Building support for war by villainizing Muslims
The Rise of ISIS (also known as The Islamic State or ISIL) shocked America this summer as the group quickly took charge of vast swathes of Iraq, then Syria. An American public that just over a year ago had staunchly stood against attacking Syria quickly found a desire for military conflict in that country — which, in the plainly astute observation of journalist Glenn Greenwald became “the 7th predominantly Muslim country bombed by 2009 Nobel Peace Laureate Barack Obama” — as well as Iraq itself, the country they’d spent the last decade wanting to be out of.
This was all in the name of national security — an oft-misused justification that the American public had supposedly become quite savvy to — all supported by a multi-pronged media blitz based on coordinated leaks from unnamed government officials and the contents of ISIS’s own propaganda videos; and all producing a single, predictable result consistent with the United States’ history: an irrational fear of an attack on American soil accompanied by a renewed frenzy of Islamophobia.
The beheadings: a catalyst for shifting public opinion
According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from September, a staggering 94 percent of Americans said they had heard about the beheadings of American journalists by ISIS militants, a higher number than had heard of any news story in the previous five years. The same poll found 47 percent of Americans believed the U.S. to be less safe than before 9/11.
While U.S. media have made such a show of ISIS’s own propaganda videos (and how they exemplify a tech know-how that far outpaces other terrorist organizations in both its sophistication and understanding of Western sensibilities) the very fact that such an overwhelming majority of Americans had heard of the beheadings says something about the manner in which those videos, and ISIS’s media postings more generally, were disseminated by the press.
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the independent Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Institute for Policy Studies whose expertise primarily lies in issues surrounding U.S. policy in the Middle East. The American news media, Bennis said, guided by the Pentagon and the White House, put an inordinate amount of emphasis on “particular atrocities, as if they were somehow different and more atrocious than other atrocities that have been going on for years, but not necessarily against Americans.”
The beheadings were unquestionably presented as a level of barbarism requiring outside intervention, despite the fact that they’re a common occurrence in much of the world, by both governments and rebel groups.
“Beheadings are unfortunately not that rare,” Bennis said. “Saudi Arabia uses it against nonviolent drug criminals,” and beheaded 19 people between the dates of August 4 and 26 alone. Additionally, the Free Syrian Army — the so-called “moderate rebels” that Sen. John McCain and others have been pushing for the U.S. to support since even before the Syrian chemical weapons allegations emerged — beheaded six opposition fighters “just days after the first U.S. journalist was killed.”
But in a nutshell, the problems with the media presentation of ISIS have more to do with framing issues in a fantasy context that then justifies a war morally than with convincing the public that military involvement will lead to increased security for the United States.
“The way the media depicted the killing” of the first two American journalists, Bennis said, was “as something completely different, completely unique in the context of the violence raging across the Middle East. So the message that emerges is: one, only ISIS is doing this; and two, only Americans are the victims of this. That can morph dangerously quickly into: ‘therefore we have to go to war against ISIS.’ The problem is none of those [earlier] assumptions are true; it isn’t unique to ISIS, and the victims are far more often not Americans.”
The result of this framing has been a rapid escalation in public support for the U.S.’s continued involvement in the region, with the latest Pew Research survey showing that 57 percent of Americans support U.S. action against ISIS and 73 percent of Americans think the U.S. isn’t doing enough.
Khorasan: the ‘worse-than-ISIS’ threat
Once a clear fear of ISIS had already been established, the possible existence of a worse threat became a shockingly easy myth to spread — something that happened in mid-September.
Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain of the Intercept described the media blitz in their exposé of Khorasan: “The unveiling of this new group was performed in a September 13 article by the Associated Press, who cited unnamed U.S. officials to warn of this new shadowy, worse-than-ISIS terror group.” CBS, The New York Times and other outlets of supposed repute all published similar stories in the following days, with the Times essentially transcribing the administration talking point that the until-then unheard of Khorasan group was “the most intent on hitting the United States or its installations overseas.”
While, as Greenwald and Hussain noted, “seemingly out of nowhere, a new terror group was created in media lore,” there was decidedly less notice of the story’s imperfections that began to come out, among others the finding that locals in the area had never even heard of a group called Khorasan.
An NPR Morning Edition story on Oct. 31 did address the lack of follow-through concerning the Khorasan strikes, and the fact that six weeks later there is “still no official assessment of whether the strike was a success,” but it was conspicuous in its mainstream isolation.
“We don’t hear the usual triumphalism,” Bennis said. “We don’t hear anything. You simply no longer hear of the group called Khorasan.”
Racism: a well-worn tactic of war
Jim Murphy, a Vietnam veteran and Ithaca-area resident who has been a ceaseless advocate for social justice since his time in the service, said he was drilled with a simplistic and racist ideology from his first moments of military service.
“They weren’t Vietnamese people when I went through basic training,” Murphy said. “They were ‘gooks.’”
These days, Bennis said, Islamophobia had greatly increased both domestically and internationally.
“Islamophobia plays a huge role in making it easier for people to see things, for example, like the beheadings [as] something done to white Americans by Muslims. That becomes the frame; that becomes the basis of understanding,” Bennis said. “Therefore you have to be very careful about any Muslim, because any of them might do that.”
For Murphy, it took some close personal connections to fully reverse the mindset he’d been encouraged to use by his superiors.
“I advised Vietnamese marines and Army on communications and I realized they were people, and they were just like me –– different language, different customs, but they were just like me,” Murphy said. And Murphy doesn’t see the tactic of racializing the enemy as an anomaly.
“Basic training, Iraq and Afghanistan: Raghead, Towelhead, Sandnigger, Hajji” were the four terms used, Murphy said. “War is racism. War is the ultimate racism.”
Bennis agreed with Murphy’s perspective but offered a deeper analysis that goes back even earlier than Vietnam.
“You can go back to World War II,” she said, “when the Japanese enemy” was called racist names, but “the Germans were not — the Germans were just the enemy. They were white, they were European, so they were not subjected to the same kind of racialized attacks.”
While the four slurs mentioned by Murphy as having been used in Iraq and Afghanistan may not have been very visible within U.S. society as a whole over the last 13 years, the mentality with which U.S. soldiers are encouraged to view their enemy abroad has without a doubt come home to roost. As John Tures, political science professor at LaGrange College, noted in a piece at The Huffington Post in September, back in March of 2002, in all the post-9/11 fervor, only 25 percent of Americans believed that followers of Islam were directly incited to enact extreme violence on others by their faith. During the Iraq War, that number rose. It subsided a bit after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, to 38 percent in February 2014, but by September of this year that number was up to 50 percent.
Since 9/11, the acceptance of this viewpoint that Islam directly urges its practitioners to commit violent acts — particularly on Westerners and/or Americans — has become so deeply entrenched within American society that it is no longer a particularly radical viewpoint.
In recent months, HBO’s Bill Maher — who in the lead-up to the Iraq War came under fire for controversial comments surrounding his critique of President George W. Bush’s statement that the terrorists had committed a cowardly act — has been one example of a voice perceived by many as rational giving legitimacy to this simplistic viewpoint that ignores the role of the U.S. in the region over the last 50 years or more.
Maher’s show was cancelled following those controversial comments 13 years ago, and “now he’s spewing this stuff himself,” media critic Norm Solomon said. Solomon is the author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death and is featured in a documentary of the same name. “Islamophobia has become so much more cronic now,” Solomon said.
Fitting a historical blueprint
There’s one overarching takeaway from this summer’s successful warmongering, Bennis said.
“What we’ve seen is that public opinion is very fragile,” she said. “Ideas that take years to kind of germinate and take hold and become majority opinion can be reversed very quickly.”
Norman Solomon agrees, noting the widespread opposition to bombing Syria that existed the summer of 2013.
“When it gets reframed and the bloody shirt is waved, the beheadings happened” Solomon said, “things can drift pretty drastically, and they have.” Solomon said he sees the spin we’ve received in recent months as fitting into a much longer pattern of deception, which he details in his book, that’s really come into being since World War II.
“Each historical incident [of lies being used to justify another U.S. war] is portrayed as an anomaly,” Solomon said — something he refers to as “the repetition compulsion disorder.” “It’s the repetition of themes or the lack of repetition of themes that has the most impact over time,” Solomon said. “Ultimately, mass media, if they’re critical of their own role, it’s way after the fact.”
Given the pattern, however, it is highly probable that the American public will once again become dissatisfied with the action it once supported, and will once again be characterized as ‘war-weary,’ at least providing the conflict is sustained and there’s no clear attainable triumph.
And those like Bennis, Murphy and Solomon have no real option other than continuing to put their arguments forward and waiting for public opinion to undergo its slow pendulum shift back to dissatisfaction with U.S. foreign policy.
“The war has to last long enough,” Solomon said. “If it’s too short or if the U.S. is perceived [to be winning] it’s very tough to turn public opinion — and the political opportunists who run the government — around.”
Max Ocean is a senior journalism major who doesn’t buy into the mainstream media’s bullshit. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.