On ISIL, Arab TV and Post-Ideological Politics

Jamil states that the moral complexity of the evil terrorist is reduced to a caricature for the pleasure of international liberal audiences. (Photo: Al-Jazeera)

By Jamil Khader

Saudi-owned TV channel MBC finally caved in to the barrage of scathing criticism of its Ramadan series, Black Crows, pulling it off air after only 20 episodes.

MBC has marketed the Black Crows series as the stories of women who join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, known as ISIS) group for different reasons. These women (a former Egyptian belly dancer in search for her son, a Syrian refugee, an undercover journalist who happens to be Christian, a fugitive Saudi woman convict who bludgeoned her husband to death for cheating on her, and two Gulf women who are looking for marriage) soon realize the depth of the trap which they have fallen into and become disillusioned with ISIL after witnessing the horrors, savagery and inhumanity of its rule.

Critics have pointed out that the series trivializes the rise of the ISIL and the scope of its regional and global power. It is focusing instead on the sensational aspects of the private sphere, including sexual jihad (jihad al-nikah), personal intrigues and the power struggle between various ISIL members in its de facto capital city Raqqa in Syria, where the events of the series unfold. As such, critics contend that the series decontextualizes ISIL and offers no substantive treatment of its rise.

But the main problem with Black Crows goes beyond its superficiality. The series has fallen victim to the US-led post-ideological approach Arab countries are adopting in fighting terrorism and therefore toes the line of Western counter-terrorism ideas.

It is important here to note that MBC TV Director Ali Jaber participated in a meeting of the anti-ISIL coalition in Washington in March, where Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi were also in attendance. Jaber was scheduled to speak about “how to achieve victory” in the electronic fight against ISIL and its electronic jihad.

The series reflects the impasse and contradictions of post-ideological politics. Everyone is allegedly united in the fight against this terrorist pandemic, regardless of religious creed, political persuasion, or ideological conviction. But ideology and politics happened to be at the very heart of the problem.

Moral relativism

Thematically, as expected, Black Crows renounces terrorism and repackages Islamic teachings in the language of tolerance, love, and peace. But the counter-terrorism aesthetics of the series is undercut by its inability to distance itself from the language of ISIL’s political theology.

ISIL leaders and militants’ basic theological beliefs about the main tenets of Islam are not really challenged throughout the series. Even characters who become disillusioned with ISIL are not heard condemning its ideology and instead remain silent.

In an interview with NPR, Ali Jaber hints at the difficulty of representation of ISIL in the series: “We are fighting against a very formidable enemy because it is using the words of God”. He also adds that “ISIS did not come out from emptiness,” adding, “It came out from some of the wrong religious teachings that have been going on in our societies for a very long time.”

The most the series could do was try to renounce terrorism and preach that ISIL does not represent the true Islamic faith.

But even the condemnation of extremism in the series does not rest on solid ground. The series often reframes savage terrorist practices within a paradigm of moral relativism and shows the terrorist ISIL fighter in his humanity and suffering. In the larger context of the moral and discursive ambiguity of the series, however, these techniques can muddy matters even more and undermine the demonisation of ISIL as an evil terrorist organization.

For example, the handsome emir of the ISIL cell in Raqqa is presented as both a sociopathic monster and a compassionate, charismatic, romantic man, who is a victim of family psychodrama. In one scene, the emir is seen cuddling with his lover Malika, who offers to help him in his rule over the cell. The emir answers in the negative, saying that “if you wish to help me, let me feel that I’m a human being,” adding, “Outside this room, I’m not a human being; I am a monster, I do horrible things, horrible”.

The moral complexity and humanity of the evil terrorist is reduced to a caricature for the pleasure of international liberal audiences, for whom the series provided English subtitles.

Ignoring Palestine

The impasse of post-ideological politics is also seen in the series’ attempt to condemn ISIL’s position on Palestine. In one of their communiques, ISIL states that jihad in Palestine, is just one dimension of world jihad, rejecting the idea that it should “take precedence over jihad elsewhere”.

Likewise, in one episode of the series, fresh ISIL recruit Khalid responds to a question about the position of ISIL on Israel, saying “we should start with those among us, until we rebuild the degenerate Arab countries … we should purge our countries from lewd, liberals, and secularists.” Thus exposing the hypocrisy of ISIL on the Palestine issue, the series manages to completely ignore the parallels between the abandonment of Palestine in ISIL’s ideology and the recent normalization efforts of many Arab countries with the Israeli regime.

In other words, the approach of ISIL in the series merely mirrors the position and policy of Arab states have had towards Palestine for years now. They cannot condemn one, while maintaining silence on the other.

The problem here is that the series over-identifies with the state power in the Arab world and the US-led global war on terror, presenting an undercover Syrian military officer as one of the major figures of resistance against ISIL in the program. ISIL will not perish until repressive authoritarian Arab states, some of which have colluded with ISIL in the first place, are reformed. And stability will not come to the Middle East until the Palestinian issue is resolved.

(This article was originally published in Al Jazeera)

 – Jamil Khader is professor of English and dean of research at Bethlehem University, Palestine.

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