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ISIS and the Media: Professor Lawrence Davidson

Davidson helps to uncover unsubstantiated reports, media tropes, and calls into question old and unfounded disinformation.

Lawrence Davidson, an expert on the Middle East and American Foreign Policy, talked with Truthout about the recent headlines concerning ISIS/ISIL as well as the legacy of the Bush Administration. We are reaping the terrible consequences of the fatal and immoral error of invading Iraq. All questions surrounding ISIS fluctuate rapidly in conjunction with evolving tribal and on the ground situations. Usually the West underestimates the strength of militancy and the vulnerability of a too-big-to-fail foreign policy with proxy client forces.

Davidson helps to uncover unsubstantiated reports, media tropes, and calls into question old and unfounded disinformation. Media filtering is very much built in, as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky described the “propaganda model” in Manufacturing Consent. This is also true in Ukraine, where the involvement of neo-Nazi thugs out of Kiev and the government’s intentional attack on innocents in the Eastern portion of the country has received minimal news coverage only.

Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history from West Chester University in Pennsylvania. His research focuses on the history of foreign relations with the Near East. In 1998, he authored Islamic Fundamentalism – An Introduction. In that book, he seeks to question the stereotypes and discriminatory methodology of US writing on Islam. He traces Sunni and Shi’ite expressions of Islam and attempts to inform Western readers about the impact of US foreign policy. (See Davidson’s To The Point Analyses.)

Dan Falcone for Truthout: Russian Television (RT) is reporting that “The UN special representative to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, has called on the international community to prevent “possible massacre” in the northern town of Amerli, which has been under siege by Islamic State militants for two months. What do you see as the primary cause of the “massacre” and do you foresee an international solution?

Lawrence Davidson: It seems to me that the political and religious leaders of ISIS are mimicking the actions of the Wahabi-Saud expansion in Arabia of the 18th century. At that time the fundamentalist religious leader Mohammad ibn abd al-Wahhab and the military leader Mohammad bin Saud allied (at least temporarily) to conquer Arabia from the Ottomans. As they did so, they slaughtered all those they considered infidels (including most of the population of Mecca and Medina. Their long term aim was to establish a purist caliphate that enforced Islam as they believed it had been practiced during the time of the first caliphs.

The original action was finally stopped by the Ottomans sending down a force to militarily defeat them. Military defeat is probably what it will take in the present case as well.

The right wing media, and now even the New York Times how, “Earlier this year, President Obama likened the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to a junior varsity basketball squad, a group that posed little of the threat once presented by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. But on Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called ISIS an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” adding, “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen.” Did the President underestimate the severity of the operation and network?

Obama and most of the rest of the world underestimated ISIS. It is determined and deadly and, it would seem, has attracted the loyalty of most of Saddam’s old military officer corps. If they ever become armed like a modern army, things will get worse.

Alessandria Masi of the International Business Times writes , “On the anniversary of Syria’s brutal gas attack on its own people, the US State Department said that a “number of critical issues remain unresolved” about Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons. The possibility of unaccounted chemical weapons in Syria raises the concern of whether the Islamic State may someday have access to chemical agents, given their recent gains in both Iraq and Syria.” It seems that the Obama Administration would have this intelligence available to them, much earlier that this release. In your view, is the Obama foreign policy forcing these countries and groups to dig in and mount reactions to drone campaigns and air assaults?

The reference to Syrian gas attacks is old and discredited news. The drone attacks have little to do with ISIS or its success. What it does have a lot to do with is the power vacuums created by the US attack on Iraq and the civil war in Syria.

In regard to the commonly used phrase, “boots on the ground,” Wesley Clark recently replied in an interview on Russian Television (RT) that we have plenty of “boots on the ground” all over the place (he alluded to Jordan and Syrian rebel training and our people in Iraq) I am wondering why there is a media presupposition that Obama does not have “boots on the ground?”

The term “boots on the ground” commonly denotes combat soldiers engaged in fighting (i.e.: Afghanistan). What Clark was referring to was training and support (non-combat) personnel. The media must be using the common definition.

Business Insider recently reported that the “The White House continues to ratchet up its rhetoric against the extremist group; the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL), calling the group’s brutal execution of American journalist James Foley a “terrorist attack” against the United States.” This was a heinous attack on the reporter, but aren’t the airstrikes also a form of terror?

Of course the US uses terror tactics and the death toll from them is higher than that so far achieved by ISIS. However, our media isn’t going to present things that way; plus, ISIS actions play into the hands of the US media. ISIS probably do not do this on purpose (their immediate purpose is to scare the local populations so badly that they will not resist), and probably doesn’t care very much about US opinion in any case, but beheading a Western reporter on film is going to earn them a predictable reputation in the West and one that can only bring popular support for policies aimed at their destruction.

Patrick Cockburn writing for TomDispatch states, “There are extraordinary elements in the present US policy in Iraq and Syria that are attracting surprisingly little attention. In Iraq, the US is carrying out air strikes and sending in advisers and trainers to help beat back the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (better known as ISIS) on the Kurdish capital, Erbil. The US would presumably do the same if ISIS surrounds or attacks Baghdad. But in Syria, Washington’s policy is the exact opposite: there the main opponent of ISIS is the Syrian government and the Syrian Kurds in their northern enclaves. Both are under attack from ISIS, which has taken about a third of the country, including most of its oil and gas production facilities.” Do you see the matter as Cockburn does in this case?

I think the Cockburn observation is dated. There is now cooperation between Assad and the US when it comes to fighting ISIS. This cooperation is not publicized, however, for political reasons. It could give ammunition to the Republicans in an election year.

When ISIS first started making the recent headlines, there were subtle leaks mixed in with expansive lies. The Saudi connection with the United States was occasionally mentioned in connection with ISIS funding, then it virtually disappeared from US coverage. Is our connection with Islamic fundamentalism filtered out because it violates the good vs. evil paradigm of international simplicity?

Well, Saudi Arabia is seen as an important ally and coverage of it is going to be biased. Most of ISIS money is coming from private funds in the Gulf countries. The Saudi government, recognizing the danger of a boomerang effect (à la Osama bin Laden) is trying to prevent their own citizens giving money to ISIS, but I am not sure how effectively. There can be no doubt however that most Gulf Arabs would like to see ISIS in power in Syria and Iraq and they are willing to pay for it.

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