Straight from a video game?

Photographer: Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images

The Glamour of Islamic State

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour” and “The Future and Its Enemies.”
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The Pentagon is trying to figure out why Islamic State has been so successful at attracting followers. “What makes I.S. so magnetic, inspirational?” Major General Michael Nagata, who commands U.S. special operations forces in the Middle East, asked a conference call of outside experts examining the question, according to a recent New York Times report. “They are drawing people to them in droves,” he said. “There are I.S. T-shirts and mugs.” On a later call, Nagata admitted, “I do not understand the intangible power of ISIL,” another name for the group.  

Confronting Islamic State requires an exercise largely unfamiliar to the American military’s hardheaded pragmatists: thinking carefully about the elusive, seductive magic of glamour. Making that task all the more difficult, it also demands recognizing the allure of ideas and images that baffle, offend or horrify most Westerners. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, glamour is in the mind of the audience.

Glamour is effective because it gives specific form to inchoate desires, whether for love, wealth, power, recognition, freedom, adventure or divine favor. In "The Power of Glamour" I wrote, “The desires glamour serves and intensifies are never purely physical. They are emotional.” That’s as true for a bored and angry young man contemplating jihad as it is for a harried working mother imagining a spa vacation. A glamorous image or idea offers its audience a shimmering promise of life transformed and perfected. It focuses the audience’s longings.

“What inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious and cool,” noted anthropologist Scott Atran, who studies what moves people to join jihadi organizations. With this promise of camaraderie, glory, adventure and significance, Islamic State is tapping into martial glamour, whose many incarnations are as ancient as Achilles and as American as the U.S. Marine Corps. But in this case the cause is not patriotic but religious.

Islamic State’s recruitment imagery and Internet fan posts offer a different, more contemporary and overtly violent form of glamour. Videos, magazine features and Twitter memes mirror the glamour of action movies, shooter video games and gangsta rap. They make killing look effortless, righteous and triumphant. They promise to make the jihadist feel manly and important.

Indeed, the “intangible power” of Islamic State stems from its ability to meld common, often secular forms of martial and media glamour with a compellingly utopian version of religious faith. Conventional hometown imams often have little to offer alienated young British men longing for excitement and purpose, argued Shiraz Maher, a researcher at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, compared with “the hyper-empowering appeal of IS videos, filled with balaclava-wearing boys in smocks offering the promise of making history.” The religious extremism that separates Islamic State from mainstream Muslim life is itself part of the thrill. “Those drawn towards more radical interpretations of Islam,” Maher wrote for New Statesmen, “have dismissed older members of their communities as cowards or religious sell-outs.”

The result is a 21st-century Islamic version of the medieval Christian Crusades. Islamic State promises ordinary men adventure, fellowship and religious significance if they fight infidels and heretics in a distant land.

The challenge in countering these forms of glamour is to find a way to take advantage of an essential weakness. As inspiring as glamour can be, it often dissipates with experience. That’s because all glamour contains an illusion. It hides anything that might break the spell: flaws, distractions, hardship, tedium. Dispelling glamour, then, requires revealing the truth. But deliberately puncturing glamour can be harder than it sounds. (Consider the never-ending, largely futile denunciations of fashion and beauty imagery.) You have to understand not only the illusion but also why it appeals to its audience.

The State Department failed to do that with anti-Islamic State propaganda launched as part of its ongoing “Think Again Turn Away” campaign. It rightly drew widespread criticism with its ham-handed effort to horrify potential recruits with video imagery of crucified Muslims and a mosque suicide bombing. The “Welcome to the 'Islamic State' land” video ignored its purported audience’s motivations and beliefs. Islamic State doesn’t hide its brutal intolerance of Muslims who deviate from its notion of the true faith. A radical claim to purist authenticity -- an ideal Islam violently purged of culture, history and variation -- is in fact central to its appeal. The State Department video might scare recruits’ parents, but it would do little to deter their alienated sons.

Making Islamic State look fearsome and successful -- countering its glamour with horror -- only serves to heighten the movement’s allure. To dissuade potential recruits, something more banal is required. What glamorous visions of jihadi glory obscure isn’t violence. It’s drudgery, subordination, infighting, hypocrisy and general messiness. “The reality on the ground is a world away from the glamour of well-produced recruitment videos,” wrote Maher, noting complaints about boredom and guard duty.

“I’ve basically done nothing except hand out clothes and food,” a French volunteer in Aleppo complained in a letter home, as reported by Le Figaro. “I also help clean weapons and transport dead bodies from the front.” Another griped, “I’m sick of it. They make me do the washing-up.” An Indian recruit named Arif Majeed returned to Mumbai after six months with Islamic State, reportedly complaining to Indian authorities that he’d been given such menial jobs as fetching water and cleaning toilets when he wanted to fight. So much for glamour.

Emphasizing Islamic State’s brutality may rally mainstream domestic audiences, but it won’t destroy the group’s glamour in the eyes of potential recruits. For that, we need more stories about menial chores, less publicity that turns terrorists into celebrities and, most essentially, battlefield evidence that effortless victory is an illusion -- Islamic State is for losers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Virginia Postrel at vpostrel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net