The Myth of the Clash Between Islam and the West Revisited
ISIL, media, and adaptation
In this essay, I would like to show a change in the myth of a clash between civilizations in the Middle East following the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). I claim that the rise of ISIL amplified the antagonism against the West in the Islamic world. This is apparent when we analyze a variety of media through which ISIS has sought to present its struggle and recruit adherents. ISIL is contributing to a shift in the social unconscious in the Islamic world, a shift largely and carefully produced through tools such as magazines, videos and social media.
For instance, when first putting forward their analysis of the myth of the Clash of Civilizations (Bottici and Challand, 2013) in 2009, Chiara Bottici and Benoît Challand analyzed the first 20 images that appear when the word al-gharb (West) is searched on Google images. Among the findings, 16 out 20 images showed ‘western women’ dressed in clothes that reveal large parts of their bodies. (Bottici and Challand, 2013, p.40). As Hijab is common in many Islamic countries and obligatory in some of them, these images represented a common Islamic perception of the West, in which the West is negatively associated with impurity and excesses.
The results found when searching the word al-gharb (West) today show a significant shift in the Islamic world’s perceptions of the West over the last few years. The new images dominating in the Google Image search do not necessarily mean that Muslims have stopped perceiving the West as they did in 2009, but it shows that a new perception is more dominant due to a change in the political climate. Among the first 20 images, 8 images show political criticism of the West. For example, one of the images shows a man covering his face with the English flag, burning a paper that has a verse from the Quran. Another example is a caricature that shows people displaying favoritism to Jewish people living in the West while discriminating against Muslims in those same countries. 6 out of the 20 images represent another trend: the contrast between the Syrian fighters and the intervention of the West in that war. These images are divided amongst supporters of the three main parties in Syria: the regime, the rebels and ISIL. This change in the type of images dominating the internet is clearly linked to the emergence of ISIL, as they are active on social media. Furthermore, ISIL excels in displaying icons, images and videos that strengthen the myth of the clash between civilizations between the West and Islam.
The cover of ISIL’s own magazine, for example, is powerful. It can evoke, promote, and instill feelings of victory against the West after the long history and struggle between the two supposedly opposed civilizations. This myth of a rivalry between the West and Islam began with the crusades, between 1095 and 1291. Afterward, the colonial and post-colonial struggle increased the tension between the West and the Muslims and contributed to the impression that the West was an imperial force (Bottici and Challand, 2013, p.110). This set the ground for the creation of the myth of the clash between the civilizations.
ISIL works similarly to a government; their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, organized departments in charge of media, finances and so forth (Warrick, 2015, p.285). I focus on the media department because it has a powerful impact on people through its use of symbols and icons that are able to influence political myths. Political myths are important to understand, as they affect the nature of contemporary politics. People are influenced by political myths and their opinions in politics can depend on them. Political myth is the work on a common narrative that provides significance to the political conditions and experiences of a social group. This work is transmitted through both the production and reception process, using icons that allusively refer to the given narrative. Being exposed to such icons, a political myth can slip into our unconscious and can deeply influence our basic and most fundamental perception of the world (Bottici and Challand, 2013, pp.15-17).
The term ‘social unconscious’, in contrast to that of a collective unconscious, is meant to signal such a shift happening as a result of cumulative exposure to social experiences. These experiences can vary across time and space, and even between individuals, as a consequence of the different forms of interactions and can thus slip into our unconscious. Globalization facilitates the transfer of icons through different platforms (world wide web and satellite television) that are cheap and globally accessible (Bottici and Challand, 2013, pp.38-39).
Magazines, social media and videos are tools of these platforms that ISIL utilize in order to reach their existing and prospective supporters and to advertise their cause. Dabiq and Rumiyah are two magazines of ISIL’s propagandistic arsenal, which are issued in several languages. Reviewing their materials demonstrates that ISIL uses modern technologies when filming, picturing, and editing. Analyzing ISIL’s magazines is essential to understanding how this political myth is strengthened. Moreover, these magazines help us understand how ISIL influences negative feelings among Muslims. For instance, the cover photo of the 15th issue of Dabiq shows a man dismantling a cross that was fixed on the roof of a church while holding the ISIL flag on his back. It appears that he is replacing the cross with the flag that portrays ISIL as the savior of the Islamic world, fighting against western domination. The image is powerful because it plays with the contrast between the cross and the flag of ISIL, which carries religious significance, thus alluding to the underlining narrative of a clash between Islam and the West. The prophet Mohamed gave Ali his blessing to carry this flag – colored in black – and tells him, ‘take this flag and go with it until God gives victory through you’ (Ford, 2016, p.21-22). ISIL uses this flag as a tool to touch the emotions of the Muslims around the world and to unify them around its cause. Furthermore, the flag contains the Shahada phrase: ‘there is no God but God, Mohammad is the messenger of God,’ which is an important pillar of the Muslim faith. Moreover, ISIL adds at the bottom of their magazine cover: ‘BREAK THE CROSS’, which clearly conveys their message to the Islamic world.
Here, political myth is thus fused with religion, with the latter typically attempting to answer the ultimate question of life and death (Bottici and Challand, 2013, pp.13-15). Thomas Hobbes, for example, argues that the ‘seed’ of religion is only found in human nature and not in the other creatures on the planet. He describes the curiosity of humans to search for meanings and for the causes of their own beginning. Furthermore, he describes the eagerness of humans to predict the future and to want to know their own destiny. As their next desire cannot always be fulfilled, humans ‘stand in awe of their imagination’ becoming grateful in times of success and asking for help from their gods in times of fear (Hobbes, 1981, pp.168-170). As Hobbes explains, religion can be very influential on humans, particularly in times of diffused anxiety.
Applying Hobbes’ insights to our current times, the influence of religious thought has intensified the perceived rivalry between the West and Islam by strengthening the political myth of a clash of civilizations. While many countries in the West are secular, ISIL still labels the West as ‘crusaders’ and ‘cross worshipers’ in their magazines. ISIL uses these labels as an instrument to evoke feelings of sorrow in Muslims by appealing to a collective remembrance of the history of their struggle.
In addition to the power of religion, another important factor in ISIL’s mobilization of the myth of the clash of civilizations is the economic conditions that provide the context for the struggle. Bottici has argued that capitalism did not only increase vastly the number of images, but it has also changed their qualitative nature. She argued that this intrinsic qualitative change has influenced ‘the link between the political and the imaginal’ (Bottici, 2014, pp.118-119). According to Bottici, the imaginal is what made of images in the sense of pictorial (re)presentations. The Imaginal signifies something that can be vsiualized, which does not necessarily mean that is visual, in the sense of retinal image actually taking place. It means something that can potentially be visualized, even if it is not actually so. Furthermore, the imaginal can be both at the conscious and unconscious levels (Bottici, 2014, pp.58-61). If we believe that politics refer to decisions taken by a group of people that affects their daily lives, then the link between politics and imaginal is apparent. This can be applied to large and small communities, whereby only by imagining can people feel a sense of rapport with strangers living in the same territory (Bottici, 2014, p. 91). The invention of new computer technology is another reason behind the change in the qualitative nature of images.
This has led many politicians to doctor images for the sake of political correctness (or incorrectness) (Bottici, 2014, pp.118-120). ISIL likewise used these technological advances in all their videos, feeding on the suspended status of reality of virtual images. For instance, one of the most striking videos created by ISIL was when they filmed a Jordanian pilot being burnt alive. The video was made with the help of new technological equipment, special effects and background music (ISIL’s anthem).
Social media is rightly considered powerful because it has changed the method in which information is spreading between the communities. Among social media’s strength is its ability to quickly spread the news and to circulate more transparent and effective information compared to formal media. Moreover, social media users communicate freely and anonymously, which was an advantage for ISIL’s supporters. ISIL spreads its messages to their supporters using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other personal websites. With this strategy, ISIL is successfully recruiting youth worldwide (Shamieh and Szenes, 2015, p. 8). In fact, ISIL has succeeded in recruiting between 28,000 and 31,000 foreign fighters since 2011 (6,000 coming from Europe) (Kirk, 2016).
Finally, the shift in the social unconscious in the Islamic world is apparent, especially after analyzing the Google Image search. As I have argued, ISIL gained many supporters based on its ability to manage its media department in a novel and smart way. It is certain that numerous other factors played a role in ISIL’s expansion, but I believe that ISIL’s media department is an essential, if under-appreciated, factor. ISIL has demonstrated that a terrorist group has the ability to excel at editing films and working with advanced equipment like no terrorist group before.
This can be worrying due to the exponential growth of Internet and social media users, which has facilitated the reach to a large audience in a way that was previously unattainable. Recent research shows that two thirds of the world population uses the Internet. Furthermore, the number of users in emerging countries is increasing rapidly and users in such areas (i.e. the Middle East) are more likely to use social networking (i.e. Twitter, Facebook) than developed countries (Poushter, 2016, pp. 4-5). In short, the Internet is a double-edged sword, where people can benefit from open source information but can, on the other hand, be influenced by propagandas that can infuse political myths. ISIL has succeeded in intensifying the antagonism against the West through its propaganda, using religion as its main weapon. This has led to the strengthening of the political myth of a clash between East and West. One crucial question emerges here: How do we confront terrorist groups who use online platforms as a weapon to strengthen such a myth?
Jad Moawad is a student in the MA in political philosophy at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona.
Benjamin, W., Eiland, H. and Smith, G. (2002). Selected Writings: 1935-1938 (Volume 3). Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Bottici, C. (2014). Imaginal politics: images beyond imagination and the imaginary. New York: Columbia University Press.
Bottici, C. and Challand, B. (2013). The myth of the clash of civilizations. New York: Routledge.
Ford, T. (2016). ‘How Daesh Uses Language in the Domain of Religion’. Military review: The Professional Journal of the U.S. Army. 96(2): 16-27.
Hobbes, T. (1981). Leviathan. London: Penguin. Ed. CB Macpherson
Kirk, A. (2016). ‘Iraq and Syria: How many foreign fighters are fighting for Isil?’. Available here. (Accessed: 6 June 2017)
Poushter, J. (2016). Smartphone ownership and internet usage continues to climb in emerging economies. Pew Research Center, 22.
Shamieh, L. and Szenes, Z., 2015. The Propaganda of ISIS/DAESH through the Virtual Space. Defence against terrorism review, 7 (1).
Warrick, J. (2015). Black flags: The rise of ISIS. New York: Penguin.
 A Google Image search is considered a relevant tool of research because it shows the trend and the mood of the blogosphere.
 Google search results for the word Al-Ghareb on 6 June 2017. Methodologically speaking Google Image searches might fluctuate and not produce a replicable result, especially if the search takes place following a long period of time. Yet I believe that Google Image search is relevant because it shows the trend and the mood of the blogosphere.
Bottici mentioned that repressions are also responsible of forming part of the unconscious. As our mind can consciously process a limited amount of information at a single time, the rest of the information hangs in our unconscious and can be triggered when needed. It is in our unconscious that the myths proliferate (Bottici and Challand, 2013, p.28-30).