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?

Iraqi helmets

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.
  • 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.”
The videos not only seek to shame their opponents, but also to elevate the status of ISIS.  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?

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16 Comments on “ISIS – Terrorizing or Shaming?

  1. This is an important shift towards understanding the Muslim mind and knowing how to relate appropriately with Muslims. Thanks for challenging us to think about IS in terms of shame instead of terrorism. There is benefit in that approach.

    Your questions puzzled me, though. In the first question, I am not sure what an “act of honor” would be from your article – other than David’s act of preserving God’s honor by shaming Goliath. But I don’t think that’s what you mean. The second question is important and I know many Christians who are seeking to do this, PTL. Your third question is also a puzzle to me. I am not sure how my perceptions could honor or shame. Both honor and shame result from actions taken that demonstrate respect or dis-respect (as you illustrated). From my perspective (if this is what you mean), Muslims have felt shame for generations, since they tend to lose the wars they fight and, in comparison to western countries, are poorer and, in their own eyes, less developed and advanced (ie shamed). But again, I am not sure that is what you are asking.


    • Mark,
      Yes, Colin E Andrew’s reflections on current events are a good reminder of how central honor-shame dynamics are in Muslim culture and society.

      Thanks for questioning the questions; let me try to clarify.
      I think the idea of the first question is this – Muslims generally feel shamed and by the actions of Western nations in the Middle East, dating back to the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916). How could foreign policy in the Middle East create a sense of healthy honor among Arab and Persian countries in the Middle East? (So that they don’t have to resort to acts of terrorism or disgracing others to sense honor.) Though most readers are not policy makers, it is a worthwhile question I believe, since it gets us thinking about how to honor people in ways they feel honored.
      About the third question, you are right that ultimately actions either respect or disrespect. But often those actions grow out of assumptions and perceptions. The third question is basically asking readers to evaluate these assumptions about Muslims. Do our opinions perpetuate the shameful stereotypes of Muslims held by the American public at large, or do they view Muslims are people made in the image of God?

      Hopefully that makes sense, and facilities helpful reflection.

      • Thanks for those clarifications. Both explanations are helpful. For the first the focus is, “how can deal with Muslims in a way that they perceive as respectful and with honor.” I suspect that for starters on a policy level there would need to be indirect mediation, rather than direct confrontation.

        Your last clarification is also good and begins with Muslims not as representatives of Islam, but as fellow human beings created in the image of God.

        Good stuff.

    • Thanks for the clarifying questions Mark and for HonorShame’s thoughtful response. I’ll chime in as well regarding “acts of honor” and the examples of beheadings with both David and ISIS.

      It might be helpful to think of acts of honor in two broad categories: (1) reactive acts of honor; and (2) proactive acts of honor. Violence would fall under the first category in that it is viewed by the perpetrator as an action taken in defense of someone’s (or a group’s) honor. David was acting in defense of God’s honor and the honor of the armies of Israel. Though I certainly don’t agree with the actions ISIS takes when they publically execute someone, I find it helpful to understand that they are probably attempting to defend some kind of honor that they feel has been challenged.

      However, the second category is really what the question is asking. How can Western governments engage in “proactive” acts of honor in the Middle East? In other words, what actions and policies can we engage in that bestow honor rather than challenge it? This a useful question for myself as well. How can I personally engage in bestowing honor on others? I believe that this is a personal way of applying the Abrahamic covenant, “blessed to be a blessing.”

      • Thanks Colin. I appreciate how you tie it all together with the Abrahamic Covenant. Scripture and history does really unfold from Gen 12:1-3. It is a sad irony that God called Abram from the region ISIS now controls.

      • Perhaps a better question may be “Are there actions and policies we can engage in to put a halt to the evil actions and the intolerance of other belief systems in such a way that does not dishonor those we are dealing with?” That is, if our approach is read as dishonoring them, they will react defensively in a way that seeks to save face. The question is, are there ways for nations to act that will both allow a saving of face, stop the evil and cause the perpetrators to honor those who have a different belief from them.

        I suspect that there isn’t one until they change their belief, although approaching and dealing with people with sensitivity to what they perceive as dishonor at least will prevent us from exacerbating the situation – that is learning to “speak” their “language of respect” (from Eric Law).

  2. I wonder what you think the reaction is a the greater Muslim world is to the 5 Arab nation coalition joining the US to do bombing runs over Isis targets in Syria? Is this a shaming of Isis and honoring of America’s campaign against Isis?

    • John, good question. My initial response is to say the coalition of 5 Arab nations is simply political instinct and national interests at play. America must do something against ISIS, but certainly can’t do it unilaterally without significant international fallout at this point in history. That being said, there is certainly an element of shaming ISIS by those Muslims nations, as they effectively state ISIS is not part of the Islamic ummah (‘community’), let alone the caliphate for Islam. Their participation in the bombing campaign communicates ostracism, which is shame. Those are my thoughts.

  3. CNN article: “Law and war will not beat jihad”

    -“Groups like ISIS restore collective pride to Muslims feeling victimized, humiliated”
    -He suggests that there needs to be “an explanation or narrative…to take into account the sense of victimhood and humiliation some Muslims feel and seek to externalize. It also needs to offer a program for restoring much-needed collective pride.”
    -“…groups like ISIS are filling this gaping void, a void other post-colonial nationalist movements have failed to fill. In the eyes of the jihadists, Muslim societies around the world are struggling today because they have been -systemically undermined by western neo-colonialism…”
    -ISIS has created “a means of expressing solidarity and asserting a bold new identity while being a vehicle for seeking the restoration of pride and self-dignity.”

  4. This is such a great post and great comments following!

    But I have just come across a news article in an Australian Newspaper that adds another dimension to this discussion.

    In it, the Aussies respond in a way that demonstrates on an inter-nation level what happens in a cross-cultural person to person mis-communication level.

    Not only might we as Westerners see the ISIS actions as engendering fear around the world when they are intending to place shame, but their understanding that their actions are gaining them honor, is being read in some Western Cultures as the exact opposite. (after all not all Western Nations are exactly the same culturally) The Aussies are not even taking it as something to be feared but are seeing the actions of ISIS as shameful and to be despised and treated with disdain.

    We have found that while part of the responsibility as cross-cultural workers and groups is to understand the honor/shame dynamic that our ‘host culture’ may function by, there is also a need to both further understand our own culture and enable those in the ‘host culture’ to understand theirs. And in doing so to help them see that not only may our communication to them be mis-read, but their communication to us be mis-read. It is very frustrating to an honor/shame person to try to shame someone that won’t be shamed, or to try to gain honor that is then never given to them…and even worse when they just get further shame returned to them.

    On the flipside this parallels the fact the Christ despised the shaming sent his way – similar to what Brene Brown calls ‘shame resilience’. As Christians and as we disciple others we can explain that we can be free from the effects of other’s shaming, because we have a different definition of what is honorable and what is shameful. Christ turned the honor/shame definitions of our world upside down.

    • Sandra, brilliant comment!! Thanks for explaining how Westerners don’t just misread the news, but actually perpetuate the very shame causing the problem with such a misreading. -J

  5. My understanding of Islam is that once they have majority, they will continue to shame ANY who are not in submission to Islam; either as converts or in dhimmitude (2nd class citizens paying a tax). So how can this EVER be stopped without forgoing one’s own belief in The One True YHVH?….

  6. Thoughtful article and comments by many. One way we can seek to honor Muslims so that perhaps they will not fall in line with ISIL is by reaching out to them here in America or wherever we find them. Break the stereotypes they have of us and you break yours of them. Go up to them and say Hi and be friendly, don’t look the other way or be afraid. Tell them you would like to get to know them, have tea, invite them to your house or go to theirs if they initiate.

    They have the same desires as most Jesus followers. They want to raise Godly families, keep their kids from doing drugs and falling inline with the immoral culture, they want to love God better so walk with them together and show them a different view of God. Show them who Jesus is by your life so they can come to a fuller understanding of what He has done. Read the book AnyThree, or The Camel method or A Wind through the House of Islam for starts. Get equipped in Discovery Bible study and ask if they would be interested in studying the Holy Books. Contact ActBeyond for Discovery Bible Study, MissionFrontiers Magazine for more help in terms of articles. Hook up with groups like Hub (Arabic for Love) to learn more and grow.

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