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Camel Breeding, Melon Harvesting, Stonemasonry: How IS Sells Its 'Utopia'

  • Joanna Paraszczuk

Islamic State has used idyllic images of camel-rearing efforts in Syria to help project an image of normalcy in the territory it controls. (file photo)

Islamic State has used idyllic images of camel-rearing efforts in Syria to help project an image of normalcy in the territory it controls. (file photo)

What do camel-breeding, melon harvesting, and stonemasonry have in common? They all featured in the extremist group Islamic State's propaganda this summer.

While the world may be more used to seeing distressing images of the ultraviolence perpetrated by Islamic State (IS) militants -- beheadings, stonings, mass shootings -- over half of IS propaganda released in July and August documents civilian life, a new report has revealed.

The report, Documenting the Virtual 'Caliphate', was released on October 6 by the British-based antiextremism think tank Quilliam. It surveys a mind-boggling 1,146 pieces of propaganda, including videos, photo essays, audio statements, and even "nasheeds" (a capella songs), issued by IS between July 17 and August 15.

The report's biggest revelation is the extent to which IS uses images of everyday life in its "caliphate" -- the name IS gives to the areas under its control -- to attract supporters.

While IS propaganda still includes extreme violence, the report found that the target audiences for such messaging are more regional than they were in the past.

And although IS also focuses heavily on its military, it mostly depicts itself fighting in offensive rather than defensive actions.

Selling 'Utopia'

Projecting the idea that it is a legitimate state that is able to govern the lands under its control according to Shari'a law has been central to IS's propaganda messages since it declared itself a "caliphate" in June of last year.

So while IS's photo essays showing camel-breeding efforts in Syria's Raqqa province and tours of a stonemasonry workshop in Sirte in Libya may seem odd choices for propaganda, it is precisely through these images that the extremist group seeks to demonstrate its ability to govern.

After all, the Quilliam report says, "most of the current challenges to [IS] propaganda are limited to questions of its legitimacy and the credibility of its claims."

Some of the "utopian events" featured in IS propaganda, like stores and markets packed with goods, are aimed at informing both supporters and critics that life is good under IS rule.

"To those millions who have spent years living under lawlessness and corruption, promises of economic sufficiency are powerful indeed," the report says.

Other images, such as those of children playing together, depict life in the "caliphate" as joyful.

"Fundamentally, [IS] is showing that it can be a real, practicable alternative to the status quo," the report says.

"The emphasis on governance enables it to maintain an aura of absolute defiance in the face of the anti-IS coalition and persuasively argue that it is the only feasible option for Sunnis."

The Rule Of (Shari'a) Law

Images of IS militants carrying out brutal punishments -- throwing homosexual men from tall buildings, beheading and shooting enemies -- have become sickeningly familiar.

But there is a reason why IS produces so much "justice-themed" propaganda of "hadd" punishments -- IS's interpretation of penalties fixed in the Koran for six "crimes" including drinking alcohol and apostasy.

The report documented 41 instances of "justice-themed" propaganda messages.

To local people, these messages convey the idea that IS-controlled lands are a "caliphate of law" where civil crimes are punished "swiftly and unwaveringly," the report notes.

Propaganda concerning religious "crimes" like homosexuality and adultery is intended to appeal to ideological supporters.

The graphic, brutal punishments have the added bonus of upsetting and enraging the international community, the report points out.

Wild Camels?

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of IS propaganda revealed by the report are the 31 photo essays that depict nature.

These include landscapes featuring wild camels, dust storms, and wild birds.

Why does IS bother to include such tourist-brochure imagery in its propaganda arsenal?

The group wants to romanticize life in the "caliphate," the report explains.

"It drives home the fact that supporters of the group are not all bloodthirsty maniacs."

Social Change?

The report's findings that Islamic State is seeking to attract support predominantly by telling stories about "utopian" civilian life supports earlier findings about why individuals move to IS-controlled areas.

While IS recruits militants to fight on the battlefield, not all of those who travel to live in IS-controlled lands are fighters.

Some are seeking the sort of utopia that IS promises them.

A January report by the International Crisis Group found that IS's appeal in Central Asia, for example, was "rooted in an unfulfilled desire for political and social change."

Some Central Asian women who traveled to IS territory were prompted by the "call of a devout life or an Islamic environment for their children."

Countering Propaganda

So how to counter such an overwhelming flood of IS propaganda?

The Quilliam report emphasizes that no single counternarrative can undercut IS's complex propaganda efforts.

Instead, what is needed is a "progressive and energetic set of counter-propaganda campaigns" from both governments and non-state actors, Quilliam says.

But first, it is necessary to better understand IS's propaganda machine.

"In many respects, IS is operating like a media company," Quilliam's managing director, Haras Rafik, said.

"The IS 'caliphate' is marketing itself on an industrial scale. If we are to destroy its brand, we must first be able to fathom its depths."

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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