Critical Digital Sovereignties

The Digital Exclosure: Sovereignty According to Islamic State

by Marwan M. Kraidy

On May 31, 2016, an Islamic State province released a video on Telegram, then Twitter and YouTube with the hashtag destroy_the_satellite. Titled Shield Yourselves and Your Families from A Fire, the video depicts a boy kneeling in front of a television set as a male voice chants: “O’ you who have believed, shield yourselves and your families from a Fire.” A thin orange flame encircles the boy in a ring of fire as the narrator warns of a Crusader mental conquest in which satellite television was “the most dangerous” threat.1

Six months earlier, Islamic State’s published a 19-by-38 trifold, Why I Must Destroy the (Satellite) Dish?!. The cover features a shattered screen and scattered television paraphernalia, and two male silhouettes smashing a television with axes.2 The trifold appeared three months before Ramadan—a strategic timing. Ramadan is a Holy month of prayer but also of feasting and television consumption.3 It is this revelry that Islamic State attacked with its campaign against the dish.

Why is Islamic State obsessed with the dish? After all, Arabs access entertainment and news roughly in equal numbers from web and mobile as they do from television sets, and 50% of viewers watch terrestrial channels. So watching via satellite accounts for less than 50% of overall consumption. 4 Why then this fixation on the dish, disproportionate to its impact?

I find that the dish shapes perceptions of self and world by condensing feelings of belonging and animosity. It is therefore a “sticky object.”5 As a material and discernible object charged with affect, the dish spawns a vernacular that shapes and expressed narratives of self, other and boundaries between them. Dish-obsession is an affective performance of sovereignty. Since sovereignty is never absolute and the Caliphate never secure, constant invocations of the dish as object of fear construct the hearth as much as they protect it. Anxiety about home metamorphoses into fear of the dish as portal of alien forms, in turn channeled into hatred of television owners and producers. The dish fetish stems from an unfulfilled yearning to shield a porous and unstable Caliphate.

New practices of sovereignty involving territorialization and deterritorialization are at play. Islamic State uses fire systematically as a medium
to define self and other, and as an actual weapon against foes. This marks Islamic State as a harbinger of pyropolitics—the politics of fire—as opposed to geopolitics—the politics of the earth.

Concerns about cross-border influence shaped the rise of the cultural imperialism model in the 1970s. As a linchpin of Western domination, the
satellite’s “ultimate function” was “the institution of a model of universal gravitation, of satellisation … where nothing can be left to chance” argued Baudrillard.7 An instrument of transnational power, the satellite catalyzed the New World Information and Communication Order debate. In the 1980s geopolitical concerns waned in favor of a focus on borderlessness, complexity and hybridity. In the 2010s, sovereignty made a fiery comeback. China has the Great Firewall. Saudi Arabia wants a “clean internet.” The UK wants to exit the European Union. Trump wants to build a wall. Simultaneously, hybrid warfare weaponizes social media and subvert governments and elections as great powers compete in cloud and data infrastructure. Arab leaders never bought into open borders. Islamic State’s campaign builds on long-term opposition to satellite television, when regimes and clerics invoked sovereignty and morality to curb pan-Arab television since 1991.8 Islamic state replays, more harshly, these previous attacks.

With twenty “answers” to the title “question”, Why I Must Destroy the (Satellite TV) Dish?! exhorts readers to fight the conspiracy—of communists, Crusaders, secularists, democrats, fake Muslims, Jews, Iranians—deploying the dish to lure and transfigure Muslims. In this self-against-the-world cosmology, the dish-as-gateway of blasphemy poses an existential threat to the Caliphate.

Fear of cultural and ideational mixing runs deep in Islamic State’s propaganda. All inter-group exchanges are prohibited: “inter-faith … sports games and dancing competitions.” An impermeable perimeter must fend off outsiders. “Fear,” to Ahmed, presents others as fearsome “insofar as they threaten to take the self in.”9 When Muslims begin to identify with outsiders, loss of self and ensues. Islamic State’s militant advocacy of airtight separation resonates with fear of miscegenation foundational of slavery and Jim Crow rule. It echoes the recent White Nationalist rhetoric of “the Great Replacement” of an imagined White race by a multi-ethnic, multi-racial population.

Preoccupied with enemy communication, Islamic State has a conspiratorial political economy of media that betrays deep animosity towards owners and financiers of media infrastructure. Infrastructure is usually “associated with utilities or public goods and with a material manifestation of legitimate sovereignty,” 10 but it is also “an embedding environment for intimate life.” 11 Islamic State sees affect as a pathway to subversion, so it bans contact with others who, “After they failed to…subdue [Muslims] under their sovereignty…resorted to conquer them with the media.”
The trifold asserts rigid sexual norms—boundaries within—as vital to Islamic State’s us-against-the-world ethos. The dish entices women to mix with men,” teaches crime, and harms “eyes, brain, articulations and vertebrae.” Like other male supremacist right-wing groups, Islamic State imputes its anxieties to media “liberalism,” criminality, disease, and unleashed sexuality.

The dish poses a strategic threat: “watching channels delays victory and advances defeat.”12 Hence the fiery command to get “rid of the dish’s
evil…breaking…destroying and tossing all the d├ębris far away … as the Almighty said: “Burn it and then blast it with the utmost severity.” Fire signals offensive rhetorical escalation and betrays a defensive need: it is both sword and shield, and the dish threatens to set the hearth ablaze.

Fire metaphors underscores intense feelings about the dish. If “[A]ffect is what sticks…what sustains…the connection between ideas, values, and objects,”13 then affect is key for understanding the dish’s centrality. Ahmed argued that as “[C]ertain objects become imbued with positive affect as good objects,” then “[G]roups cohere around” them. In turn, these “[H]appy objects are passed around, accumulating positive affective value as social goods.”14 Islamic State’s acute dish agony has the opposite valence: the dish is imbued with negative affect as a bad object—an unhappy object—accumulating negative value as it circulates, and widely understood as a social bad.15 Social goods benefit the greatest number of people; “social bads” harm them. If health care and a clean environment represent the common good, then the dish is a health and environmental threat.

The dish itself does not cause sentiment, as Ahmed explains via Nietzsche; it is only ex post facto that we understand an object as a cause of the feeling. The dish becomes “a feeling-cause” which itself causes feeling. Here, “[T]he retrospective causality of affect…quickly converts into…an anticipatory causality.”16 Even those who have never experienced the dish dread it.

Historical context matters, for we are “directed not only toward an object, but to ‘whatever’ is around that object… the conditions of its arrival.”17 To Islamic State, conditions include a history of colonialism and imperialism, because of which Muslims need protection from alien seductions gushing from the dish.

In December 2017 Islamic State published the infographic “The Enemy Within: The Dish, Some of its Dangers.”18 By superimposing dish and machine gun, it betrays a view of media as weapons. Whereas other releases celebrate Islamic State launching images-as-projectiles at enemies, this infographic exposes anxiety about the projectilic nature of incoming words and images. Outgoing communicative projectiles are weapons of war, but incoming media projectiles are an existential threat. By also including Quranic suras, the infographic captures the trilogy of Islamic State’s war machine: weapons, media, religion.

The infographic uses xenophobia to bolster the Caliphate’s imagined boundaries at the same time as it affirms that these borders are constantly violated. If the enemy is already within, then Islamic State has failed to protect its sovereignty. Ahmed considers “transgression of the border” as “required in order for it to be secured as a border in the first place” and that “the politics of fear is often narrated as a border anxiety…of being invaded by inappropriate others.”19 Like White supremacists, Islamic State has an identitarian fixation on boundaries—racial, political, religious, sexual. Other documents place the “Muslim home” at the center of Islamic State’s dish fetish. Inspectors visit homes and issue an “Attestation of Cleansing of the Muslim Home” that from satellite paraphernalia.”20 Purity tropes recall anxieties over miscegenation and echo race war narratives of White supremacists.

Islamic State scorns any notion of human sovereignty, which is God’s alone.21 Enemy media violate God’s dominion by featuring evil. To ensure that God’s sovereignty is unbreachable, Islamic State creates a digital exclosure, the opposite of what Andrejevic called “the digital enclosure” in reference to network interactivity and surveillance that expropriates and monetizes private information.22 Both notions of enclosure and exclosure are premised on centralized control of information but for different ends. Whereas enclosure entails the generation, capture, storage and commodification of personal information, exclosure aspires to shield individuals from contact, deflect external information, and consolidate an ideology.

That “enclosure seeks to explain why much still depends on who owns and controls the networks, who sets the terms of entry, and who gathers and sorts this information for what ends” echoes Islamic State’s understanding of sovereignty.23 Both enclosure and exclosure models establish spaces of capture, but whereas enclosure traps individuals within an enclosed space of interactivity and surveillance, Islamic State’s exclosure prohibits any kind of interaction by keeping undesirable information outside its boundaries. Enclosure puts individuals in a gusher of networked information, merging bodies and data; exclosure separates chokes bodies’ access to data. Enclosure is productive of hedonistic, neoliberal
subjectivities, exclosure disciplines a dour, religious subjectivity.

“Digital exclosure” has a genealogy. Between the 1960s and 1980s, notions of “autarchy” (Amin) and “delinking” (Hamelink) reflected yearning for national economic, political and media sovereignties. Islamic State’s methods and rhetoric are over-the-top, but its concerns are neither new nor exceptional. Sovereignty is no longer the exclusive domain of nation-states. The return of rise of “digital sovereignty” suggest a definitional expansion as networks and data flows undermine existing borders and create new demarcations.24 But sovereignty now pertains to people’s lived experience shaped by feelings and emotions. Boundaries are not only national borders or cultural affinities. They are also bodily membranes and affective thresholds.25

Since the 2008 financial crisis, the “rhetorical performativity” of “sovereignty” has been on the rise.26 As xenophobia and protectionism acquire a
new shine, Islamic State fits in with “far-right phobic discourses.”27 It is “not the object of specific phobias…that make people feel unprotected and displaced,” but the performance of the discourse itself, which sustains “[A] diffuse existential anxiety [that] leads to an increased conformity to cultural norms and group identification.”28 Discursive dish-phobia ensures that any contact with Others undermines Islamic State’s vision of warring identities locked in apocalyptic warfare.

Rather than being a reactionary throwback to the Middle Ages, Islamic State reflects a present in which harsh notions of sovereignty increasingly prevail. A harbinger of pyropolitics, Islamic State torches boundaries with fiery hybrid military-media warfare. When Enlightenment thinkers destroyed the Ancients’ understanding of fire as a unity of light (reason) and heat (passion), they celebrated reason and banished passion to the dark underground. It is therefore not surprising that Islamic State would articulate its methodical use of fire as a symbolic and
military tool, to its fixation on rigid boundaries and absolute animosity to outsiders—building blocks of its digital exclosure. This stands against core Enlightenment values like equality, humanism, progress, and freedom. Unfortunately, Islamic State is not the only group ushering in an era of antagonism, intolerance and violence, in which “digital sovereignty” is both a legitimate pursuit and a cloak for a scorched earth politics of hatred and exclusion.

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