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Critical Studies on Terrorism

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“Good and Evil” narratives in Islamic State media

and Western government statements

Imogen Richards

To cite this article: Imogen Richards (2017): “Good and Evil” narratives in Islamic
State media and Western government statements, Critical Studies on Terrorism, DOI:

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“Good and Evil” narratives in Islamic State media and

Western government statements
Imogen Richards
Department of Criminology, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia


This article uses a critical discourse and documentary analysis to Received 30 September 2016
explore “Good and Evil” narratives in Islamic State (IS) media and Accepted 22 March 2017
in the official policy statements of the United States, Australia and KEYWORDS
the United Kingdom. The analysis initially considers how IS and Good and Evil; Islamic State;
Western governments define the other as “Evil” drawing from Western governments;
premodern Manichean and Abrahamic religious conventions. It religion; philosophy;
then interprets how these entities subscribe to a post- reflexive communication
Enlightenment ethic that associates the triumph of “Good” over
“Evil” with science, reason and technological innovation. Distinct
from similar analyses that emphasise the persuasive power of
religion, this article reflects on how IS and Western governments
use conflicting religious and philosophical imperatives to articu-
late their strategic political agendas. It further interprets how these
agendas become ideologically convincing, through reflexive

In the Global War on Terrorism that followed the Al Qaeda attacks on New York’s World
Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington on 11 September 2001 (9/11), terrorist
and counterterrorist organisations have mutually drawn from Good and Evil narratives to
justify their extreme political positions. Since 9/11, analysts have noted that such
narratives often derive from dualistic interpretations of Good and Evil predicated on
Abrahamic religious conventions (Jackson 2005; Pyszcynski, Rothschild & Abdolhossein
2008; Kurtulus 2012). Infamous examples include ex-US President George W Bush’s
“crusade” (2001) against the “Axis of Evil” (2002) and former Al Qaeda leader Osama
Bin Laden’s designation of President Bush as the literal embodiment of Evil, aspiring to
re-enact the eleventh-century Christian Crusades (Bin Laden and Alouni 2002). In recent
years, the Al Qaeda descendant “Islamic State” (IS) has similarly drawn from religious
interpretations of Good and Evil to justify its horrific acts of violence, whilst Western
governments internationally have labelled IS a “brand of Evil” (Borger 2014) that is
beyond ideological explanation. In response, this article outlines a preliminary alterna-
tive approach to analysing Good and Evil narratives in “terrorist” and “counterterrorist”
communications. With reference to IS media and Western government statements, it

CONTACT Imogen Richards

© 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group

investigates how these narratives derive from binary religious and philosophical
Through critical discourse and documentary analysis, the discussion explores how IS
and Western governments associate the triumph of “Good” over “Evil” both with
Abrahamic–Manicheanism and with secular scientific innovation. It considers how
“Evil” in IS and Western government rhetoric is grounded in premodern religious
conventions, whilst “Good” is associated with the modern ideals of science, technology
and reason. The discussion initially investigates the extent to which IS and Western
governments portray the other as Evil by evoking interpretations of this concept tied to
premodern superstition and irrationality. It then considers how these entities depict
themselves as Good by rhetorically associating their values and behaviour with the
modern, Enlightenment-inspired standards of secular science and reason. The analysis
posits that premodern and modern interpretations of Good and Evil are implicitly and
explicitly evoked by these entities, correlative with their outward philosophical orienta-
tions. To the extent that this is true, Western governments’ implicit evocation of
premodern Evil to characterise IS contradicts their explicit endorsement of science and
rationality, whilst IS' implicit advocacy of reason and innovation controverts the organi-
sation’s explicit observance of ancient theology. Good and Evil narratives communicated
by these entities are thus both internally contradictory and mutually constitutive. As
such, they demonstrate a dialectical relationship between “terrorist” and “counterterror-
ist” communications.
The narratives of Good versus Evil in these communications are significant, given that
they constitute the ideological context in which the subjectivity of one entity as “Good”
can be explained to overcome the agency of the Other as “Evil”. Insofar as narratives can
be understood as “organising principles”, “acts of mind” and “cultural systems” that
render human existence meaningful (Cortazzi 2014, 1), they reveal a window into the
mind of a culture such as counter/terrorism and provide a means by which to under-
stand collective actor motivations. As is outlined later, a consideration of narratives in
this article delimits persuasive techniques used by IS and Western governments.
Correspondingly, it provides a framework for synthesising findings revealed by qualita-
tive research methods (see Riessman 1993, 3).
This article is influenced by comparable, though more epistemologically rigorous,
interpretations of jihadism forwarded by Tariq Ali, Benjamin Barber and John Gray. It
reflects on the ideological connections between jihadist entities and Western counter-
terrorist groups that these authors explored, from the Palestinian Liberation
Organisation and Al Qaeda to IS today. In one example, Ali argued that US government
decrees of “God bless America” mirrored Bin Laden’s regular invocations of Allah’s will.
Through historical investigation, he contended that this reflected a “clash of fundament-
alisms” between jihadist and Western government entities that corresponded to their
divergent observance of Enlightenment principles (2003). In Jihad versus McWorld
(Barber 1995) and in an author’s note on the forthcoming Jihad versus McWorld: ISIS
on the Internet (expected in 2017), Benjamin Barber similarly asserted the existence of a
Hegelian dialectic between the US-led capitalist forces that undergird global counter-
terrorism and the jihadist instruments that sought their international ideological denun-
ciation. Correlative to a primary focus of this article, Barber asserted that what made IS
“so effective” was its observance of “reason’s manifestation in new media” and its

“capacity to use the very technology whose science it condemns” (2016). Most influential
to the following analysis, however, is British philosopher John Gray’s connections of Al
Qaeda and IS with the modern values of secular science and reason. The investigation
specifically follows Gray’s contention that “Radical Islam” and the US-led “cult” of
neoliberalism are mutually informed by post-positivist belief systems that the world
can be “remade” by a convergence of ethical and political principles (2003, 2014a,
2014b, 2014c).
Notwithstanding their relevance, this article differs from Ali, Barber and Gray’s studies
in a number of ways. Most significantly, it emphasises how IS and Western governments
mutually draw from premodern religious doctrine and Enlightenment-inspired modern
philosophies that are conflicting. Ali, by contrast, emphasises how a “fundamentalist”
mirroring between jihadist and counterterrorist groups derives from a resurgent political
religiosity intersecting with neoliberal globalisation (2003), whilst Barber explores how
mirroring between jihadist groups and their opponents derives from the conditions of
exacerbating global inequality and technological innovation, that uniquely modern
capitalism creates (1995; 2016). Gray, like Karen Armstrong (2015), regards jihadist
entities as closely descendent from both the modern philosophical antecedents to
neoliberalism and the reactionary twentieth-century secular revolutionary movements
including the Nazis and Khmer Rouge (Gray 2003; 2014a). Diverging from these
approaches, the following investigation considers the extent to which IS and Western
governments are sustained by an ideological tension that derives from their subscription
to modern and premodern ideals. Unlike previous examinations of these groups, it also
refrains from advocating a primarily politico-economic approach to the analysis, alter-
nately adopting a broad-based reflection on their propaganda narratives. Furthermore,
although the discussion generally reflects on Gray’s identification of the religious roots
of secular positivism, it directs attention away from IS and Western governments’ innate
characteristics, towards the values that they outwardly articulate.
In relation to this point, it is necessary to note that whilst the term “premodern” in
diverse disciplines has been subject to myriad interpretations and applications, in this
article, it denotes the extended Abrahamic religious period that preceded the seven-
teenth- and eighteenth-century philosophical Enlightenment. Events heralding its con-
clusion are considered to include the fifteenth-century invention of Johannes
Guttenberg’s printing press (and its subsequent mobile forms), the seventeenth- century
end of the Renaissance, and Western European institutions’ popular advocacy of human-
ism, science and secular reasoning. Additionally, although “premodern” in the following
analysis refers to the type of “pre-critical” religious reasoning that dominated Western
European societies until the eighteenth century (Paden 1994), it is also connected with
ancient ideas of Good and Evil that correspond to third-century Manicheanism and the
early political moralities of Christianity and Islam. The Manichean aspect refers to an
ontological dualism in which Good represents rationality and “right”, and Evil represents
“wrong” and irrational, whilst Abrahamic tenets include these entities’ appeal to beliefs
in the afterlife and divine intervention.
Consistent with these definitions, “modern” in this article signifies the rational,
increasingly secular political ideals that emerged in concurrence with the seventeenth-
and eighteenth-century scientific and industrial revolutions, and that were characterised
by a positivist emphasis on empiricism over theological interpretation (Bayley 2004). In

reference to the narratives examined, “modernity” refers broadly to the values of

science, technology and reason.
Despite the (in certain respects) outwardly binary relationship that this article iden-
tifies between premodern religion and Enlightenment-inspired modern philosophy, it
acknowledges that these traditions are inextricably interrelated. As social and political
theorists have noted (Jasanoff 2004; Latour 2012), early religious reasoning was not
simplistically replaced by modern philosophical thinking; rather, the latter subsumed the
former, such that “apolitical” science was from its genesis imbued with religion-inspired
political and ethical influence. This was evident in the subtle religious iconography that
permeated visual and rhetorical illustrations of science in historical periods following the
seventeenth century (Henry 2008), and in religious codes of practice that guided post-
Enlightenment political, educational and commercial institutions (Davie 2013).
Furthermore, as this article demonstrates, in contemporary societies, these customs
continue to be apparent in the persistent religious moralising of Western politicians
(Turner 2010).
In relation to this issue, John Gray argued that Al Qaeda and modern Western
governments share ideological origins in the scientific-spiritual fanaticism of Auguste
de Comte, inspired by the positivist, scientific philosophising of Henri de Saint Simon
(2003). Similarly, this article contends that IS and Western governments share a post-
positivist tendency to rhetorically conflate scientific reasoning with premodern, super-
stitious ideas that are outwardly affiliated with religion. The conflict between premodern
religion and modern philosophy in the narratives examined is therefore not interpreted
as one of ontological opposition. It is rather related to IS and Western governments’
external adherence to exclusively either premodern religion or Enlightenment-inspired
philosophical belief systems.
To explore these belief systems, the investigation draws methodologically from
Cigdem Esin, Fathi, and Squir’s constructionist approach to narrative analysis (2013). It
considers that the external narratives examined cannot be separated from the social and
political environments in which they operate, and that they are constructed at the
intersection of “interactional”, “historical”, “institutional” and “discursive” events (Esin,
Fathi, and Squire 2013, 205). To delineate these events, the method entails attention to
the textual, contextual and interpretive levels of discourse in the examined speeches,
media and texts (Ruiz 2009, 10). Discursive mirroring is initially highlighted through
rhetorical comparison between the words used by IS and Western government spokes-
persons, and through a comparison between their language style and inflection. The
investigation then reflects on relevant political situations that preceded the statements,
and interprets how mutually reinforcing discourses function as mechanisms of political
persuasion. The documentary aspect of the analysis correspondingly reflects on perti-
nent features of the artefacts examined, including their textual or audiovisual format,
publishing and authorship, and anticipated reception.
Reports and transcripts of statements by Western government spokespersons were
obtained through keyword searches on the browsers, Google, and Yahoo!, and
on the databases, Factiva and Informit. Boolean searches for material from the years
2012 to 2016 were conducted using various combinations of the terms “government”,
“US”, “UK”, “EU” “German”, “French”, “Australia”, “Canada” “Good”, “Evil”, “God”, “Devil”,
“Hell”, “Christian” and “values”, with the search later expanded on the basis of early

findings to include further word combinations of “irrational”, “inexplicable”, “vile”, “rea-

son”, “science”, “knowledge” and “innovation”. The same method was then repeated for
IS speeches delivered by the organisation’s leader Abu Bakr al-
Baghdadi and its spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. Keyword searches in a PDF
reader for the same terms were then used to identify relevant excerpts in 15 issues of
the IS magazine Dabiq. Lastly, IS videos were accessed through third-party websites, and
non-textual references to these terms and relevant phrases were recorded. Results were
then coded for the key themes of Manicheanism, Abrahamic allusions, Enlightenment
philosophies, and the subthemes of irrationality, demonisation, capitalism and industry,
science and innovation, and reason. The analysis then mapped the coded examples
against Enlightenment-related aphorisms and religious texts that epitomise these ideo-
logical traditions.
Relevant government statements were identified on the basis of cumulative word
searches, whilst IS media was selected based on its prevalent reception and demonstrative
relevance to the research focus. The majority of IS audiovisual material included for analysis
was selected based on its intended reception by international audiences, as was indicated
by its distribution, content and English narration. Although certain IS speeches and limited
textual and video examples were originally delivered in Arabic (and French in one case),
these examples were translated to English by the organisation itself. English-language IS
material was selected for analysis because of its relevance to the research interest in global
narratives, “liberal” modernity and reflexive actor relationships.
The critical aspect of the analysis sought to reveal and challenge prevailing assump-
tions about IS’ antiquated ideological practices and Western countries’ Enlightenment-
inspired ideological secularism. For this reason, and because the United States, Australia
and the United Kingdom have executed kinetic counterterrorist operations in the Middle
East that preceded and partially gave rise to IS, the analysis foregrounds evidence of
ideological mirroring between these entities, which inherently correlates with empirical
strategic situations. To provide details of international political context, several examples
from Western Europe and Canada are also included. Although the political conditions
examined are certainly not confined to Western nation states, the investigation
addresses IS media directed at predominantly Western audiences, and common politi-
cised assumptions of “Western” values.
Due to research limitations, it is not possible to extrapolate overarching conclusions
about current counterterrorist practice from these cases. In line with a critical discourse
method, the researcher does not profess to be rigorously objective or all-inclusive in
determining relevant statements (Fairclough, Mulderrig, and Wodak 2011). The analysis
furthermore does not adopt an emancipatory programme on the part of any examined
entity, but rather seeks to destabilise reductive and polarising “terrorism” explanations.
From a preliminary epistemological standpoint, it seeks to illuminate the possible
implications of reflexivity between these groups for their propagandised

Premodern evil
This section of the investigation reflects on how dualistic constructions of Evil in IS and
Western government discourse derive from premodern religious belief systems. In the

case of the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, these systems can be
traced to a hybrid adaptation of Manichean dualism and Medieval Christian traditions.
With respect to IS, they reflect an amalgamation of seventh-century Islamic theology
(that predated the Islamic Golden Age of scientific advancement (eighth century to 1258
CE)) and eighteenth-century Salafi-Wahhabism. Notably, the government statements
examined also recall the values of Protestant and Catholic orthodoxy that were mobi-
lised to suppress eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinking (Beck 1969). As with
orthodox Christianity’s resistance to the Enlightenment, it should also be acknowledged
that although Wahhabism persisted in the state of Saudi Arabia, it preceded and was
ideologically resistant to the progressive, comparatively enlightened Islamic politics of
nineteenth-century Ottoman leaders such as Muhammad Ali (Rosenthal 1964).
Religion-inspired dualisms of Good and Evil in IS media and Western government
statements therefore conflict with a number of modern Enlightenment principles,
despite the fact that in Enlightenment traditions, religion and philosophy are by no
means always in opposition. The British philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), for exam-
ple, proposed that knowledge affirmed by reason could likewise be exposed by divine
revelatory means (Locke [1689] 1995), whilst the French Enlightenment thinker Jean-
Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) subscribed to egalitarian deism – a religion predicated
on natural compassion and rational humanism (Rousseau [1962] 1968)).
The conversely premodern origin of religious beliefs embraced by IS and Western
governments, and their corresponding contravention of Enlightenment ideals, is
revealed by these entities’ Manichean designations of the other as an Evil that is real,
yet incomprehensible. It is also demonstrated by these entities’ overt dualistic references
to Evil, contextualised by parallel allusions to Abrahamic conventions.

Dualism and irrationality

As previously mentioned, Western governments’ dualistic identification of IS as an
irrational Evil has been unambiguous in international news media since 2013.
Although ex-US President Barack Obama refrained from invoking the kind of demono-
logical language used by his predecessor, he nevertheless variously labelled IS “the face
of Evil” (Abdullah 2015) and declared that “there can be no reasoning – no negotiation
with this brand of Evil” (Office of the Press Secretary 2014a). In several examples, former
UK Prime Minister David Cameron also referred to IS as an “Evil death cult” (Silvera 2015)
and an “Evil terrorist threat” (Cameron 2015), and the brutal execution of British hostage
David Haines as “an act of pure Evil” (Logiurato 2014). Similarly, ex-Australian Prime
Minister Tony Abbott referred to IS as both “Evil” and a “death cult” (Middleton 2015),
whilst the Abbott Administration’s Treasurer Joe Hockey emphasised the necessity of
resources to “defeat these Evil bastards at their source” (Tlozek 2015).
In contrast to measured academic critique that compares IS to totalitarian organisa-
tions of the twentieth century (Gray 2014a; Armstrong 2015), certain politicians have
also, in a dualistic manner, drawn brazen comparisons between IS and other historically
vilified regimes. As critical terrorism studies scholars have noted (Stohl 2008; Zulaika
2012; Frank 2015), these types of associations reflect an undercurrent of primitive,
anticipatory logic in Western counterterrorism that is grounded in an explicit lack of
information. One example is Tony Abbott’s declaration that IS is “more Evil than the

Nazis”, given that “at least Stalin or Hitler” tried to “cover up their Evil” (Middleton 2015).
Another is Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo’s somewhat more
temperate statement following the IS November 2015 attacks in Paris (at Stade de
France, Bataclan concert theatre and several restaurants), when he spoke of the neces-
sity to support Syria’s President Bashar al Assad’s military efforts against IS. Here,
Margallo evoked former US President Franklin Roosevelt’s alliance with Stalin to defeat
the Nazis in Europe, given that he was “a lesser Evil at the time” (Scanlan 2015).
In ways that are overtly reminiscent of the reductive and dualistic rhetoric used in
premodern political periods, members of recent, powerful governments have also
described IS as an Evil that is material yet incomprehensible. Former Canadian Prime
Minister Stephen Harper, for instance, indirectly criticised incumbent Prime Minister
Justin Trudeau’s restrained approach to IS following the November Paris attacks when
he asserted that “we know their ideology is not the result of social exclusion or other so-
called root causes. It is Evil, vile, and must be unambiguously opposed” (Blanchfield
2014). This statement reiterated a political conviction that was perhaps first popularly
introduced by former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertion during a 2014 press
conference at Martha’s Vineyard that IS is an “ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic, and
valueless Evil” (Goldsworthy 2014). From the perspective of this analysis, such state-
ments reflect an adoption of “expert ignorance” in Western counterterrorism
(Stampnitzky 2013, 167), predicated on a premodern Manichean world view in which
Evil is regarded as an “inexplicable intrusion into the self’s integrity” (Beduhn 2013, 362).
From a strategic perspective, they may also be argued to negate the deplorable nature
of IS’ all-too human acts of murder, by attributing the organisation with a kind of quasi-
religious agency.
On this point, it is important to note that aside from extreme examples of dualism
evoked by favoured members of conservative governments, religion-inspired statements
about IS are ubiquitous across broad political spectrums. Indicating the overall political
climate in which Western governments’ foreign policies operate, reference to IS’ Evil
characteristics has also been apparent in speeches made by humanitarian advocates and
critical government dissenters. The late UK Labour Member for Parliament, Jo Cox, for
instance, who was also Chairperson of the All-Party Group on Syria, implored David
Cameron to take military action in Syria, paraphrasing Edmund Burke with the state-
ment: “sometimes all it takes for Evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” (Cox
2015). Somewhat more pithily and with very different political motivations linked to
party infighting at the time, Eric Abetz, Liberal Party member for Tasmania, called on
current Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to deploy ground troops in Syria
“because the Evil of ISIS is a worldwide Evil and can strike anywhere, anytime” (Hunter
and Flitton 2016).
As Robert Ivie and Oscar Giner argue through linguistic analysis, such dualistic
language not only casts IS as “beyond understanding”, it further “affirms America’s
heroic role as enlightened defender of civilisation” (2015, 8). For their intended global
audience, such political statements potentially achieve cultural resonance by tapping
into a surreptitious religious world view John Gray describes as a post-positivist “doc-
trine of redemption in the guise of a theory of history” (2003, 105). Although twenty-first
-century Western governments might therefore profess to embody Enlightenment
values, within the context of this analysis, certain official statements regarding IS by

these entities in fact contradict the core Enlightenment theme of “nothing is divine but
what is agreeable to reason” (Kant [1781] 1998). In the above examples, a distinct
ontological dualism and lack of rational explanation, which correspond to Manichean
traditions, are interpreted as IS’ primary defining “Evil” characteristics.
Given the apocalyptic narrative that constitutes IS’ theological foundation, compar-
able, premodern religious references to the Evil of Western governments in IS media are
unsurprisingly all-too apparent. Manichean dualism, for instance, is overt in IS’ online
English-language magazine Dabiq, which is named after the Syrian site where the
“soldiers of Caliphate” (Al-Hayat 2015a) are prophesied to defeat the “Evil armies of
Rome” on the eve of Armageddon (Prince 2015). Such IS media also reflexively responds
to and reiterates Western government designations of the organisation as Evil in con-
nection with its “inexplicable” nature. Demonstrating an adherence to the “irrational”
characteristic Manichean dualism, the 7th issue of Dabiq explicitly states IS’ intention to
“eliminate the grayzone of co-existence between Muslims and the West” (Al-Hayat
2014a), whilst its 14th issue mentions Evil nine times in reference to Qur’anic scholars,
counterterrorist entities and Muslim soldiers who fight for what IS perceive as apostate
Administrations (Al-Hayat 2016a). In overt evocation of Western government statements
then, the 15th issue of Dabiq features IS spokespersons retaliating against these govern-
ments’ descriptions of its actions as “senseless” (Al-Hayat 2016b). Commentary in this
issue also criticises Western governments’ lack of faith in Allah as the “Creator”, asserting
that “you witness the extraordinarily complex makeup of created beings, and the
astonishingly and inexplicably precise physical laws … but insist they came about
through randomness” (2016b, 32). In reference to the accusations of irrationality levelled
at IS by government administrations, this same article includes the declaration:

As much as some liberal journalists would like you to believe that we do what we do
because we’re simply monsters with no logic behind our course of action, the fact is that we
continue to wage – and escalate – a calculated war that the West thought it had ended
several years ago. (2016b, 33)

Although in 2016 IS intensified efforts to reveal counterterrorism’s lack of rational

explanation for political violence, dualistic narratives in its media that reflect the content
of Western government statements have, in fact, been prevalent since the organisation’s
inception. In addition to Dabiq, this was demonstrated in speeches made by the
assassinated IS spokesperson, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani (deceased August 30 2016).
In a June 2014 statement where al-Adnani rebranded the group “Islamic State”, he
evoked specific terminology used by governments, asserting that recent generations
of ummah (the global Muslim community) are ruled by the “vilest of people”, and that in
the Caliphate the apostate source of “Evil has been removed” (al-Adnani 2014). In a
September 2014 response to US airstrikes in Syria, al-Adnani repeated several times that
Obama was “vile” and cursed Britain’s “Evil alliance with America” (al-Adnani & Weiss
The pervasive nature of this rhetoric, like the ubiquity of religious reference in
Western politics, is also evident in messaging across various IS media outlets. In refer-
ence to Britain’s bombing campaign against IS in Syria, for example, notorious recruit
Jack Letts (aka “Jihadi Jack”) asserted that David Cameron “if not actually mentally ill …
is an Evil creature” (Khan 2016).

IS’ portrayal of the beliefs, actions and systems of Western governments as a

regressive and tangible Evil is also apparent in the organisation’s Western-oriented
videos including The Rise of Khilafah: Return of the Gold Dinar, The Exile of Islam and
the video nasheed Sang pour Sang [Blood for Blood]. In The Rise of Khilafa, for
instance, a North American-accented narrator refers to usury in the international
economy, declaring that IS “built on faith, rises to face this Evil head on” (Al-Hayat
2015a). Recalling the “inexplicable” focus of counterterrorist rhetoric, The Exile of Islam
then compares Qur’anic scholars critical of IS with “donkeys of knowledge” and the
“Fuqaha [expert in Islamic law] of Evil”, whilst the image depicts current US President
Donald Trump (who advocates carpet bombing and torture in response to inadequate
security information), describing Brussels as a “horror show” (Al-Battar 2016).
Indicating the reflexive nature of IS commentary, the Francophone IS video nasheed
Blood for Blood communicates the organisation’s proposed justification for the
22 March 2016 bombings of an airport and metro in Brussels. Through a medium
of alleged orphans singing in the Caliphate, IS asserts in this video that its fighters are
“ready to respond to the Evil the West brought” by politically undervaluing the
deaths of Muslim civilians in the Middle East, and “feed their thirst for revenge in
rage” (Al-Hayat 2016c).

Abrahamic ideals
Whilst dualism and irrationality are therefore apparent in IS and Western governments’
descriptions of the other as Evil, the Manichean–Abrahamic connection this analysis
proposes corresponds specifically to these entities’ contextualisation of Evil in premo-
dern Islamic and Christian conventions. In IS media, dualistic conceptualisations of Evil
are often explicitly connected to the author’s selective interpolation of ancient Islamic
texts, including the Qur’an, Hadith and Sunnah. Amongst the organisation’s often-cited
Qur’anic excerpts, for instance, is “strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites
and be unyielding to them; and their abode is Hell and Evil is the destination” (Pickthall
2015, 9:73, see al-Baghdadi & SITE 2014). Contextualised with reference to the organisa-
tion’s overall behaviour, Good and Evil narratives expressed in such media also corre-
spond to IS’ advocacy of ancient practices that accompanied the seventh-century rise of
Islam. As strategic analysts have noted (Stern and Berger 2015; McCants 2016), these
practices include offensive jihad in support of empire building (for instance, the “Wars of
Apostasy”), enslavement and the rejection of all things that may be perceived as
humanist or modern.
In statements made by Western governments, insofar as the rhetoric of the US,
Australian and the UK politicians derives from dualistic Manicheanism, it also reflects
traditions that derive from these countries’ Christian developmental histories. In com-
parison to frequent Qur’anic excerpts in IS propaganda, however, the Bible is infre-
quently quoted from directly by outwardly secular Administrations. In certain examples,
religious references to IS as Evil perhaps more closely reflect St Augustine’s Neoplatonic
divergence from Manicheanism that views Evil as a privation of being. There are, in fact,
numerous cases of Western government spokespersons referring to the “lack” of good-
ness or soul possessed by IS, as there are innumerable instances of IS referring to its
aspirations for a seventh-century Caliphate.

Given this article’s primary concern with religious connections that signify evidence of
ideological mirroring between IS and Western governments, the distinct religiosity of
these entities is not examined in greater detail. Rather, this investigation emphasises
how, recalling their respective religious heritage, both IS and Western governments
portray the other as Evil with reference to Abrahamic understandings of the afterlife and
divine intervention. Before elaborating on this contention with examples, it is again
pertinent to note that whether they derive more explicitly from Mani, Islam or
Christianity, these statements reject the Enlightenment notion that Evil is intangible –
that it is not in any physical sense “real”, and thus can be reasoned away (De Spinoza
[1677] 2005). Moreover, although it may be possible to view the previously discussed
examples through the lens of Immanuel Kant’s “radical Evil” as a predisposition towards
self-interest (Kant [1793] 1996), this is problematised by IS and Western governments’
contextualisation of Evil in distinctly premodern Abrahamic foundations.
As stated in the “Introduction” section, since 9/11, the mutual eschatological empha-
sis of Al Qaeda, IS and Western governments has been examined in counterterrorism
literature. Richard Jackson, for example, highlighted in several investigations how the
“war on terror” entailed myriad civilisational narratives in which “Good” US-led coalitions
would defeat the “Evil” Islamic terrorists, regardless of whether or not this required an
annihilation of their societies in military invasions (2005, 2007, 2015). In 2012, Mike
Vlahos detailed how the rhetoric of the Obama Administration, contrary to much
popular opinion, has been characterised by an enduring though adaptive American
exceptionalism (2012). In the context of IS, this article similarly contends that although
references to the afterlife and divine intervention are perhaps more explicit in IS media,
they are also discernible in contemporary Western government statements. From a
strategic perspective, it reflects on the propensity for such language to become pre-
valent in mainstream Western politics.
With respect to Abrahamic ideals, the afterlife aspect of Western government state-
ments is perhaps most apparent where IS is metaphorically associated with Evil through
the rhetorical suggestion of Hell. One noteworthy example is Joe Biden’s announcement
following the murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff in
September 2014, that IS “should know we will follow them to the gates of Hell until
they are brought to justice because Hell is where they will reside” (Killough 2014).
Another is the Hollande French government’s counter-radicalisation video, following
the November 2015 Paris attacks, which announced that young men and women
travelling to Syria to fight with IS would “discover Hell on Earth and die alone far from
home” (Bouchard 2015).
Investigations of IS’ apocalyptic narrative have noted multifarious ways in which the
organisation evokes Hell in its mediatised statements (McCants 2016). Whilst these
examples are again more overt than Western government references to Hell, they are
also often suggestive of Western counterterrorist endeavours. One example is the IS
video, No Respite, published on 24 November 2015, which promises to “send US proxies
to Hell” with “50 cent bullets” (Al-Hayat 2015b). In other illustrations, the IS leader, Abu
Bakr al-Baghdadi, has variously referred to government administrations as “callers to the
gates of Hellfire” (al-Baghdadi & MEMRI 2015), whilst successive issues of Dabiq have
sworn Hellfire for supporters of the US-led coalition on the “Day of Judgement” (Al-
Hayat 2014b, 2014c, 2014f). Recalling the strategic nature of such reflexive statements, IS

has also referred to Hell in connection with Western governments’ foreign policy. In
response to the post-2011 international refugee situation that is often portrayed as a
European “migrant crisis”, for example, an IS propaganda memorandum recovered by
Libyan media demonstrated the organisation’s appeal to populist sentiment. In this
example, IS referred to a refugee “crisis”, pledging to “overrun” Europe with displaced
people and “turn it into Hell” (Williams 2015).
Due in part perhaps to a political blowback against the manifest destiny rhetoric of
the George W Bush Administration (Murphy 2008), references to “divine intervention” in
connection with Evil have likewise been more overt in IS media than in Western
government statements. This is unambiguously demonstrated by IS’ selective inclusion
of religious scripture, and by its repeated invocation of the “prophetic methodology”
and “Allah’s will” (Al-Hayat 2014a; 2015a; 2016a). Narrative techniques that are reflexive
of those used by Western governments are also apparent in IS’ English-language media,
including the June 2014 video Flames of War: Fighting Has Just Begun. In this video, IS
dramatically raises the spectre of Western foreign policy with excerpts from the US and
the UK government speeches. Coupled with an American-accented narrator variously
pledging to bring “flames”, “fire” and “Hell” to counterterrorist coalitions, the narrative
relies on civilisational counterterrorist accounts to explicate IS’ “divine” role in Middle
Eastern conflict (Al-Hayat 2014g).
Although in comparison, civilisational rhetoric used by Western governments has
moderated since the Bush Administration, keystone remarks such as “God bless the
United States of America” are still often evident (see Beauchamp and Obama 2015). In
certain cases, Western government’s connections of terrorism with religion and divine
actors have also persisted by virtue of IS’ own professed motivations. Following the IS
2016 Brussels attacks, for instance, Vice President of the European Parliament Antonio
Tajani announced that “whoever shoots in the name of God, shoots against God” (Banks
2016), whilst Turnbull asserted that the November 2015 Paris attacks were “a threat in
the name of God … but truthfully the work of the Devil” (Gartrell and Kenny 2015).
Perhaps indicating the international reception of such statements, the Dalai Lama stated
following these Paris attacks: “work for peace, and don’t expect help from God and
governments” (Kimmorley 2015).
Another Abrahamic tenet that has likewise moderated in Western government
rhetoric since 9/11, but is still apparent, is association of Western politicians with
divine actors. Following 9/11, for example, President Bush regularly drew from his
Evangelist Methodist beliefs to question whether he was “chosen by the grace of God
to lead in that moment” (Edwards and King 2007, 152), rhetorically asking his viewers
“what if God has been holding his peace, waiting for the right man and the right
nation and the right moment to act for Him and cleanse history of Evil?” (Beatty
2003). With more subtle though still religious connotations, David Cameron in 2014
referred to his own divine role to play in political processes, asserting that “Jesus
invented the Big Society 2,000 years ago … I just want to see more of it” (Withnall
2014). In 2016, Cameron argued for the need to protect Britain’s “Christian values”
against “terrorism” (Stone 2016). Perhaps illustrating the international climate for such
language, German Chancellor Angela Merkel commented in a 2012 interview that
“God and religion is [her] constant companion and has been for the whole of [her]
life” (Hall 2012).

In comparison to such statements, references to divine actors in IS media are again

unsurprisingly transparent. Examples include al-Baghdadi’s ordaining by IS as the eighth
Islamic Caliph, and the organisation’s constant characterisation of fighters that die for IS
as “martyrs”. Juxtaposed against IS references to Hellfire, martyrs are promised a para-
dise of 72 virgins, saints as servants and a crown of jewels, and their deification is often
foregrounded in propaganda targeted at Western audiences. One example includes a
July 2014 Al-Hayat video entitled The Chosen Few of Different Lands, which features the
voice of Canadian IS fighter, Abu Muslim, overlain with slow motion footage of his
“sacrificial” death on a Syrian battlefield (Al-Hayat 2014c).
Whilst Abrahamic references may therefore be more subtle in Western government
statements than in IS media, in certain respects they constitute the ideological context
in which these entities’ “Evil” analogies operate. In connection with the Manichean
depictions of Evil previously examined, such communications reflect dominant “terrorist”
and “counterterrorist” beliefs in dualism, irrationality and divinity that are often
expressed in a cyclical, reflexive fashion. The following section explores how these
beliefs conflict with IS and Western governments’ observance of Enlightenment-
inspired ideals related to science, technology and reason. Through rhetorical compar-
ison, it emphasises how, mirroring Western governments’ observance of premodern
religion, IS’ observation of modern values undermines its professed theological doctrine.

Post-Enlightenment reason, science and innovation

It is necessary to note that while there have been frequent references to the ideological
forces of Good in the rhetoric of IS and Western government communications, they are
often less explicit than references to Evil. In both IS media and Western government
statements, however, allusions to Good in association with secular science, technology
and reason are nevertheless pervasive. Situated within the Enlightenment traditions
from which many modern societies developed, the scientific ideologies identified in
this analysis derive perhaps most explicitly from Baron de Montesquieu, Voltaire and the
eighteenth-century Encyclopaedists’ embrace of scepticism and experimentation. In
contrast to the premodern superstitious beliefs previously examined, they reflect an
undercurrent of Enlightenment thinking that the success of a nation depends on “the
knowledge that the arts and sciences can provide” (Schaub 2008). Here, “reasoning” in IS
and Western government messaging is considered to derive from the rational secular
morality espoused in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (Kant [1781] 1998), and
Cartesian methodology conceptualised by Rene Descartes (Descartes [1637] 2001).
Empirically, such values may further be connected with national governance principles
enshrined by the US founding fathers including Thomas Jefferson (Cunningham 1988).
In Western government statements therefore, the principles of science, technology
and reason are predictably overt, whilst advocacy of these principles in IS media is more
implicit than explicit. The manner in which IS does appeal to such ideals undermines its
exhortations for followers to “fear Allah”, submit themselves as “slaves to Allah” and
blindly obey the instructions of “khilafah” (the leaders of the Caliphate) (al-Baghdadi &
SITE 2014). As such, it exposes a paradoxical mirroring between IS and Western govern-
ments that has likely implications for the ideological reception of their respective
communications. Although there is inadequate scope in this article to detail the myriad

ways in which Western governments advocate overtly positivist scientific behaviours, to

highlight this relationship, it is useful to briefly identify where this messaging occurs
across several avenues of communication.

Counterterrorist science and rationality

The most visible Western government associations of Good with science in its triumph
over Evil occur in official speeches made by heads of state. A noteworthy example
includes a September 2014 address at the White House, where Barack Obama
announced that “we can’t defeat every trace of Evil in the world”; before detailing
how US “technology companies and universities are unmatched” and “American leader-
ship is the one constant in the world” as a result of its “scientists”, “doctors” and “know-
how” (Office of the Press Secretary 2014b). In the Australian Parliament, Malcolm
Turnbull similarly spoke of the need for counterterrorist entities to be “calm”, “clinical”
and “agile” in the country’s usage of military technology. Evoking an understanding of
liberal rationalism characteristic of the Enlightenment, he referred to “universal” ideol-
ogies that exclude IS, declaring that “the strongest weapons we bring to this battle
[against IS] are ourselves, our values, our way of life” (Wroe 2015).
The efforts of “Good”, rational counterterrorist forces against the “irrational Evil” of “IS
terrorists” are also evident in narrative examples that communicate these governments’
security strategies. In reference to the widely disseminated photographic imagery of
terrorism suspects at Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay, for example, Laura Shepherd
details how the authority and legitimacy of Western actors was established by visual
techniques that “ascribed” a “face” of Evil to primarily Middle Eastern counterterrorist
subjects (2008, 215). On several occasions, Charlotte Heath-Kelly also explored how
successive UK government counterterrorism strategies rely upon the production of
counterfactual “radicalisation” narratives that depict Islamic religious communities as
“opaque” (2012), and state security as necessary and coherent (2013; Baker-Beall, Heath-
Kelly, and Jarvis 2014).
This article correspondingly contends that an outward advocacy of “rationality” and
“science” in counterterrorist strategies is perceptible in the explicit language of Western
government white papers. The UK government’s last update of their PREVENT paper, for
instance, mentioned “reason” 22 times (UK Government Home Department 2011b),
whilst its CONTEST mission statement featured 21 notes on “science”, and four com-
bined references to “business”, “skills” and “innovation” (UK Government Home
Department 2011a). Similarly, the French government’s 2013 National Security white
paper to NATO connects the country’s “dynamic economy” with the “scientific skills and
appropriate technologies and complex weapons systems that will enable France to deal
with potential adversaries”. Indicating the “rationality” value of this agenda, the docu-
ment also refers 31 times to the importance of “knowledge” in the country’s counter-
terrorism operations (French Government & Hollande 2013).
This outward advocacy of counterterrorist “science” on the part of Western govern-
ments is arguably exacerbated by the fact that national research projects are becoming
integrated with departments responsible for domestic and international security.
Although relevant examples are too numerous to mention, it is worth noting the
significant percentage of expenditure on defence projects from the US National

Science Foundation (US Government 2016), and the Australian government’s 2012
transferral of responsibility for “national science and innovation research” from the
Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to the Department of Defence (Australian
Government 2016).
The adoption and demonstration of science-based principles on the part of Western
governments is as predictable as it is perhaps strategically necessary. It also, however,
conveys evidence of a certain self-reflection on which the imagined duality between
Western governments and “IS terrorists” is based. Demonstrating further evidence of
these beliefs, several Western politicians have, in fact, overtly stated that the absence of
Enlightenment philosophy in Islamic history is the primary causal factor for IS violence.
This logic was perceptible in former UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s shepherding
of a political sentiment that IS represents a “medieval” throwback to draconian forms of
political organisation (Chakelian 2014). It was also apparent in Malcolm Turnbull’s
condemnation of IS following Paris for attacking the “city of light” (Conifer 2015), and
Tony Abbott’s assertion in a Telegraph editorial that the conflict with IS derived from the
fact that “Islam never had its own version of the Reformation and the Enlightenment”
(2015). As Al Jazeera journalist Mehdi Hassan articulates, such analogising assertions are
both “patronising” and “deeply ignorant” of Islam’s diverse history (2015). They also
disregard the aforementioned fact that the Islamic Golden Age of scientific and cultural
advancement (eighth century to thirteenth century) occurred whilst Western Europe was
still in the Dark Ages. From the perspective of this article’s investigation, these state-
ments erode the “grayzone of coexistence” that IS purports to target (Al-Hayat 2014a).
This was most apparent, for instance, in ex-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s statement that
“many millions of Muslims hold a viewpoint that is fundamentally incompatible with the
modern world” (Broomfield 2016).

IS science, technology and reason

Whilst polarising government attitudes might therefore reflect a version of IS’ identity
that it intentionally projects, they do not by any means accord with the subtle
Enlightenment-inspired ideologies that permeate different forms of IS messaging.
Perhaps to elicit sympathy from young international audiences, IS media subtly appeals
to the twenty-first century, ideologically resonant values of technological innovation and
educated reasoning. Laced as IS media is with theological descriptions, the positive
depiction of these values creates an implied narrative in which the Good of IS technol-
ogy and knowledge triumphs over the imperialist and regressive Evil of Western
regimes. To understand the paradoxical nature of this situation, it is useful to briefly
reflect on IS media that criticises the modern, scientific and capitalist characteristics of
contemporary government Administrations. The organisation’s outward rejection of
these values is apparent in both IS speeches and audiovisual statements.
In the same speech where spokesman al-Adnani accused Barack Obama of being
“vile”, for instance, he also identified characteristics of those that IS opposes militarily.
These are “the Kuffar with all their mouthpieces and medias, and the apostates from our
people with all their parties and Evil scholars, and the people of whims and heads of
innovations, and people of deviated methodologies from the Muslims …” (al-Adnani
and Fursan 2013). Analogously, al-Baghdadi’s first speech as Caliph included the

statement that “the worst of Evils are the newly-invented matters, and every innovated
matter a heresy, and every heresy is misguidance, and every misguidance is in the Fire of
Hell” (al-Baghdadi & Al Arabiya 2014).
As Graeme Wood’s influential The Atlantic article highlights, IS spokespersons gen-
erally refer “derisively” to “moderns” (2015), whilst its multi-platform media condemns
what the organisation perceives as the influence of Western secularism. This was
apparent in the first video released by IS’ Al-Hayat media department in July 2014,
There Is No Life Without Jihad, in which a British IS convert, Abu Dujana al-Hindi, asks the
viewer, “look around you when you sit in comfort and ask yourself, is this how you want
to die? Do you wish to be resurrected with the dust from the land of Kuffar still in your
lungs?” (Al-Hayat 2014d). Other videos produced by Al-Hayat also glorify ancient battle
standards with computer-generated imagery of chariots, bows and arrows, and canons,
whilst Dabiq criticises “innovation, and pride in personal opinion” (Al-Hayat 2014e).
In reference to the organisation’s history, scholars including Salman Rushdie (2014)
and Bernard Haykel (2015) contend that IS adheres to a Salafist-Wahhabi version of Islam
that has historical roots in the eighteenth-century teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-
Wahhab, and that guides the model of theocratic governance in Saudi Arabia today. As
these scholars also acknowledge, however, these traditions conflict with shrewd IS
messaging grounded in scientific advancement and technological innovation. The nat-
ure of this contradiction is apparent in the digital technology used by the more than 30
media departments that disseminate propagandised IS information (Zelin 2015). It is also
demonstrated by informational content that implores followers to fight their “Evil”
Western oppressors using the products of Western capitalism. In a manner that recalls
Jean Baudrillard’s postmodern perspective on jihadism, IS, like Al Qaeda on 9/11, has
“assimilated everything of modernity and globalism, without changing their goal, which
is to destroy that power” (2002, 19).
IS has therefore implored followers to use weapons produced by Western capitalist
industries, and championed science and technology in numerous recruitment cam-
paigns. In July 2014, for instance, the first issue of Dabiq featured what Peter Bergen
described as a “classified ad” (2014) for “doctors, engineers, scholars, and specialists” (Al-
Hayat 2014f), whilst subsequent videos, communiques and social media accounts of IS
recruits have boasted about working conditions in the Caliphate. One example is a video
entitled Health Services in The Islamic State, in which a paediatrician originally from
Adelaide, Australia, Tareq Kamleh, asserts that IS lacks no equipment but is in need of
medical experts, and that “the pathology [in the State] is incredible” (Wilayat Al-Raqqa &
Zelin 2015a). In other examples, IS engineer Hamayan Tariq (aka Muslim Al Britani)
tweeted instructions to detonate a bomb using a cell phone (Agron 2015), whilst
other multi-platform media has depicted IS reverse engineering surface to air missile
systems (Rangela 2016).
In addition to the organisation’s appeal to technical scientific abilities, IS also uses the
lure of technological luxury to attract Western recruits. Despite extensive propaganda
that brags about IS fighters’ rejection of “worldly comforts” in favour of a life lived in
service to Allah, a significant aspect of its media implies that the Good of the Caliphate
corresponds to its appropriation of technologies from predominantly Western capitalist
inventions. In one high-profile case, IS member Abu Rumaysah al-Britani’s 2015 e-book,
A Guide to the Islamic State, features a chapter entitled “Technology in the Caliphate”

(2015) that cites “hands on innovation”, “technological milestones” and new recruits’
access to “gizmos such as laptops, tablets, mobile phones, and of course the Internet”
(2015, 26, 28). Indicating the organisation’s advocacy of knowledge, elsewhere in the
book, al-Britani refers to the Caliphate’s “remarkable education system” (2015, 37).
In other media that is both produced by the group and whose production it has
contributed to, IS demonstrates expedient use of modern technologies in its territories.
This was apparent in a VICE documentary during which IS representatives exhibited
modern business enterprise and their fighters’ possession of advanced artillery, whilst an
IS tour guide announced to the film-maker that “we are not sending people back to the
time of carrier pigeon, on the contrary we will benefit from the development, but in a
way that doesn’t contradict the religion” (Dairieh and Mojica 2014). In the light of IS
declarations in Arabic media, for instance, that fighters will “rush to remove blatant
appearances of Evil, to prevent anything from leading the people to shirk [idolatry or
polytheism]” (Al-Furqan 2014a), this statement seems ideologically contradictory, if not
overtly contrary to the organisation’s theocratic message. Additionally, as has been
examined by digital media theorists elsewhere (Farwell 2014), claims to resist “idolatry”
are undermined by IS’ avid glorification of fighters, their possessions and their pet
animals exhibited via hyper-modern video and audio technology.
A final contradictory aspect of IS propaganda that recalls Western governments’
embrace of modern philosophies is the organisation’s often-incongruous appeals to
reason. This article contends that a number of texts and videos disseminated by IS
reveal that its recruitment strategy is based, in certain respects, on an Enlightenment-
inspired Cartesian rationality. Although such attempts at rationality typically integrate
biased and partial forms of information, they utilise both deductive and inductive forms
of reasoning. A January 2016 IS video, A Message to David Cameron, for example,
deductively posits that the former UK Prime Minister is an “imbecile”, drawing from
disparate evidence for substantiation (Ar-Raqqah 2016). Numerous official statements
made by al-Baghdadi also depict US-led coalitions as a regressive and ill-informed “Evil”,
using inductive logic to explicate what the organisation argues is a linear history of neo-
colonial oppression. In their use of persuasive rhetoric, IS videos and statements may in
certain respects be considered to derive from both Kantian rationalism and the precepts
of logical reasoning conceptualised during the Enlightenment historical period by Rene
Descartes ([1637] 2001) and de Spinoza [1677] 2005. To this end, they may be inter-
preted to recall the Cartesian principle “to follow what is most probable” (Descartes
[1637] 2001).
Despite the questionable nature of IS’ religious legitimacy, the organisation’s deduc-
tive use of reason primarily takes the form of religious syllogism. A typical argument
follows that Islam is the only true religion and that the Christian West have historically
oppressed Muslim people, and therefore violence against the West is sanctioned by
divine ordinance. This is apparent not only in the organisation’s mention of persecution
by US-led international coalitions, it is also manifest in several of its mediatised and
highly produced video declarations. In a seven-part series entitled Lend Me Your Ears, for
instance, the still-captive British journalist John Cantlie provides a critical account of UK
and US foreign policy. Recalling Western governments’ advocacy of knowledge, he
proposes to use “facts” to counter the “Western media” that he claims “tries to drag
the public back to the abyss of another war with the Islamic State” (Al-Furqan 2014b).

Also demonstrating the organisation’s advocacy of reasoning is the previously men-

tioned No Respite video that cites “hard facts” about US army suicides and the country’s
military expenditure (Al-Hayat 2015b). Similar logic was then apparent in a
December 2015 speech in which al-Baghdadi declared that disbelievers, with their
“tongues in Evil”, “do not understand” because they are “people who do not reason” (al-
Baghdadi and Prince 2015).
Whilst previous terrorism studies have explored how politically violent organisations
such as IS can be understood according to strategic models of administration (Lake
2002; Abrahms 2008) and rational choice theory (Crenshaw 2007), this analysis has
contended that IS’ appeal to its followers’ didactic reasoning extends beyond unidirec-
tional propaganda or goals-oriented policy. In conjunction with IS’ advocacy of science
and technology, its philosophical adherence to “reason” holistically contradicts the
“prophetic methodology” that the organisation so often claims to follow. Through its
interaction with the modern values of technology, science and innovation, IS, like its
Western government opposition, exhibits a conspicuously hybrid “modern” and “pre-
modern” political orientation.

Although IS and Western governments mutually construct Good and Evil narratives
drawing from ideological designs that are in tension, this article has demonstrated
that their emphasis on religion and philosophy is empirically distinctive. Where
Western governments outwardly advocate the Enlightenment principles of science,
knowledge and reason, they also subtly appeal to the logic of premodern religion.
Where IS, on the other hand, purports to observe ancient religious traditions, it
surreptitiously appeals to the contemporary values of technological innovation and
educated reasoning. John Kerry’s description of IS as “nihilistic” and “inexplicable”
connects with Barack Obama’s advocacy of American “know-how” to create an
oxymoronic effect, whilst IS’ implorations to “obey khilafa” contradict its appeal
to IS followers’ political sagacity. In a mirror of one another, these entities reflex-
ively utilise propaganda techniques that controvert their external ideological
Given the intellectually destabilising effect of this situation, it is perhaps pertinent to
consider whether such messaging techniques are strategic, particularly as they relate to
political persuasion. As previously mentioned, it is also useful to reflect on how exposing
the paradox of such communications could encourage critical thinking on IS-related cases.
This analysis has therefore shown that beginning to understand the ideological
connection between IS and Western governments requires an appreciation of a
Hegelian-style dialectic between IS and Western governments (Barber 2016). It has
also, however, illustrated that unlike Hegel’s dialectic, the binaries of communication
between IS and Western governments do not synthesise new political situations. As
reflexive examples of “vile”, “Hell” and “knowledge” demonstrate, Good and Evil narra-
tives in IS media and Western government statements are perpetually re-constructed in
counterpoint to one another. Furthermore, the analysis has revealed that this cyclical
dialectic operates on a number of levels: in primary interactions between these entities,

between their premodern and modern ideations, and within their overarching Good and
Evil belief systems.
Internal consistencies between the religious and modern philosophical ideals of these
entities do indicate, however, that this binary opposition within IS and Western govern-
ment discourse is by no means absolute. IS’ reference to the “knowledge of the ‘Fuqaha
of Evil’” (Al-Battar 2016), for example, is congruent with al-Baghdadi’s rationale that
infidels “do not understand” because “they are people who do not reason” (al-Baghdadi
and Prince 2015). Likewise, Western governments’ reference to the “inexplicable” nature
of IS in certain respects accords with the philosophical trope that counterterrorist
entities possess superior knowledge and values.
As discussed in the “Introduction” section, the values we often associate with the
knowledge, objectivity and humanism of modern science and post-Enlightenment
philosophising are often mistakenly interpreted as distinct from the emotive, spiritual
logic of premodern religion. Sociologists, including Bruno Latour (2012) and Randall
Styers (2004), demonstrate that in reality, myriad early religious convictions continue to
inform current, ostensibly secular political decisions. This is apparent in numerous
settings, from the Abrahamic archetypes that inform conservative “family values” and
their political supports, to the societal institutions that are granted derision or sympathy
in Western government elections. Extending such conjecture towards a consideration of
strategic counter/terrorism communications, this article has argued that religious ideals
in IS media and Western government statements are variously conflated with these
entities’ Enlightenment-inspired philosophical thinking. Through discourse and docu-
mentary analysis, it has shown that “terrorist” and “counterterrorist” entities depict one
another as an inexplicable “Evil” that can, discordantly, only be overcome by the “Good”
of technology, science and reason.
Given that religion and philosophy are therefore at times essentially integrated in IS
and Western governments’ statements, it is perhaps apt to direct attention towards the
overarching ideological techniques that render these messages sympathetic to diverse
international spectators. Where outward tensions between modern philosophy and
premodern religious expression might have created a dissonant effect for audiences, it
is possible that this ideological friction in fact facilitates the “Othering” that is integral to
binary identity formations (Jensen 2011). Reflexivity between the strategic communica-
tions of the examined entities produces an ideological condition in which they can
define (and thus intellectually govern) both themselves and the Other according to a
false logic of contradistinction.
This article has therefore not attempted to provide an account of how IS and Western
governments interact with a history of religion and metaphysics. It has rather sought to
illuminate how reflexive means of identification between these entities perpetuate
contemporary “Good and Evil” terrorism explanations.

An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the ‘Vox-Pol Mid-Project Conference: Taking Stock
of Research on Violent Online Political Extremism’, in June 2016.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Notes on contributor
Imogen Richards is a PhD candidate at Monash University. Her PhD research explores the political
economy of neo-jihadist and counterterrorist organisations. Her other research interests include
performativity and risk in contemporary counterterrorist thought.

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