ISIS – Terrorizing or Shaming?
Guest blogger Colin E. Andrews has lived in Central Asia for 10 years and Southeast Asia for 4 years.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) has been in the headlines for months now. Western journalists and governments have concluded that ISIS is using fear and terror as a weapon in their propaganda and military campaigns. However, we have interpreted their actions through our Western lens of political thought, which says that power can be obtained and controlled through the use of fear. This line of thinking was crystallized in Machiavelli’s famous dictum, “it is far safer to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” The political act of seizing and maintaining power through the use of fear was vividly played out during Robespierre’s Reign of Terror when the French Revolution spiraled out of control. What is important to note is that terror, in Western cultures, is connected to the idea of justice (or injustice). As Robespierre said, “Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice.” But is the primary objective of ISIS’ violence to terrorize and scare their enemies, or to shame them?
In the recent beheadings of journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley, the executioner spoke English with a British accent. Showing a Westerner who has “defected” to the other side assumedly shames Western nations. There are other hints and images of shame being employed throughout both videos that are worth noting.
The videos not only seek to shame their opponents, but also to elevate the status of ISIS.
- First, we have two Americans kneeling. Kneeling is a powerful sign of submission and humiliation. You kneel before someone to show homage (honor) or to publically display your shame (humiliation). Kneeling Americans project the hope that some day America will kneel in submission to ISIS and their brand of Islam.
- Second, why are both men dressed in orange pajamas? They are replicas of Guantanamo Bay prison uniforms worn by Muslim insurgents captured by the United States. These two Americans are being paraded and publically humiliated in front of the camera as “prisoners” of ISIS.
- Third, the prisoners’ heads are shaved. Head-shaving has a long history as a form of humiliation in many cultures. Arabs wanting to disgrace their prisoners often shaved their prisoners’ heads as a sign of shame. So, it’s not a coincidence that in both videos the victims’ heads are shaved as well as dressed in prison uniforms.
- Fourth, the prisoners are forced to make statements condemning the actions of the United States and confessing the rightness of the actions of ISIS. Having the voices of American citizens condemn the actions of the American government is an obvious sign of humiliation.
- Fifth, the executioner points his knife at the camera and refers to President Obama simply as ‘Obama.’ This gesture is an insult you would only make towards an enemy. This gesture is done while speaking directly to President Obama. Additionally, the executioner drops the title “President” as another sign of disgrace toward the office of the presidency of the United States.
- Sixth, why beheadings? They are incredibly humiliating forms of punishment that have a long history in Middle Eastern culture. In his taunt to Goliath, David proclaimed, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel” (1 Samuel 17:45-46). David’s primary motivation was not to strike terror into the hearts of the Philistines, but rather to defend the honor of the armies of Israel and the name of Yahweh, so that “the world will know that there is a God in Israel.”
To radicalized Muslims, the videos effectively say, “Hey you Muslims out there, look at us! We have Americans kneeling before us in Guantanamo Bay prison uniforms. We are humiliating them in honor of all you Muslims out there. We are reclaiming glory!
” During the first execution, the executioner said, “You’re no longer fighting an
insurgency, we are an
Islamic army and a
State that has been accepted by a large number of Muslims worldwide, so effectively, any aggression towards the Islamic State is an aggression towards Muslims from all walks of life who have accepted the
Islamic Caliphate as their leadership.
” The executioner is elevating the status of ISIS from an “insurgency” to an “Islamic army”, to a “State”, and even loftier to an “Islamic Caliphate,” trying to appeal to other Muslim’s sense of national honor dating back to the Arab and Ottoman empires.
CONCLUSION: Would a response to “terrorism” look different if we saw them as acts of “shaming” instead?
Rather than developing more counter-terrorism strategies, it might prove more practical to develop some counter-shaming strategies
- How could Western nations increase their standing in the Middle East through acts of honor?
- How could we alleviate the shame of oppressed and marginalized people who are attracted to the promises of groups like ISIS?
- Do your perceptions of Islam in general respect or shame Muslims?