The war we’re not fighting against ISIS

'ISIS's main English-language magazine, Dabiq, is a masterpiece of slickly produced, professionally written propaganda of the purest sort.' Illustration: Christian Adams

To defeat ISIS, we need something more than a military strategy. A large part of the terrorists’ success lies in their skill at propaganda.

ISIS propaganda aids in its successes by doing at least two things: the first, however improbable it may seem, is that it convinces some credulous people to believe that they must join ISIS to wage war against a Western world that has supposedly been on a “crusade” against Islam since its foundation in the 7th century. Thus ISIS manages the neat trick of appearing to play defence, and in so doing achieves a second success: exploiting both massive Western ignorance of our own history and Christian guilt about the bloodier parts of the same to achieve a sense of justification for its atrocities. ISIS is always the victim; the West always the aggressor.

ISIS’s main English-language magazine, Dabiq, is a masterpiece of slickly produced, professionally written propaganda of the purest sort – as is a newer and shorter magazine, Rumiyah. Reading these publications, one comes across myths about Christian history, culture and theology. Demolishing these is one crucial task on which governments and the Church can collaborate.

I remember watching the first ISIS video to garner mass attention, of a Jordanian air force pilot captured by ISIS before being displayed in a cage and then set on fire. The video justified this slaughter by calling the Muslim pilot and his Muslim country “Crusaders”. Since then, this language of the Crusades (and cognate phrases) has become absolutely rampant. Every issue of Dabiq carries scores, sometimes hundreds, of justificatory references to the Crusades in a few dozen pages. The Crusades and “Crusader armies” are standard shorthand in ISIS propaganda for not just historic European powers such as England or France, but for all governments, including those that did not exist at the time of the Crusades. The term includes, most strikingly, other Muslim governments not sufficiently in accord with the ideological vision of ISIS.

Accusing Japan or Jordan, or the United States or Russia, of being Crusaders in the historical sense is anachronistic, and ISIS surely know this. They are not really interested in the historical Crusades, because Muslim historians, ancient and modern, have never been seriously interested in or perturbed by the original Crusades. No history of the Crusades in Arabic was even written until 1865, and that was by a Christian author. Indeed, no specific term in Arabic for the Crusades was even coined until the same time, also by Arab Christians.

What, then, are ISIS doing with these hundreds of references? In analysing this propaganda, I realised that we were and are in the realm of what the psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan has aptly called “chosen trauma”, or what his fellow psychoanalyst Charles Strozier has referred to as “constructed humiliation”. In other words, ISIS chooses to use the Crusades as a cipher focused on the politics of the Middle East, going back to the wars of 1991 and 2003 – conflicts which ISIS (not entirely unreasonably) sees as being “crusades” of a new sort to impose Western ideology and democracy.

This becomes abundantly clear in reading a recent edition of Dabiq entitled “Break the Cross”. This issue features articles attacking the Coptic Pope, Tawadros II, and other Oriental Orthodox leaders. It also features, to date, the longest and most aggressive attack on Pope Francis and the Catholic Church.

What do they hate about him and us? The answer is at once simple and complex, at once theological and cultural. On the theological level, they despise the core doctrines of Christianity tout simplement. Yet, in a surprisingly counter-intuitive way, ISIS hates Pope Francis because it perceives him as theologically wishy-washy, whereas they grudgingly respect Benedict XVI precisely for his strong and blunt talk at Regensburg.

On the cultural plane, they see Christianity as bound up with all the West’s errors, past and present, from the French Revolution onward: liberalism, secularism, atheism, feminism, homosexuality and modern psychology. All Western governments are on a “crusade” to impose these ideologies on everybody. (ISIS and other Muslims are not the only ones to believe this: as a recent Pew Survey revealed, most Orthodox Christians in eastern and southern Europe believe something very similar, except they look to Russia, not ISIS, as their saviour.)

ISIS hates Christians because “they claim to be monotheistic and … yet they attribute to Him a mother, a son, a partner, and the Trinity, [and] believe He is unable to forgive mankind for their ‘original sin’ except by having one of His most beloved men unjustly bear their burdens and be crucified on their behalf.”

They further despise Christianity because they allege that it has distorted divine revelation, including the “text of the modern Bible [which] is not the actual words and exact teachings of the original prophets like Moses and Jesus”. The biblical text, they claim, was distorted to make Jesus appear divine and the doctrine of the Trinity plausible.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as a cartoonish rendering of Christian theology and history, a grotesque unworthy of a response from us. But that would be a mistake because these claims are lethally effective as propaganda today, inspiring people to join ISIS, or else to launch attacks across Europe and the United States, including the massacre in Orlando, a year ago this month. The attacker there, Omar Mateen, openly admitted to being directly inspired by ISIS propaganda.

We have a moral responsibility to counter ISIS propaganda. I propose that we do so in at least three ways.

First, every time ISIS justifies an attack by referring to the Crusades as neo-colonial or proto-imperial Western offensive warfare – seeking psychological humiliation, political domination, economic exploitation or the overall destruction of Islam – Western governments should push back.

Our leaders, especially Catholics, should point out that reputable scholarship (from such as Jonathan Riley-Smith, Thomas Madden, Rodney Stark and others) has clearly shown that the Crusades were defensive. They were also personal acts of penance and humiliation for the Crusaders themselves as sinners; spiritual acts of penitents seeking to dominate their own inner sinful tendencies; economic disasters for the Crusaders, who returned impoverished (if at all); and “ecumenical” endeavours to ensure the survival of Eastern Christianity, rather than the destruction of Islam.

Second, every time ISIS condemns liberalism or feminism, democracy or psychology, the Church should make it clear that she herself has resisted, and still resists, the errors and excesses of each of these movements, while also recognising their limited virtues.

Additionally, the Church needs to respond to the other regular (and, in my view, justified) criticism of ISIS about the invasion of Muslim lands and the killing of Muslims by noting that Pope John Paul II condemned both the 1991 and 2003 wars as unjust, knowing that they would lead, as they have, to mass slaughter of Christians and Muslims alike.

Finally, the Church needs a third form of counter-propaganda led by her theologians who have an in-depth understanding of 4th-century debates around the Trinity (which Dabiq describes with surprising sophistication and detailed knowledge of difficult terminology and abstruse personages). These theologians must have the skills necessary to debunk ISIS claims that Trinitarian theology is just a disguised form of what it repeatedly savages as polytheistic paganism.

Would any of this work? Would it have an effect? It is impossible to say in the abstract before any of it is tried. But it behoves us, not only for our own self-defence, but perhaps especially for our self-respect, not to allow Catholic (and more generally Western) intellectual history to be so tendentiously traduced by terrorists while Catholics either make no reply, or proffer one so pitiful in its tepidity and fatuity that it only invites more, and greater, attacks.

The very word “propaganda” entered common English usage thanks to the Catholic Church in the 17th century. Let us reclaim it with a vengeance.

Dr Adam DeVille is a professor at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana

This article first appeared in the June 16 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here