August 13, 2014

The Media Coverage of ISIL Is Bedlam

The headlines sound true, so we believe them. But should we?

They show up on Facebook feeds. We’ve seen them on the corners of the Internet. The headlines whisper: The Islamic State of Syria and the Levant kill children, decapitating Christian children. They’re monsters. It sounds true, so some believe it and click on headlines, like the one coming out of Catholic Online that states, “WARNING GRAPHIC PHOTOS (RAW) – ISIS begins killing Christians in Mosul, CHILDREN BEHEADED.” But stories like these are only half-truths exaggerated in the echo chamber of the Internet.

Make no mistake: ISIL is brutal, but the information coming from Syria and Iraq is far from clear and accurate.

To verify the authenticity of some of the images accompanying these stories, we searched the dregs of the Internet for copies of the photos. If the photos showed up a year or two before the story, then obviously the image is not about that current news event but was scraped up by some hack not doing his or her research.

The images published on Catholic Online are a mix of images that cropped up a few days ago and others first published much earlier. An image of a crucifixion was first published in July. An image of a beheaded girl first showed up online a year ago. An image of a brutal murder of a woman first appeared in 2008 and is only now attributed to ISIL. Viewed together, the images amount to obscenity for the sake of click bait. It is war porn that degrades the women and children in the photos.

Joe Carter at The Gospel Coalition wrote a response to the Christian beheading articles. “There is no doubt that ISIS is persecuting the Christians in Mosul and other areas of Iraq,” he said. “But almost all have already fled the city and the few that remain are continuing to leave the area. There are, however, journalists from Iraq and Western news agencies still in the city. Why have none of them taken photographs of these atrocities, or even reported on their occurrence? Why have such stories not been reported by the Christians who have fled to the cities controlled by the Kurds?”

Even the most recent images are falsely attributed. An image of a small child with three AK-47 barrels pointed to her head circulated widely in recent days. It’s easy to see why: It doesn’t have blood or violence but it’s emotionally provocative. Catholic Online captioned the photo, “A child is photographed, waiting to be killed by militants. ISIS uses these images to terrorize others and to glorify their spree of terror.” But Carter at the Gospel Coalition points out the child is wearing Yemeni clothes. The image first showed up on a Facebook account of a person from Yemen. Whatever is going on in the photo, it was not taken in Syria or Northern Iraq.

Some of the most fascinating reporting coming out of Iraq and Syria was done by Vice News. Its five-part series gives the West one of the few looks into life under the government of ISIL. It’s a place where strict Islamic law is enforced. Men carrying AK-47s travel the streets and enforce Sharia law. In the videos, they are shown making sure people congregated around a street vendor are observing Ramadan and not eating during the day. They stop a man to tell him his wife’s veil is too translucent.

Vice’s reporter goes into ISIL’s jail and speaks to prisoners remorseful for keeping alcohol in their homes. For a crime like that, ISIL will whip the Sharia-lawbreakers. For a crime like murder, ISIL will crucify the person and display his body publicly. Ironic when ISIL is a murderous gang itself.

Laws like this show the difference of thought between the West and ISIL’s brand of Islam. The West’s idea of justice stems from “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” what was wrong must be righted. The justice ISIL dishes out sets itself as the sword of a harsh god. There is no chance for grace under that system. If you steal, you better not do it twice, or you will have no hands. Overall, the dispatches from Vice paint a picture of a country of boys lusting after war. It glorifies, yes, tweets and broadcasts, violence.

The Vice report turns to the plight of Christians in ISIL-held territory. On camera, ISIL judge Abu Abdula says, “On January 23, 2014, a pact was made with non-Muslims. It was approved by the Caliph al-Bagdhadi. Christians asked for this pact, asked for this contract. We met with them in the presence of a representative of the Caliph al-Baghdahdi. He offered the chance for them to convert to Islam. If you don’t accept this, you can pay non-Muslim tax, according to the Koran. If you don’t accept this, there is nothing left between us but killing and fighting. They said, we want to pay the tax. I swear to God, we didn’t harm them or displace them.”

Are Christians being persecuted by ISIL? Yes. Are they dying? Very likely. ISIL took over one of Mosul’s churches, destroyed the cross on top of the building and created an Islamic center. From this place, men carrying AK-47s chant, “We have broken America in two, and we’ve annihilated the countries of Europe. We have brought back the Caliphate, despite tyrants.”

Again, there is the lust for war.

But Foreign Policy points out any images and stories coming out of Syria and Iraq are suspect. ISIL has been able to broadcast its black-hooded fighters marching through cities. Vice’s videos show a young generation eagerly awaiting a time it can fight, or become a martyr for the cause of Jihad. But this could all be ISIL propaganda, FP says. ISIL has said any unapproved photographs will earn freelance photojournalists working in its territory 100 lashes. Vice and news services like Reuters and the Associated Press did not talk to FP about their photos coming out of ISIL territory.

It’s easy to grow discouraged as this area of the world grows dark, as ISIL advances and more people die by their hands. Most of the images show a triumphant ISIL, terrified civilians and that corner of the world descending into unimaginable chaos. It’s easy to assume everything coming out of that country is bad news and any exaggeration is easily believed.

Yet watch for the people who keep the darkness at bay. Watch for stories like the Iraqi helicopter crew that flew water and food to the Iraqi civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar. The crew shot their way past the ISIL lines. Flying 50-feet above the ground, they threw out packs of water and food. They landed and pulled onboard 20 civilians. They had to fly out of Mount Sinjar shooting, a soldier laying down fire out of the open helicopter door. Stories like that show there is good working despite evil.

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