I was about halfway through the latest Washington Post news feature on life inside the Islamic State -- "Inside the surreal world of the Islamic State’s propaganda machine" -- when something hit me.
The Post team had produced a fascinating and haunting piece about the ISIS teams that crank out its propaganda, while focusing only on the hellish or heavenly images in the videos. Apparently the words that define the messages contained in all of this social-media material are completely irrelevant.
This is rather strange, considering the meaning of the word "propaganda," as defined in your typical online dictionary:
prop·a·gan·da ... noun
1. derogatory information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.
After 20-plus years of teaching mass communications and journalism, trust me when I say that I know that we live in a visual, emotional age. The Post article does a great job of describing the care given to the images and the music that are helping define the Islamic State for both its converts and enemies.
But are the words that define the visual symbols completely irrelevant? Why ignore what the voices and texts are saying about the goals and teachings of the caliphate?
I can only think of one reason: Quoting the content of the propaganda would require the reporters and editors at the Post to deal with the twisted, radicalized version of Islam that ISIS leaders are promoting, it would mean dealing with the content of the state's theology (as opposed to its political ideology, alone). Ignore the words and you can continue to ignore the religion element in this story.
OK, that's my main point. I also want to stress that this is a must-read story, even with this massive Allah-shaped hole in its content.