ISIS - time bandits

There’s something gloriously demented about reports (apocryphal?) that ISIS have been issuing “passports” for their self-pronounced caliphate in the Middle East.

Their message? Tear up your phoney Syrian or Iraqi passport and get yourselves one of these new Islamic State passports, covered in high-quality black leather (“for the discerning jihadi”, as one online wag had it). Along with recent pronouncements about “marching on Rome” or UK jihadi stuff about flying the black flag of ISIS over Buckingham Palace, you get the impression that ISIS and their camp followers are out to milk their moment in the spotlight for all it’s worth.

Though it’s easy to ridicule I imagine they know their audience. When the ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani mocked the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki last month with a jibe about him being a “seller of underwear”, he presumably realised this (neo-macho?) put-down would get some international attention. And it came within a long statement packed with flowery militaristic rhetoric: “Do not relent against your enemy ... The battle is not yet raging, but it will rage in Baghdad and Karbala ... Put on your belts and get ready.” Many years ago I used to read a lot of political tracts from mid-seventeenth-century religious groups operating during the English Civil War. They had a similar way with doom-laden, millenarian rhetoric …

Skimming through Adnani’s statement at the time (just after ISIS’s capture of Mosul and Tikrit) I thought the language was quarter-decent poetry but blatant, intelligence-insulting nonsense. But again, I’m not the intended audience. As Anthony Loyd suggests in a piece in the New Statesman, there are certain kinds of disgruntled marginalised figures all over the world who are likely to find this kind of message appealing. While there’s a cartoonish, Chris Morris-type aspect to ISIS/Islamic State’s media campaign, it also goes without saying that we’re not talking about “Four Lions” jokers - many of these people are in deadly earnest.

In fact, even a satirist like Morris would have trouble finding humour in recent ISIS atrocities in northern Iraq or Syria. Reported mass killings, kidnappings of religious minorities, systematic house-to-house hunts for Shias, the torture of detainees and the summary killing of those found guilty in supposed “courts” - ISIS fighters (and their associated armed Sunni groups) are horribly serious about what they’re doing.

In all of this it’s an unfortunate reality that the hyper-extremism of ISIS (or in other contexts al-Qa’ida, or Boko Haram or Al Shabab) tends to grab and hold international attention while the plight of people on the receiving end (especially unarmed civilians) typically gains relatively little attention. Certainly their voices are much less prominent than those of self-proclaimed leaders like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, apparently shown in a new video picking up huge worldwide coverage. To try to redress the balance a little, Amnesty’s Donatella Rovera has been doing a valiant job giving voice to a few of the people in northern Iraq at the sharp end: those trapped between rampaging Sunni fighters on the one side, and vengeful government and proxy Shia militia forces on the other

But back to those shape-shifters ISIS. The other day someone in my office asked about the time difference between the UK and Iraq. Check online and you’ll see it’s two hours. But left to ISIS the time difference would be about two millennia. Or rather, they’re trying to take the region back to a mythical past that never existed in the first place. They remind me of the Year Zero fanatics of the Khmer Rouge. Erase the present. Start again. ISIS, you might say, are time bandits. Or at least ... definitely bandits.

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