Killing bees with a sledgehammer?

So after about two months of intense work through a number of lectures, interviews and talks, for which I am grateful to have been invited to give, I notice that many of the continuing questions I receive currently are aimed at understanding not only how, but why IS still advances. Military experts seem to be in total agreement that the caliphate decreases geographically as coaliation forces and joint efforts on the ground are seizing control over strategically important cities. This is only partially true. In the main region yes, however IS expands its provincial reach by establishing affiliating bases in Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and other mostly North African countries, but also in the far east towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is easy to be blinded by potential military success in Syria and Iraq, however it is an overestimation to say that current military efforts decrease the strength and spread of IS. That aside, the ideological and regional context are not only more worrying but at the same time also constitute the framework in which the true possibilities to engage and facilitate resistance exist. Reasons for this has an important historical outline.

Sunni vs. Shia context

IS takes a narrative point of departure in the treatment of sunni muslims in Iraq after the US invasion 2003. When removing the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein regime, the sunni minority in the country (which in comparison to shia muslims had been favoured the most by the regime and constituted about 20 % of the Iraqi population before the declaration of the caliphate) became politically marginalized. An insurgency grew from the dismantlement and former Baath Party members, leading generals etc in the former regime, became a strong part of this insurgency. Groups like Al-Quaida and above all IS absorbed this insurgency and politicized it in forms of seeking to build its state.

Two major dimensions must be regarded in this political, religious and weaponized project. First, the importance for IS to restore sunni political power in Baghdad after the war(different from Saddam Hussein as his politics were more secular and promoted Arab nationalism) and second, to unify Aleppo in Syria and Baghdad in Iraq under a joint rule of government. This unification is one of many endeavors by IS which can clearly be related to the islamic theology and history they are relying on. In addition, unification of that kind also constitutes a significant message of a vision needed to be sold to the sunni populations and tribes in these countries. By embedding this message in fear of ’kufr’ (non-believers) and a firm belief in the ’tawhid’ (the concept of monotheism and oneness with God) –  IS is to be perceived as the restorer of ”true” muslim faith and the great caliphate. So it’s a messianic vision with a strong political project underneath that in combination is not only powerful but also lethal in the increasingly tensed divisions between sunni and shia in these countries.

Speaking oh this division, what IS primarily has done over the years is to appeal to local sunni populations, playing on the concept of victimhood, mantling the role as defender of marginalized sunni groups in the region. The US left power in Baghdad to a shia minority and it didn’t take long for domestic and religious tensions to accelerate. In Syria, the Assad-regime continously tormented its citizens and still contributes widely to the deconstruction of Syria as we once knew it. So in the world of IS, there is an interplay between victimhood and strong aggression. These perpetual factors are intertwined and one cannot exist without the other.

The real enemy for IS, or primary might be a better word, seems to be the’rafik’ (their word for shia muslims) of Iraq. They are currently under the influence (and protection) of the Iranian revolutionary guard due to intense negotiations between the US and Iran, regarding operations in Iraq. One of the main figures in sunni islamist terrorism and Al-Quaida operations in Iraq after the US intervention 2003, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi (dead 2006), early targeted the shia muslims as main enemies to destroy in order to have any possibilities to advance in the sunni jihadist project that later became IS. His approach and strategy to gain support from the sunni populations for Al-Quaida in Iraq was to strike against shia muslims in the most explicit way (burning their mosques, ruthless killing through religios motivations etc.) and make them retaliate. Because when an aggregated shia population were to do so, sunni muslims in the region would be empowered to join Al-Quaida in defending the sunni tradition and people of the (true) islam – a role now taken even further by IS.

The need for sunni awakening and cooperation

And today? Iranian, US and Syrian airstrikes bombing IS (self- proclaimed protectors of sunni islam and sunni muslims under their governing). Present foreign policies and military efforts of these coalition countries are increasingly playing in the hands of IS and also makes their messaging of victimhood and protectors against enemies and threats, more powerful for the sunni muslims in the region. Considering the historical context, this message is not hard to sell to ravaged and marginalized sunnis in fractioned countries. Many simply see an alliance between US, Iran, the Assad-regime in Syria and the shia-muslims in Iraq, Iran and other actors joining, and this makes the threat more evident, one-dimensional and enhances the image of IS as protectors, not villains, in the eyes of sunni groups and populations. I consider this to be the main reason for why there is no sunni insurgency within the ruled areas, rising against IS.

And let’s be honest. The only initial thing that truly and effectively can challenge the spread and further establishment of the IS caliphate, is to have sunni-muslims, regionally and internationally, to work together in a new joint rise (comparable to the Anbar Awakening in 2006 when roughly 30 tribes in the Anbar province stood up against Al-Quaida in Iraq) – something IS is determined to prevent from happening again and towards them. If acknowledging this, western states and policy makers are to engage in altering not only the political (military) strategies but also challenge the deeply rooted and continously growing belief among sunni muslims, that the US (and west in general) are out to get them.

Understanding the basis of IS, its core, background, vision, aim and especially strategies to achieve it expands our knowledge about these issues. Through it we can better prepare and execute the necessary ideological countering against islamic extremism. But by only advancing on a military front we can easily draw an analogy to hitting a nest of bees with a sledgehammer.

It just doesn’t work. No matter how hard you hit.


Women in IS media enterprise of violence


After the attacks against Charlie Hebdo in Paris earlier this year as well as the more recent mass-shooting in San Bernardino, California, much media attention has been given to the role of women in radicalization and processes of recruitment to the Islamic State (IS) and other radical islamist terrorist organizations. Reasons for this are primarily a result of the fact that women in different levels were involved in these attacks, which seem to have come as a surprise as it contradicts a norm of terrorists are equal to men (especially in islamist radical organizations). This post is about this misconception.

In a time of a rhetoric of war, followed by political decisions supporting the verbal strategy, a much needed interest for how women are recruited has almost been neglected. The obvious reason why would be that military operations, islamic terrorism and all the discourses surrounding these issues – are framed through a very male perspective and understood through the same lens. Yes, the vast majority of foreign fighters travelling to join IS, or for that matter other self-proclaimed jihadists operating in Iraq and Syria, are men. However, a crucial fact is that far more women than mainstream media highlights, have been and are travelling to join as well. Men and women are socially vulnerable for exposure of radical ideologies, but in somewhat different ways. Extremist organizations use these differences in their attempt to target potential recruits (and simultaniously play on and exploit the established gender roles of western society).

Is the Islamic State different than similar organizations in this matter? Yes. Several reports on the quantity and frequency of tweets coming from pro-ISIS accounts (some argue for around 100 000 tweets each day). A large part of these tweets seem to come from women, which totally reverse the way Al-Quaida or the Taliban regime work with women as a central part of the propaganda machinery. IS truly puts effort in trying to make women visible, not only in terms of media quantity, but also in qualitative terms in virtual and physical spaces. Let me give you some excerpts.

The fact that IS recruitment strategies reach beyond online engagement and above all focus on physical presence in communities and mosques around Europe, is especially important to consider when higlighting the attempt to reach out to women from mainly a younger generation. Female recruiters are commonly used as a mean to make contact with younger female muslims in diasporic communities, for instance by physically handing out leaflets on the streets of London. Since much of the radicalization processes aimed at women involve promises of a new and better life, a life in which they have a significant role to play, an honorable existence and prospects of a future to practice their faith without feeling alienated – it differs from how men are primarily being targeted. There are ideological positions given to men and women respectively (basically enhancing their function in the nationbuilding and the utopian future) and this type of differences in gender-based emphasis must be stressed before attempting to draw political lines for effecient countermeasures.

In the media productions coming out of IS, female representations are significantly different in comparison to how men (usually younger male fighters) are being framed. Women are primarily portrayed as core of the family and of the intimate spheres of life in the caliphate. Messaging reveals how belonging and unity around the notion of freedom to practice religion and faith (the opposite of life in alienated European countries characterized by polarization and islamophobic measures) are clearly being adressed. In these type of messages, IS certainly draws upon the notion of contemporary polarizing nodes and structural injustice in western countries (muslims/non-muslims, religious/atheists and also men/women) and thereby attempts to further divide and appeal to especially muslim womens desire to improve life.

But also, if we look at the actual storytelling in many of the produced videos and reports coming out of the media centers under IS, much evolves around younger male jihadists, their journey towards martyrdom, their preserverence for the cause and their heroic efforts for the caliphate. So there is an attractive adventurism and heroism attached to men in the strategic media messaging, with hopes of targeting potential female recruits. The glorification of male jihadist fighters is central in this matter and constitute a substantial part of the propaganda.

In addition to this, IS consider women to be essential for the state itself to function both now and in the future. At present women dominate tasks of collecting taxes, medical and caring duties and above all within the educational system. They are also targeted for raising children, establishing family structures and values and appear as equal to men in terms of importance, however with different tasks and obligations


Life for women under the ruling of IS, is though completely different.


Taking all these aspects into consideration, it is not surprising to find women as being key figures in attacks inspired by the enterprise of violence that is the Islamic State.

Islamic State media reflects new despair

Last night a new IS execution video was spread in jihadist forums and through pro-IS social media accounts. It was yet another one in a row of gruesome graphic beheadings of prisoners dressed in orange suits and executioners standing behind them, dressed in black. First half of the video in English and second half in Arabic. A message to Barack Obama being read in English, and then, in Arabic, the allegations and explanations for why the prisoners now face death. The visual composition is more or less the same, the method is the same, the message is the same. We have seen it before. This time it is four Iraqi prisoners and not a US/UK journalist or aid-worker (which explains the fact that basically no western media have reported on this)

But there is a difference in this video compared to earlier. It may seem far-fetched and insignificant, but I believe it may still enhance our understanding of the relation between IS media strategies and the operations on the ground.

For the first time in this blog I now post images from the videos I am working with and have to watch. I choose as non-graphic captures as I can to illustrate my arguments. Below I put screen-shots of the four prisoners kneeling. They are reading their final prey. But three of them are then forced to witness one of their friends being behedaded first, and only two meters in front of them. This adds a layer of fear in the video, different from similar earlier videos spread during the last year. Previous examples of this type of videos have shown prisoners being killed at exactly the same time, within the same seconds, like a manifestation och collective death (reports from inside the area have argued that the explanations for prisoners being so calm before they die is that they are largely unaware of what is going to happen).


This latest video shows something else. It focuses more on the fear and horrific reactions of the prisoners watching their friend being decapitated, hence realizing what is going to happen to them. The fear in their eyes, the panic in their bodies, are given a more prominent position in the visual composition rather than the graphic effect and theatrical setting of executing everybody at the same time.

Having studied this subject for a while, I ask myself how the visual strategies and use of online propaganda like this are reflecting changes in how IS operates. Nowadays I experience that much of the brutality is beyond attempts to reach the worlds attention. Effects and high production value are being toned down for the ”message”. The herendous proof of what happens to prisoners, for those who oppose. Mentally and physically. In my opinion both visual and audio messages are increasingly becoming more desperate in its content, more frequent distribution and less thoughtful.

As the military operations against IS intensifies, yesterdays announcment to put US military on the ground in Syria naturally also intensifies the measures of desperation from IS. The video above is not necessarily a clear-cut evidence of this, but maybe an indicator. Considering the development over the last year I believe there are tendiencies for expecting an escalation on different levels. In Iraq and Syria, potential attacks around the world as reqruitment and radicalization expand, but also an increasing brutality in the online messaging and videos coming out of the vast number of media production centers under IS control.

Mediatized violence in Israel/Palestine conflict

As the level of violence continues to rise between Israelis and Palestinians, the role of technology and activist use of media intensifies accordingly. Commentators and op-eds talk about a third Intifada but in comparison to the former two, this one is much more intesively taking place online and through social media platforms as well. It is not specific for this region to deal with violence being filmed, photographed and spread online for either propaganda or purpose of gaining support (just remember the Arab Spring), however the ongoing struggles are increasingly being debated through the lens of activists’ and governments’ use of social media. And what is the most important aspects of this dimension?

Just through a fast overlook of pro-Palestinian as well as pro-Israeli websites, networks and forums, a few things stand out. (Note: this is by no means a justification for drawing attention from the actual human suffering of the conflict, nor from the historical narratives of the holy land, but a mere reminder of the role of media technologies in this conflict.)

There are different types of videos and material surrounding the ongoing clashes (some would label it murders, attacks etc.) The graphic images published on several social networks, as well as integrated in a simplified way in traditional news media, are not only grusome to its nature but also orchestrated and strategically placed. In combination with a rather hateful rhetoric from political (and religious) leaders from both sides, the videos becomes a catalyst for further escalation. Even Israeli newspaper Haaretz highlighted the increased aggression in language a few days ago. The material and videos being spread, and perhaps in particular the celebration of violence and encouraging attacks type of videos, can be seen as an extension of the political and ideological branches and structures on the conflict, of course with a strong historical development and tension leading up to it.


(Photo: )
An interesting aspect I interpret as rooted in the religious dimension between jews and muslims, is the difference in what is actually shown. There seems to be a widespread form of resistance or objection towards exhibiting the dead (for instance victims in images or videos from attacks) within the Jewish community. But within an islamic frame, if muslims are being considered martyred they are equal to heroes, hence subject for visibility and also their story are to be told and shown to the world. This means that pro-palestinian videos frequently show dead or dying bodies as a means for not only reveal Israeli atrocities and gain support from the international community, but also as a part of celebration for the deceased. The pro-Israeli videos seem more restrictive and focus more on the actual attacks being aimed at israeli citizens or police forces, but without graphically showing deceased bodies if it can be avoided

There are also a great number of videos circulating, spread deliberately as counter evidence to official government statements from both sides. A good example is the shooting of palestinian Fadi Alloun. Israeli officials claimed Alloun had attempted to kill an Israeli youngster with a knife, however this is yet to be proved. The video seem to show he had no knife and were shot without representing an immediate danger to the police.

There are also a number of videos, photographs and tweets containing instructions on how to perform a deadly attacks with knives, and encouraging mainly younger palestinians to attack Israelis. This aspect has been widely highlighted in traditional news reporting during the last week or two, but increasing voices online question these instructional material (claiming they are from older and other contexts, aimed at totally different audiences and in other communities). Also there are videos claiming to show Israeli police placing knives next to Palestinian bodies. So it is a complex array of agendas, desinformation and propaganda right now.

No matter what side of the conflict we are on, how we choose to understand the violence, it is without a doubt a countinuation of a human tragedy in a region suffering from domestic and international conflicts for deacades. The second intifada, that lasted until 2005, was also discussed through the use of different type of media, at least from time to time. And whether or not we should label the ongoing escalation of the conflict as a third one, is of minor significance. However I do believe it is important to understand that this is not simply a palestinian rebellion, but an escalation of violence and attacks from both sides. And what makes it specifically interesting for a simple media researcher interested in the region like myself, is that the social media activism and information war taking place today is much more strategic and widespread, and plays a larger role, compared to 2005. It should also tell us something about how this conflict will proceed in the future.

Not only on the streets, but online as well.

Media and self exposure of academic research

Sometimes you manage to write something that people can relate to, attach an idea to, identify with or challenge. Earlier this summer I wrote a very honest blogpost on how researching extremist propaganda affected me as a human being. Showing vulnerability turned out to be a way for people interested in the subject to connect and ask me further questions. Initiate discussions. I received a lot of feedback and often positive response. Some of the feedback shared a sense of gratefulness for helping to understand a complex and in many ways challenging subject and especially for the way I talked and expressed myself regarding the emotional aspects of it.

And it made me wonder – if we as academics want to communicate our research (often situated within an academic institution) to others outside the walls of academia, maybe dare to personalize our processes and adapt our results/ideas, is the most efficient way?
I believe for the general public, academic research is a rather remote business taking place in a different world so to speak, and if there is anything that directly concerns society, the news will surely tell. But maybe we as researchers can contribute to bridge this by exposing ourselves in somewhat unfamiliar territories?

Since my blogpost a few months ago I have made some interviews and media appearances in which I have felt there is a genuin interest of what I do, interest for my subject (ISIS use of media activism for radicalisation and propaganda) – and I am convinced it is also a result of an openness and willingness from my side to discuss my research in different ways and in different environments. Formalized strict academic writing and publishing results in a journal for the research community is one thing, but talking to and discussing with people, parents, young adults as well as older generations, is a different thing and equally important. I believe we have a responsibility as researchers to be useful resources in bridging the gap between academia and the general public. And while fulfilling this responsibility, it evidently doesn’t hurt to personalize our communication. Sure, some people mock me, make fun of me and criticize me for being visible and that’s fine. Even good.

Because it just proves I am doing something of use.

(Note: some of my brilliant colleagues and closest friends share their research and interests on different platforms as well. Tobias Denskus, senior lecturer in Communication for Development with focus on International aid and development, has his website, and Bo Reimer, professor in Media and communication studies shares his work and interests in Collaborative media here)


Emotions of researching ISIS propaganda

In my current writings about ISIS and their propaganda through several media outlets, I have encountered the most difficult task ever, both professionally and emotionally. Setting out to understand what type of messages are produced, the purpose and the mechanisms emphasized to appeal and target audiences, followers, supporters, adversaries and enemies, I have had to read, watch and analyze videos, texts, photographs, posters and other forms of media material. If I am to be credible as a researcher and write and argue about the strategies of ISIS I need to actually take part of the uncensored and raw footage of for instance the widely known execution videos from time to time mentioned on the news. If you just watch the news and see short extracts or pixel frames from the videos, I can honestly tell you that you have no idea what unfolds in this material. Words cannot describe the despicable acts, the horror and indifference to human life that escalates as time goes by and the number of graphic videos increases.

Not only is it important to raise awareness of what these videos may embrace in terms of new recruitment and above all, fear and resistance for intervening in the area. But also to generate understanding for this type of research, the efforts behind it. Sure you can say that it is voluntary and I only have myself to blame if I feel sick when watching this. But I firmly believe that the issue is so vital for decision makers and publics to know how ISIS operates in their media use and how they take advantage of participatory media and culture and exploit it, and for once in my life I feel I am doing useful research. And as it is emotionally challenging, I use this opportunity to write about my experiences. It helps me and hopefully others.

2A46809B00000578-3159638-image-a-19_1436810138628  (Photo:

When I started going through all this material, I had no idea what was coming. I had seen gruesome footage before and was convinced I would be able to handle it, distance myself from it. But after several months of work, watching, analyzing, taking notes, writing, watch again, listen and reflect, I admit that it has been everything but pleasurable, to say the least. The well produced and designed videos mentioned on the news during the last year (executions of westerners) are seriously nothing in relation to the videos depicting spontaneous torture and executions of local minorities, non-believers or captives of any sort. The mobile phones capturing what is the most unimaginable acts I have ever seen. It is so horrific I can’t even begin to describe. And I will not.


I will not mention the lonely farmer being filmed outside Aleppo when ISIS fighters ask him to recite a verse from the Quran and he cannot seem to remember, falls to his knees and alive being cut in different pieces. The panic in his eyes, his struggle for getting away when they hold him down and start. And I will not tell you how the bystanders cheer and one puts the camera in close-up of his eyes closing as he is obstructed to take his final breath as it is taken from him instead.


And I will certainly not tell you how the 13 year old boy helps bury Yazidi girls of similar age alive, nor how the decapitated bodies of infants, young girls and boys, women and men, are filmed as trophies for the extremist ideology and the caliphate.


And finally I will not tell you about how a body reacts to pain. What it looks like when the torture starts and the silence and stillness during the first moments of seconds, when the victims’ body doesn’t understand what is happening and puts every sense on hold. And it feels like a photograph. Only to suddenly release extreme pain, panic and spasms when it can’t be silent no more.


I will not tell you that.


But I will tell you this.


I have sat through so many videos by now. You may be fooled by the weeks/months of silence about new videos on the news, but trust me, currently about two or three videos of this kind are uploaded every week. I have taken notes on everything I have seen. But above all, I more than ever really feel fear. Not for my safety, but the fear of human beings. What men are capable of. My pulse raises as I think about what I have seen. I have nightmares from time to time. I have felt sick, throwed up and have turned my head a number of times.


And I know that the writings I will produce of how ISIS use media for spreading fear, will not ever reflect the agony and feelings of anxiety that I experienced from watching all this. At best it will be a journal article read by fellow researchers and an informational short news piece. At best. But if I can contribute to make one simple step towards understanding how this group operates, and that step leads closer to a more effective work to counter them online and make people aware, then I guess a form of satisfaction will emerge making it all worthwhile. And if I manage to close this and produce a text worth to publish and be read, it will be the greatest accomplishment I’ve ever achieved on a professional level.


And on a personal front? When I put my daughter to sleep at night, kiss her good night and stroke her hair, I guess I better and really understand the precious that is life and human value.

Debattartikel på Svt Opinion

Idag skriver jag en debattartikel på Svt Opinion där jag efterfrågar en större precision i det förebyggande arbetet mot extremistgruppers (läs IS) radikalisering och rekrytering på nätet. Min poäng är att belysa att det inte är mediet eller de sociala medierna i sig som är det viktiga att fokusera på, utan snarare att förstå hur själva budskapen i propagandamaterialet (texter, filmer etc) är konstruerade och därmed kunna motverka och förebygga radikalisering på ett mer effektivt sätt från politiskt håll. Jag vänder mig också mot andra debattörers vilja att företag som t.ex. Twitter ska utveckla sina strategier för att förbjuda att den typen av material sprids via dess plattform. Jag anser att de redan gör tillräckligt stort arbete för att hjälpa situationen.

Läs gärna min artikel här:

Activism and journalism in the global information ecosystem

As human beings we have a need to categorize and structure the world around us in order to make sense and understand a rather complex contemporary time. Lately I have encountered readings and debates around the distinction between activism and journalism. These have for decades been considered separate entities, rarely collaborating and working together. But nowadays we are many who address these distinctions and critically try to elaborate on how we can move these practices together.

There is a place for activism in journalism. Or maybe activist features rather than proposing an abandonment of journalistic norms and values building on seeking objectivity and transparency. And the latter should be more in focus than the former. We (as in a questionable generalization of the general public) are slowly sharing the notion of objectivity as a utopian notion and ethical marker for journalists to strive for, rather than a reachable and realizable vision. And if we acknowledge this, then where do we draw the line between journalism, activism and other kinds of production and distribution of speech and stories? Is it even necessary to make these distinctions?

Well, yes and no. I firmly believe that there is a place for activism in journalism. This would not mean that journalists are to abandon the professional ideals from which the profession originates. On the contrary. By turning towards the democratic dimensions and fundamental ideas of progression which drives activists, both in political and media spheres, journalism can develop into a natural and integral part of the civic engagement taking place to improve democratic health. This is especially important in countries with greater problem of political accountability, government censorship and oppressed opposition. In many autocratic states, governments define journalism and activism as counterparts. Journalists should support government policies and activists oppose them. And maybe this definition is valid even in more open societies. Not that journalists per definition are to maintain status quo (even if there are arguments for this as well) but that activism is a mean to oppose power and promotes non-democratic methods for doing so.

Therefor there is even a greater need to redefine and integrate these two binaries and discuss how journalistic institutions can decrease the gap between citizens (many engaged in activist movements as the alternative political sphere to some extent engage citizens more extensively than traditional political parties) and the social and political influence of journalism.
After all, journalists are already an important factor in the struggle for press freedom around the world. And as a broader struggle takes place around the media sphere, a struggle for freedom of expression and further demoractization processes (mainly by activist organisations) – journalists should be a more decisive actor in this struggle as well.

Take the example of persecution and threats agains journalists/correspondents around the world. Pleading for basic human rights of these colleagues has become an integral part of the journalist profession and ideal and an important dimension of the discourse surrounding press freedom. But as the boundaries of who is journalist and who is not have been transformed and the distinctions are blurred – who are not a part of this? Should journalists stand up for the greater cause of freedom of speech (including non-journalists and activists) or just come to the defence of own colleagues? As should be obvious, I strongly argue for the former. Bring activists and journalists closer together, not just through conceptual understanding but in practice as well.

This would not mean that the individual journalist looses his or her professional identity and suddenly becomes indistinguishable from social media advocates and bloggers. The question of where to draw the line between journalism and activism should be up to the individual journalist and activist to answer. Government, democratic or not, cannot interfere in this distinction and should be kept away from such attempts.

We live in a global information ecosystem. Journalists, activists, NGO:s, Human Rights-organisations and citizens. Let’s bring nodes in this ecosystem closer together and collaboratively take part of the broader struggle for freedom of speech and other democratic ideals.

New design. New focus.

New design. New focus.

I have tried to streamline this blog and will from now on frame it more towards my current research and interest in dimensions of media activism. After two articles/chapters published during the recent year about the democratic functions of using social media and online video streaming as tools for social change and challenging authoritarian states in the Arab world, I have now started working on a new article in which I turn to the opposite side of using media technology for enhancing democracy, namely global extremist groups and their use of both digital and analogue media for recruiting and radicalizing potential supporters. In this article I perform a discourse analysis of propaganda material published by the Islamic State (ISIS) in order to see how this organization discursively construct religious claims to justify actions, forming a caliphate and attempts to reach out to foreign fighters to join in Iraq and Syria. I also discuss the online responses to these strategies, predominantly made by western governments. Hopefully I will finish this work by 2016. If you are interested in the subject you can watch one of my recent presentations/lectures here.

During this process I will use this blog as an outlet for ideas and thoughts concerning my ongoing work. You are welcome to join me either here, on Twitter or Facebook.

Freedom of speech, religion and fanaticism

The debate on the vitality and threat to freedom of speech and expression, including the most effective strategies to defend its practice, currently proceeds across large parts of the democratic world.

The more right we give to individuals to feel offended, the more moral justification for violent responses within this right emerges. Freedom of speech should never be restricted or related to the individual experience and right(?) to feel aggrieved. Instead, this privilege to express opinions has to be a fundamental part in a larger democratic discussion and development characterised by a holistic approach towards society. The risks of safeguarding our right to express and simultaneously restrict the width, will be that we unconsciously trigger and make way for islamophobic and anti-semitic tendencies. To mock a religious profile, or to criticise religions and valuegrounds, are not necessarily the same as attacking minority groups. Far from it.

I would never pretend to know what causes organizations or fanatics to commit deeds as the ones we have witnessed and experienced in Paris and Copenhagen recently. However, I believe any type of violent act of that kind fundamentally concern our relationship to one another. Senses of fear and social divides fuel radical actions, and that also include expressing opinions and the nature of public debate. If there is a perceived insecurity, coupled with exceeding limits regarding ethics and morality, pushing for provocation and polarization, the public debate (as well as social life in general) toughens. Religion or ideology becomes weapons for taking the edge off the opponent, often with highly polarized and provocative formulations. But what is the actual affinity between characteristics of public debate, freedom of speech and fanatics using religion as justification for violence?

Well, looking at the highly intense debate regarding the role of freedom of speech and  whether or not one should provoke by making fun of religious figures, some characteristics emerge. On the one hand there is a consensus in the condemnation of the attacks and a defence of the freedom of speech (ie support for the right to criticize religions, in the same way that we have freedom to practice a religion we have the right to make fun of religions in accordance with the freedom of speech). And in this final standpoint, the personal integrity and individual right of feeling offended enters. But just because someone feel offended it doesn’t mean they’re right. Again, if we are to structure society after the risk of individuals feeling offended and put that risk in relation to the overall idea of freedom to express what is within the arms of the law, well, I just don’t see how that would enhance democracy.

With this argument I critically approach the other dimension of this debate, namely those who strongly argue for freedom of speech through “yes we have the right, but it is not the time to provoke right now given the current state of society”. If this becomes a collective judgment, I believe it will not only confine but also have a more severe damage to open society than terrorist attacks actually carried out as partially a consequence for our provocations of religious characters.

Yes, with freedom comes obligations and our freedom to express must in practice be guided by common sense and responsibility. But, I find it hard to understand the surprisingly strong voices in the current debate arguing that we who express something, at the same time should be responsible for how others perceive and interpret it? No, we are not. And we never should be.

It becomes problematic when the individual interpretation, and the right to feel aggrieved and offended is given precedence over the collective right to express an opinion, which of course will move within the borders of the law for nearby areas of for example hate speech. And perhaps the most important aspect of all, the rights and responsibilities in a democracy must be tested, otherwise we do not know whether or not they can be applied.

That being said, let´s finally turn to the actual role of the exercising of freedom of speech. In light of the recent events in Paris and Copenhagen, I believe we should ponder the meaning we choose to ascribe the right to mock religious symbols or characters and the utterences themselves. Is it realistic to believe that it is our safeguarding and exercise of freedom of expression (especially the specific illustrations being debated right now) should be considered crucial mechanisms for attacks like the one against Charlie Hebdo or the meeting in Copenhagen? Extremely doubtful to me. Rather, we should probably aim our attention to other social, political and cultural issues to protect our democratic ideals. Debates on freedom of expression are rarely productive in the sense that we are debating with basically total agreement on the most basic core values: the right to express an opinion within legal limits. In the next stage there is, as shown above, difference of opinions regarding how to best use and develop this freedom. But it seems quite far-fetched to believe that organizations of ISIS character in a decisive way would bother blasphemous caricatures or the critical writings about the prophet. It may certainly has some form of triggering of and targets of certain attacks (as Charlie Hebdo showed), but I am rather convinced that to somehow understand the structural violence and terror attacks, by organizations using a pretext of religion, has far more central factors than an eagerness to defend freedom of speech in the west.


As soon as we equate the violence by ISIS or other fanatic groups with islam, we walk out onto a slippery rope. For no, even if these groups use islam as a justification for actions, it has very little to do with islam. No religion is violent or good in itself. It’s a religion. If you bring violence into your interpretation of islam, christianity or buddhism, then your islam, christianity or buddhism becomes violent. If you bring in peace it becomes peaceful. Religion in itself has no value. It is people´s approach to it that results in a value. And that may differ substantially. No, rather than wrongly categorizing structural violence along prejudices and ignorance, our quest for ways to respond to threats to democratic society must go through dialogue based on knowledge about the difference between for example fanaticism and islamism. 

Let’s start there.