The Islamic State has an Image Problem

Note: This post was published before the vile execution of American journalist James Foley, which made me realize that this post was off the mark – ISIS doesn’t have an image problem, they have a humanity problem. 

How many remember that vile ISIS video from June – the one where they were executing all the soldiers and apostates from Mosul?  I’m sure many of you will – I certainly do, it’s when IS really sprung to the forefront of my consciousness – to the consciousness of many.  That horrific video, showing the execution of hundreds of people in several gruesome ways, from being machine-gunned in a pre-dug mass grave to being shot in the head and pushed into a river, is what catapulted the Islamic State – just before it had re-branded itself as such – onto the national news schedule.

Since then, though, it seems, Islamic State has taken several modest steps to correct it’s image, cemented by that first shocking video.  Insofar as they’ve made the effort it indicates that they’re interested in being seen not as a band of marauding barbarians, but as a nice, respectable Islamic force capable of running it’s own state and dealing fairly with all their constituents (it’s also probable that their command and control capability is pretty weak and their messaging is all over the board… certainly the attack in Lebanon last week, at least, would back that up).

That they’re capable of running their own state is less in question, it seems – several news sources have commented that they differ from Al-Qaeda in being able to set up and maintain the functioning structure of a state – IS’s main center, Raqqa, has been under their control since last year, and seems to be doing just fine, thank you very much.

There has been further attempts, though, to combat the view of Western watchers that IS is anything more than a radical group of crazed Islamist fundamentalists caught in some sort of Islamic rapture – in fact, there’s been a definite push towards showing the *cough* softer, more cuddly side of the Islamic State.

Take, for example, the recent documentary post by VICE News – VICE has created an impressive piece of content that takes a closer look at the group.  It shows the daily patrols that ensure Sharia law is maintained, as well as a visit to the courts, and includes a look at some of the festivities they’ve organized (it’s well worth a look, if you haven’t already).  While the documentary, made by allowing a VICE reporter a guided tour of Raqqa, goes a long way to unmasking the black veils of the Muslim revolutionaries, they also don’t shy away from showing images of decapitated Syrian soldiers and crucified criminals. At the end of the day, while we come away from the documentary with perhaps a more human suggestion as to the makeup of the Islamic State, it’s still a suggestion of a deeply disturbed and off-balance sort.

Also, on more than once occasion, the group has made an attempt to show off their bleeding-heart humanitarian side, most recently in a group of photos showing care at hospitals inside Iraq.  While the pictures show an emotionally evoking selection of patient in a hospital in Iraq, the reality is not that the Islamic State is particular concerned with the well-being of the sick, just that they’d rather use a hospital for a positive marketing message (“See?  We care for the sick also!”) then a negative one (“Yeah… we killed everyone in the hospital. You’re welcome.”).  The people treating the sick in the series of images are the same people that would have been treating them before IS showed up – the only difference is that now they’re being treated under Islamist auspices, instead of Iraqi ones.  They did the same thing two weeks ago.

If the Islamic State could prove itself to be a nation that valued human rights, protected minority groups and dealt fairly with all individuals, then the possibility remains that it might be a fairer regime than the ones that until recently ruled in Syria and Iraq – that would go a long way to securing it’s place in the world, and – more importantly in the short term – attracting further adherents.

The reality, of course, is that so far they’re an intolerant bunch of extremist, fascist thugs with no adult supervision and what seems to be little central command and little cohesive ideology beyond utter adherence to Allah.  Certainly their “judges”, as illustrated by the VICE documentary, seem to have been chosen less by their experience with law (Sharia or otherwise) and more by how long their beards were, if you get my meaning.  As far as tolerance towards minority groups go, we’ve seen acceptance of Christians and Shia heads on pikes and fenceposts.  That’s a pretty wide spectrum.

But as long as some mercurial adherence to Allah remains the yard stick for creating the laws of the land it’s going to take a shitload of images of hospital children to counter the impression that Islamic State is anything more than a bunch of fanatical thieves and thugs.

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