ISIS and the armchair Islamist: How execution videos sell a fantasy of masculinity

Roxanne L. Euben writes: Retaliatory humiliation has a particular meaning in contemporary radical Islamist rhetoric and writing: it derives from a definition of humiliation as the unjust imposition of impotence on Islam and Muslims. This definition of humiliation equates political and economic powerlessness with the imperilment of a certain kind of masculine agency — a dominant masculinity understood as the ability to protect, provide and control.

This sense of powerlessness has many different sources. High unemployment in many Muslim-majority countries has jeopardized men’s ability to marry, engage in sanctioned sexual relations, and provide for their families. Then there’s the challenge to conventional gender roles posed by the entry of women into the workforce, along with women’s visible political activism and increased access to higher education. The brutal suppression of domestic dissent or opposition by authoritarian regimes has long produced experiences of political impotence, and the disappointing outcomes of the revolutions associated with the “Arab Spring” have only deepened many of these frustrations.

Finally, the legacies of colonialism, longstanding Euro-American support for these authoritarian regimes, drone strikes, Israeli occupation and the dynamics of globalization combine to intensify perceptions of Muslim impotence relative to America and Europe. This perception is continually revivified by the flow of images of bloodied Muslim bodies delivered by a burgeoning array of video, satellite and digital media.

By extension, then, retaliatory humiliation means imposing impotence upon those who have humiliated Islam. Doing so enacts a masculine agency seen as necessary to defend Islam and restore strength and greatness to the Muslim community.

Consider the shorn heads of the captured men, wearing bright orange clothing akin to the jumpsuits worn by inmates at Guantánamo Bay prison. They kneel in postures of submission at the feet of their executioner, who stands over them, legs apart, masked, clothed in black from head to toe. The hostages are forced to use their last breath on earth to speak the words of their murderers; only their eyes visibly hint at what must have already been done to get each man to follow this script, to play the designated role in the spectacle of his own murder. [Continue reading…]

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