How should we deal with ISIS in Western media?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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We live in a world where it seems like things are increasingly breaking down. The environment is degrading, and we are already beginning to notice this all around us. Extreme weather events keep breaking records. Even here in the UK, storms that would happen less than once a century now happen every decade, as we have seen with Desmond.

States are breaking down too. Syria and Iraq are clearly failed states. As are Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, and quite a few others. Others still are very close to breaking point. But perhaps the most important thing is that the moral discourse, the political culture underpinning these states, and indeed the entire geo-political system, is breaking down. Not just in fragile states in the Middle East. Secessionism has been on the ascendant in Europe, in Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders and other places. Meanwhile nationalist fascism is on the rise in the political discourse across Europe, North-America and indeed the Middle East - if one takes radical Islamism to be counted as fascism. I would argue that it is very similar indeed.

But the odd thing is that the moral failures of the Western-dominated world order are not any worse now than they were in the past. Less than 75 years ago, when the Japanese attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor, the American government reacted by imprisoning in concentration camps every ethnically Japanese American they could find - over 110,000 people. It kept them locked up for the duration of WW2. Yet in 2001 when Al Qaeda attacked the U.S. in the heart of New York, there were no such communal reprisals against Muslims in the United States. This despite the fact that there was a popular backlash, and reprisals could have earned a Republican president such as Bush some votes.

We report on those who go to join ISIS, but do not give nearly as much coverage to the millions fleeing from the Islamic garden of Paradise that ISIS have established in their controlled territories.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

We do still have torture facilities, and we still do very questionable things - at home and abroad. We allow our allies to do very questionable things. But we have been making moral progress in the West, and we continue to do so. Yet the faith of the general public, and the faith of our minority groups, in the moral system underpinning our societies and states both here in the West and across the world is crumbling.

A moral malaise

ISIS enters the scene in this moral malaise. And what ISIS has that we do not is a clear moral vision. It is an utterly repugnant moral vision: one that glorifies intolerance and brutality. But in the media, in our media, ISIS is the only voice that has moral coherence.

And not because the ideology of ISIS is necessarily more coherent than our own world view or our values. But simply because the media allows ISIS to run its narrative unchallenged. We broadcast the horrors they perpetrate, but do not speak about why they claim to perpetrate them. We do not engage with the moral vision of ISIS because we take it for granted that it is absurd. Well, we do. But not everyone in the audience does. Clearly. Over 25,000 Western recruits to ISIS testify to that. We still need to have this ongoing discussion. It is not enough that the ISIS narrative is absurd or morally repugnant. It must be demonstrated, again and again, that this is so. And all parts of our society, both Muslims and non-Muslims, must be invited to take part in this discussion.

We Westerners have limited our moral response to expressing outrage against the actions of ISIS. But we do not argue an active case for our values in opposition to it. And often we do not uphold those values we claim to hold to in practice. Think Guantanamo Bay. We assume everyone is on board with our moral complaints, and we continue to work on that assumption even though the actions of our governments at home and abroad stray from our stated values routinely. We all abhor the violent excesses of ISIS, but we continue to sell weapons to regimes who have a human rights record which is at least as bad. Weapons often used against civilians. And so we leave ourselves open to be painted as amoral hypocrites.

That we scrutinize our leaders and hold them up as hypocrites as we do is entirely appropriate. And our media is brilliant at critically deconstructing the bogus moral claim made by our own leaders. We expose the hypocrisy of our politicians, of our religious leaders, or of business leaders as a matter of course. This has become almost the synonym of ‘current affairs reporting’. But why do we not apply the same treatment to ISIS? Why do we not report on their hypocrisy – they claim to be fighting for Islam, but they largely kill other Muslims. They claim to be fighting Assad’s oppression, but there are hardly any confrontations with the Syrian regime and they often trade with them for oil and gas. We report on those who go to join ISIS, but do not give nearly as much coverage to the millions fleeing from the Islamic garden of Paradise that ISIS have established in their controlled territories. We do not have a monopoly on amoral hypocrisy. But we should at least report on the hypocrisy and lies of all politicians and militants with equal rigour.

Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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