We have nightmares. They have dreams. Isis provides real or fantasy nightmares almost every day. A Croat is beheaded in Egypt. An Isis suicide bomber kills almost 70 civilians in a Baghdad market. Twitter, Fox, ABC News and the British tabloids bring us an “Isis map” – which may be a load of old baloney for all they know, because Isis has said nothing about it. The map purports to show us just how much of the globe Isis intends to swallow at first gulp: Spain, Greece, the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, the Levant, Egypt, the Maghreb, half of Africa, all of India, Pakistan and a chunk of China.
But how does Isis sustain these nightmares? An hour of watching execution videos – the whole gamut, from fear in the eyes of the victims, the knife-slicing and the decapitation and the bullets kicking into the backs of heads – leaves any human being in a state of near-catatonic exhaustion, a stupor that makes you suspect that, at some point, you left planet Earth and then returned to it.
The victims appear not to struggle. Perhaps their souls have already died in horror. One of the latest videos shows a group of “spies” dressed in Guantanamo-style costumes, being drowned in an execution cage, the whole iron edifice lowered slowly into a pool. There’s even a set of steps at the deep end and underwater cameras to film their final agony.
Clearly, some terrible mental aberration is going on here, and you recoil from the obscene images. Then you remember that, just over 200 years ago, the French in their thousands gathered to watch the guillotine, gawping as the blade cut the heads off the enemies of the Revolution. And didn’t we hang highwaymen and display their corpses in cages? There is a whole literature of London hangings, of last speeches and of the doomed paddling the air: “dancing the Tyburn jig”.
We clothed all this in words, of course. Justice. Treason. And, my favourite, “the law must take its course”, as if judgment was given by God rather than man. Which is, unfortunately, exactly what Isis claims as it cuts down the innocent.
But there is also something (ghastly though it is to write these words) intrinsically childish about these pornographic Isis videos. Their message of gore, though it involves real people and real blood, is essentially infantile, the Arab nasheed music a form of death lullaby which reaches out to the baby viewer in a deeply disturbing way. I would have asked what sustains this mind-set, had I not just received a 12-page essay from Iain Edgar, emeritus reader in anthropology at Durham University, who has been exploring how Isis uses dreams to justify decisions and claim authority.
“Dreamology” has long held a special place in Islam – there are three dream reports in the Koran – but it seems especially attractive to militant groups such as al-Qaeda. I once sat through a description, from Osama bin Laden himself, about a dream one of his “brothers” had received, in which (you can imagine my feelings at the time) I myself supposedly appeared, dressed in a Muslim prelate’s gown, riding a horse and wearing a beard. Oh Lordy. I don’t know if Bin Laden was seeking a convert, but I quickly dissociated myself from this self-apparition, explaining to him that, far from being an aspiring cleric, I was a mere Independent reporter trying to tell the truth. Edgar, however, has been examining “night dreams” among supporters of Isis, drawing his evidence from the inevitable social (or in this case, perhaps, decidedly unsocial) media and from Isis’s own house magazine, Dabiq.
Edgar notes that a Twitter post on 11 July this year recorded how “a brother” had just “had a dream that al-Hasakah has been liberated in Ramadan and Isis is marching towards [the] Kurds”. A bad dream. An Isis incursion into the Syrian city was repelled a couple of weeks ago by the Syrian government army and Kurdish defenders. A later dream suggests that the Prophet denied an appeal by Isis fighters for assistance in their battle against Communist (Kurdish People’s Protection Units) fighters – yes, the dream was quite specific – and that, when the Isis fighters asked why Mohamed refused to help them, “He replied that you are ... throwing food away and not giving it to the poor, you are not getting up in time for the namaz [prayers].” In other words, they’re not righteous enough!
In yet another dream, “Brother Abu Yussef” was guarding a frontline along with another fighter and the ferocious Chechen leader Omar al-Shishani, when a lion and a masked man “looking like the brothers” [sic] appeared. They shot the man and Abu Yussef strangled the lion with his bare hands. Moral: the masked man is a taghut [a tyrant or false god]; the lion is a hypocrite; the tree is Isis.
More intriguing is the dubious report that the Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi dreamed (when Iraqi troops recaptured Tikrit earlier this year) that the Prophet ordered him to withdraw his forces from Mosul. Unnecessary advice, it seems. The Iraqis stopped at Tikrit and then lost Ramadi to Isis.
Edgar also notes the frequent dreams about “green birds” – jihadi fighters who are on their way to paradise. He hopes that “we won’t reach a scenario in which thousands of tiny "butterfly" drones listen to dream narratives at breakfast-time across parts of Asia, only to zap certain eye-rubbing young men after running their dream account through an algorithm”.
Me too. After watching nightmares, I prefer the lions, the trees and the birds. But I’m not sure they’ll win many wars.