A closed cage with five men in it slowly being lowered into the swimming pool of a luxury hotel. It is one of the scenes in the latest film by Islamic State, which recently went viral in Hollywood style.
The men in the film, all alleged spies, are briefly allowed to have their say before being savagely murdered: in an Opel car destroyed by a rocket launcher, drowned in the manner just mentioned, or beheaded through chain decapitation by a detonating cord. This film not only differs from earlier IS movies in the new horrors devised for killing their victims, it also differs in the fact that this time any kind of ideological justification appears to be missing. Previously, atrocities like the burning of the Jordanian pilot or the beheading of Egyptian Copts for instance were justified in terms of Sunnah (the behavior of the Prophet, which is to beimitated) – the victims’ failure to live their lives in accordance with it being considered ample justification – or they were simply justified with reference to the Sharia: an eye for an eye, a toothfor a tooth. Children burned in coalition bombings? IS burns the Jordanian pilot.
Christians in Egyptkilling a Christian who has converted to Islam? IS kills Christians in an ‘act of justified revenge.’One wonders, however, if the ‘water cage’ killing in this recent film by IS would also be justified in
terms of Sunnah. Or is it pointless to look for a religious justification and are we simply dealing with the sadistic pleasures of a group of degenerates from the IS “Atrocities Department”? The fact that the executions shown in IS-clips are so cruel and keep getting more and more cruel is not so surprising if we consider that human suffering is one of the favorite subjects in Western media and the film industry. Seen in that light, the IS atrocities can be said to serve a pragmatic purpose: the crueler the images, the greater the attention from the Western media. But this does not fully explain the phenomenon. Seeing this latest film, one cannot help but wonder why the IS executions are staged in such a way that they bear a striking resemblance to Hollywood
action movies: lame dialogues combined with horrific human suffering.
One possible answer can be found in the essay The Spirit of Terrorism (2002) by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, in which he explains the 9/11 attacks as being the result of the cultural dominance of the Western world. In his opinion, the basis of the resistance against this symbolic order lies in the threatening horizon of everybody being forced to live in a globalized world dominated by Western ideas. He believes that in a context like that the only way for dissidents to put up resistance is to fight this dominant power with its own weapons. Seen from this angle, it is no coincidence that the 9/11 hijackers should have chosen to strike at the very heart of the US financial and military establishment. It was the perfect way for the hijackers to deal the dominant order a severe blow and at the same time present to the world a terrorist spectacle that would strike fear into the hearts of people in the West for years to come.
IS is using the Hollywoodesque images with the same goal in mind: the pictures so familiar to us have become the means for IS to penetrate the Western symbolic order, and, what is worse, the Western mind as well. In a sense it makes them the superior incarnation of our own fiction, and their atrocities a critique of our hypocritical forms of entertainment, where human suffering is entertaining as long as it is not real. Following this line of reasoning, it is still possible to find an ideological justification for the atrocities shown in the latest movie. The ideology of IS mirrors the lines set out long ago allegedly by the Prophet himself: Strike at the infidels wherever possible and above all do so with their own means. Thus effectively justifying the use of deathly water-cages
This article was published on 2 July 2015 in the Dutch newspaper Trouw and does not stand on line.
Authors: Vino Avanesi, student of Cultural Studies and Jan Jaap de Ruiter, Arabist, both affiliated to
Tilburg University, the Netherlands.