Media Against Modernity
Book Review by Robert Hariman
Dabiq by Islamic State
Published by: Al Hayat Media Center
It is well documented that religious fundamentalists have had no problem adopting communication technologies. In the US, examples include influential use of radio, magazine publishing, television, direct mail and telephone marketing, cable television, and now the Internet and social media. There are other examples worldwide, and now any social, political, or cultural movement has to become media savvy, whatever its ideology.
So it is that a movement such as the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/Daesh) can promote its comprehensive rejection of all modern ideas, values, and institutions by using modern communication media. One example is their glossy magazine, Dabiq. Published in several languages including English, the first issue came out in July 2014 and the 13th appeared in January of this year. If you have an appetite for pictures of victorious warriors and justifications of sexual slavery, this is the magazine for you.
By reviewing the 13 issues in order, one can observe an initial template, additional tinkering, and then something like a more settled and sophisticated format. From striking cover to the last page, which always is a single full page image with a didactic caption, the reader can move through various sections that each have an obvious orientation: battle reports, denunciations of apostates, portraits of virtuous fighters, photo-essays on civilian deaths by airstrikes, documentation of officials’ hostile intentions and psychological weakness (‘In the Words of the Enemy’), lists of recommended ISIS videos (‘Selected 10’), and so forth.
Along the way, there seems to be some experimenting (perhaps inadvertent) with different magazine formats: Issue 2 reads somewhat like a party manifesto or denominational magazine; issue 4 becomes more of an opinion magazine; issue 5 is closer to a news magazine, and by issue 6 they seem to have combined the various elements of these to become a straightforward party organ: news, opinion, and exhortation woven together to promote a single worldview. The term ‘propaganda’ fits perfectly, except to those naïve readers who are of course a target audience.
Issue 8 involved innovation in the direction of several visual conventions that could have been signs of a shift in the direction of moderation and some semblance of humane values: the opening profile shows two fighters sharing a moment of easy laughter, and the photographs included a sunset behind a cityscape and images of a leaf, a flock of birds, and a grove of trees (as the closing image) that have primarily figural meaning. Other reports on traitors, victims of air attacks, and the like were there, but the overall vibe could have been tending toward an appeal for more cosmopolitan legitimacy. That proved to be a path not taken, and with the next issue we are back to the clash of civilizations and a caliphate surrounded by its many enemies. Subsequent issues offer both detailed accounts of the many apostate Islamic groups, along with compensatory calls for harmony through obedience.
The magazine makes extensive use of photographs, but you will not find many striking images. You will see many news photos from mainstream media as well as stock images, staged (or photoshopped) images of fighters on horses or with modern weaponry, local photographs of casualties, and photos of military operations that are uniformly banal and barely competent except as they might suggest a cinema verité tonality (fig. 1 and 2). Overall it looks like a mashup of The Economist and a half-dozen pulp magazines from the nether reaches of the newsstand.
There are a few exceptions to this rule, however, not least two images from the front of the first issue. The one is a perfect example of videogame artwork, and the other of an action movie poster (fig. 3). Given how well other military organisations use those designs for their recruiting, I expected to see much more of the same. Although a similar image appears in issue 13, the emphasis at Dabiq follows a different media aesthetic.
Along with whatever images are there, the magazine also has a lot of text, and more than you would see in other glossy publications. I suspect this is where the appeal for legitimacy is placed, along with ongoing socialisation into Islamic State ideology. Use of Arabic calligraphy often sutures image and text, and one can feel a pang of jealousy for not having such a beautiful resource for visual design. They need it, too, as they do without two other, very important sources of visual communication.
What you most certainly don’t see in Dabiq is good photojournalism. The gap is papered over by alternating between official photos of government leaders, staged ISIS tableaus, and grainy docudramas. It doesn’t take long, however, to realise how much artistry, information, perspective, emotional engagement, moral witnessing, and more is provided by the consistently high quality and topical range of professional photojournalism. Even the most striking image in the magazine – taken from the video of a captured Jordanian pilot being burned to death in a cage – is demoted by its placement with another image and text (fig. 4). The message for the reader seems to be: don’t stop and think, keep moving.
A second omission might seem odd, but it bears consideration. Save for those pages promoting their videos, you will not see advertisements in Dabiq. Like many others, I was accustomed to labeling ads as so much nonsense – a necessary cost in market-based media, but nothing you wouldn’t want to live without. Somewhere along the line, I realised how advertisements support not only the marketplace but also freedom, individualism, civil society, and other modern ideals. Yes, even with the magical thinking and other features that we know all too well. The artistic idealisations of commercial advertising may communicate something important about modern life. No wonder fundamentalists denounce them as decadent.
So it is that the most important feature of Dabiq is also its most glaring deficit. That feature is the montage itself. Instead of relying on particularly distinctive images, or an institutional style, or standard arrangements of story and images, Dabiq creates a swirling, encompassing cascade of images that is closer to video than it is to magazine journalism. One result is that at the end of the day it directly and repeatedly succeeds as a form of branding. More significantly, some readers also will have been brought into that world: a world where one can legally abandon one’s family, kill and loot with impunity, take women as sexual slaves, serve and obey unreservedly, die with honour, and be rewarded ever after, all on behalf of tribal liberation, global conquest, and God’s plan.
But to do that, you can’t see too much. The montage also becomes a metric of how much of the world is not part of Islamic State ideology. You see assassinations, terror attacks, and warriors praying, but you don’t see football games, traffic jams, voters lined up on election day, or just about everything else that is already part of our daily experience in the public media of the rest of the world.
That larger world is the one worth saving. Photography does its part not only through dramatic images that mobilise action, but also through the ongoing archive that every day reminds us of how much we have in common.