Why ISIS Appropriates Pop Culture

Many articles have attempted to elucidate the appeal of ISIS. Instead of focusing on the motivation to join ISIS, however, these analyses make the mistake of homing in on the justification for joining instead — they get so hung up on the extremist ideology that the organization propagates that they neglect to account for the decisions that each foot soldier makes when choosing to join the movement. They forget that ISIS is a group of individuals from diverse backgrounds, not one coherent whole.

This flaw in reasoning is predicated on the misguided understanding that ISIS originated in isolation. Maybe it’s the image of the desert that’s confusing everyone: the Middle Eastern arena evokes orientalist mirages of a vast, barren wasteland cut off from humanity and civilization. The truth of the matter is that most ISIS members have been exposed to western culture in a significant way, whether that be by growing up in the West themselves or by consuming Hollywood and western media throughout their lives in this increasingly globalized world.

It should come as no surprise, then, that ISIS propaganda co-opts themes and symbols from American pop culture in its storytelling, as revealed in this Quartz video based on research by Javier Lesaca. But it is surprising, and distinctly disturbing, that the same scenes played out in our collective imagination are so effective in recruiting killers. The nostalgia that ISIS evokes in its recruits by mimicking popular video games and movies could easily be shared by thousands of Americans.

ISIS versus Call of Duty
ISIS versus Grand Theft Auto
ISIS versus American Sniper

There are countless statistics demonstrating the correlation between violence in the media and its desensitizing effects. But these ads aren’t just effective because of their violence. They’re compelling because they capitalize on the empowerment that these scenes lend their viewers. Take the first-person point of view used in Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, some of the video games that ISIS propaganda videos copied. This angle casts the viewer as the protagonist of the story, the active subject who, quite literally, calls the shots. Then, there are scenes that echo Hollywood films like American Sniper and Hunger Games, films that closely follow the protagonist and color their characters with emotional nuance and a vivid sense of purpose.

Both of these strategies tap into the desire to become the hero of your own story. ISIS is marketing a perversion of the American Dream, where those who take part in jihad, or the struggle, and fight for success will achieve endless bounties for their hard work. Recruits are motivated in part by an individualism based on hubris — a belief in their innate superiority and self-importance — and avarice for what they regard as their just desert. Sound familiar? These are the same qualities embodied by the worst kind of American exceptionalism. The “city upon a hill” has now become a state in the desert in its modern iteration.

Instead of being the main attraction, the pursuit of an Islamic State may just be a justification that gives purpose to a recruit’s own megalomania and flatters his or her narcissism. In that case, ISIS is a cult like any other; it just brands itself better.