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.
So how did the Post foreign desk manage to report this story, anyway? A key voice is Abu Hajer al Maghribi, who spent nearly a year as a cameraman for the Islamic State.
Abu Hajer, who is now in prison in Morocco, is among more than a dozen Islamic State defectors or members in several countries who provided detailed accounts to The Washington Post of their involvement in, or exposure to, the most potent propaganda machine ever assembled by a terrorist group.
What they described resembles a medieval reality show. Camera crews fan out across the caliphate every day, their ubiquitous presence distorting the events they purportedly document. Battle scenes and public beheadings are so scripted and staged that fighters and executioners often perform multiple takes and read their lines from cue cards.
Cameras, computers and other video equipment arrive in regular shipments from Turkey. They are delivered to a media division dominated by foreigners -- including at least one American, according to those interviewed -- whose production skills often stem from previous jobs they held at news channels or technology companies.
These information and image warriors are considered officers, with higher salaries and better cars than many other ISIS workers. They speed past security checkpoints with special passes that show how important they are to the cause. Their products and logos, at times, achieve corporate-level quality.
Meanwhile, tech pros in the West struggle to limit ISIS access to Twitter and Facebook, while the U.S. fights videos and words with limited, strategic bombing. Some tech giants -- makers of cameras and smartphones -- are not going to like the brand-name references to their products in this piece.
Using their Turkish WiFi, ISIS professionals often depict the caliphate as a peaceful and idyllic domain for true believers, in contrast to their other videos that are soaked in bloody and apocalyptic scenes of death. Inside the ISIS zone, the worst videos are often shown over and over on screens in public squares, for audiences of young men, women and children.
There are hints that all of this has something to do with efforts to efforts to spread the ISIS version of Islam, either through conversions or by the sword.
Some of the media professionals were less than enthusiastic, or so they told the Post, when it came time to make the infamous videos of captives being butchered, burned or shot. Why?
Abu Hajer said he had grave objections to what happened to the Syrian soldiers in the massacre that he filmed in the desert near Tabqa air base. But he acknowledged that his misgivings had more to do with how the soldiers were treated -- and whether that comported with Islamic law -- than any concern for their fates.
As the soldiers were stripped and marched into the desert, Abu Hajer said he filmed from the window of his car as an Egyptian assistant drove alongside the parade of condemned men.
“When the group stopped, I got out,” he said. “They were told to kneel down. Some soldiers got shot. Others were beheaded.” The video, still available online, shows multiple camera operators moving in and out of view as Islamic State operatives fire hundreds of rounds.
“It wasn’t the killing of soldiers that I was against,” Abu Hajer said. “They were Syrian soldiers, Nusairis,” he said, referring to the religious sect to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his closest supporters belong. “I thought they deserved to get shot.”
“What I didn’t like was that they were stripped to their underwear,” he said, an indignity that he considered an affront to Islamic law.
But the story shows that many of the men behind the cameras were, in the end, helping direct the very shows they were filming, including the executions. This can be seen in the editing, in the special effects and, yes, in the words spoken -- even if the Post declined to quote any of those words.
... A propaganda team presided over almost every detail. They brought a white board scrawled with Arabic script to serve as an off-camera cue card for the public official charged with reciting the condemned man’s alleged crimes. The hooded executioner raised and lowered his sword repeatedly so that crews could catch the blade from multiple angles.
The beheading took place only when the camera crew’s director said it was time to proceed.
As I said, this story is incomplete. But what made it onto the page is strong stuff.