Language of war: How the Houthis compare to ISIS

When coupled with physical violence, violent discourse has the capability of clasping onto the mind of the public for decades to come

Dr. Halla Diyab
Dr. Halla Diyab
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The graphic images of violence that have been unleashed upon the world by Middle Eastern insurgencies that promote religious and ideological extremism— namely by Houthi rebels in Yemen and ISIS in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya – accompany the rising use of violent rhetoric in the regions directly affected. The narratives of violence woven by these ideologically extremist groups have now shifted to utilising violent discourse as well as visual spectacles of violence to ensure maximum resonance and domination.

An example of this shift would be in the case of the Houthi rebels in Yemen who used the magnitude of the impact of the Saudi air strikes on their controlled-areas to their own gain. In the aftermath of the strikes, they issued a plea for compassion to call for a “mass protest” in an attempt to garner communal support.

This facade of unity in their narrative contradicts the violence we have been witnessing the Houthi rebels commit against Yemeni civilians since 2011. According to the Red Crescent, the acts of violence inflicted by Houthi rebels have recently led to 10,000 families being uprooted, 150 people being killed during their fights with tribes in areas of Amran, and a deepening sectarian division in Yemen due to their merciless bombing of the “sprawling Dar al-Hadith seminary in Dammaj village for two weeks” which left at least 100 people dead.

In his recent video response to the Saudi-strikes, Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi reconstructs the strike syntactically as an “invasion and war against Yemeni people,” and a physical manifestation of the Western powers’ evil against Yemen. Abdul-Malik’s narrative firmly implants the generically termed “Yemeni people” and Yemen as a nation, as a target of the Saudi airstrikes rather than acknowledging the Houthi rebels—to whom he is leader— as the main target of the attacks.

By contextualizing his rhetoric within the history of Yemen, and signifying it within Islamic prophetic tradition, Abdul-Malik has deviated public attention away from the visual image of the violent acts committed, to the fear-mongering syntax his group spread among Yemeni people. For the people of Yemen, the result of this new narrative being spread by the Houthi rebels is a communal feeling of growing unease and paranoia at the possibility of being the target of further air strikes or a prospective invasion. With the aim of justifying his sectarian war under the guise of a nationalistic impulse to protect the people of Yemen, Abdul-Malik’s words and his physical mannerisms (i.e. his continuous use of threatening forefinger gestures during the video) sets the contrast between “us”; in reference to the Yemeni people and the “other”; the “invader” (the Saudi-led coalition and the West). He adopts a certain persona in these communications in a veiled attempt to de-personify his threatening tone.

Developments in the use of violence through syntax are further supported by ISIS militants in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. With the understanding that rhetoric can only become violent when a physical act of violence, or the threat of one, is verbalized, ISIS militants are proudly owning up to their violence.

Unlike the Houthi rebels who are bound to rhetoric delivered by their single visible leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, ISIS terrorists are not bound to muted rhetoric. By publically committing a brutal act and verbally discussing it, they break through the silence of anonymity allowing the significance to fall on their identities as individuals. For example, ISIS terrorist Jihadi John talks into the camera while he allegedly beheads his victims, and also parades his hostages in front of the camera before committing the act.

When coupled with physical violence, violent discourse has the capability of clasping onto the mind of the public for decades to come

Dr. Halla Diyab

One of the stages Houthis and ISIS share is denial. For instance, Houthi official Mohammed al-Bukhaiti denied that Houthi rebels were not targeting Aden but were “defending the country against Islamist militants” which allows the groups to maintain belief in their own goodness and attempt to gain the support of the local community. During this stage of denial, often after their violent acts have been internationally denounced, both ISIS and the Houthi rebels proclaim the act of violence was done out of compassion born from the inevitable urge to overrule justice (a scenario used by ISIS to justify their beheadings of hostages as 'revenge' for military operations against Muslims in Syria and Iraq.)

owever, looking back at previous terrorist attacks which have been carried out by Al-Qaeda, there is a notable absence of violently descriptive rhetoric. When the 7/7 bomb blast occurred in London, the Secret Organization of Al-Qaeda in Europe claimed responsibility for it, guising the attack as a retaliation for the UK’s “involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Just as with Bin Laden’s admission of the previous 9/11 attack against the U.S., there was no specific violent rhetoric used. The statements publicized by Al-Qaeda were always characterized by the apparent joy of vengeance and a threat of more attacks to come in response to foreign policy in the Middle East, but there was no apparent structured rhetoric patterns. Unlike the violent discourse we are exposed to today, the reminders of 7/11 are shown in images of the blasts in London and the overwhelming anxiety and fear felt by many Londoners. With the absence of rhetoric, the focus was on the act of terror itself, not as much on the individual personalities behind it. The perpetrators of the 7/11 bombings were still bound to invisibility and their motivations to commit the act could only be speculated on at first. Although in the media, they were referred to as suicide bombers, and “home-grown terrorists” who killed 56 people), their muted presence in the scene of the attack de-personifies their violence, and after its occurrence, the public gaze was fixated on the physical act of terror, rather than the faces behind the attack. There was no “Jihadi Johns.”

Clasping onto our psyche

Despite the tactically different patterns of violence used by these groups, all extreme narratives during the past decade which have claimed responsibility for massacres, mass-slaughters, beheading, kidnapping or terrorist acts cover the inhumanity of the act with a seemingly morale justification. In an audio statement, ISIS claimed responsibility for the deadly attack in Tunisia’s Bardo museum and attempted to justify the barbaric act which left 21 people dead by setting a narrative of duality around the event. They pitted the forces of virtue against the forces of “vice”, and heralded the two attackers as “knights” against the sinful “infidels” who were at the museum.

As we are now seeing in Yemen, the adoption and development of violent discourse is hugely damaging when considering its effect on the collective global psyche. It cannot and should not be underestimated when considering its power of fuelling fear and hatred. When coupled with physical violence, violent discourse has the capability of clasping onto the mind of the public for decades to come.

Dr. Halla Diyab is an award winning screen-writer, producer, broadcaster, a published author and an activist. She has a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from the University of Leicester. She carried out research in New Orleans, USA while working on her thesis “The Examination of Marginality and Minorities in the Drama and Film of Tennessee Wil-liams”. She holds an MA in Gender and Women Studies from the University of Warwick. She has written a number of scripts for TV dramas countering religious extremism and international terrorism resulting in her being awarded Best Syrian Drama Script Award 2010 and the Artists Achievement Award 2011. She is a regular commentator in the Brit-ish and international media and has recently appeared on Channel 4 News, BBC Newsnight, BBC This Week, CNN, Sky News, Channel 5 News, ITV Central, Al Jazeera English, and BBC Radio 4, to name a few. She is a public speaker who spoke at the House of Commons, the Spectator Debate, Uniting for Peace and London’s Frontline Club. She has worked in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria and is an expert on the Middle East and Islamic culture. As a highly successful drama writer, she has been dubbed ‘one of the most influential women in Syria’ in 2011. She also produces documentary films for UK and international channels. She is also the Founder & Director of Liberty Media Productions which focuses on cross-cultural issues between Britain and the Middle East. She can be found on Twitter: @drhalladiyab

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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