slaughter and bloodshed and crass heroism” Griffin says.
Yet, some believe that the inauthentic and often glamorized imagery is possibly the key to slowing momentum and maybe even dismantling the organization.
“Some of the Muslims coming back from fighting in Syria aren’t going to be more jihadist than the jihadi and trying to blow things up, but would have actually seen slaughter, cruelty, and the nauseating aspect of violence. They could be wonderfully used, if used sensitively, as part of a counter narrative,” Griffin says.
He believes that these veterans of the Syrian conflict could utilize a similar social media campaign as ISIS in an effort to discourage youth from entering into the sectarian violence. If they do, Griffin says, they could “destroy one of the most powerful weapons of ISIS, which is to glamorize Jihadism.”