ISIS Wants You to Share This

ISIS Wants You to Share This

How the well-meaning public became a handmaiden for terror.


It has become a practiced pantomime, and all the players know their parts. Whether it’s the Taliban in Pakistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria or the newly born Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, the recipe for global outrage and attention is simple: it is digital, and it is female. Its production nearly always involves the visible persecution of women: a flogging, a shooting or a mass kidnapping, and the unleashing of the news into the vast and viral depths of the Internet. If the job has been well done, if the aesthetics of neo-medievalism—beards and masks, veils and visible terror—have been duly attended to, the result will be a global outcry.

Once upon a time, this global outcry was supposed to be a good thing, a precursor to change and the mechanism for allowing international and universal norms to trump local, oppressive and unjust ones. This naming- and-shaming mechanism originated in Kathryn Sikkink and Margaret Keck’s celebrated book Activists Beyond Borders, published in 1998. The world was flush with faith in the power of international civil society and transnational NGOs with a human-rights agenda. This was particularly so in the case of women’s rights; feminists gathering in international assemblies began to discuss the commonality of issues facing women. Landmark conferences took place in Nairobi in 1985 and Vienna in 1993, bolstering the emerging networks of women who wished to work together against local governments.

As Sikkink and Keck discussed, these transnational networks challenged the monopoly of information formerly held by states. By mobilizing their new international networks, feminists put pressure on individual governments to accede to international norms on issues like female genital mutilation and laws criminalizing sexual violence and harassment. Through the networks, there was naming; through the glare of international pressure, there was shaming. The glue keeping it all together was, as international-relations theorist Hedley Bull described it, the fact that nations “conceive themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relations with one another.” Human rights, especially women’s rights, had been put on the international agenda, and a small number of NGO actors, via their international networks, had done the job. Implicit in the strategy was the idea that via this mechanism of naming and shaming, there would be a congruent change in the moral norms of the communities in which the victims lived. The pressure of global shaming would henceforth produce local transformations.

The idea was a good one, and for a time it seemed to work. In 2002, two northern Nigerian women, Amina Lawal and Safiya Hussaini, were sentenced to death by stoning under a local interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, in two different Nigerian states. Human-rights lawyers Hauwa Ibrahim and Dr. Ayesha Imam led a campaign that brought international attention to both cases. As per the advocacy mechanism discussed by Sikkink and Keck, mounting global pressure—generated through the use of transnational networks by Ibrahim and Imam, allowing them to take these cases to a worldwide audience—resulted in local and individual reprieve: both cases were overturned on appeal, and the women were freed. Similar successes were seen in Pakistan, where an international outcry resulted from the publicizing of a case involving a village council that ordered the gang rape of a woman. So intense was public pressure that the military-led government, headed by Pervez Musharraf, was forced to take on the issue of reforming Pakistan’s controversial Hudood Ordinances, whose loopholes permitted the prosecution of rape victims for the crimes of adultery and fornication.

Such were the success stories, back in the day, of naming and shaming particular states, and the process connected local and global struggles through publicity. Since then, however, several epochal events have transformed the landscape of global advocacy. The sudden democratization of the global public sphere via social-media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, means that “interconnectedness” is no longer the exclusive realm of NGOs and advocacy organizations, but is now easily available to anyone. Add to this the fallout from the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, during which American hawks used the language of naming and shaming (and saving women) as a gloss on strategic interventions and military campaigns.

Neither of these developments has been factored into the continuing use of naming and shaming as the basic mechanism of human-rights advocacy. Because this method has worked so well and for so many years, similar results are expected from it today, as an ever more connected global public expresses outrage and demands change. Shocking videos and well-intentioned advocacy materials are circulated to that public via hashtags and tweets, with “shares” and “likes” expected to produce concomitant changes in local norms.

This second part of the equation—producing changes in local norms—is rarely examined, however. In 2009, as one example, the Tehreek-e-Taliban took over the scenic Pakistani resort town of Swat. In a denouement eerily similar to that of the ISIS takeover of the Iraqi city of Mosul last June, the militants declared their own version of Islamic law and passed out communiqués restricting the movements of women in the town, requiring the wearing of beards by men and, of course, vowing the swift and severe punishment of anyone who opposed them. To make their point, in April 2009, the group circulated a video showing a Taliban commander flogging a woman with a leather strap. She could be heard saying, “Leave me for the moment—you can beat me again later.” All that was known about her then was that she was 17 years old and from the Swat Valley.

There was plenty of global outcry, but to no avail. A couple weeks later, the Pakistani government took the Taliban’s agenda as its own by passing the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation, which acceded to the Taliban demand of enforcing Sharia in the valley. The intricacies of what this would entail—“Sharia” being a loose term covering a host of symbolic and legal meanings—were left unaddressed. The point, however, was clear: instead of reining in the Taliban, and particularly its attacks against women, the Pakistani government decided to co-opt it—even to the extent of passing legislation that would bring the Taliban’s actions as a nonstate group under government writ.

This might have been taken as a solitary example if it had not since become a signature move by nonstate extremist groups seeking to gain international prominence. The kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram in April 2014 tested this theory directly. The hashtag campaign #BringBackOurGirls, begun in Nigeria by a local lawyer, spread across the Internet, generating waves of outraged tweets and social-media posts from around the world. Here was the production of global outrage—the near-instant popularization of the plight of the few—done to perfection: even Michelle Obama took a picture with the hashtag. The collective power of international networks, now magnified by the steroidal strength of social media, spread the word and raised the kidnappings as a human-rights concern. In response, Boko Haram’s leader, reveling in the attention, issued follow-up videos calculated to ensure the longevity of his media moment, premised on his threat of selling the kidnapped girls.

But the outcry was for nothing, at least as far the girls themselves were concerned. After all the naming—the exhaustive dissections of Boko Haram and its extremism, its distortion of Islam, its misogynistic intentions—there was little the world wanted to do. Since the kidnappings, and while the world was preoccupied with other things, dozens of the girls have freed themselves with no help from international forces. In the rest of Nigeria, Boko Haram’s ravages continue with little local resistance to the group’s moral agenda.

These examples from Pakistan and Nigeria reflect a broken mechanism and a new set of social-media-savvy nonstate actors who have hijacked the architecture of international human-rights advocacy. It is not that the advocates of naming and shaming—who invested a lot of moral energy in the actions of a global public—somehow failed to consider the problem of nonstate actors. Corporations and armed extremist groups were very much around when Sikkink and Keck wrote Activists Beyond Borders, and the beauty of a transnational human-rights movement was its capacity to hold all of them responsible or accountable in the global moral space. Becoming the latest specimen in this international theater of the grotesque, the thinking went, was a shaming no institution could withstand. But this is where the calculations of old went awry.

The Moral Reclamation of Sovereignty and the Architecture of Outrage

The problem with the above precept is that it assumes that the acts committed by the Taliban and Boko Haram and now ISIS, with its grisly videos of beheadings, were unintentionally barbaric, and that their selection as sources of outrage was based on the moral evaluation of a global public under international norms. In this interpretation, outrage is never seen as something intended by the Taliban or by Boko Haram; instead, it’s viewed as a burden imposed on them to increase the moral cost they face by committing such acts. The moral binaries that attract attention, as measured in clicks and tweets—human rights versus barbarism, feminism versus abuse—are not seen to contribute to the production of flogging videos and veiling edicts, but rather to counteract them.

It is just this interpretation, however, that fails to understand the hijacking of naming and shaming as a mechanism for advocacy and action in a post–Iraq and Afghanistan world. The deliberate rejection of human rights by means of a resurrection of medieval justice, as represented in these videos and pictures, is not accidental but intentional. In producing videos, Boko Haram, the Taliban and ISIS are not attracting the attention of the global public only incidentally; they are counting on it, using the Orientalized tropes that they know are guaranteed to produce this result. It is for this very reason that in December, for what is thought to be the ninth time, ISIS posted pictures of a man and a woman being stoned to death for adultery. Masked men can be seen in the vast crowd watching the act.

The reasons for these calculations are simple and subversive. Theirs is a counter–global discourse defining itself against international norms. The fast-and-loose departures from historical truths, the brandishing of redefined religious concepts, are all part of the project. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph of the self-declared Islamic State, does not care that the historical idea of the caliphate isn’t in accord with his declarations. Nor does the Taliban care about how its flogging- and amputation-heavy version of Sharia deviates from the jurisprudential truths of Islamic law. Flagrant acts of barbarity bestow on them moral legitimacy: in the eyes of the local public, these ragtag groups and their fanciful re-enactments of precolonial purity represent acts of moral reclamation. Unlike their vastly corrupt governments, whose leaders placate the international community for fear of losing the aid packages with which to pad their private fortunes, these groups stand apart. In the hinterlands of Waziristan or the despondent villages of northern Nigeria, where globalization has not bestowed its bounties, the sins of the rebels are washed away by their very opposition to the international order. In the local context, then, there is no shame—only the reclamation of a sovereignty seen as ceded by the state. Boko Haram’s resurrection of the medieval is deemed an austere act of authenticity and purification. Western horror represents not moral pressure to change a local practice, but rather the affirmation of its purity and rightness, of the fact that there are ineradicable differences and eternal condescension in the exchange between global and local.

Human-Rights Click Bait Produces New Networks

The caricatures produced by the Taliban, Boko Haram, ISIS and others gain notoriety and fame for these groups at the low cost of small recorded persecutions. Outrage media also connect them to other ragtag groups in different parts of the world, yielding a networking potential. When al-Baghdadi made his claim for the caliphate in Iraq, the dissemination of his announcement provoked declarations of allegiance from groups as far away as Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban put a statement in Arabic on its website asking for support “from the leaders of all the jihadi factions and the distinguished people among the experts and the scholars in Sham [Syria] in order to solve their conflicts.” An obvious attempt at reaching out to potential allies in Iraq, the Afghan Taliban’s announcement sounded much like the development of its own network and, despite its perverse militarism, not unlike the coming together of various NGOs to form the transnational networks that yielded the naming-and-shaming mechanism.

The point, then, is not that shaming no longer works, but rather the more troubling possibility that it is actually instrumental in legitimizing a counter–global discourse that defines its moral positions in opposition to those espoused by international norms. The inability of the global public to deliver effective shaming beyond the naming has morphed into an appalling symbiosis, with human-rights abusers producing on demand the barbaric boogeymen for an atrocity-addicted Western public that is clicking away in outrage.

The Curse of Doing Nothing

The low cost of engagement through social media means that more people are involved in raising awareness of human-rights abuses than ever before. Yet engagement itself is now premised on the vagaries of a sorrowful story and the promise of moral absolution for the outraged and guilty tweeter. Hashtags become popular because they are markers of having “done” something, and doing something has never been easier. In turn, a market has evolved for the production and consumption of images with an ever-higher threshold for what will shock, anger and ultimately provoke some imagined “action.” The reduction to 140 characters guarantees the telling of a decontextualized story whose purpose is a digital click, the quantifier that now represents a human-rights victory.

The result is a fear of facing up to the failures of naming and shaming, a mechanism that has been hijacked and no longer produces the results we think it should deliver—whether a return of captive girls or an end to flogging and beheading. The need for us to recognize these failures runs up against the barriers of a long-cultivated denial—a desire to believe that clicking and tweeting and reporting a story means that you made things better, that your moral obligation as a member of the global public was fulfilled. Taking apart this cherished belief would force us to evaluate whether denouncing abuses has now come to exist for its own sake: a public display of values by those who denounce, without a real expectation of changing the values of others.

The complications of this conundrum increase when one remembers that the victims of the floggings, amputations and beheadings are just as real as they ever were. If we grant that the mechanisms of these global campaigns—their reductionist moral binaries and their recipes of aesthetic aversion—are flawed, then what must be the ethical response to local NGOs that continue to employ these strategies against oppressive governments and to request international support? Must the plight of the individual rape victim in Pakistan or the kidnapped schoolchild in Nigeria be ignored, abandoned to the horrors of her local situation?

This is the thorniest and most urgent question posed by a discussion of broken mechanisms. Yet unless we engage with the question of what no longer works, new alternatives for the future cannot be developed, and the same victims will continue to be sentenced to an unhelpful and imaginary solution. For those members of the global public who wish to ensure that human rights remain a robust concept worthy of advocacy, a conversation regarding their appropriation is imperative. Silence on the increasing ineffectiveness of naming and shaming would be the true failure of human rights, a real dimming of the possibilities of solidarity.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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