North Africa, West Asia

Why we can’t trust current analysis of the Islamic State

The rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has taken everyone in the west by surprise, resulting in a frenzy of speculation as we try to piece together a number of complicated factors and events. We first have to recognise how our understanding is shaped by a sensationalist, alarmist and sound-bite obsessed media.

Richard McNeil Willson
11 September 2014

Tails of mass murder, rape and religious repression emanate near-daily from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Yet, as the clamour grows about the existential threat that this entity poses to liberal democracies in the west, it’s worth taking a bit of time to reflect on the analysis that is currently being offered. This informs our discussions, public opinions and - ultimately - national policy. Yet it’s possible to discern significant shortcomings with contemporary analysis throughout mainstream media, including a lack of primary data, a reliance on unreliable information and poor levels of analysis, reaching some questionable conclusions. 

Firstly, when it comes to the Islamic State, we are faced with a startling lack of primary data. This is understandable - the majority of analysts simply don’t know how to access primary data from the dangerous confrontations within what is an ever-evolving situation. The impact of this, however, is an over-reliance on a number of other, problematic, forms of data, such as media reports and social media. 

A lot has been made of the potential for social media to fill the gap in data gathering, particularly with the greater social media presence of Islamic State fighters. But such output is highly difficult to interpret. There is no means of verifying the majority of claims that appear on social media, meanings are often unclear and - as anyone with experience of social media will know - our online activity neither represents a complete nor an accurate account of our motivations. Rather, it functions as a means of presenting an idealised, often more confrontational vision of ourselves (who hasn’t got into an unnecessary and unavoidable argument on twitter or facebook over something entirely trivial?).

This reliance by analysts on social media has led to problematic conclusions about the role of social media in ‘radicalising’ individuals, with social media cited as a leading cause of vulnerable individuals turning towards violence. As such, ISIS videos and accounts have been removed and blocked, and online activity has become increasingly monitored for signs of potential support. This fails to deal with some of the key reasons why ISIS has so much support. It focuses on symptoms rather than tackling the causes, ignoring legitimate grievances that have caused widespread alienation among some young Muslims and others throughout the world: growing levels of global inequality; disastrous western foreign policy in the Middle East; and a raft of neoliberal international policies that support military responses and seem to value western lives considerably more than those of the rest of the world.

The second problem with current analysis is that, because the rise of the Islamic State was so sudden and unexpected, we are left reliant on a number of dodgy analyses from a limited pool of researchers, often with questionable experience: masters students from King’s College, hobbyists, journalists or researchers from defence think-tanks. Professor Michael Howard’s stinging critique of terrorism studies is worth recalling here, in which he describes the field as ‘attracting phoneys and amateurs as a candle attracts moths’.

Islamic State researchers generally approach this field from a highly ‘securitised’ standpoint - they begin by seeing the Islamic State as a threat to the west and seek to develop a military response. Their conclusions, therefore, are based on means of getting rid of them, not understanding them. Schmid and Jongman, in their 1988 critical analysis of terrorism research, state that such researchers often conceptualise themselves as ‘firefighters’, fighting the terrorist fire, the result being that research is largely driven by policy concerns and limited to military and government agendas. 

This approach is problematic, not because the Islamic State is something that should be applauded, but because by focusing on how to eliminate them, analysts fail in the more important task of understanding them. As such, current analysis is not only obscuring the raft of localised and international factors that led to the rise of the Islamic State, but they are creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. Any analysis of movements such as feminism, anarchism or eco-activism which began from the point of view that they were dangerous threats that needed to be stopped, would also result in a deficient, biased analysis and - most likely - conclude with a practical plan for how to stamp them out which would bypass any in-depth, reflective understanding of the cultural, social and political reasons that such movements came about. As such, researchers are more likely to understand the Islamic State not by becoming ‘firefighters’ but as ‘students of combustion’.

Finally, the raison d’etre of the media, we must remember, is not to inform or educate us, but rather to encourage us to buy papers, advertise on their pages, and click on their websites. The media may well be overplaying the threat that we face from terrorism, since they can only benefit from larger audiences, increased sales and associated revenues from their coverage of threats and attacks. Lippmann’s (1922) critical statement on media still rings true today: that ‘without standardisation, without stereotypes, without routine judgements, without a fairly ruthless disregard of subtlety, the editor would soon die of excitement’.

Current analyses of the Islamic State focus on turning complicated, nuanced factors into short, easily digestible analyses that catch the reader’s attention through alarmist language.

By critically evaluating our own understanding, we might ensure that we won’t play into the hands of ISIS by creating a militarised narrative of ‘us’ against ‘them’. We need to constantly question the analysis we are given about the threat from, and the response to, the Islamic State. Doing so can only lead towards a more informed debate, a more diverse understanding and - ultimately - better foreign policies based on a more accurate reading of the situation.

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