In 2004, the jihadist ideologue Abu Bakr Naji wrote a treatise titled Management of Savagery in which he outlined a long-term strategy to defeat the mujahidin’s enemies. Through a lengthy campaign of constant violence; through causing terror and chaos, territories could be gained where, eventually, the caliphate could be re-established.
The Islamic State is often seen as having followed Naji’s blueprint. Founded in 2006 as the Islamic State of Iraq, the group rose to prominence after the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. In the spring of 2013, it announced its expansion into Syria and, under the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, it conquered large territories in the Sunni-dominated areas of both countries. Prompted by its successes and determined to rebuild the early-Islamic empire and fulfil apocalyptic prophecies, it announced the reestablishment of the caliphate on 29 June 2014, proclaiming its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the new caliph. One decade after the publication of Naji’s tract, the ‘promise of God’ had been fulfilled. The Islamic State had established itself after countless acts of brutal violence, many more of which would follow in subsequent years.
In most literature on the topic, the Islamic State’s violence has been perceived along the lines of Naji’s strategy: as a means of terror. Accordingly, the group’s violence has been mainly interpreted as a means to spread fear and chaos among the target audience, be it the enemies’ forces, the local population in the self-proclaimed caliphate or people in other targeted societies. This perspective is significant, but insufficient. As research on violence has shown, violence is not only a means to an end. Acts of violence are also expressive actions that embody cultural meanings for the participants and ‘say’ something to the audience. Accordingly, the Islamic State’s violence should also be studied in its cultural context and by examining its meanings for the actors involved.
In this chapter, I will examine the cultural meanings of the Islamic State’s violence for its participants. In doing so, I will pay particular attention to the role of religion, which, according to some authors, is especially relevant in cases of theatrical, symbolic violence. For this purpose, I will focus on two cases of symbolic violence by the Islamic State against Western targets: the videotaped beheadings of four American and British journalists and aid workers in 2014 and the Paris attacks of 13 November 2015. Based on these two cases, I will argue that Muslim traditions provide one of the sources that the Islamic State draws from to create spectacular acts of symbolic violence that are not just a means of terror, but also performances in which the actors display for others the meaning of their social situation.