“We have no place in the western world, which subjects women to sexual objectification on institutionalised bases. We have no real place within our own community because Muslims taint Islam with Asian culture; the men are just as oppressive as non-Muslims. I don’t support ISIS, but they paint a vivid picture of what life could be for us (Muslims).”
This quote comes from Halima (an alias; wants to remain anonymous) who I met at Discover Islam Week in 2016 at Brunel University. What Halima is conveying is something that is essential to the indoctrination technique of Islamic State: creating utopian imagery of Islamic State to market to disenfranchised Muslims. And although there seems to be regression in ISIS’s military efforts (as we saw today), its insidious ideology endures. This is due to their decentralised terrorist network, which enables followers to commit Jihad without explicit consent from ISIS.
The utopian imagery created by Islamic State entices susceptible Muslims, with belligerent attitudes towards the government and the media’s constant negative portrayal of them. In this article we will explore utopianism, ISIS’s use of utopian imagery and whether this propaganda is sustainable.
What Is Utopianism?
Utopianism is a concept that strives for social perfection from the perspective of the ‘dreamer’. The concept does not follow any socio-political constraints, which means there can be socialist utopias, conservative utopias and of course religious utopias. Lucy Sargisson, one of the world’s experts in utopian studies, states that utopianism is a phenomenon of social dreaming which visions for a better tomorrow. We can see how intoxicating this concept, especially in today’s entrenched and nostalgic society, can be consumed.
Utopianism always stems from the sentiment that there are vigorous problems with the present, and that improvement is warranted. Thus utopianism is exceptionally critical at its core which is almost paradoxical to the nature of the notion. Ruth Levitas asserts that utopianism is natural human impulse; in the same way self-preservation is an essential requirement for humans, so is the thought of social enhancement. Again this can be perceived as dangerous because of the belligerent intention of individuals, and groups hoping to create their version of paradise.
This brings us to the idea of religious utopianism, and specifically the one that Islamic State is projecting on to the Muslim population. The goal of Islamic State seems to be to purge society of any critical thinking and implementing Islamic rule by force. This eliminates the need to debate, for contestation and authoritative challenge. In a way Islamic State is a sociopathic utopian ideal, which is devoid of compassion and rigid to its nucleus. This emphasises the dangerous nature of a utopian society, although I must state this is just from my perspective. To an ISIS supporter, this utopian society is perfection.
So how does Islamic State create this society? How do ordinary Muslims become captivated by its message?
How To Catch A Muslim, ISIS Style
Islamic State uses synthetic utopian imagery to cultivate sympathy for their agenda. However they also pray on the belief system of Muslims too; that’s the fundamental reason why ISIS thrives. Without validation from scripture, and Islamic clergy members then ISIS would not be able to recruit on a worldwide bases. Although we most note that there is only a meniscal (0.004% of Muslim population) influx of Muslims joining ISIS. Within this section of the article we will discuss how ISIS uses utopian imagery to allure disenfranchised Muslims relating to 3 ideals: appealing to Islamic ideology, selling a world without oppression and finally images of a stable, cohesive Islamic society.
Islam is distinctive from other religious groups –with respect to longevity – in terms of the scope of rule. Islam dominates your life spiritually, economically, socially, politically and any other ‘lly’ you can think of. Islam is a way of life, not just a religious component. Because of this dynamic, there is an immense emotional connotation attached to its principles. Because of this emotional connection it is easier to manipulate the angry, marginalised religious members.
One of the methods ISIS adopts to entice these alienated Muslims, is by claiming Islamic State is the fulfilment of the religion. The end goal for Muslims, politically and socially, is to spread Islam to every inch of this world. It sounds diabolical, but Muslims believe that this earth is Gods and God’s commandment and rule of law should prevail. It’s not any different to what Christians and Orthodox Jews believe, but Muslims have an intense obligation to create this utopian ideal. There may be no religious compulsion in Islam, but there is a compulsion to implement the Sharia.
Because Islam is a way of life, the call to complete this fundamental tenant is more potent. After all Islam was spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula, to Western and Northern Africa and even to Europe. So if the religious disciples of Muhammad achieved this feat, why shouldn’t cotemporary Muslim continue this? That is a great selling point to Muslims.
Another great selling point to Muslims, especially to young Muslim women, is of a society which lacks the sexualisation of the western world and the oppression of their cultural Islamic home. Dr Erin Saltman states that ISIS projects a utopian image that romanticise Islam to young women. In this society they are prominent members within the Islamic nuclear family, as mothers and wives to Islamic insurgents.
The mother and wife play a prominent role in an Islamic society. They are valued in ways which the western world will not appreciate, and in a way that their home life will not allow. Mia Bloom contends that women in the Islamic State are nothing more than “baby factories” to create a pure, uncontaminated version of ISIS Muslims. Nevertheless, Islamic State continues to promote the role of the mother and wife in their community as indispensable.
However it is not only domestication which ISIS promotes to potential female members, but also freedom to gain previously forbidden exercises. For example in the city of Raqqa, Syria, there is an organisation called Al-Khansaa which is basically an all-women police force. This would never have been possible at home, where Muslim women are docile and submissive. Dr Katherine Brown, Kings College Lecturer, states that women are sold on being fundamental parts of the Islamic revolution, with roles that are not limited to the proverbial kitchen.
Western societies failings, and the Islamic world’s failing have culminated in ISIS’s propaganda becoming influential. ISIS’s idea of utopian society prevails in the minds of these young women, who lack any identity within the context of their home or their society. We saw that in 2015 when the three young British girls left for Syria.
But the last of Islamic State’s great techniques for projecting a utopian society is through their recruitment of highly skilled workers, which in turns gives the perception of a coherent and efficient society. Although Jihadist soldiers are integral to the progression of ISIS’s agenda, the skilled workers help create a reflection of a utopian society that is flourishing. That is why ISIS has heavily recruited doctors, nurses, engineers and other educated individuals.
The best example of this was seen when Issam Abuanza, an NHS doctor, left the UK in 2014 to work for Islamic State. Abuanza worked for the NHS for 7 years before his defection to ISIS, and shows us Islamic State is trying to recruit educated individuals to help create their utopian paradise. What it also shows is the level of alienated Muslim individuals does not correlate with the normative structure of disenfranchisement. We see that educated individuals, with the ability to critically think, have rejected the horror and destruction of ISIS and decided to be a part of their utopian paradise.
How Sustainable Is This Utopian Imagery?
With many reports coming out today, about ISIS’s defeat to Iraqi government soldiers and the recent reports by the British government claiming deaths of thousands of Islamic State militants, one wonders if ISIS is on the verge of defeat.
The answer to that quandary is an empathic no.
Islamic State’s ideology is not centralised, but decentralised. This means that its philosophy will live on and regenerate even after its inevitable defeat. So yes, they may physically be defeated at some point, but from the ashes of their downfall another entity will rise. And that institution of hate will be more robust than ISIS. It is an endless cycle of death and destruction, and the ostracised people of Syria will continue to suffer.
There are no real long term solutions that don’t undermine our democratic principles. We must show solidarity against this form of repugnant utopianism, and slowly their ideology will become less attractive even to the most belligerent of people. Good night and good luck.
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