Isis blinds journalists with its barbarity, but we must continue to report

All sides of the story must be heard

Robert Fisk
Sunday 23 August 2015 18:43 BST
An Isis supporters carries the group's flag
An Isis supporters carries the group's flag (Reuters)

Looking at the obscene photograph of old archeologist Khaled al-Asaad’s headless corpse tied to a lamp-post in Palmyra – another image for the library of pornography that Isis produces weekly – I was struck by how deeply the “Islamic Caliphate” has stabbed the world of journalism. I’m not just talking about the reporters it has murdered or of poor John Cantlie, whose videos from inside “Caliphate territory” is a “Thousand and One Nights” saga of Scherezade-style stories, each allowing him another day of life. In fact, Cantlie’s furious objections to the US and UK governments’ refusal to talk to Isis to save the lives of hostages are valid, not least when the Americans can release Taliban prisoners in exchange for one of their own.

No. I’m talking of the insidious, dramatic yet almost unnoticed way in which Isis and its propagandists in the Caliphate’s movie business – and in its house magazine Dabiq – have invalidated and in many ways erased one of the prime duties of journalism: to tell “the other side of the story”. Since the Second World War, we journos have generally tried to explain the “why” as well as the “who” behind the story. If we failed after 9/11 – when the political reasons behind this crime against humanity would have necessitated an examination of US Middle East policy and our support for Israel and Arab dictators – we’ve sometimes held our ground when it comes to “terror”.

Every time we hear the Palestinians described as “terrorists”, we try to explain to readers and viewers that the Palestinian people are victims of a great “ethnic cleansing”, which depopulated 750,000 of their people – and thus their hundreds of thousands of descendants – at the hands of the new Israeli state. Reports on the Marxist Kurdish PKK forces in Turkey, all of whom are “terrorists” in the eyes of Turkey’s Nato government, there’s an obligation to report on the failure of the West to create a Kurdish state after the First World War, and on the 40,000 dead in Turkey’s hopeless war with its own Kurds over the past 31 years. Report that Saddam was called Hitler by George W Bush, by all means, but also ask why the US supported the very same Saddam in the Iraq-Iran war.

Isis has changed all this. The Express has exhausted its dictionary of revulsion on Isis. “Bloodthirsty”, “sick”, “twisted”, “depraved”, “sadistic”, “vile” – we can only hope that nothing more horrible emerges to further test the paper’s eloquence. Isis – in videos and online – proudly publishes its throat-cuttings and massacres. It revels in the mass shooting of prisoners, videotapes a pilot burning alive in a cage and prisoners tied in a car which is used as target practice for a rocket-propelled grenade. It depicts captives having their heads blown off with explosives or trapped in another cage while being slowly drowned in a swimming pool. Isis is turning to the world of journalism and saying: “We’re not bloodthirsty, sick and depraved, we’re worse than that!”

How can journalists write with anything less than personal horror when Dabiq announces that “after capture, the Yazidi women and children were divided up according to the Shariah [law] among the fighters of the Islamic State... this large scale enslavement of... families is probably the first since the abandonment of Shariah law”. (Issue No 4, Islamic Year 1435, if anyone wants to check). The same magazine even uses the word “massacre” when Isis kills its enemies. Quotations from a vast array of long-dead Islamic prelates are used to justify this frenzy of cruelty. And yes, of course, our lot said the same about our enemies hundreds of years ago.

So how, today, do we tell the “other side” of the story? Of course, we can trace the seedlings and the saplings of this cult of lost souls to the decades of cruelty which local Middle Eastern despots – usually with our complete support – visited upon their people. Or the hundreds of thousands of dead Muslims for whose death we were ultimately responsible during and after our frightful – or “bloodthirsty” or “twisted” or “vile” – 2003 invasion of Iraq.

And we can – we must – spend far more time investigating the links between Isis and their Islamist and rebel friends (Nusrah, Jaish al-Islam, even the near-non-existent Free Syria Army) and the Saudis and Qataris and Turks, and indeed the degree to which US weapons have been sent across the border of Syria almost directly into Isis hands. Why does Isis never attack Israel – indeed, why does its hatred of Crusaders and Shias and Christians and sometimes Jews rarely if ever mention the very word “Israel”? And why do Israel’s air raids on Syria always target Syrian government or pro-Syrian Iranian forces, but never Isis? Indeed, why are Turkey’s air assaults on Isis – happily supported by Nato – far outnumbered by their air raids on the Kurdish PKK, some of whose forces in Syria are fighting Isis? And how come the Turkish press have publicised a convoy of weapons being taken across the Syrian border to Isis by Turkish intelligence agents? Are Turkish engineers running the Isis-controlled oil wells, as Syrian oil engineers claim? And why did the Isis propaganda boys wait until this month before denouncing – via a pretty lowly Caliphate official – Turkish President Erdogan, calling him “Satan” and urging Turks to rise up against his government?

It’s not the violence in Isis videos and Dabiq we should be concentrating on. It’s what the Isis leadership don’t talk about, don’t condemn, don’t mention upon which we should cast our suspicious eye. But that, of course, also means asking some questions of Turkey, America, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel. Are we up to this? Or are we going to let Isis stop us at last from carrying out one of the first duties of our trade – reporting the “other side of the story”?

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