“IS provides subconscious stimulation and affection” – Interview with Dr. Christoph Günther on IS

Andreas DoeringDr. Guenther, let us start with a personal question: How did you become an expert on religious conflicts in the Middle East?

I would not refer to myself as an expert on religious conflicts in the first place. I studied Middle Eastern Studies, History and Arabic in Germany and Egypt. Thus, my interests center on religious, political, economic and social developments in this particular region of the world. As a scholar who began his academic career post 9/11, I find that religious conflicts play a significant role in the way my discipline is framed in the public sphere because questions revolving around them frequently arise. This tendency, of course, also shapes the discipline itself to a significant extent. As far as my dissertation and master’s thesis are concerned, what drew my attention to the “Islamic State of Iraq” were the questions around its theological and political legitimization, as well as the practical implications on the ground of this state-building project.

You just published a very detailed book on IS, but so far available only in German. Can you give us a short overview of its content and central thesis? A dissertation in most cases has to answer a specific question. What were you asking yourself – and what is the answer?

I was asking myself how the Islamic State of Iraq legitimized its own establishment, and which measures it employed beyond violence to achieve its goals.

I conclude that, in order to draw a comprehensive picture of the group’s engagement in Iraq since 2003, it is necessary to see the group in the context of historical developments under Saddam Husayn’s rule (specifically, the revitalization of religious and tribal identities that he used as a means to stabilize his reign) as well as of changes in Iraq’s political and social fabric since 2003. In doing so, I proposed to widen the scope of scholarly attention beyond violence and terrorism. My focus was on understanding IS as a social movement that strives for acceptance as a state-like actor and uses the cultural memory of their audiences for its own purposes.

Would you agree that it is enormously important to look at IS like you did, ‘cold-heartedly’ and unimpressed by their cruelty – and not to not stigmatize them, that is, treat them like the mass media do?

This is a question I feel would be best answered by a social-psychologist , but from my perspective it seems necessary to neither underrate nor overrate the violent aspects of IS or other jihadist groups, and I hold violence as but one means employed by these groups to achieve their goals.

Mass media are highly interested not only in conflicts, but also in numbers. The crueler these videos are, the more people killed in them, the more resonance they have. It seems the mechanisms of mass media work in favor of IS.

This is certainly true and I have talked to several German journalists about this issue. They agreed that the question of whether or not, and to what extent, to give attention to and repeat IS publications in the media is highly controversial among editorial staff. However, they see an interest in doing so nevertheless.

Two of your texts have been published in English, Obey the emerging caliphate: The ideological framework of the “Islamic State” in Iraq and the Levant, and The land of the two rivers under the black banner: Visual communication of al-Qa῾ida in Iraq. Let us start with the latter. Your thesis is that the IS movement actually does a very good job of re-connecting its symbols and semantics to the religious tradition. Why do you think that is the case, and could you name one or two significant examples?

The group seems to thoroughly understand which audiences it wants to communicate to, and uses particular symbols and semantics that resonate well with the frameworks of experience and the cultural as well as personal memory of these audiences. The group wants to engage in a meaningful discourse, as Stuart Hall has put it, and therefore needs to employ symbols and semantics that can be both understood by its audiences and affect them in a way that suits its own purposes.

The most significant example to me is the black banner with the Islamic creed written on it. In all its simplicity, it echoes the most basic claims of Islam as a system of belief and world order. Furthermore, it underpins IS’s claims to represent the Prophet Muḥammad’s spiritual and physical heritage. It thereby serves as a symbolic transfer of the Prophet’s authority as a religious and political leader of the first Islamic State in Medina. By and large, this visual sign, notwithstanding – or precisely: because of – its simple graphical structure, is heavily charged with meaning and compels notions of prophetic succession, rebellion, unification as well as of revenge and annulment of dishonoring actions which have remained in the collective memory of Muslims. By connecting with the basic religious knowledge and cultural memory of its recipients, IS provides subconscious stimulation and affection. In doing so, it acts to provide grounds for the attribution of legitimacy, in thought and action, to the existence of an ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and beyond.

In one word: good design. Do you think these beheading  videos triggered US engagement in the region? Do you think the IS ‘misunderestimated’ their probable effects on the Western public?

I would not say that these videos triggered US re-engagement in the region in the first place because there are plenty of additional reasons at play for US policy, such as its commitment to the Middle East as a region of strategic interest on various levels. Nevertheless, these videos are crucial to the US rationale to justify its engagement in order to “degrade and destroy” IS.

This religious non-conformism presented by groups like IS seems to be very attractive to a lot of people from the so-called West – especially to young people. Would you agree that it’s not so much their religion but their non-conformism that is attractive to adolescents?

Again, a social-psychologist might best answer this question; but from my point of view I would suggest it is in most cases a blend of various aspects may attract people to IS or other social-revolutionary groups. Among these aspects, the group’s rhetorical and visual contestation of existing political systems, of foreign influence on the Middle East, and of ‘mainstream’ Muslim clerics might appeal to younger people. The so-called ‘crisis of meaning’ in the so-called West, vis-a-vis the meaning – theodicy if you like – promised or provided by IS’s version of Islam, could also be another pulling factor.

The reason why we ask this is because adolescents can also be seen as ‘symbolic emigrants’. 

I would not limit the applicability of the concept of ‘symbolic emigration’ to adolescents, and again would say that it is one possibility that younger people might feel already excluded in some manner and search for a meaning to their life. IS and other groups might be able to use these feelings and make promising pledges.

If we look at the US in the fifties, there was a significant stigmatization of rock’n’roll as – I quote Frank Sinatra – »the most brutal ugly, vicious form of expression«, »a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac«, »martial music of every delinquent on the face of the earth«. Sounds familiar?

From a theoretical point of view, derogatory or polemical terms have ever been used in a normative way to stigmatize particular individuals, groups or segments of society. The above-mentioned quotes sound familiar insofar as they reflect an attempt to normatively condemn a particular group in a specific time and culture – something that can also be observed in debates on Islamist ideas and beliefs in the public sphere.

It seems that the concept of non-conformism could also be used to analyze earlier terrorist groups like the German R.A.F., except that this movement legitimated itself through politics, not through religion. But they also refused to take part in parliamentary processes.

This is certainly true insofar as ‘non-conformism’, which is basically a relational concept, enables us to analyze conflicts around the acceptance or disavowal of certain norms and beliefs that are to be enforced by state authorities or other entities possessing the power to do so. Beyond that, comparing leftist social-revolutionary groups with jihadist movements, one can recognize several similarities on an ideological level, for instance the resistance against Western modernity and globalization, the refusal to partake in an electoral process of political participation, and the positioning of ‘good’ adherents and ‘bad’ enemies along dichotomous categories.

How does religion change the quality of these non-conformisms?

Religious norms, values, and beliefs may be used to transcend the above-mentioned conflicts, and to propose that any legislation not in accordance with these particular ideas is generally illegitimate.

How do you deal with the fact that you as a scientist belong to the world the new fundamentalist movements are fighting against? A secular, scientific and ‘superior’ world?

As a scholar, I have no stakes in any normative debate. Rather, I try to reflect on reality, which includes taking the subject of my study serious. This, at least to me, speaks against an attempt to ‘control’ something or demand the prerogative of reading reality; instead, it proposes particular ways of analyzing the world within a particular scope. However, it is unquestionable that I am personally influenced by the society I live in.

IS’s legitimation of violence makes use of religion – it appeals to Allah who allows all these killings. So can we say that from the perspective of the killers, they do the right thing, it is their religious duty? Or as you put it, that killing disbelievers becomes a kind of divine service?

Indeed, it is considered one of the things that need to be done in order to establish a divinely ordained order and thereby to fulfill mankind’s duties towards God.

You have showed that this religious non-conformism is not so much used against the so-called West, but against the enemy within – in the case of IS, mainly against Shiites. So is this only on the surface a conflict between East and West?

Indeed, it is a conflict that has more than one level, if you wish. Generally speaking, it is a conflict between people referring to themselves as a vanguard who feel obliged to enforce God’s commandments and the sunna of His prophet, and those who stand against their ideas, norms, and beliefs.

Why is this ‘close enemy’ so much more important for IS?

I would suggest that jihadist groups aim at groups of fellow Muslims – Sunni and Shia alike – because these groups understand what the jihadist’s ideology means and what its basis is. The targeted groups in question have the knowledge and skill to unmask the symbols and semantics jihadists employ to persuade their audiences. Military forces may have tactical relevance to IS, but in the long run the strategic commitment to an ideology is more decisive than military victories.

Do you think the distinction between East and West is fruitful or helpful for analysis, considering the globalized world we live in? 

Generally speaking, these cultural-geographical distinctions have never been fruitful if used as epistemological instruments, as they imply a homogeneity that in most cases does not meet reality.

Just like the word “Islam”. Thank you very much for this interview.

Interview: Arqam Khan & Markus Heidingsfelder, photo: Andreas Doering