Hollywood has been called the greatest propaganda machine in human history, because the power of film is so compelling and persuasive. Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan once wrote that “movies are hard-wired into our psyche, shaping how we view the world… It’s when politics infiltrates entertainment that it is most subversive – and most effective.” That’s why Communist Russia’s Lenin said, “For us, the cinema is the most important of all the arts.” Hitler too certainly understood its usefulness in conveying Nazi propaganda. Now the savage fanatics of ISIS show that they recognize the power of film too.
It’s not as if contemporary Islamic fundamentalists didn’t already understand this concept and take it very seriously. They took it seriously enough to butcher Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in broad daylight on the streets of Amsterdam back in 2004 for a ten-minute short film critical of Islam called Submission that he made with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of Infidel. For her participation in it, Hirsi Ali herself has long lived under the threat of death, just like Dutch politician Geert Wilders, whose 2008 short film Fitna outraged the Muslim world by linking verses from the Koran with images of violence inspired by those verses. Most significantly, the fundamentalists take film seriously enough to pressure Hollywood to shape the ways in which Islam and Muslims are depicted.
Now ISIS militants, who are amassing a disturbing number of recruits from around the world partly as a result of their social media savvy – have produced a recruitment video as slick as any Hollywood production in response to Barack Obama’s announcement that the U.S. will lead an international coalition to stem the ISIS tide.
Last week the al-Hayat Media Center, the English-language propaganda outlet for ISIS, released a trailer for a film entitled Flames of War with the tagline, “Fighting has just begun.” The 52-second video displayed production values not too dissimilar from those in just about any explosion-fest by blockbuster director Michael Bay, including super-slow motion footage of jihadis in combat, quick cuts, and CGI flames and explosions.
The trailer showed U.S. tanks being attacked by jihadists with shoulder-launched missiles, American troops being shot at, our wounded being loaded into an armored vehicle, almost subliminally quick images of George Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner and Donald Rumsfeld on a tour of Iraq, and drive-by footage of the White House at night, implying that ISIS is on our soil and within striking distance of the White House itself. The only spoken words are Obama’s pledge that “American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq.” It must have been a very compelling teaser for any young Muslim men looking for excitement and adventure.
A mere two days later ISIS followed up the trailer with the full-length film: fifty-five minutes of documentary-style recruitment propaganda touting the military success of the Islamic State. It consists mostly of handheld footage taken by cameramen embedded with ISIS fighters, and is narrated or subtitled almost entirely in English – presumably because its intended audience is Muslims living in the West. The narrator, apparently fluent in both English and Arabic, praises the brave mujahideen who come “from all corners of the world” to bring “a new era of victory for the ummah within the pages of history.”
The muj are depicted as heroes relentlessly waging war against anyone who gets in their way, crusaders or Muslims, and their enemies are derided as cowards. They are shown fighting without fear of death, since their aims are favored by Allah, and they accept only victory or martyrdom. Indeed, at one point a long camera shot practically caresses the bloody, dusty cheek of a dead ISIS warrior, whose beatific final expression suggests a spiritual joy in having given his life for Allah. As for Iraqi or Syrian Muslims who dared fight against ISIS, they are shown being graphically and ruthlessly executed after being forced to dig their own graves.
One crucial lesson to be drawn from Flames of War is that the film utterly destroys Obama’s and John Kerry’s ridiculous assertion that ISIS is not Islamic. From beginning to end, Allah’s presence is inescapable – he could even be said to be the movie’s protagonist. The film is suffused with religious commentary and Koranic justification for waging war on unbelievers. “Nothing can stand against the weapon of unshakeable faith,” the narrator assures potential recruits.
Similarly, there is absolutely zero mention of the colonial “grievances” that Obama claims are motivating ISIS. Instead, the narrator very clearly proclaims that “we only fight to bring back the Khalifah and establish the shari’ah of Allah. We fight in order to rule the entire world with Allah’s revelation.” Yeah, not Islamic at all.
The movie ends with a message to America – called the “defender of the cross” – about the inevitability of war with ISIS: “You will be forced into a direct confrontation, with Allah’s permission, despite your reluctance. And the sons of Islam have prepared themselves for this day.”
(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 9/23/14)