Ever since the Pentagon started talking about Isis as apocalyptic, I’ve suspected that websites and blogs and YouTube are taking over from reality. I’m even wondering whether “Isis” – or Islamic State or Isil, here we go again – isn’t more real on the internet than it is on the ground. Not, of course, for the Kurds of Kobani or the Yazidis or the beheaded victims of this weird caliphate. But isn’t it time we woke up to the fact that internet addiction in politics and war is even more dangerous than hard drugs?
Over and over, we have the evidence that it is not Isis that “radicalises” Muslims before they head off to Syria – and how I wish David Cameron would stop using that word – but the internet. The belief, the absolute conviction that the screen contains truth – that the “message” really is the ultimate verity – has still not been fully recognised for what it is; an extraordinary lapse in our critical consciousness that exposes us to the rawest of emotions – both total love and total hatred – without the means to correct this imbalance. The “virtual” has dropped out of “virtual reality”.
At its most basic, you have only to read the viciousness of internet chatrooms. Major newspapers – hopelessly late – have only now started to realise that chatrooms are not a new technical version of “Letters to the Editor” but a dangerous forum for people to let loose their most-disturbing characteristics. Thus a major political shift in the Middle East, transferred to the internet, takes on cataclysmic proportions. Our leaders not only can be transfixed themselves – the chairman of the US House Committee on Homeland Security, for example, last week brandishing a printed version of Dabiq, the Isis online magazine – but can use the same means to terrify us.
Stripped of any critical faultline, we are cowed into silence by the “barbarity” of Isis, the “evil” of Isis which has – in the truly infantile words of the Australian Prime Minister – “declared war on the world”. The television news strip across the bottom of the screen now supplies a ripple of these expressions, leaving out grammar and, all too often, verbs. We have grown so used to the narrative whereby a Muslim is “radicalised” by a preacher at a mosque, and then sets off on jihad, that we do not realise that the laptop is playing this role.
In Lebanon, for example, there is some evidence that pictures on YouTube have just as much influence upon Muslims who suddenly decide to travel to Syria and Iraq as do Sunni preachers. Photographs of Sunni Muslim victims – or of the “execution” of their supposedly apostate enemies – have a powerful impact out of all proportion to words on their own.
Martin Pradel, a French lawyer for returning and now-imprisoned jihadists, last week described how his clients spent hours on the internet with a preference for YouTube and other social networks, looking at images and messages marketed by Isis. They did not – please note – go to mosques, and they drew apart from family and friends. A remarkable AFP report tells of a 15-year-old girl from Avignon who left for the Syrian war last January without telling her parents. Her brother discovered she led parallel lives, with two Facebook accounts, one where she talked about her normal teenage life, another where she wrote about her desire to go “to Aleppo to help our Syrian brothers and sisters”. Mr Pradel said the “radicalisation” was very quick, in one case within a month. It reminds me horribly of the accounts of American teenagers who lock themselves on to the internet for hours before storming off to shoot their school colleagues and teachers.
Online, Dabiq – named after a Syrian town captured by the jihadis which will supposedly be the site of a future and apocalyptic (yes, that word again) battle against the Western crusaders – is a slick venture. But print it up and bind it – I have such a copy beside me as I write – and it appears very crude. There are photographs of mass executions which look more like pictures of atrocities on the Eastern Front in the Second World War than publicity for a new Muslim caliphate. There is the full text of poor James Foley’s last message before his beheading which – on paper – is deeply saddening.
“The Dabiq team [sic] would like to hear back from its readers,” the editors say at the end, providing email addresses and advice to be “brief” because – they add, with perhaps unintentional humour – “your brothers are busy with many responsibilities and therefore will not have the time to read long messages.”
But that’s the point, isn’t it? Be brief. Keep the length down. No aimless arguments or the letter may be “modified” (that’s the word the editors actually use in English).
I will not dwell here on the failure of the West’s “mainstream” press – another word I loathe – in defining Isis; Dabiq’s publishers have cleverly mimicked many of its faults. But those who are gripped by the messages of the internet – pictures of the chemical gas victims in Damascus last year have clearly had a tremendous influence – are not going to be swayed by us journos any more. In this new world, we can lose our heads, literally. But remember the internet. Clearly, Isis has.
Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.