"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, December 26, 2016

Understanding ISIS

The historian and psychoanalyst Charles Strozier (editor of a collection discussed here) recommended to me a new book by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror (Ecco, 2015), 432pp., released a year ago now.

I read it through in a sitting. It is very much written in a "journalistic" style. Thus, while dealing with heavy content, the style allows for a rapid reading. It is useful in tracing out the links between Al-Qaeda and ISIS, including the deadly rivalry that developed between them. It also lays bare some of the mistakes in the 2003 Iraq war and post-war strategy that only fueled the rise of ISIS. Finally, it contains some sensible though by no means earth-shattering suggestions on how to respond to ISIS.

It is curious to me, however, that in calling for greater Western efforts to counteract ISIS propaganda, whose history the authors subject to a wide-ranging, careful, and fascinating analysis, they acknowledge dealing with both the contents and the methods of ISIS propaganda, but are shy about discussing the former in any detail at all. And yet to read that propaganda is at once to be confronted with a ceaseless (and, of course, tendentious) barrage of references to "the Crusades" and the "Crusader" powers of modern Western governments. The authors avoid even mentioning this, let along getting into any detailed discussion of it.

Their silence is most curious. Is it because they assume that the Crusades are an unanswerable blight on Western history, an example of gratuitous proto-colonialism and proto-imperialistic violence, as almost everyone (entirely falsely) assumes today? Or do they, rather, recognize that the history of the Crusades is too complex for them to entertain, an area outside their competence?

In any event, it remains obvious to me that this part of ISIS propaganda remains in need of careful treatment. In a context of increasing chatter about "fake news" and its ability to sway events--elections and otherwise--this is Exhibit A of fake news now, in some cases, over a hundred years old. 

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