Seventy-two hours before America was set to elect its next president, ISIS barged into the debate, breaking what had been a protracted and somewhat surprising electoral silence for its propagandists.
Throughout the last year, the U.S. presidential race had been the elephant in the ISIS media room; for one reason or another, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s propaganda moguls neglected to address it. Montages of “Crusader leaders” staking bombastic rhetorical claims are a favorite trope for the ISIS media operative, so it seemed that talk by the U.S. presidential candidates of things like “carpet-bombing” ISIS or “[taking] out their families” might provide valuable programming for their propaganda. Yet, besides one fleeting reference to the catalyzing role the “presidential electoral campaign in America” played in the run-up to the operation to retake the group’s Iraqi stronghold of Mosul, not once did the group deign to tackle the issue directly.
That is, until Saturday, when one of the Islamic State’s official propaganda arms, the Al Hayat Media Center, released a seven-page essay on “The Murtadd Vote” (“murtadd” meaning “apostate”). Even this, the group’s first election-focused media product, opted to sidestep the considerable propaganda value presented by the current campaign, instead offering up an ISIS twist on electoral advice. Written in dense but fluent English, it marked a departure from the group’s normal media operations, in that it ostensibly targeted a group to whom it rarely pays any attention—American Muslims. The aim was to try to convince them not to vote. There is, perhaps, some irony to the group’s intervention in an electoral process it considers illegitimate, even to urge abstention. The image of theocratic fundamentalists making a pitch to voters on the eve of a democratic election is an incongruous spectacle.
Early on, the essay featured a couple of cheap soundbites on each candidate—Clinton, it claimed, is a “female feminist” adept in “the sorcery of hypocrisy,” while Trump is “impulsive and unpredictable.” In any case, according to ISIS they are equally reprehensible, just modestly different manifestations of the “Crusader enemy.”
Besides this, as well as a few customary threats to those who disagree with the ISIS project and a reiteration of the alleged Western “War on Islam” conspiracy that rests at the center of the Islamic State’s recruitment pitch, the essay simply explained—in tedious detail—the theological basis for abstaining from voting. The author attempted to argue that, even when one candidate is “the lesser of two evils” in terms of his or her policy towards Islam—which, he implies without actually saying, would be Hillary Clinton—and even if “the victory of one candidate or nominee will lead to the deportation and abuse of Muslims,” no votes may be cast, because participation in the democratic system inevitably leads to a state of disbelief. In the curious world of ISIS, anyone that votes willingly makes themselves “a rival to Allah in rule and legislation” and thereby falls into apostasy.
Underscoring this, the author goes on to argue that the “abuse of Muslims” that a Trump win would herald does not present the mitigating circumstances within which Muslims would be “allowed” to vote—the only situation in which ISIS would deem that permissible is one wherein Muslims are subjected to “unbearable torture, lethal execution,” or the “immediate” threat thereof. The key question, though, as is often the case with ISIS propaganda, is whether ISIS actually believes this religious position, or if the group is (once again) adapting religion to facilitate its political project. The argument for Muslim abstention is one seemingly designed to indirectly aid Trump in the race, given levels of Muslim support for Clinton.
To finish, two caveats: First of all, no one actually takes election advice off ISIS. The Al Hayat Media Center released the essay not in order to actually impact the electoral decisions of Muslim Americans, but so it could claim to have warned them, prior to the election, about the consequences of voting. Essentially, and perhaps worryingly, it is intended to give ISIS a terrorist carte blanche for future operations in which Muslim Americans may be targeted.
Second of all, and more importantly, this is only ISIS’s stated “position.” In reality, ISIS has no ambivalence about who it wants in the Oval Office. The more anti-Muslim, bigoted, and polarizing the president, the better from the group’s perspective. It is not for nothing that ISIS kills civilians and boasts of brutality—polarization has always been one of its key strategic objectives, a way to rupture societies into binary shadows of their former selves. A Trump presidency would be a big step in that direction.