The allure of cinematic violence in ISIS

The allure of cinematic violence in ISIS

The most harrowing thing I have ever witnessed in the course of my field research on religious and political violence was the sight of young boys being made to watch a video of someone being decapitated and dismembered in a religious school in a South Asian country.

That the video was gory was upsetting enough; but even more disconcerting was the fact that the children who were made to watch it were unmoved, even jaded, by the spectacle of violence that was enacted before them.

Some of them joked about, others played by themselves, while the video played on the television set before them. It convinced me that for some people today, violence has become so normalised and commonplace that watching a person being killed before you is no different from watching an advertisement for shampoo or a cartoon show.

For more than a year now, we have all become the members of a captive audience, stunned and stupefied by the excessive violence of the group calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

That ISIS has chosen to assault our senses on an almost daily basis through its use of gratuitous violence reminds us of the fact that we live in an age of spectacular excess, where many people live lives that are vicarious through the medium of popular entertainment, reality shows, sports and video games. That ISIS has chosen to broadcast its violence tells us much about the modalities of the movement, but also locates it historically in the immediate present, as a product and symptom of the age of mass popular media.

That ISIS is a problem and a threat is something most sane and sensible people would agree upon. The question is how this threat is to be contained and neutralised, and what are the appropriate means to do so effectively.

Here, we need to remember that radical movements - like any mass-based organisation - are complex composite entities that are made up of many different human subjectivities. In the same way that we do not assume that all members of the Democratic party of America or the Conservative party of Britain think alike, we should also not assume that all the members and supporters of ISIS share a common universal subjectivity.

Nor should we try to analyse a movement like ISIS simply through a single analytical lens that can try to explain the phenomenon in a totalised, exhaustive manner. ISIS is a complex entity and it is evident that its complexity lies in its plural and hybrid composition.

Beyond religious lens

I am particularly concerned that movements like ISIS, which justify their actions on the basis of religion, should not be seen and understood simply through the lens of religion or theological discourse.

The reasons for this are many: For starters, throughout human history, a plethora of groups and movements have justified their deeds - including violent deeds - via the recourse of a final religious vocabulary. We know that the Crusades were fought in the name of religion, though no serious scholar would argue that there was anything Christian in the conduct of the combatants themselves.

And Europe has witnessed a range of intra-religious conflicts such as the Thirty Years' War in the 17th century where Christians slaughtered Christians, with both sides claiming that the other was heretical and deviant.

Similarly, the use and abuse of religious symbolism has sadly been a trait of every major faith community in the world and, thus, it is vital at this stage not to fall into the trap of over-particularising the phenomenon of ISIS as something exceptional and unique.

Second, scholars and analysts who have been following the rise and spread of ISIS from the beginning have also noted that some of its recruits seem to have scant knowledge of the religion they profess.

Images of ISIS members engaged in acts of worship have emerged - again, on the Internet - which show ISIS members praying in different directions: A laughable error that even Muslim children would be able to correct. So much for their claims to piety and a holy life, then.

A simpler, though unpalatable, fact that has to be considered at this stage is that ISIS may well be a product of the modern age of televisual violence we live in.

We are surrounded and bombarded by images of violence on a daily, almost hourly, basis today; and violence permeates almost every aspect of our lives from TV shows to video games.

Living as we do at a time when parents have no problem whatsoever with their children watching violent movies or playing violent video games - some of which effectively encourage violence, and even criminal behaviour such as theft in order to win - should we be surprised if some of the recruits of movements like ISIS are drawn to that organisation simply for the promise of unrestrained and carefree wanton destruction and mayhem?

(Again, this is not a unique phenomenon: A number of right-wing neo-Nazi fascist movements in Europe lure new recruits with the promise of gang violence as an inducement to join.)

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