Looking at a photograph of old archaeologist Khaled al Asaad’s headless corpse tied to a lamp-post in Palmyra – another image for the library of pornography that the self-styled Islamic State (IS) produces weekly – I was struck by how deeply the “Islamic Caliphate” has stabbed the world of journalism.
(Khaled Asaad, an 82-year-old Syrian archaeologist, was beheaded by IS in Palmyra last week).
I’m not just talking about the reporters it has murdered or of poor John Cantlie, whose videos from inside “Caliphate territory” is a “Thousand and One Nights” saga of Scherezade-style stories, each allowing him another day of life.
(John Cantlie, a 45-year-old British photographer, was kidnapped in Syria in Nov 2012 and remains a hostage to date).
In fact, Cantlie’s furious objections to the US and UK governments’ refusal to talk to IS to save the lives of hostages are valid, not least when the Americans can release Taliban prisoners in exchange for one of their own.
No. I’m talking of the insidious, dramatic yet almost unnoticed way in which IS and its propagandists in the Caliphate’s movie business – and in its house magazine Dabiq – have invalidated and in many ways erased one of the prime duties of journalism: to tell “the other side of the story”.
Since the Second World War, journalists have generally tried to explain the “why” as well as the “who” behind the story. If they failed after 9/11 – when the political reasons behind this crime against humanity would have necessitated an examination of US Middle East policy and the West’s support for Israel and Arab dictators – we’ve sometimes held our ground when it comes to “terror”.
Every time we (journalists) hear the Palestinians described as “terrorists”, we try to explain to readers and viewers that the Palestinian people are victims of a great “ethnic cleansing”, which depopulated 750,000 of their people – and thus their hundreds of thousands of descendants – at the hands of the new Israeli state.
Reporting on the Marxist Kurdish PKK forces in Turkey, all of whom are “terrorists” in the eyes of Ankara, there’s an obligation to report on the failure of the West to create a Kurdish state after the First World War, and on the 40,000 dead in Turkey’s hopeless war with its own Kurds over the past 31 years. Report that Saddam was called Hitler by George Bush, by all means, but also ask why the US supported the very same Saddam in the Iraq-Iran war.
The self-styled Islamic State has changed all this. The Express has exhausted its dictionary of revulsion on IS. “Bloodthirsty”, “sick”, “twisted”, “depraved”, “sadistic”, “vile” – we can only hope that nothing more horrible emerges to further test the paper’s eloquence.
The IS – in videos and online – proudly publishes its throat-cuttings and massacres. It revels in the mass shooting of prisoners, videotapes a pilot burning alive in a cage and prisoners tied in a car which is used as target practice for a rocket-propelled grenade. It depicts captives having their heads blown off with explosives or trapped in another cage while being slowly drowned in a swimming pool.
The IS is turning to the world of journalism and saying: “We’re not bloodthirsty, sick and depraved, we’re worse than that!”
How can journalists write with anything less than personal horror when Dabiq, the IS-run magazine, announces that “after capture, the Yazidi women and children were divided up according to the Shariah [law] among the fighters of the Islamic State… this large scale enslavement of… families is probably the first since the abandonment of Shariah law”. (Issue No 4, Islamic Year 1435, if anyone wants to check).
The same magazine even uses the word “massacre” when IS kills its enemies. Quotations from a vast array of long-dead Islamic prelates are used to justify this frenzy of cruelty. And yes, of course, Europe said the same about our enemies hundreds of years ago.
THE OTHER SIDE: So how, today, do we tell the “other side” of the story? Of course, we can trace the seedlings and the saplings of this cult of lost souls to the decades of cruelty which local Middle Eastern despots – usually with support of the West – visited upon their people.
Or the hundreds of thousands of dead Muslims for whose death we were ultimately responsible during and after our frightful – or “bloodthirsty” or “twisted” or “vile” – 2003 invasion of Iraq.
And we can – we must – spend far more time investigating the links between IS and their Islamist and rebel friends (Nusrah, Jaish al Islam, even the near-non-existent Free Syria Army) and the Saudis and Qataris and Turks, and indeed the degree to which US weapons have been sent across the border of Syria almost directly into IS hands.
Why does IS never attack Israel – indeed, why does its hatred of Crusaders, Shias and Christians, and sometimes Jews rarely if ever mention the very word “Israel”? And why do Israel’s air raids on Syria always target Syrian government or pro-Syrian Iranian forces, but never IS? Indeed, why are Turkey’s air assaults on IS – happily supported by Nato – far outnumbered by their air raids on the Kurdish PKK, some of whose forces in Syria are fighting Isis?
And how come the Turkish press have publicised a convoy of weapons being taken across the Syrian border to IS by Turkish intelligence agents? Are Turkish engineers running the IS-controlled oil wells, as Syrian oil engineers claim? And why did the IS propaganda boys wait until this month before denouncing – via a pretty lowly Caliphate official – Turkish President Erdogan, calling him “Satan” and urging Turks to rise up against his government?
It’s not the violence in IS videos and Dabiq we should be concentrating on.
It’s what the Isis leadership don’t talk about, don’t condemn, don’t mention upon which we should cast our suspicious eye. But that, of course, also means asking some questions of Turkey, America, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel.
Are we up to this? Or are we going to let IS stop us at last from carrying out one of the first duties of our trade – reporting the “other side of the story”?