Short Memories: Media and the Construction of “Radical Islam”

On August 19th, 2014, the day that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (known as ISIS or simply the Islamic State) uploaded to YouTube the before-and-after video of missing American journalist James Foley’s decapitation, the lurid front page of the New York Daily News featured a still of a masked Islamic State militant standing and holding a knife over the kneeling Foley, squinting from the glare of the desert sun, head completely shaved. The large, boldface headline was only one word, stretched out over the bottom quarter of the page: “SAVAGES”. The cover for that day’s issue of the New York Post was much the same, a photo of a masked militant covering Foley’s mouth and holding a knife to his throat over the headline, “SAVAGES: ISIS decapitates American journalist on YouTube.”

After photos captured from the video, which was swiftly removed, circulated rapidly throughout social media, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo announced that his team was “actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery.” The two covers—particularly the Post—were met with outrage by a number of journalists, as well as by scores of Internet users who flocked to the New York Post’s Twitter page to express their anger that the publication would disregard Foley’s widow’s Facebook statement requesting privacy in the wake of her son’s death. Many more were incensed by the perception that by featuring such gruesome images of Foley’s execution, the Daily News and Post were actively circulating ISIS propaganda and undermining efforts against the extremist group: “Pretty sure ISIS could not be happier with the New York Post’s front page today,” tweeted Adam Serwer, National Editor at Buzzfeed; “Will [Twitter] suspend @nypost?” Neetzan Zimmerman wondered aloud, referring to Costolo’s pledge to suspend accounts linked to circulating the photos.

Very few, on the other hand, expressed concern with the underlying implications of the “SAVAGES” headline, which passed undetected under the storm of the other controversies related to the covers. National consensus on the use of this term appears to be fairly one-sided: what isn’t savage, after all, about decapitating a journalist in the name of religion? This term, however, and others like “thug” and “primitive,” invokes a legacy of Western dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims through an age-old imperialist tactic of labeling a targeted culture as uncivilized, backward, and in need of correction. Moreover, to call ISIS militants “savages” alienates the current conflict from its historical context and denies the inextricable link between Western imperialism in the Middle East and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

ISIS is a Sunni militant organization that first grabbed headlines this past summer when they seized land within Iraq and Syria, establishing a caliphate and frustrating the United States’ decade-long effort to consolidate state power in post-Saddam Iraq. Its expressed goal, as outlined in a letter attributed to official ISIS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, is to “establish an Islamic State” in Iraq and the Levant (a region encompassing the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Cyprus and including territories of Turkey and Egypt), “expand the jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq” and “defend it…until the Hour of Resurrection.”

Most US sources agree that ISIS originated as an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, an organization that originally formed in 2003 in response to the US invasion. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was itself an offshoot of al-Qaeda, the organization which claimed responsibility for the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C., and has its origins in groups of Sunni mujahedeen fighters that the CIA covertly supported through the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence during the 1980s to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. This program of arming and financing Islamist militants, one of the longest and most expensive covert CIA operations in history, was called Operation Cyclone.

Thus we might say that the story of the origins of ISIS is simply part and parcel of the United States’ long and rich history of arming and financing radical Islam as a means of exerting imperial dominance in the face of Soviet contestation. Moreover, this history itself is merely a small part of the history of the United States supporting radical right-wing insurgencies throughout the world as part of a policy known colloquially as “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In a 1988 interview with the French publication Le Nouvel Observateur, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National Security Advisor under Jimmy Carter, asked the following: “Which was more important in the history of the world: the Taliban or the fall of the Soviet empire? A few over-excited Islamists or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the War?”

This flippant comment reflects how tenuous the relationship between the CIA and the mujahedeen was from the start. Integral to this history is a cycle of supporting and, subsequently, disavowing connections to such insurgent groups once their interests diverge substantially from our own, which is precisely what occurred when, in 1989, the US-backed insurgency forced the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Having obtained its objective, the United States largely removed itself from the situation there, which had become desperate by the end of the war: more than a million people were dead, almost three million fled the country, and, when the lingering Soviet puppet government collapsed in 1992, Afghanistan descended into further chaos and civil war as armed warlords, some indirectly backed by the United States, fought bitterly for control of the devastated country.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the only shared enemy between the US and the now heavily armed mujahedeen, the remaining superpower inevitably found itself the principal antagonist for a network of militants who conceived of themselves as anti-imperialists from the beginning.

Evidence of the West’s callous attitude toward the Islamic world became more prevalent over the years, during which time the United States waged a deadly war in Somalia, supported the newly-formed Russian Federation’s devastating campaign to crush the Chechen separatist movement, and imposed crippling sanctions on Iraq that led to famines in which more than a million Iraqis died, many of them children.

Radical Islamists have used the fallout from these events as a recruitment tool for three decades, and they continue to be cited as justifications for attacks on Western targets and for increased adherence to religious fundamentalism on the part of those directly affected by the cruelty and dehumanization of the United States. On September 20th, 2001, nine days after 9/11, President George W. Bush delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress in which he said that the terrorists responsible for the attacks “hate our freedoms.”

This is true in the sense that the murderous actions and ideologies of Islamic fundamentalists do, in fact, demonstrate contempt for freedom. But it would be a critical misstep to believe that this is the underlying reason for the United States’ forays into the Middle East; US intelligence officials considered the same Islamic fundamentalists a perfectly sound alternative to communism when they made the decision to support them throughout the Cold War. Moreover, the fact that the United States has supported, and continues to support, murderous dictatorial regimes around the world, like the brutal Pinochet regime in Chile, not to mention Saudi Arabia, a country governed unambiguously by Sharia law, speaks volumes to the fact that what makes people enemies or “savages” in the eyes of the US war apparatus is not their brutal repression of human rights, but in whose economic interests they direct it.

ISIS is a group that formed directly out of a conglomeration of terrorist networks that the United States was responsible for arming and financing during the Cold War. Our repeated violent sallies into the region known as the Middle East and our military’s consistent disregard and contempt for civilian lives serves as their most effective rallying tool—more effective than, say, hatred of our freedoms. This ought to be enough to substantiate the claim that the United States bears a lot of responsibility for the rise of ISIS and the current crisis in the Middle East.

This past September, faced with criticism about the dubiousness of this plan, the Senate and House of Representatives approved of a “new” plan outlined by President Obama to arm and train Syrian rebels with the expressed purposes of fighting ISIS. Attempting to draw a line of distinction between the anti-Assad insurgency and religious extremists, the President and his supporters defended the measure by insisting that it only arms and trains “vetted moderates.”

By artificially delineating a diverse collection of rebel groups and individuals with distinct and intertwining interests into two camps, moderates and extremists, proponents of this operation hope to construct a narrative in which any instance of US arms going to ISIS can be construed as exceptional and not reflective of a lapse in judgment or responsibility on the part of the state.

The violence implicit in using a term like “savage” to describe ISIS militants and members of other Islamic fundamentalist groups is derived not simply from the erasure of history and the United States’ culpability in the crises that characterize the War on Terror, but also from the way in which it tacitly justifies patterns of Western imperialism and egregious crimes against humanity committed under the auspices of spreading democratic values and preserving safety. This last component in particular is crucial to understanding how the discourse promoted by the Post and Daily News shapes the way Americans think about our foreign and domestic policy, anesthetizing them to the realities of our sordid past and bolstering support for further abuses. As long as a majority of the country believes in the narrative that draconian policies that promote Western cultural supremacy are the only way to ensure their safety from a stateless and backward enemy that hates them for their freedoms, there will be no public outcry against the destruction and dehumanization of Muslims, nor against laws such as the Patriot Act and National Defense Authorization Act that shred our constitutional freedoms and enshrine our willingness to do so in the future.

It goes without saying that ISIS is a threat to American lives, and their highly publicized spectacles of violence and terror are appalling to anyone with a sense of empathy and respect for human life. But when public figures and media outlets refer to ISIS militants and members of fundamentalist groups as “savages,” we need to understand who is using this language and why, if not out of consideration for the innocent victims of the “War on Terror” and a desire to do away with old and contemporary systems of power and exploitation, then because we are ultimately paying heavily for it, with our tax dollars, our safety, and our rights that continue to erode in the name of protecting us from threats of our leaders’ own creation.

Note: a version of this article originally appeared in the Vassar Chronicle.

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