This summer, when advances by the Islamic State (IS) through northwestern Iraq were beginning to earn the extremist Sunni group unprecedented notoriety, a large number of social media users switched their profile pictures to the Arabic letter nuun, for Nasrani (Nazarene, that is, Christian), in an echo of the symbol scrawled by IS fighters on the doors of Christian families in the cities they capture. IS supporters adopted the black flag of Islamic conquest, featuring the stamp of the Prophet Muhammad and the statement “There is no God but Allah.”
Those posting the nuun did so in solidarity with the region’s oppressed religious minorities; those rocking the caliphate’s black banner were applauding the Islamic State’s swift expansion. The IS did not ask people to change their profiles, but the fact that they did tells us a lot about the group’s tech savvy: By exploiting the tendency of social networks to polarize users’ opinions around an issue, the group was taking advantage of social media in the same way it has used online networks to expand its presence.
This has helped the IS present itself as an alternative to a modern Western democracy, and the picture that has thus far emerged can be described as an Islamic utopia. Much like Israel for Jews, it is an expanding frontier land. It is theoretically accessible to every Muslim, but in practice, non-Sunnis are unwelcome and all entrants screened for their affiliations.
The original caliphate project began with four caliphs who led the fledgling Muslim society of Yathrib for 29 years after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. Though three of those four rulers were assassinated, orthodox Muslims look at that period as a golden age of optimism, innocence and military success. Up until the 20th century, caliphates were used by different political dynasties to legitimize themselves. The last caliphate expired in 1923, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk ended the Ottoman Empire.
A new iteration of the caliphate emerged for the 21st century, spurred on by factors such as a long period of regional global economic and social unrest, a burgeoning population faced with dwindling resources, and the interconnectedness fostered by technology. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, thousands of the same disgruntled young men who took to the squares to protest dictatorial regimes grew disappointed by the lack of social progress. They traveled to Syria, where they fought the regime of Bashar al-Assad in largely Sunni Islamist-oriented groups. They were soon joined by Muslims from the West: a mix of second- and third-generation immigrants from Muslim countries rediscovering their religious identity and Western and African converts looking for adventure.
What allows this neocaliphate to retain its narrow, exclusive, almost gated quality is a phenomenon known as flocking, which contributes to the formation of online ideological ghettos. According to Internet researchers such as Eli Pariser and Nicholas Christakis, shared interests bring large numbers of individuals together, first online and then in the physical world, to work toward a common goal. Legal scholar and former Barack Obama administration official Cass Sunstein has argued that self-selected online isolation can fragment society, with liberals and conservatives growing more convinced of and less likely to compromise on their respective political views.
It is a kind of self-selection that can yield spectacular results. It has allowed scientists, for example, to unite and fast-track their research.
But those caught in these echo chambers tend to grow more homogeneous in their views and become less capable of embracing diverse realities or defending their positions to a critical audience. The IS, a militant organization aiming for a world order based on strict adherence to an extreme variant of Islam, is the very definition of a mutated self-selecting group. While its goals and methods isolate it as a particularly toxic example of single-minded thinking gone awry, it is a linear consequence of online flocking.
The Islamic State’s militancy shouldn’t blind us to its structural similarities to packs of wealthy retirees fleeing to retirement communities or hippies organizing in off-the-grid communes.
This is a foreseeable but unanticipated result of our version of technological modernity: Before the Internet gave ordinary people a powerful tool to connect to one another, the individuals flocking to the IS would have likely been drowned out in the noise of their societies’ multiplicity. But social networks enable loners to be socialized and like-minded individuals to insulate themselves in exclusive mutual communication, allowing them to self-select, amass and then exert disproportionate influence.
Lack of progress
In its exploitation of online networks, the IS broke with the advice of more traditional jihadi organizations such as Al-Qaeda, which prefers obscurity, and managed to secure territory. Even when the IS was struggling to capture land, it showcased what appeared to be a tangible caliphate on social media.
In videos such as “Eid Greetings From the Land of Khilafah” and “The End of Sykes-Picot,” native-English-speaking jihadi presenters enjoin like-minded Muslims to abandon their lives in the West and join them in the caliphate. The camera pans across captured enemy facilities, pokes into captured military bases and an IS prison and shows off military and human booty.
Memorably, the young presenter insouciantly hops across an annulled international border in the kind of liberating act that a generation raised on the possibilities of the Internet thinks nothing of. Failing not to sound like real-estate agents, the jihadis call on “brothers” to join them in “Khilafa,” holding out the promise of getting in at the ground floor of a new society under construction, as if this exclusive residence might facilitate spiritual preparation for the afterlife. As Robert Kaplan wrote, “We are back to a medieval world of theater, in which the audience is global.”
So far, the IS has succeeded in drawing the U.S. back into Iraq, reinforcing the narrative of Muslim oppression at the hands of a Western power. It has also baited the State Department into employing gruesome footage of crucifixions and killings in a propaganda video intended to dissuade potential recruits from joining.
Even if the IS is eventually eliminated, its organizational model is one that our current technology is increasingly pushing us toward: an archipelago of disconnected, interest-driven communes, many of them featuring privatized services. And even though the Islamic State’s stated intention is to destroy the West, it is the West’s technology that’s making its actions possible. As French sociologist Jean Baudrillard wrote in “The Spirit of Terrorism,” we are looking at “a new form of action which plays the game and lays hold of the rules of the game, solely with the aim of disrupting it.”
In a final dismissal of the naive Arab Spring media chorus that Western-developed social media would usher in a final Westernization, the IS plucks from a palette of tools — Facebook, infographics, executions, whatever seems most effective. Ragged black banners and beheadings straight out of “Game of Thrones” nightmares compete with slick social media messages, corporate-style annual reports and targeted resource takeovers, including oil pipelines, natural gas fields, wheat silos and dams. As such, the IS is just as much a product of digital echo chambers as it is the result of medievalism.
And yet this horrific militancy should not blind us to the group’s structural similarities to packs of wealthy retirees fleeing to exclusive retirement communities or hippies organizing in off-the-grid agricultural communes. Its model of enclavism allows groups to explore the more radical conclusions of their shared ideology and work toward a preferable future. All groups share among themselves self-reinforcing and self-validating narratives that open them to the risk of casting themselves down “rabbit holes of special interests until we’re lost in the queen’s garden, cursing everyone above ground,” as Mat Honen put it for Wired.
Disaffection and perceived social injustice push individuals to leave their countries and travel far in search of an elusive Islamic utopia populated by Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslim brothers from every race, where Sharia is applied and the soldiers of Islam strive to expand the caliphate’s border.
In that sense, the Islamic State’s wild-eyed literalists aren’t entirely unlike the anti-conventionalist social misfits who abandoned Europe’s rigid feudal systems in droves in the 17th century to create an alternative society in the New World. Both envision a dream society, and both are willing to use force to achieve it.