• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Islamic State propaganda buys into Western culture of victimhood

It comes as a bit of a shock when a young Muslim university student informs you that “democracy is a con” and that “Brits can shove their democracy up their rear end”. One young man — who recently has gained his degree in computer science — observes my uneasy reaction and reproaches me for my naive faith in the idea of freedom. As far as he is concerned freedom has no value other than to distract Muslims from pursuing their religious duties.

“Choice is a fraud,” he asserts with confident certainty.

He, like a significant minority of educated young Muslims, believes that liberal democracy and its institutions serve only to confuse and corrupt.

The light-hearted and casual manner in which some British and Western-born Muslim youth can dismiss the ideals of freedom and democracy serves as testimony to the political and moral chasm that separates them from the societies into which they were born. They are not just rejecting but also turning the clock back on democracy.

This form of cynicism and contempt for freedom and democracy was self-consciously communi­cated through a recent press statement titled “From the Mannan Family in the Land of Khilafah”. This propaganda declaration, issued on behalf of the British family of 12 who travelled to Bangladesh and then to Turkey to join Islamic State, proclaims to the world that these Muslims have voluntarily chosen to live in a theocracy in preference to a land where “man-made law” prevails.

According to the statement, the Mannan family is now “free from the corruption and oppression of man-made law”. The implication of this communique is that institutions that deviate from the laws of Allah can only have a morally corrupting impact on the devout followers of Islam.

From this perspective, “man- made” — that is, secular — law serves as a medium of moral contamination. That is why, claims the statement, the Mannan family decided to leave “the so-called freedom and democracy that was forced down their throat in the attempt to brainwash Muslims to forget about their powerful and glorious past and now present”.

The contention that freedom and democracy are values that need to be forced down people’s throats may come as a surprise to most readers of this article. It is an assertion underpinned by the premise that secular and humanist values and institutions are so unnatural that no faithful Muslim could willingly embrace them.

Such sentiments are regularly promoted by radical jihadist publications such as the Islamic State’s glossy magazine Dabiq and by al-Qa’ida’s Inspire. Both are widely circulated on the internet. There is evidence the views expressed by these publications and other outlets have gained influence among a significant minority of Muslims living in the West.

A recent poll of 2016 British adults conducted by ICM during the first weekend of this month indicated that 9 per cent of the respondents viewed Islamic State in a positive light. It found 3 per cent had a “very favourable view” and 6 per cent a “somewhat positive view” of this organisation. Despite the numerous atrocities reported in the media, respondents with a positive view of Islamic State had increased by two percentage points during the past year.

Opinion polls are always difficult to interpret. However, what the ICM poll suggests is that a significant minority of British Muslims may be sympathetic towards some of the ideals advocated by Islamic State. Most of those who expressed positive views towards it are likely to be passive sympathisers without any ambition to follow the Mannan family to the Middle East.

However, what their sympathies and attitudes signify is that radical jihadist ideas have gained influence within British society. At the very least, it suggests a sizeable group of British Muslims express their everyday frustrations and resentments towards the world and particularly towards the West through adopting a favourable attitude towards Islamic State.

One of the most remarkable features of radical jihadist propaganda is the emphasis it places on attempting to discredit the ethos and values associated with liberal democracy. It rejects not merely liberal democracy but all forms of democracy. In this respect, it is one of the few modern political movements to explicitly reject the foundation of secular politics.

It is worth recalling that though the Nazis condemned parliamentary democracy they nonetheless sometimes called for a “German democracy”. Indeed, Adolf Hitler once asserted that “National Socialism is the true realisation of democracy”.

In contrast, Islamic State’s political theology rejects all forms of democracy and denounces it as immoral. Islamic State’s propaganda depicts the West not merely as bad but as evil. Its objective is to present the distinction between itself and the West in a language that morally polarises and heightens the differences between the two. From the standpoint of Islamic State propaganda, the values of Islam and democracy are fundamentally antithetical to one another.

It claims the threat that a secular society poses to Muslims residing in the West is, above all, a moral one. The letter circulated on behalf of the Mannan family contends that in the khilafah, or caliphate, “a parent doesn’t feel the worry of losing their child to the immorality of society”.

The implications of this statement are clear: Western societies exercise a morally corrupt influence on their Muslim inhabitants.

The propaganda of jihadists frequently refers to its enemies as “crusaders”. However, this term is far more fittingly applied to the moral crusade that Islamic State and other jihadist groups are waging against the way of life of their opponents. Islamic State propaganda not only condemns but dehumanises those it castigates as its “dirty kafir” (unbeliever) opponents. Dabiq actually argues that it is legitimate to capture infidel women and force them to become sex slaves. In its eyes, Yazidi women are not quite human.

One reason Western governments often find it difficult to counter the influence of radical ­jihadists over sections of their Muslim populations is that they attempt to use political arguments to counter moral ones. However, political arguments about the virtues of democracy rarely succeed in negating moral claims about the corrosive effects of the Western way of life on Muslims.

The language of good and evil appears more convincing than arguments based on secular logic and reasoning. Until Western society articulates its own moral vision of a good society, it will struggle to contain the influence that jihadist political theology exercises over its target audience.

In the aftermath of the 2001 riots in the English town of Oldham, I talked to Muslim students about their impressions of life in Britain. Most of them spoke about their society in a language that conveyed a strong sense of bitterness and in some cases of hatred. However, their response was couched in a language of disappointment and disillusionment. Their criticism was directed not at “man-made law” or democracy but at the failure of society to live up to its promises.

Since 2001, the attitudes of some young Muslims towards their society have not only hardened but altered in character. Some no longer want society to accommodate their grievances but to inhabit a different moral universe. There are many reasons for this radical shift in attitude.

The military success of jihadist groups in various parts of the world has created the impression that the West has more than met its match. For some Muslims, jihadist successes serve as a source of pride. Stories about how an individual or a couple of “fighters” such as the Boston Marathon bombers inflicted fear on the US tend to travel well among young people in search of a hero.

But the most powerful driver of jihadist influence on Muslim culture in the West is the sacralisation of victimhood. In recent decades, the victim has acquired a quasi-­sacred status. Competitive claim-making about victimisation has become widespread and misfortune is frequently represented through the prism of victimisation. From victims of bullying to victims of heart attack to victims of fire, the victim narrative continually expands.

Radical jihadist propaganda presents Islam as the universal victim of Western machinations. It frames virtually every dimension of local and global misfortune afflicting Muslims as the outcome of a permanent war waged by Western crusaders.

From this standpoint, any form of behaviour that does not accord with the world view of jihadist political theology can be represented as an act of victimisation — as an insult to Islam. The mere existence of a way of life that contradicts an Islamic State-sanctioned lifestyle is a provocation.

In such circumstances, the reaction to a provocation is legitimised both by jihadist ideology and the Western cult of the victim.

Outwardly, Islamic State’s political theology appears to be a throwback to medieval barbarism. However, it is much more than that. Its claim to recover the golden age of the Islamic past is often expressed through a language that Palestinian-American cultural theorist Edward Said once described as the “sanctimonious piety of historical or cultural victimhood”. It is a language that bears an uncanny resemblance to Western identity politics. At least within Western societies the jihadist sensibility of eternal injury enjoys the cultural validation that emanates from the sanctification of the ­victim.

Arguably, the modern jihadists going to Syria are as much a product of contemporary Western global culture as of traditional Islam. Until secular societies understand the cultural and moral dynamic that leads some of their citizens to reject their way of life, they will struggle to match the appeal of ­jihadist political theology to people such as the Mannan family.

Also read: Islamic State: Built on the West’s cult of victimhood. spiked, 28 July 2015

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