ISIS: The Made-For-Modern-Media Gift That Keeps On Giving


Recently, 3AW Radio host Tom Elliot conducted a chilling interview with military commander of ISIS, Omar Shishani.

In it, Shishani tells Elliot that “anybody who makes problem[s]will get crucified”, as well as describing convicted terrorist Khaled Sharrouf, who recently caused outrage after posting a picture of his son holding a severed head, as a “lovely man”.

The interview was shocking; not only because of what was said, but especially because it confirmed all of our fears about savage terrorists.

Professor Greg Barton, international director of the Global Terrorism Research Centre, confirmed “the interview was consistent with the research his centre had done into the militant group”.

Last week’s SBS Insight program was also about terrorism, and I along with others invited on the show to speak, left disillusioned with the host’s insistence on engaging a very narrow, tired narrative.

Like Elliot, Insight host Jenny Brockie called upon a senior Muslim leader to discuss his views, in this case, spokesperson for the Australian National Imam’s Council (ANIC), Sheikh Mohamadu Nawaz.

Unsurprisingly, Sheikh Nawaz confirmed the dominant narrative pursued by Brockie, attributing the radicalisation of young Muslims to a lack of education or a misreading of Islam.

And again, in form, Professor Barton lent his expert position to assure everybody that “the vast majority of Australian Muslims respect Sheikh Mohamadu and agree with his position”.

It’s a story we’re no doubt familiar with by now. After all, we’ve been stubbornly repeating it ad nauseum for many years. It goes something like this: bad radical Muslims [Shishani] are intent on destroying the world, and particularly, western civilisation because of our superior values. Good moderate Muslims [Nawaz] represent the true, peaceful Islam, and the majority of Muslims, who are also peaceful, abhor the actions of this “vocal minority”, as Barton reminds us.

Comforting as this narrative is, it is filled with holes; holes in our story which correlate well with the holes in our psyche, as we find ourselves always bewildered by what precisely it is the terrorists want, and why they do the things that they do.

Why do they hate us?

Let me propose that we redirect the question to ourselves: why do we insist on not knowing?

Had he bothered to check, Tom Elliot would quickly have learned that he was taken for a fool. Omar Shishani does not even speak English. If he did, he certainly wouldn’t have the fluency and accent he did on the show, but rather broken English and heavy accent as seen here speaking his native tongue.

Likewise, had they cared to know, Insight producers would have been too embarrassed to introduce Sheikh Nawaz as the ANIC spokesperson, given he has been suspended from that role for some time now.

What does this say of our terror expert who confirmed both stories?

There is more at play here than mere oversight or lack of professionalism. When it comes to the topic of terrorism, we have invested in our own ignorance, in our not-knowing. In fact, the only thing we do know about terrorism is that we don’t know. And we’re keen on keeping it that way.

For this reason, it matters little that both Shishani and Nawaz were not who they claimed to be. What matters is that whoever was speaking was saying the right things, the things we’ve invested in hearing, and that our local terrorism expert was on hand in either case to confirm their narrative.

When people who are actually in a position to discuss our questions provide the answers we don’t like to hear, like my colleague and myself did on Insight, we create the person who will fulfil that role, a la Shishani and Nawaz, on 3AW and Insight.

The hard truth is that this is not about ISIS. ISIS is simply the footnote around which we weave our very own story. They are a passive actor in our story about them. This is about us; about the coming together of a cluster of our interests and the maintenance — at all costs — of a deliberate blindness upon which these privileges rely.

This is not a denial of the violence that ISIS commits. The point rather is to show how we’ve sown these facts together to tell a story that is as typical as it is convenient.

We believe in ISIS more than it believes in itself because we need them. We all benefit from ISIS in different ways, and their demise would cost us: governments could no longer maintain an indefinite state of emergency on the back of the terror threat; numerous organisations would lose counter-terror funding if the terror threat was reduced; aspiring politicians would have to find another fear to exploit; media personalities built around playing “good Muslim” would become redundant; shows would lose their audiences; terror experts would find their funding and career prospects diminished; and even young Muslims would have to forgo the false sense of resistance it provides.

Hence, we all gravitate around the protection of this fabricated story and hence the investment in keeping it almost secret; we give it just enough life to be exploited, but never enough to be understood, analysed, known, ultimately, dealt with.

More than anything, we benefit from our fantasy of ISIS because it helps us tell an ideal story of ourselves. ISIS becomes the quilting point through which we can fill any inconvenient holes from our narrative.

They help us turn away from our own culpability in this crisis, be it our direct involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan, or our blind support of “disputed” Israeli occupation.

The ISIS fantasy we’ve created helps us conceal, above all, that terrorism is not about insane, irrational, lunatic, uneducated unthinking beasts.

It’s about politics. And so is our discussion of it.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.