Ten days ago most newspapers carried a photograph of Daesh – Isis – fighters, in silhouette against the sky, raising their black flag on the hill of Tel Shair opposite Kobani. It portended the fall of the city, and in those parts of the city that Daesh has so far managed to enter, the violence is extreme – “I have seen tens, maybe hundreds, of bodies with their heads cut off. Others with their hands or legs missing. I have seen faces with their eyes or tongues cut out – I can never forget it as long as I live,” as one refugee told a reporter. A couple of days ago the same papers carried a photograph of the black banner being torn down off the hill by Kurdish fighters, giving hope of respite for Kobani. Now it seems that the Daesh has had to pull back from most of the town.
We’ve been here before. This tired symbolism of black flags descending out of Khurasan to capture the central Muslim lands in a cascade of terror, as supposedly predicted by the Prophet in a hadith, is a recurring theme of Middle Eastern history. But to an Englishman the first resonance is perhaps of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great. The governor of Damascus, standing on the city’s walls, says in despair,
His coal-black colours, every where advanc’d,
Threaten our city with a general spoil;
And, if we should with common rites of arms
Offer our safeties to his clemency,
I fear the custom proper to his sword,
Which he observes as parcel to his fame,
Intending so to terrify the world,
By any innovation or remorse
Will never be dispens’d with till our deaths.
Tamburlaine’s reputation, which ran ahead of him like wildfire, stressed his absolute implacability towards his enemies, his scorn for the customs of war and his bottomless appetite for blood. He raised pyramids of severed heads – 120 pyramids around Baghdad alone in 1401 – at the gates of conquered cities and put whole populations to the sword. But he wasn’t unique, and it’s important to remember that this was the MO of every invading army in the history of the Fertile Crescent, from Sennacherib, through the Abbasids to Hulagu and well beyond. Hulagu’s sack of Baghdad in 1258 killed 200,000 people by his own modest estimate – 800,000 or more by those of others.
To judge by Kobani, and the awful litany of beheaded hostages from many nations, severed heads are still important props. But today there is a much more powerful vector for terror than simply word of mouth, and the great innovation of the Daesh banditry is their use of film and social media to carry these images, quite ruthlessly, ahead of them. As Olivier Roy said recently of the filmed executions of Western hostages, “It recalls to mind the ‘trial’ of Aldo Moro put on by the Italian Red Brigade in 1978.” This violence is a carefully calibrated theatre of blood, and it is carried across the world on the internet. What we are seeing is Tamburlaine on Facebook, in real time, and it is very hard to digest, and harder still to react rationally.
A recent article in the Guardian by Steve Rose looked at the film and internet output of the Daesh with the critical eye of a film writer. Their output is workmanlike, but not that good. He detects relatively sophisticated camera work with simple cameras, and an understanding of film-construction that he attributes tentatively to Deso Dogg, a German ‘gangsta rappa’ turned Daesh propagandist under the name of Abu Talha al-Almani. But he doesn’t underestimate the potency of this film output, starting his essay with Frank Capra’s reaction to Leni von Riefenstahl’s 1938 Nazi propaganda documentary Triumph of the Will: “It scared the hell out of me. It fired no gun, dropped no bombs, but as a psychological weapon aimed at destroying the will to resist, it was just lethal.” That’s just what Mr Dogg and his colleagues aim to do too, and judging by their success at Mosul, they aren’t bad at it.
These bandits, the scrapings off the bottom of Muslim communities around the word, working with the attenuated relics of Saddam’s Ba’ath and Sunni tribesmen driven beyond desperation by the sectarian barbarism of Iraq’s Shi’ite government, are a well-armed rag-bag. What they have done very well is to use these modern vectors of fear. They are children of the internet generation. They produce nimble, bloody little film clips called mujatweets, designed to be retweeted all over the world. They text photographs of butchery and decapitation ahead of them to the defenders of towns that they wish to attack – the modern equivalent of Tamburlaine’s pyramids of heads. And they make documentary films about the joys of living in the ‘Caliphate’ (“I don’t think there’s anything better than living in the land of the khilafah,” says one, smugly. He’s clearly not Yazidi, Christian or Shi’i.). They are in short, a Virtual Mongol Horde, with a PR sense like Tamburlaine’s and the ethics of a shrike.
Is there anything original about them? Steve Rose plays with comparisons. Is their style von Liefenstahl, or Kathryn Bigelow, Oliver Stone or do “the cheap production values and portentous narration resemble a bad History Channel documentary?” Undecided, but “what nobody wants to admit is that Isis could have fashioned a visual aesthetic of its own.” What though is indubitable is their easy and relatively skilled access to the internet: “Once cameras were big and expensive and only available to television and movie studios. Now they have become cheaper and more available, ordinary people have gained control of the media narrative.” (Ordinary people?)
He looks at the feeble attempts by the US to fight back by caricaturing the Daesh’s video-game style and vocabulary; and one has the sense of a bunch of black-flagged terriers snapping at the ankles of a confused elephant. And he ends with the clear conclusion that the cause of the West is far from unambiguous, and that it is the Daesh imitating us, not vice versa, that is so devastating. “Not only are we a page-setter in production values,” he quotes US documentary-maker Steve Jarecki as saying, “we are also a page-setter in murderous, amoral, profoundly disturbing content the world over. If we are watching Isis come up to speed, it’s to our own apparent obsession with gore and depravity.”
So how can this relentless tide of bloody offal be fought? It is fascinating and deeply encouraging to see clear signs of a firm and public position being taken by European Muslims. No one with any sense or knowledge doubts that virtually all Muslims deplore this awful hijacking of their religion by testosterone-fuelled, religiously ignorant Rambos. But it has often seemed very hard for Muslims to speak out, which is why (to name only one of many) the reaction of Asim Hussein, the Imam of Manchester Central Mosque, to the technicolour execution of a British hostage was both moving and impressive: “Alan (Henning) embodied more Muslim virtues than the entire Isis put together.” At the same time the hashtag #notinmyname has taken off, reaching 300 million people in its first weeks, and “saying no way, not in the name of Islam, and not in the name of any faith or humanity,” as Hanif Qadir, one of its founders put it. But the problem is the one Jarecki describes – finding an idiom that is as far away as possible from the “gore and depravity” in which western cinema often likes to wallow, far away from government, and well beyond the kiss-of-death that is official control.” John Gray, speaking like Qadir to Dominic Casciani, says, “[Governments] definitely need to be funding this stuff and they definitely need to be helping those who would be credible messengers develop the kind of technical and messaging skills that they need. But that’s where they need to stop. They then need to stop trying to control the message. They have to get used to the fact that some of the messages that are going to be the most effective are going to be least comfortable for governments themselves.” Bravo.
Oh, and a final note on the religious illiterates of the Daesh. It seems that they are scared witless of the female Kurdish fighters of the YPJ at Kobani, because – and this is really quite delightful – they believe that if killed by a woman they will go to hell. Go girls. Get these e-Tamburlaines where it really hurts, in their brittle and much exaggerated masculinity.