ISIS’s propaganda success, and how to fight it

Maria Dubovikova

Published: Updated:

ISIS is the first terrorist organization to have successfully gained power through the use of modern media.

Its media system is working in two key dimensions. First of all, it targets the audience inside the ISIS ranks. Propaganda is used to maintain morale and to manipulate ISIS fighters.

Secondly it targets the “outside” audience. The propaganda is performed on both systemic level – through the so-called Al Hayat Media Center, the ISIS media arm – and on the network level, through social media, messengers, Skype and the direct work on the ground of so-called “ISIS emissaries”, or recruiters.

The Al Hayat Media Center produces videos shared via social media and mobile messengers, as well as publishing journals in several languages, with most issues weighing in at 60 to 70 pages.

The words of the Quran, and the true sense of Islam, should be the main weapon in this war on ISIS propaganda.

Maria Dubovikova

That’s 60 to 70 glossy pages of total evil, blood and terror – with the name of Allah and quotations from the Quran repeated on the each page, even though ISIS has nothing in common either with Allah or the Quran. The group just use both for the sake of its own devilish and bloody interests.

The core of the propaganda is the idea of “us and them”. We are righteous Muslims, ISIS declare. “They” are kafirs – infidels – and crusaders.

But ISIS is also putting Muslim communities under pressure, through threats and oppression. The group knows that even the calmest Muslims cannot bear sustained oppression and humiliation for a long time, and finally they will become radicalized.

So why is ISIS propaganda proving so successful? The reasons are simple.

1. Visual communication

The first reason is the high quality work produced by ISIS ideologists, with specialist design and promotion. The visual quality of their journals is very high. Across the world, societies value images over text, and so ISIS has chosen the right form of propaganda. By spreading images through the modern media, ISIS reaches millions of people.

2. Preying on ignorance

The second reason is the historically ill-conceived system of integration of Muslim immigrants in Western societies, and the lack of a coherent promotion of the true image of moderate Islam to the broader public. ISIS is successfully using religious texts, playing on the weak religious literacy of some Muslims, and an absolute ignorance of many non-Muslims about Islam.

3. West’s Mideast policy

The third reason is the Western countries’ policy in the Middle East leading to the chaos in the region. The dangerous play on the discords and the regional contradictions, and the imposition of Western models of behavior and politics inapplicable to the region, lead to the growth of anti-Western sentiments and tensions inside the societies. This is successfully used by the ISIS ideologists. ISIS constantly reminds people of what it sees as historical injustice, or a constant humiliation by the West – the ‘kafirs’, the ‘crusaders’ – on Muslim civilization. ISIS uses the actions of the international coalition and Russian ideologists to promote the idea that the West and Russia are waging a war against the Muslim world.

4. Social environment

The fourth reason for the propaganda success is the state of the social environment. The modern world is gradually losing its reference points for values. This is witnessed in the mutation of the institution of family, social isolation, and the paradox of wealthy societies, in which some are led to seek thrilling experiences. The social inequality and lack of justice also play to the hand of ISIS. And to the lonely, ISIS promotes the idea of a society where everyone is a brother or sister. They promise justice and equality. But they also propose a ‘thrilling’ experience – to those who are seeking it: to kill not only in PC games, but in real life.

How to fight the war

The moment to counter the propaganda battle is already lost. And while there is no guarantee we will win the wider war, there is still a chance to fight an idea with another. And the words of the Quran, and the true sense of Islam, should be the main weapon in this war on ISIS propaganda.

Maria Dubovikova is a President of IMESClub and CEO of MEPFoundation. Alumni of MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations [University] of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia), now she is a PhD Candidate there. Her research fields are in Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, Euro-Arab dialogue, policy in France and the U.S. towards the Mediterranean, France-Russia bilateral relations, humanitarian cooperation and open diplomacy. She can be followed on Twitter: @politblogme

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