BY INVITATION

The allure of cinematic violence in ISIS

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Those attracted to ISIS may be less drawn to its religious ideology than to the spectacle and glorification of its violence.

THE most harrowing thing I have ever witnessed in the course of my field research on religious and political violence was the sight of young boys being made to watch a video of someone being decapitated and dismembered in a religious school in a South Asian country.

That the video was gory was upsetting enough; but even more disconcerting was the fact that the children who were made to watch it were unmoved, even jaded, by the spectacle of violence that was enacted before them.

Some of them joked about, others played by themselves, while the video played on the television set before them. It convinced me that for some people today, violence has become so normalised and commonplace that watching a person being killed before you is no different from watching an advertisement for shampoo or a cartoon show.

For more than a year now, we have all become the members of a captive audience, stunned and stupefied by the excessive violence of the group calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

That ISIS has chosen to assault our senses on an almost daily basis through its use of gratuitous violence reminds us of the fact that we live in an age of spectacular excess, where many people live lives that are vicarious through the medium of popular entertainment, reality shows, sports and video games. That ISIS has chosen to broadcast its violence tells us much about the modalities of the movement, but also locates it historically in the immediate present, as a product and symptom of the age of mass popular media.

That ISIS is a problem and a threat is something most sane and sensible people would agree upon. The question is how this threat is to be contained and neutralised, and what are the appropriate means to do so effectively.

Here, we need to remember that radical movements - like any mass-based organisation - are complex composite entities that are made up of many different human subjectivities. In the same way that we do not assume that all members of the Democratic party of America or the Conservative party of Britain think alike, we should also not assume that all the members and supporters of ISIS share a common universal subjectivity.

Nor should we try to analyse a movement like ISIS simply through a single analytical lens that can try to explain the phenomenon in a totalised, exhaustive manner. ISIS is a complex entity and it is evident that its complexity lies in its plural and hybrid composition.

Beyond religious lens

I AM particularly concerned that movements like ISIS, which justify their actions on the basis of religion, should not be seen and understood simply through the lens of religion or theological discourse.

The reasons for this are many: For starters, throughout human history, a plethora of groups and movements have justified their deeds - including violent deeds - via the recourse of a final religious vocabulary. We know that the Crusades were fought in the name of religion, though no serious scholar would argue that there was anything Christian in the conduct of the combatants themselves.

And Europe has witnessed a range of intra-religious conflicts such as the Thirty Years' War in the 17th century where Christians slaughtered Christians, with both sides claiming that the other was heretical and deviant.

Similarly, the use and abuse of religious symbolism has sadly been a trait of every major faith community in the world and, thus, it is vital at this stage not to fall into the trap of over-particularising the phenomenon of ISIS as something exceptional and unique.

Second, scholars and analysts who have been following the rise and spread of ISIS from the beginning have also noted that some of its recruits seem to have scant knowledge of the religion they profess.

Images of ISIS members engaged in acts of worship have emerged - again, on the Internet - which show ISIS members praying in different directions: A laughable error that even Muslim children would be able to correct. So much for their claims to piety and a holy life, then.

A simpler, though unpalatable, fact that has to be considered at this stage is that ISIS may well be a product of the modern age of televisual violence we live in.

We are surrounded and bombarded by images of violence on a daily, almost hourly, basis today; and violence permeates almost every aspect of our lives from TV shows to video games.

Living as we do at a time when parents have no problem whatsoever with their children watching violent movies or playing violent video games - some of which effectively encourage violence, and even criminal behaviour such as theft in order to win - should we be surprised if some of the recruits of movements like ISIS are drawn to that organisation simply for the promise of unrestrained and carefree wanton destruction and mayhem?

(Again, this is not a unique phenomenon: A number of right-wing neo-Nazi fascist movements in Europe lure new recruits with the promise of gang violence as an inducement to join.)

Packaging violence

HERE is where an academic- analytical disconnect seems to have appeared: For decades, the fields of anthropology and sociology have taken the phenomenon of violence as a serious subject for study.

Today, there are many good works on the sociology and anthropology of violence in war zones and conflict situations that have studied patterns of violent behaviour among soldiers and civilian combatants alike.

There are also many excellent studies of violence in the media and the mechanics of violence- normalisation in the world of televisual entertainment and popular culture. Such studies have been used to explain and analyse the occurrence of violence in different situations, ranging from soccer-pitch violence to domestic abuse.

Yet as long as ISIS is seen as a religious phenomenon that is defined primarily by religiosity, such analytical tools will not be brought to bear upon the movement and the actions of its members, impoverishing and weakening our own understanding of it and its appeal to some.

I would argue that the complexity of ISIS, and the fact that it is many different things to its many different recruits, requires us to apply as many different tools of analysis in order to get a more comprehensive picture of the thing-in-itself, seen from a range of possible angles.

While some ISIS members may have deep religious beliefs, there are also many who are simply attracted to violence and see it as a means of opting out of mainstream society in the most radical manner.

Addressing ISIS' use of violence, and how it has packaged that violence in the form of a mediated spectacle, would be part and parcel of understanding it.

It also entails the acknowledgement of the sad fact that in this age of normalised violence, we have collectively created the conditions where violence is glorified, valorised and even celebrated as adventurous and exciting.

Such a complex and nuanced approach to studying ISIS and the modalities of religiously-justified violence would entail going beyond mere religious semantics and symbolism, and addressing the deeper questions of where humanity stands at the moment, and what kind of society we have created in the age of popular entertainment and normalised brutality.

It may disturb some of us to think that ISIS is not, after all, a unique phenomenon that can be quietly tucked away at the corner of our world as an aberration of human nature, but rather a feature of the skewed modernity we inhabit.

But that is unfortunately the case. The next time you watch an action movie, just count the number of bodies you are likely to see, and realise that we have grown immune to images of killing and suffering around us.

Perhaps the hardest thing for us to accept is the possibility that the hoodlums and psychopaths who have joined ISIS are not individuals of real religious conviction after all, but the wayward children of the age of popular violence that now passes as entertainment.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.