Every organization now peddles its ideology the same way that Nike and MTV do–mass media. Stormfront is a notorious website for (mostly) American neofascists. The North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) has a website. The American Socialist Party is on Twitter. And for those who like to dive deep, there are, in what has come to be defined against the norm of limited character count, “long reads.” The National Rifle Association has an internet-accessible magazine called First Freedom. The Catholic Laity has a magazine. So do terrorists. Al Qaeda has its own journal.
And so does the Islamic State. Already on its fourth issue (PDF), the glossy, English-language magazine Dabiq takes its title from an Armageddon myth set in a Northern Syrian town of the same name. As one might expect, the magazine serves as both recruitment tool for potential jihadist and public relations organ—it explains the group’s cause, and takes swipes at ideological opponents. It contains brutally honest propaganda, with pieces blending calls for the murder of unbelievers with the group’s boasts of offering medical assistance to children with cancer. The design is slick—sophisticated, even—full of maps and color photos. Each magazine, which can be found in digital edition on the Internet Archive, comes with an intricately designed cover that announces the particular theme of that issue.
The theme of the most recent issue is “The Failed Crusade,” an optimistic take on what ISIS considers to be the already-doomed efforts of the international coalition opposing it. The cover of the magazine depicts an IS flag waving atop the Egyptian Obelisk in Vatican City. Just like the advertising that ISIS is aping, the flag could easily be replaced with a Nike swoosh or Apple’s elegant white fruit logo. In tone and form, Dabiq takes cues from neoliberal advertising. Terror groups and corporate retailers alike present their causes as exciting and inevitable. They’re multiracial and multinational. They seem to aim for the coveted eighteen-to-thirty demographic. Look at the Dabiq cover next to a picture of the classic MTV commercial of the lunar American flag being rebranded by a corporate icon; the visual language they speak is the same.
Reactions to Dabiq in the West have predictably dwelled on the magazine’s open embrace of brutality, slavery, and violence. Jenna McLaughlin, writing in Mother Jones, gave a simple run down of the top ten things that she found shocking in Dabiq, including enslavement, the destruction of entire cities, and the condemnation of other religions. As if the past few months of recorded beheadings, attempts at genocide, and brutal enforcement of religious codes hadn’t already prepared us for what we might find in the pages of Dabiq? Expressing shock is a lazy alternative to actual criticism, and to simply be outraged seems like an abdication of the responsibility to analyze.
Rafia Zakaria, writing for Al Jazeera, has a more substantive take on Dabiq. Zakaria points out that, while it’s nothing new for terrorist organizations to have crudely produced propaganda organs, with Dabiq comes a revolution in using actual reporting, graphic design, and political rhetoric to reach out to English-speaking audiences. Zakaria writes that, “Dabiq takes visual cues from suavely produced online publications such as Vice and Adbusters, with dazzling graphics and arresting photography.” In other words, Dabiq is ISIS’s way of reaching out to Western audiences using a type of propaganda that they’re already familiar with–glossy magazines.
Dabiq is interesting, mostly because of what it means for the evolution of radical Sunni propaganda. But what strikes one right away when actually reading the thing is how boring it is. It’s obviously not a journal of ideas; it doesn’t question its own assumptions, or acknowledge disagreements among writers. It doesn’t actually do the work of rhetorical persuasion. It has the look of an advertising campaign, but it reads like the bloviating of a lazy, think-tank position paper.
Take this example from the beginning of Dabiq’s fourth issue:
We have a promise from Allah that this religion prevails, and by this religion what is meant is the religion described by the inspired and rightly guided khalīfa ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattāb (radiyallāhu ‘anh) who said, ‘There is no Islam except with jamā’ah, and no jamā’ah except with imārah (leadership) and no imārah except with tā’ah (obedience)’ [Sunan ad-Dārimi].
This isn’t persuasive language. It’s more like jargon-laced communication between insiders and adherents. Not all of Dabiq is written this way, but enough of it is to make the use of the glossy magazine format, and the emphasis on email lists and reader feedback at the end of the third issue (PDF) seem like cultural appropriation.
While reading Dabiq, and being bored by it, I was reminded of another technically proficient, but intellectually dull, piece of propaganda–the films of Leni Riefenstahl. There is a parallel between the blank images of Riefenstahl’s, bodies gathered en masse that only have meaning in relation to an ideology, and the vacuous legalese of ISIS’s phalanxes of bland exegetical quotes. Where Riefenstahl fed off of a tradition of misty Romanticism in her films, ISIS here uses a mutated form of neoliberal discourse (glossy magazine propaganda) to, if not argue their position, then to present it as universally accessible, historically inevitable, and beyond reproach. Writing in The New York Review of Books about Riefenstahl’s work in 1975, Susan Sontag could have been describing the latest issue of Dabiq:
Fascist aesthetics…flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort, and the endurance of pain; they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude…The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets, uniformly garbed and shown in ever swelling numbers. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, ‘virile’ posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death.
It’s telling that a radical Islamic ideology that scorns all that is reflective, critical, or pluralistic, should be able to express itself so well within a Western media format. In John Carpenter’s classic 1988 film They Live, the wandering construction worker John Nada finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the secret messages–in the form of advertising—being transmitted to an ignorant human race by disguised alien invaders. Magazines and billboards all subliminally tell unaware citizens to “Obey” and “Submit,” their original images of beach vacations and kissing couples erased by the glasses.
If we were to read our own Western magazines with John Nada’s glasses, would we be able to tell them from Dabiq, or would they all read the same? Should it be surprising that such a nihilistic philosophy is so adept at mimicking our methods of advertising? If we can learn anything from ISIS propaganda, it’s that we would do well to examine the methods we use to feed our own ideology to each other.