ISIS propaganda outlets released a series of videos and an article in Dabiq condemning Iraqis and Syrians who seek refuge in Europe. It appears that the group is struggling to figure out how to articulate its stance on the issue. In the videos released by its media outlets from several regions it controls in Iraq and Syria, the message fluctuates between empathy for the refugees and condemnation for the treatment they have received, to lecturing them on the error of going to Europe in the first place.
For instance, an attempt is made to highlight the ill treatment at the hands of Hungarian authorities and others, stating that refugees will simply be persecuted in the “abode of the unbelievers.” Another video shamelessly appropriates footage of Aylan Kurdi, whose family fled the town of Kobani and its continued besiegement by ISIS forces, using it to warn about the dangers of the Mediterranean passage. This geopolitical messaging is paired with Qur’anic exhortations such as:
Indeed, those whom the angels take [in death] while wronging themselves – [the angels] will say, “In what [condition] were you?” They will say, “We were oppressed in the land.” The angels will say, “Was not the earth of Allah spacious [enough] for you to emigrate therein?” For those, their refuge is Hell – and evil it is as a destination…Except for the oppressed among men, women and children who cannot devise a plan nor are they directed to a way – For those it is expected that Allah will pardon them, and Allah is ever Pardoning and Forgiving.
Surah An-Nisa, verses 97 to 99
ISIS’ territorial emergence is one of the primary factors which has made it more appealing than movements like al-Qaeda. And in virtue of declaring itself a Caliphate, and its occupied lands as the Dar-al-Islam, it portrays hijra to these territories as an obligation of every Muslim. According to the verse they quoted, those Muslims who fail to do so cannot legitimately claim to be oppressed, and therefore deserve no empathy. For Muslims to actually migrate from the Dar al-Islam to the Dar al-Kufar (heathen lands) is a sin tantamount to apostasy—and according to ISIS, anyone who dies performing such an act will be rejected by God and inherit eternal punishment in hell.
Another video entitled “And He Will Replace You With Another People” suggests that those “infidels” who leave the Islamic lands will be replaced by other “true” Muslims—i.e. those foreign fighters who continue to flock to Iraq and Syria.
snatching defeat from the jaws of victory (Again)
What is revealing about the videos, other than the condescending and arrogant tone against destitute and afflicted people, is that the group seems to understand that the images of all these people fleeing to the “decadent” European Union pose a danger to their propaganda efforts and state building project. The statement which is being made by the refugees attempting to enter European territory is a powerful one and should not be ignored:
One of the pillars of ISIS’ state-building project is a claim to be the defender of Muslims worldwide, and particularly in the Middle East, against the nusayri (Alawites), rafidah (their term for Shia) and crusader oppressors (from the West). To the extent that Middle Eastern Muslims are not only rejecting ISIS, but seek shelter among the enemy—ISIS’ claims to legitimacy are largely nullified. Especially given the fact that the number of people fleeing ISIS is vastly greater than the number of people leaving their home countries to join it.
Politicians and policy makers in Europe and the U.S. should look to these trends as decisive proof that the Islamic State’s message is not nearly as popular among Muslims and Arabs as might be perceived. But there are policy implications as well:
Western nations must extend the hand of friendship and brotherhood towards the “stranger seeking shelter among us.” The fact that many of these refugees have been so mistreated in Europe that they are increasingly returning to war-torn Iraq and Syria–viewing the ravages of ISIS as marginally superior to the degradation they experienced in the West–this will have profound implications down the line for the so-called “War on Terror.” Demonizing refugees as terrorist sympathizers, potential sleeper agents, or illiberals who threaten the fabric of Europe simply plays into ISIS’ hands and narrative—turning what would otherwise be a devastating blow against the group into another propaganda victory.