ISIS’ fantasies echo the world’s nightmares: both envisage the organization as disproportionally more powerful and threatening than it really is. In part, such rhetoric conveys the sincere, albeit megalomaniac, beliefs of ISIS devotees, as well as the candid anxieties of its potential victims. Yet in part, it is the outcome of unscrupulous pursuit of political interests. ISIS’ sinister image is a product both of its own manipulations and of the inadvertent aid it receives from its Western enemies.
Western politicians, for instance, often abuse ISIS’ image to attain electoral goals, even at the price of enhancing the organization’s strength. Preying on American fears after the San Bernardino and Orlando attacks, Donald Trump opined a series of policy clichés that do not offer useful solutions but, rather, play into the hands of ISIS’ incitement and war mongering. Speaking in favor of a discriminating immigration policy that would prevent nearly all Muslims from entering the United States, Trump handed ISIS another victory in the arena of psychological warfare. Targeting the Muslims collectively, as he did, is precisely fanning the flames in the way that ISIS leaders would like to see, in the hope that this will offend Muslims, radicalize their views, and widen the gap between them and other Americans.
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Even more cynical was Benjamin Netanyahu’s manipulation of the ISIS phenomenon during the 2015 elections in Israel. A short while before they went to the ballots, his party, the Likud, aired a clip warning Israelis of ISIS’ impending conquest of Jerusalem. As ISIS was losing territories and operating far from Israel, Netanyahu scared Israelis into voting for him by depicting ISIS as a real and immediate danger. In Israel, as in many European countries, politicians present the public with disingenuous information about ISIS, thus – perhaps unknowingly – promoting ISIS’ goal of public intimidation.
Netanyahu’s disinformation policy resembles the propaganda of one of the most notorious butchers in the modern Middle East, Bashar al-Assad. Both, like Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s autocratic ruler, regularly conflate ISIS with other Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brothers and Hamas. Although the gap between ISIS and the other movements is huge, these politicians have no qualms about using duplicitous facts to tarnish their enemies. Once again, ISIS’ image is bolstered and transformed into a major threat that exceeds its true abilities by ascribing to the movement many more supporters than it actually has, and presence in areas it can barely reach in reality.
ISIS’ image is distorted by politicians at the other end of the spectrum, too. Barak Obama’s refusal to place ISIS within the orbit of Islam by labelling it “radical Islam” discredits him and the call to view Islam as a multifaceted phenomenon. It is essential to understand ISIS within the socio-religious framework of Islam in order to identify the Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders who have the tools to confront it and diminish its appeal. While all armies and security systems can combat ISIS with military means, only Muslim spiritual leaders can contest its religious credentials and lessen its impact on Muslims.
ISIS has become a pivotal reference point in international politics, primarily because of its psychological accomplishments and less due to its military performance. The exaggerated image built up around the movement is the consequence of manipulation by countless players – first and foremost ISIS itself, but also some Western security officials, rating-starved media, and politicians of all persuasions – who attempt to promote their respective agendas. As a result of these outright lies, fabrications and distortions a cloud of disinformation has formed around ISIS that benefits the movement. As surprising and frustrating as it may be, the reactions of Western politicians and public opinion shapers actually bolsters ISIS’ psychological warfare.
Sadly, Western rhetoric has become a weapon in ISIS’ arsenal. If Western pundits and politicians wish to stop being the unwitting accomplices of ISIS, they need to speak about the organization more professionally and responsibly.
Translator: Michelle Bubis