The US-led global war on terrorism in the Middle East is entering a post-ideological phase, in which everyone is allegedly united in the fight against an Islamic pandemic of violence, regardless of religious creed, political persuasion or ideological conviction. Throughout the Islamic world during Ramadan, the site of the struggle against this fundamentalist violence in general, and ISIS terrorism in particular, shifts from the battlefield to popular culture. The antiterrorism aesthetics of Ramadan cultural productions are evident in their treatment of the twin issues of terrorism and violence. These aesthetics are the rhetorical, discursive and representational strategies that aim to renounce Islamic terrorist practices as antithetical to the message of the true and authentic Islamic religion and repackage the Islamic faith in the language of religious and cultural tolerance, love and peace.

The aesthetics of Ramadan cultural productions are symptomatic of a post-ideological impasse in the Arab Islamic world’s approach to counterterrorism. Presenting the struggle against Islamic terrorism in post-ideological terms thus obfuscates the role played by US imperial interventionism and the global war on terrorism in the rise of terrorist groups in the region. The contradictions in this approach are best exemplified in the Kuwait-based telecommunication corporation Zain’s anti-terrorism music video advertisement, “Worship your God with love, not terror,” and satellite broadcaster MBC’s TV drama series Black Crows. [1]

Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organizations, particularly ISIS, market themselves as first and foremost instruments of fear, savagery and terror. Yet, Zain’s music video and the TV series Black Crows fail to immunize viewers against the trauma of terrorism in all its horror and ugliness. Trauma, according to Cathy Caruth, has a paradoxical structure: It can be seen, but it cannot be known and articulated, hence its effects are registered belatedly. [2] These programs miss an important opportunity to tap into the unspeakable collective fears and repressed anxieties among the Arab public about terrorism and its cult of death. The productions not only replicate the language of ISIS’s political theology, they also appropriate postmodern discourses that frame savage terrorist practices within a paradigm of moral relativism and ambiguity, which leads them to represent the humanity and suffering of the terrorist. Utilizing the genre conventions of the fantastic in programs such as these could offer a way out of this impasse by making it possible to recodify the image of the terrorist in the tropes of monstrosity, thus leaving it up to the viewers to make sense of Islamic fundamentalist violence based on their own subjective experiences.

The Horror of Islamic Terror and the Power of Zombies

Critics of Zain’s anti-terrorism video, “Worship your God with love, not terror,” overlooked an important and distinctive feature of this video. It draws on the conventions of the horror genre, especially ghost and zombie tropes, to represent the terror that results from the confrontation between the potential suicide bomber and his future helpless victims. The video is structured as a framed narrative in which a child promises to rat out ISIS to God about the senseless destruction, unimaginable calamities and the utter darkness with which it filled the streets. As the voice-over narration of the child unfolds, the camera pans out and zooms in on a suicide bomber hunching over and constructing an improvised explosive device that he will use to blow himself up.

Interestingly, on his way to execute his abominable act, the potential suicide bomber is chased by the ghosts of his future victims whose faces are covered with blood and ash. As they chase him down the street, on the bus and in other public spaces, they look more like the zombie hordes of horror films. The video then resurrects the stories of specific victims of terrorism in different Arab cities, breathing life and humanity into their tragic deaths.

Appropriating ghost and zombie tropes is a step in the right direction, but the video fails to utilize the full potential of the horror genre in dealing with the repressed collective fears associated with terrorism. First, there is nothing uncanny about the victims—they return to life in their typically warm and fuzzy humanity. The terror of the zombie lies in its image as a shadow of its former self—despite its recognizable human form it acts in inhuman ways. Moreover, the ghost trope is evacuated of its uncanny power. Nothing could have traumatized the terrorist more than the shock of encountering the ghosts of his victims, who would neither look nor act like typical human beings. The horror genre substitutes terrifying real-life atrocities and horrors for metaphorical monsters. Nonetheless, the video still represents the suicide bomber in his unadulterated human form as a terrorist. As such, the video bypasses the possibility of offering viewers a protective screen to filter and work through the trauma of terrorism and the horrors of the Islamic State.

The Delusions of Humanitarian Bombs

The message of Zain’s video rejects terrorism as un-Islamic and celebrates Islamic teachings that promote tolerance for, and love of, others. That message, though, is undercut by the same language that the video seeks to criticize and from which it tries to distance and extract itself. As he exhorts the suicide bomber to “worship God with love, not terror,” the Emirati entertainer Hussein Aljasmi, who is leading the victims in their chase of the terrorist, extends a helping hand to the suicide bomber while calling for “bomb[ing] violence with mercy” and “bomb[ing] delusion with truth.” Aljasmi continues to urge viewers to “bomb hatred with love” and “bomb extremism for a better life.”

Unfortunately, the song does not use the word “bomb” in only this metaphorical way; it also employs this word in its literal sense: “The more they bomb out of hate, we will sing out of love.” The true opposition here is not between two types of bombs, but between the bomb/hate and song/love dyads. Consequently, any positive, metaphoric humanitarian meaning of the word bomb collapses in the indeterminacy of the violent referent of the signifier itself. Ultimately, the video conflates the literal and metaphoric meaning of the word bomb and undermines the opposition between the meaning of radical extremist and humanitarian bombing.

Unbearable Realism

In one episode of MBC’s drama series Black Crows, a captive Yazidi woman refers to the brutal events outside the ISIS fighter’s apartment, where she is used as a maid, as “horror movies.” Dropping all pretensions to the horror genre, however, the series opts for the conventions of realistic representation in its critique of the savagery, millenarianism and memento mori of the oppressive theocratic rule of the Islamic State. Black Crows’ logline markets the series as the stories of different women who join ISIS with various psychological motives and pretexts, even though their stories intersect with stories of some men. These women (an Egyptian former belly dancer in search of her son, a Syrian refugee, an undercover journalist who happens to be Christian, a fugitive Saudi woman convict who bludgeoned her husband to death for cheating on her and two Gulf spinsters who are looking for marriage) soon realize the depth of the trap into which they have fallen and become disillusioned as they witness the true horrors, savagery and inhumanity of ISIS.

By amply, even excessively, documenting every aspect of savagery and brutality under the rule of ISIS, the series compulsively repeats these overwhelming and fear-inducing traumatic experiences in every episode ad nauseam. In their apocalyptic ideology, ISIS political and military leaders in the program endlessly try to establish the link between ISIS and fear and terror, arguing that ISIS is nothing if not about darkness, cruelty, murder, stoning, crucifixions, massacres, explosions, executions and death.

The excessive realism of the series offers no respite or protection from the daily horrors and atrocities of the Islamic State. In many horror films, major social and political catastrophes are represented in mediated forms—viewers do not see the catastrophe itself, but are introduced to it obliquely. In Roger Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), viewers witness the evils of consumerism and its effects on citizens through the image of the mindless zombie. It thus makes it possible for viewers to filter the numbing effects of consumerism and cope with them in allegorical or metaphorical forms. No wonder the actress Samar Allam reported feeling depressed as a result of her participation in this program. [3] Although “she hoped the program would make people think in a way that news reports about the Islamic State’s violence could not,” she overlooked how this well-researched series ends up, ironically, reworking many journalistic reports and newspaper headlines about ISIS. Like Allam, viewers may risk experiencing the disintegration of their symbolic universe and falling into the trap of acting out, rather than working through, the trauma of the savagery of ISIS.

It came as no surprise that part of the reason for MBC’s decision to take the series off the air after only 20 episodes was the unprecedented, mounting public outcry over the treatment of ISIS’s capture of the Jordanian pilot Muath Alkasasbah, who was burned alive in a cage on camera. [4] Restaging the horrors of the pilot’s execution would have forced viewers to relive the trauma of the savage incineration over and over again without any protective screen.

At certain moments horror techniques intrude into the real world of ISIS, but these are few and far between. In Episode 13, for example, the prince of the cell in ISIS’ de facto capital city Raqqa, Syria, describes how he used to be haunted by nightmares of his past victims. Their ghosts invade his dreams—as the camera zooms in on his third victim’s face it appears as a resurrected ghost. Like Sigmund Freud’s shell-shocked WWI veterans, the prince re-enacts the scene of his trauma in his nightmares, dreams, flashbacks and hallucinations, failing to know or even see the traumatic kernel of this “terrible war.” [5] In the same episode, the massacre of the musicians and the burning of musical instruments have an eerie feel to them, but again the potential of the horror genre is not realized. As the musicians descend into the pit and assume their positions, the female musician is not fully clad in the black cloak, giving the impression that it is her ghost that is playing the music. The sad music adds to the surrealist or nightmarish atmosphere of the scene, until we are jolted back into the present by cold-blooded execution of the musicians as they perform their sad concerto and the ISIS fighters set the instruments ablaze.

The ISIS Masquerade

This does not mean, however, that Black Crows has no interesting insights to offer into the ISIS mindset. The program provocatively suggests that the organization is structured around the idea of the masquerade, which explains its deep seated misogyny and obsession with veiling women. The series also moves beyond the critique of the political economy of ISIS to show the extent to which the language of neoliberal global capitalism is constitutive of its operations and logic.

One of the most remarkable observations Black Crows makes about ISIS is that social relations under ISIS follow the structure of the masquerade. For the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek notes, the masquerade is used to suggest that there is something substantial underneath or behind the mask where there is actually nothing—it is all image and no substance. The masquerade thus does not entail imitating an image that one wants to fit into, as Žižek explains, but only taking on “those features of the image which seem to indicate that there is some hidden reality behind.” [6] In this sense, the masquerade operates to deny any transcendental truth or ultimate hidden essence to ISIS and to reveal its deeper nothingness, its underlying charade.

In the first episode of the series, the Islamic law professor, who functions like the chorus in a Greek drama and the moral conscience of the series, notes that living in a city under ISIS control is exactly like living in a “huge, endless and sad masquerade.” In the market, customers are seen purchasing illegal contraband from vendors and hiding them in their grocery bags, inside pottery jars or underneath other products. The masquerade has penetrated every aspect of life in the world of ISIS. Wherever you scratch, you can find other layers under ISIS reality. As the professor’s voice-over narration states: “The magazines are disguised as religious books, the piano is disguised under a clothes stand, ads on the streets are disguised as threatening messages, the art studio is disguised as a center, a male obstetrician is disguised with a cloak and a veil—it is a huge, endless masquerade.” In a later episode, he calls ISIS a “big lie.” The masquerade is the Islamic State’s scandal. The world of ISIS is a world full of disguise, deception and deceit, where the truth is always somewhere else. This masquerade shows the cracks in the power and authority of the self-proclaimed Caliphate and reveals that it is not “the real thing,” despite all their draconian rules, excessive savagery and morality police brigades.

The masquerade is not simply about, as critics have suggested, the hypocrisy of those who pretend to embody the highest moral and religious values. That interpretation would be too simplistic. Rather, the masquerade proves that the self-proclaimed Caliphate is nothing but an imaginary and mythic, even textual, construct that never existed in the first place the way that ISIS imagined. The masquerade becomes constitutive of ISIS’s world, a fact that is registered by the important role that their electronic jihadist, cyber warriors and media department play in maintaining the masquerade. There is so much work done behind the scenes in the production of the glossy image of the ISIS spectacle which, like all spectacles, is all image and no substance.

Technology, the series suggests, plays an important role in sustaining this masquerade, leaving no doubt that Islamic fundamentalism is not archaic but compatible with modernity. Through technology, the electronic jihadists and media producers use Photoshop and edit their truth into existence where that truth does not exist at all. They tamper with images of dead jihadists to sustain the myth of the saved martyr who dies with a smile on his face, “joyful as if they saw heaven.” They produce commercials celebrating the boons and blessings of market life in Raqqa, editing out the attempt of the resistance cell to assassinate the prince. They film the falsely happy faces of the Raqqa residents as they witness public executions or stonings, while fully armed fighters make sure that all congregation members participate in these death orgies. They record interviews with locals who tell the world how happy they are under ISIS rule.

Nowhere is this scandal of the ISIS masquerade more evident than in their obsession with veiling women and their fetishization of the cult of the so-called true woman. By veiling women, ISIS generates the impression that the eternal feminine, the cult of womanhood, or the feminine mystique exists underneath all the veils and behind all the masks women wear—they want to believe that there is a substantial subject or truth underneath these veils and masks. In a process of projective displacement, therefore, ISIS needs women to be veiled, in order to sustain the illusion of its own truth, since the truth of the veiled woman can reflect back on ISIS itself, guaranteeing its own truth in return. Žižek thus writes that the concealed scandal of Islam is the belief that “only a woman, the very embodiment of the indiscernability of truth and lie, can guarantee Truth. For this reason, she has to remain veiled.” [7]

In the series, ISIS leaders and morality police brigades are seen strictly enforcing the veiling of women under dark cloaks, veils and gloves. Graffiti on the walls declare that “the veil is a symbol of chastity and purity.” The dress code in ISIS country is intended to cover every allegedly shameful part of a woman’s body, lest they become fitna (temptation) and seduce ISIS fighters. Women are forced to cover their faces and hands, even though the female teacher in an all-girls classroom denies that covering the face and hands is a Quranic injunction. Every female form, including images of fairy tale princesses (Cinderella) and Disney cartoon characters (even Dory the fish) must be thoroughly covered in order not to provoke men. Women who contest these orders, such as the fish vendor who had to remove her glove to clean the fish, are summarily executed. The ISIS world in the series constitutes a hyper-sexualized libidinal economy of phallic pleasure in which women exist but without the privilege of or access to feminine pleasure. As the Islamic law professor comments, “while the religion forbids a woman from exposing her body to believers, the believers use the same taboos to promote the idea of heaven—that each man gets 70 Paradise Mermaids.”

Žižek maintains that Islam does not simply erase women, but readmits them “in a closely controlled universe,” which needs the myth of the Paradise Mermaids, or houris, as a phantasmatic supplement for this hypersexualized economy to work. He thus remarks that, “The fantasy is here that of the undivided and undisturbed reign of the phallic jouissance, of a universe in which all the traces of the feminine autre jouissance are erased.” [8] This is precisely what the two Gulf Arab women, who function as comic relief characters in the first few episodes of the series before they are disillusioned about their function under ISIS rule, discover about their role as “sexual jihadists.” They are there only to offer themselves voluntarily to male jihadists, in order to help them maintain their chastity, lest they be tempted to engage in any illicit sexual liaison with unlawful women, captives or war spoils.

ISIS views women simply as instruments and vehicles for the fulfillment of the male jihadi’s ultimate goal of endless phallic pleasure in heaven with the houris. As one member of the al-Khansaa morality police brigade informs these women, the women’s job is to give their “pure body” to the male jihadist to satisfy his desires, but “true pleasure awaits him in heaven.” Therefore, women are forbidden to apply makeup and use their sexuality to entice their jihadi mates—their agency is good only insofar as women offer themselves to these fighters in marriage and sexual slavery.

Women’s agency and empowerment in ISIS country, in short, are as illusory as the mythic eternal feminine subject itself. The story of the female electronic jihadist Um Qutaiba is a case in point. When she challenges a male counterpart, she is told that her place is in the kitchen. Later, he hacks into her computer and infects it with a virus that only he can remove. When he is taken to the female electronic jihadist department to clean her system, he tells her that the hacker must have used her “ignorance and weakness in electronic jihad” against her, condescendingly advising her not to get into altercations in which she will be proven “not good enough.” He leaves only after he hands her orders to complete a job for him in an hour, leaving no doubt as to the role and place of women in this organization.

The Political Economy of ISIS and Beyond

The other interesting observation the series makes about ISIS is its relationship to the global capitalist system, which serves as another sign of the organization’s modernity despite all the trappings of its medieval mentality and structure. Much has been said about the political economy of ISIS as a self-funded proto-state that relies on typical terrorist and criminal financing methods to fund its terrorist activities. These methods include the arms trade, oil sales, smuggling of artifacts, the international black market antiquities trade, extortion, ransom, kidnapping, illegal taxation, the illegal drug trade, human and sex trafficking and human organ trafficking.

The series also establishes a correlation between the escalation of the ruthless extractive economic practices of ISIS and its savagery as a function of the dwindling resources in ISIS country. It dramatizes this issue in the tragic case of the young captive Yazidi woman Qamar, who is a non-voluntary victim of the international human organ trafficking that ISIS uses to fill its coffers. One of Qamar’s kidneys is removed, but the new surgeon is ordered to remove her second kidney. To rescue her and save her from complete renal failure, Qamar’s lover offers his own kidney instead and dies in the process.

The real-life Islamic State’s Research and Fatwa Committee issued a fatwa sanctioning organ harvesting from non-Muslims. [9] The committee declared that “the apostate’s life and organs don’t have to be respected and may be taken with impunity,” adding that even in cases in which organ harvesting can result in death to the involuntary donor, “removal of that type is also not prohibited.” The basis for this fatwa is an earlier opinion of some Muslim scholars that legitimizes the practice of cannibalism against non-Muslims whose bodies can be used to benefit and prolong the life of Muslims.

The series also reveals that capitalist discourse, rhetoric and tropes are constitutive of the way ISIS operates. The series hints at the neoliberal language of exploitation, profitability and financial success that are thoroughly grounded in the institutional unconscious of the organization and its followers. In an earlier episode of the series, for example, the prince devises a scheme to recover the salaries he pays the ISIS fighters by selling them captive women and sex slaves. Exploitation is endemic to the way in which ISIS operates.

Moreover, the program foregrounds the ways in which marketing techniques are integral to how the organization functions. For example, the Islamic law professor notes that, “In the end it is a system that knows how to market itself and can get to the highest levels in education disguised in an idea.” He also remarks that the basis of the relationship between ISIS and its henchmen is not ideological or pure religious conviction but economic, in which “ISIS buys his loyalty in exchange for his life, his life in exchange for his loyalty.”

The point in all of these scenes is to deny that ISIS has any genuinely radical or revolutionary potential. Rather, it is a part of a global capitalist system that actively participates in the polarization of wealth between the haves and have-nots in the region and the world. Indeed, religious fundamentalism is an opportunistic ideology that intervenes in crisis situations only to displace the anti-capitalist revolutionary spark underpinning socio-political unrest and ideologically mystify it through religious rhetoric and theological sophistry. These groups plug themselves into the frustrations of young people and distort the real issues in the name of religion.

Political Theology

Black Crows, like the Zain advertisement, cannot extricate or distance itself from the religious language and politico-theological discourses for which it criticizes ISIS. Indeed, the theological beliefs espoused by ISIS leaders and militants throughout the series, such as eschatological doctrines like retribution in the grave and apocalyptic visions of the final showdown with non-Muslims in Dabiq, seem to be identical to what the majority of Muslims accept as the basic tenets of Islam. The debate about the program’s title and its Quranic origins demonstrate this impasse. Many considered it offensive, even sacrilegious, for the series to use a phrase from the Quran to describe ISIS as black crows—this reference has been interpreted not as indictment of ISIS in the name of the Quran, but quite the opposite, as a Quranic validation of ISIS and its terrorist savagery.

In an interview with NPR, MBC program director Ali Jaber hints at this impasse in the representation of ISIS in the program. He states that “ISIS did not come out from emptiness,” adding that, “It came out from some of the wrong religious teachings that have been going on in our societies for a very long time.” [10] It would thus be almost impossible to condemn these teachings as wrong, notwithstanding all the squabble about interpretation. It would also be impossible to offer any alternative or counter-religious and theological narrative since ISIS has completely hijacked the Islamic faith and wrapped its basic beliefs in its black flag. Jaber notes: “We are fighting against very formidable enemy because they are using the words of God and they are using the basic instincts of people to lure sympathizers and to lure soldiers. And this is dangerous. And somebody has got to really stand up and say something against this.”

It becomes very hard, however, to establish a platform from which to stand up to ISIS and to criticize its beliefs without throwing Islamic beliefs as a whole under the bus. The most the program can do is to renounce terrorism and periodically preach that ISIS does not represent the true Islamic faith. Most of the comments of the Islamic law professor fall into this category—he distinguishes between true and false Muslims, claiming that the actions of the former should even help win ISIS militants back to the true faith. There are other minor characters who assume this position as well. In one episode, an imam of a mosque in Raqqa proselytizes about the truth of Islamic beliefs to a group from the Youth of Heaven or the Cubs of the Caliphate brigade who desecrate the mosque, kill worshippers and ransack holy books. He refutes every major belief espoused by ISIS, offering what he sees as the true Islamic interpretation of it. This imam was murdered in the mosque by the pedophile leader of the brigade after he kicked him out of the mosque. A female school teacher in an all-girls classroom also acts in this capacity when she argues with the French female jihadist, a new convert and a member of the morality police brigade. The teacher responds to the French jihadist that she is permitted not to cover her hands and face, clarifying the Quranic position on the veil and full cover. As expected, the scheming French jihadist plants contraband cigarettes in the teacher’s bag, which leads to her arrest.

Even worse is that the program is ambiguous about and even falls into idealizing ISIS. For example, at one point the Islamic law professor vaguely discusses how an idea can end or be reformed. He ambiguously states that “Nobody can kill a concept except the one who believes in it, he kills it when he loses faith in it. This happens surely but slowly.” It remains unclear whether he means the followers of ISIS in particular or Muslims in general. Nonetheless, the implications of this statement to the critical reformation of the Islamic faith remain unexplored. The issue gets even murkier when the professor poses the problem of ISIS within a framework of moral relativism that idealizes ISIS militants as possibly more authentic and pious than many other Muslims. As the surgeon Thunyan contemplates killing the wounded leader of the electronic jihad department, who happens to be the professor’s son-in-law, the professor tells him: “We and they have the same beliefs—we testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet; maybe their devoutness during prayers and their abandonment in life, their desire in the afterlife, is bigger and better than all of ours…” The professor soon substitutes the true/false Muslim for the human being/monster binary opposition. He says, “…what make us human beings and what makes them monsters is that religion for us is based on good ethics, mercy, humanity and moralities. Once we abandon those we will lose our cause against them; we will lose the battle.” Interestingly enough, religion now is evacuated from its theological content and posited instead in terms of ethical and moral values. This begs the question of the need for religious identity in the first place, if the litmus test is first and foremost ethical conduct.

What complicates matters even more is that some of the characters, who have in some way become disillusioned with ISIS, end up censoring themselves and internalizing ISIS beliefs and ideas. In one telling scene, for example, one of the comic relief characters, Ghadeer, attempts to entertain her stepchildren by telling them classical Western fairy tales. She suddenly succumbs to the propaganda of the morality police brigade and censors herself. First, she tells the children Rapunzel’s story, but stops when her stepdaughter protests that the princess is not veiled. Ghadeer is completely unable to respond. She then begins to tell them the story of Snow White, but has to eat her words quickly, murmuring that she could not tell a story of “a girl sleeping with seven men in the same room.” It never occurs to her to reinterpret Snow White’s cohabitation with seven men as an allegory or metaphor for women’s sexual slavery and sexual jihad, in which the same woman could be rotated among a number of militants in ISIS country. The parallels between Snow White and stories about group sex and the sexual abuse of children under ISIS could easily have been established.

Abandoning Palestine

The series is equally ambiguous about the struggle for freedom in Palestine. The recurrent critique of ISIS within the series is its reluctance to declare jihad against Israel. [11] In one real-life communique ISIS has stated that jihad in Palestine, which it refers to in metonymic religious terms as baytul maqdis (holy house), is just one dimension of the world jihad, rejecting the idea that it should “take precedence over jihad elsewhere.” [12] In an early episode of Black Crows, Khalid, the new Egyptian recruit and hacker in the electronic jihad department, responds to a question about the position of ISIS on Israel and “fighting the Jews.” Khalid answers that “we should start with those among us until we rebuild the degenerate Arab countries; your sinner must be before the Jews—they are hypocrites; they belong in the depth of hell. We should purge our countries from lewd, liberals and secularists.” Later, a member of the morality police brigade explains to Khalid’s mother that the “Rawafid and Shia are not clear enemies like the Jews,” and therefore they deserve to be exterminated first.

Two major critiques can be made of the series’ approach to Palestine. First, it conflates Judaism as a religion and Zionism as a political colonial-settler movement that is responsible for the continuing nakba in Palestine. The series misses an important opportunity to mark the difference between the two and to refute that the language of political struggle in the Middle East is a reified religious discourse. Second, the series completely ignores the parallels between the abandonment of Palestine in ISIS ideology and the recent normalization efforts of many Arab countries with Israel. Moreover, the series overlooks recent reports that Israel is directly supporting ISIS and al-Qaeda terrorists in Syria. One report indicates that wounded ISIS fighters in Syria receive medical care in Israel and collaborate with Israeli authorities in return for securing the fence at the border. [13]

In other words, the approach of ISIS merely mirrors the same position and policy of Arab states toward Palestine. The series cannot condemn one while maintaining silence on the other. The problem is that the series over-identifies with state power in the Arab world, for example by making one of the major figures of resistance to ISIS an undercover Syrian military officer. It is important here to note that MBC program director Ali Jaber participated in a Ministerial Plenary for the Global Coalition Working to Defeat ISIS on March 22, 2017 in Washington, DC, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi. Jaber was scheduled to speak about “how to achieve victory” in the electronic fight against ISIS and its electronic jihad, without making a direct correlation between US imperial interventionism and the rise of terrorist groups in the region. [14]

It is no surprise that critics dismissed the series for trivializing the rise of ISIS as a regional and global power, focusing instead on the sensational aspects of the private sphere, including sexual jihad, personal intrigues and the power struggles among various members of ISIS in Raqqa. Critics contend that the series decontextualized ISIS and offered no substantive treatment of the Islamic state. [15] ISIS will not perish until repressive authoritarian Arab states, some of which have colluded with ISIS in the first place, are reformed.

Postmodern Pretensions

The series’s attempted critique of ISIS is further undercut by its appropriation of postmodern discourses that reframe savage terrorist practices within a paradigm of moral relativism and re-present the terrorist ISIS fighter, especially the prince, in his humanity. On their own, these techniques can help viewers question society’s assumptions about good and evil, morality and heroism. In the larger context of the moral and discursive ambiguity of the series, however, these techniques muddy the message even more and undermine the demonization of ISIS as an evil terrorist organization.

The question of right and wrong is raised throughout the series, but at certain points it is reframed in ambiguous terms. In one scene, the al-Khansaa morality police brigade murders the older female owner of a store for refusing to let them confiscate plates decorated with animals. On the way back from their tour with the brigade, the comic relief characters talk about what happened, clearly shocked by the brutality of the women’s action in light of the trivial nature of the issue. However, one of the characters tells the other who was expressing her disbelief about what happened: “We consider some things wrong, while they might be right and vice versa, we consider some things right, while they might be wrong.”

The handsome prince of the ISIS cell in Raqqa, who is clearly a sociopathic monster, is represented as compassionate, charismatic, romantic and even a victim of some familial psychological drama. In an early episode, the prince is seen walking with his henchmen over piles of dead bodies in one neighborhood on his way to the morning prayer. He stops suddenly and motions to his men not to march further. He bends down and when he stands up again, he says: “Don’t step over the house of ants.” The contrast between his genocidal tendencies and his compassion for animals may have been used to symbolize the prince’s vast moral depravity and perversity. Nonetheless, in the context of the other techniques, his compassion for animals can only redeem him in the viewers’ eyes.

The prince is also idealized as sexually charismatic, the object of several women’s desire in ISIS headquarters. For example, the prince approaches the leaders of the al-Khansaa morality police brigade and asks their hand in marriage for the older mufti of the cell. Before they realize who he was asking their hand for, the women were thrilled, proclaiming that marrying him would be a privilege and a win in this world and the afterlife. Little did they know that the pious and handsome prince was already engaged in an illicit relationship with a Tunisian woman, Malika, whom he smuggled into his chamber in a wooden box.

The prince is also seen as a deeply wounded human being who struggles with his monstrosity and identity as a terrorist. In one scene, the prince is seen cuddling with his lover Malika, who offers to help him in his rule over the cell. The prince answers in the negative, saying that “if you wish to help me, let me feel that I’m a human being,” adding that, “Outside this room I’m not a human being; I am a monster, I do horrible things, horrible.” He makes it clear that “This is the only place where I feel that I am a human being capable of love.” In episode 13, the prince is seen not only as haunted by nightmares of his past victims, as discussed earlier, but also as a victim of family trauma. After he shoots the fish vendor in the market for defying the veiling order, he adopts her son, entrusts Malika with him and gives him a new name. However, he starts heaping emotional abuse on the child, calling him a coward and challenging him to kill him the way he killed his mother. When Malika mildly protests his methods, he informs her that the boy reminds him of himself as a child when he was a victim of some unknown tragic family trauma. His mistreatment of the child is regarded merely as a function of projective displacement and reveals the extent of his victimization.

Toward an Arabic Fantastic

The Zain video advertisement and the MBC drama series Black Crows complement each other and suggest that attention to the fantastic might offer productive ways to mediate and mitigate the shock and trauma of terrorism and violence. Rather than simply reflecting the surface of socio-political reality and historical events, new fantastic modes and genres can help uncover the hidden truths and underlying antagonisms that might be too ugly or distressing to confront in their pure form, thus allowing viewers to work through the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism.

Hollywood productions that utilize the fantastic, including ghosts, vampires and zombies, are already a major staple on the entertainment menu in the Arab world. The genre is not completely alien to the Arab world’s own cultural and art productions either. In fact, some classical Arabic texts have been credited with ushering in certain types of fantastic literature. Recent novels, such as the Iraqi author Ahmad Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, have already experimented with this genre with interesting results. Most importantly, films utilizing the mode of the fantastic can help viewers immunize themselves against the trauma that results from the way terrorism is processed in the unconscious. In addition, they could develop an international media literacy that is able to critique cultural productions, regional and international alike, within the geopolitical context of their production.


[1] “Worship your God with love, not terror,” music video advertisement by Zain telecommunications company: Black Crows, MBC TV serial:….
[2] Cathy Caruth, “Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility of History,” Yale French Studies, 79 (January 1991).
[3] Ben Hubbard, “Arab TV Series Dramatizes Life Under ISIS,” New York Times, May 16, 2017.
[4] “Why did the show ‘Black Crows’ stop at Episode 20?” Arab 48, June 15, 2017 [Arabic].
[5] Sigmund Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” in James Strachey, ed. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 18, (London: Hogarth, 1953), p. 9.
[6] Slavoj Žižek, “A Glance into the Archives of Islam,” 2006,
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Peter E. Chojnowski, “Is ISIS Trafficking Human Organs? Jihad and The Instrumentalization of The Human Body,” Catholic Medical Quarterly, 66(2), May 2016.
[10] Steve Inskeep, “New Show ‘Black Crows’ To Tell Stories of Life Under ISIS,” National Public Radio, May 29, 2017.
[11] Dov Lieber, “Islamic State explains why it doesn’t attack Israel (yet),” Times of Israel, March 24, 2016.
[12] Samar Batrawi, “Understanding ISIS’s Palestine Propaganda,” Al-Shabaka, March 30, 2016.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Remarks at the Ministerial Plenary for the Global Coalition Working to Defeat ISIS, US Department of State, March 22, 2017:
[15] “Why did the show ‘Black Crows’ stop at Episode 20?” Arab 48, June 15, 2017 [Arabic].

How to cite this article:

Jamil Khader "The Aesthetics of Antiterrorism and Its Limits," Middle East Report 282 (Spring 2017).

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