Islamist and Western Symbolism, part II
Islamist and Western Symbolism, part II

Part Two (for part I, click here)

The most potent symbols of radical Islam, often referred to as “Islamism” for its ideological use of concepts of outer-directed Jihad, restoration of a Caliphate, hatred of Jews, Christians, women’s and LGBTQ rights, imposition of Sharia law, and separatist enclaves in the Western host nations, revolve around violence and terrorism. The most potent symbol of all was the “9/11” attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

In their book Terrorism: Communication and Rhetorical Perspective, O'Hair et al. describe the choice of the World Trade Center towers as a target for the 9/11 attack: "The Twin towers of the WTC stood as the very image of globalization, capitalism, and Western economic superiority... their collapse both exposed and symbolized 'the vulnerability of governmental power (Juergensemeyer, 2001, pg. 32), and the fragile nature of the dominant cultural worldview."

There has been some work done on the interpretation of Islamist symbols. The Islamic Imagery Project is a report published in 2006 by the Combating Terrorism Center, a division of the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy. The forward to the report cites the powerful role “pictures, motifs, and images,” as well as the emotions they evoke, play in gaining a better understanding of the message and purpose of jihad terrorist groups. The preface explains that the authors intend to extend the study of imagery beyond the realm of art history, into modern symbols of violent jihadi groups, which they cite as the primary method these groups promote and reinforce their ideologies:

“Visual motifs accomplish several objectives for jihadi propagandists. First, they create a mental conception of reality for their audiences. The use of carefully edited images evokes existing emotional or historical memories, eliciting an emotional response that may be conscious or subconscious…. Secondly, they help the author, or propagandist, communicate a message, which is often a visual argument for something or against something. Texts and language, including imagery, provide interactive ways for jihadis to engage the ideology itself.”

Islamist face hiding, whether by ISIS terrorists or the Niqab of Islamist women, is important for its symbolic value.

In the book, Psychology of Terrorism, author Randy Borum argues that projecting an image of solidarity and power makes terrorist groups more attractive as social collectives, even if the person joining the group does not at the outset believe in its ideology. For a young man used to being marginalized, a sense of belonging is one of the motivating factors for joining a terrorist group. It was sad to see how many westerners joined the terrible ISIS. The symbol of solidarity and unity seems to prevail, even though these terrorist groups are far from socially cohesive, and voicing the wrong opinion might be enough to have your head chopped off.

Islamism, as Professor Salwa Ismael has pointed out in her Rethinking Islamist Politics, is itself characterized by a diversity of component groups. All, in my opinion, however, share certain symbols. The symbols constitute a great importance because of the common refusal of disparate groups of Muslims, (with a few brave exceptions) to speak out against violence and abuse of individual human rights as such rights are framed by classical liberalism.

Dawn Perlmutter is the Director and founder of Symbol & Ritual Intelligence and Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum and is considered one of the leading subject matter experts in the areas of symbols. In an important essay published in Frontpage Magazine on October 1, 2013, she describes the symbolism of extreme violence: “During the four-day siege in Kenya’s Westgate shopping Mall, al-Shabaab jihadists raped, tortured, beheaded, dismembered, castrated, gouged out eyes, amputated fingers and hung hostages on hooks from the roof.”

Moreover, On May 22, 2013 on the streets of London two jihadists used meat cleavers to publicly behead and disembowel a British soldier while shouting “Allahu Akbar”. Previously, on the symbolically important date of September 11, 2011 in Waltham, MA the suspects in the Boston Bombings and a Chechen friend are suspected of ritually murdering three men by slitting their throats from ear to ear with such force that they were nearly decapitated and of desecrating their mutilated corpses.

Later (some of us) watched on our nightly news as an Islamist rebel in Syria ripped out the heart of a government soldier and ate it. To those who turned it off in disgust, you missed an important symbol of Islamism’s contempt for its enemies.

Such savage violence is not just a type of psychological warfare. Perlmutter points out that “for Jihadists they are justifiable sacred acts against the enemies of Islam. They are ritual murders that are consistent with a growing global Jihadist method of operation”.

So what do these “ritual murders” symbolize? The military maxim of “knowing your enemy” would compel us to ask the question, even if few in the mainstream media want to discuss it. Perlmutter supplies the answers, as distasteful as they are:

She argues that “(t)o understand the significance of these violent ritualistic acts they have to be analyzed in the context of Islamist honor and shame. The primary motivations of Islamist atrocity is an irrepressible impulse to alleviate shame and a sacred duty to restore honor, serve vengeance, preserve purity, maintain tradition and save face. For Islamists honor is signified by stereotypical male characteristics such as courage, bravery, heroism, power, virility, and strength; dishonor is signified by stereotypical female characteristics such as weakness, vulnerability, helplessness and submissiveness.

“Islamists are in a constant struggle with fear of disgrace and maintaining manhood particularly those that are living in countries that they consider to be occupied or run by ‘un-Islamic regimes’. Emotions of weakness, Western feminists, who years ago would not stand for male directed modes of women’s dress, might want to rethink their view of burka-, niqab-, even hijab- covered Muslim women.
helplessness, shame are always just below the surface triggered by a hypersensitivity to any real or perceived act of humiliation.

She continues: “For Mujahideen mercy, compassion, sympathy and kindness symbolize weakness; cruelty, brutality, violence and atrocity symbolize strength. This explains incomprehensible cruel violent acts.  Jihadists want to evince their strength and alleviate feelings of shame. Through murder and mutilation these Islamist jihadists experience relief from a sense of humiliation.  Psychologically they equate their relief with violent atrocity. Symbolically blood cleanses their impurity. Culturally the violence is sanctioned and they are viewed as heroic. It becomes natural and moral to punish disrespect with torture, mutilation and ritual murder.  Strategically it sends a message that there is no mercy for infidel unbelievers.”

Moreover, when supposedly liberal elites in our universities, media and governmental organizations seek to restrict free speech out of some regard for the “feelings” of Islamists who themselves are totalitarian and illiberal, we are left with a world increasingly reliant on non-verbal symbols, instead of verbal argumentation. This also applies to the more extreme Islamist speech, perhaps not in the Universities, which seek to go out of their way to encourage Islamist hate speech (especially against the Jewish homeland of Israel), but in more moderate environments such as the Media, which lean over backwards, it seems, to embellish Islamic and Islamist symbols, without really understanding the symbols they are promoting.

A study of Islamist pronouncements and threats against the liberal democratic Jewish state of Israel makes clear two important facts:

Islamists see Israel, not as a normal country, but as a type of non-Muslim “cancer” to be expunged like a tumour, and as a representation of “colonialism”, that is a two-fold objectionable symbol;

Islamists who support Iran see an “Islamic nuclear bomb” as a symbol of equality between the unbeliever West and the Islamic world.

In my 2002 book, The Second Catastrophe: A Novel about a Book and its Autho(Mantua Books)I pointed out that in late 2001, then second in command Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani told the crowd at the traditional Friday prayers in Tehran:

"If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession, the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world".

Seventeen years later, the West still fails to understand that no amount of sanctions or diplomacy will persuade the Iranians to withdraw what for the Islamic world is not a policy but a symbol. We need to win the symbolism war and promote symbols of liberal freedom, justice, and responsibility. When we identify an Islamist symbol, we must attack that symbol, to show that our symbols of liberal democracy are more hardy than their symbols of Jihad.

And so Western feminists, who years ago would not stand for male directed modes of women’s dress, might want to rethink their view of burka-, niqab-, even hijab- covered Muslim women. They must understand that such clothing is not a positive symbol but a negative symbol of women’s subjugation and contempt for “loose” Western women and their “provocative” styles of dress.

In the final part of this essay, we shall examine how we must recognize the competing symbols in our present culture war, and how to turn that recognition into success in the culture war - between traditional western values based on the Judeo-Christian ethic and the new Leftist-Islamist-Globalist set of values and symbols.