How can we interpret the emergence of ISIS/ISIL from a movement perspective? Students and colleagues keep asking me and my answer remains unclear due to the limited publicly available information on the movement. Much of the available information has been posted by ISIS itself or has been reported by journalists’ accounts (e.g. an overview from the New York Times). The footage their organization has released shows how they are committing brutal and violent acts and sharing them publicly via social media as a key mobilization tactic.
What we know from previous sociological research on militant and orthodox religious movements may lend insights in interpreting how ISIS has emerged and gained power. Mark Juergensmeyer’s (2003) research on religious militant movements examines why these groups execute performative violence. Based on research on militant Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Sikh, and Buddhist groups, he argues militant fundamentalists use religious ideology and public displays of violence as a means of empowering themselves in a world in which they are socially and economically marginalized. These groups are particularly likely to recruit vulnerable populations of men, including disenfranchised young men and ethnic minority expatriots.
Terrorist religious groups are likely to (1) reject mainline religious groups’ “compromises” with liberal values, practices, and secular institutions, (2) seek to bring religion into the public sphere, and (3) replace what they view as weak modern religiosity with more demanding forms of religion that reflect what they imagine to be “authentic,” traditional, religious roots. Juergensmeyer identified a feedback loop in religious movements. Religious ideology can be drawn upon to empower a movement, providing it with transcendent significance and a toolkit of symbols. Violence also empowers religious groups by helping them gain visibility, symbolic power, and political power. They enact violent acts with symbolic significance, rather than aim to meet a strategic political goal.
Because I have not been on the ground collecting data on ISIS, I asked a friend, Mike Shum, who has covered ISIS for the New York Times from Iraq, to speak to my students. Shum’s perspective, similar to other pundits’ recent opinions, is that this movement is driven by power and political aims rather than religious ones.
Shum highlighted the importance of social media in the emergence of ISIS. “ISIS is public about its activities to the point it’s a weapon” rather than just a means of communication. He discussed how social media serve as effective tools which movements like ISIS can use to seem larger and more pervasive than they are. Shum explained how, from his perspective as a journalist covering international conflicts, the use of social media by groups like ISIS to rapidly share information to the public is “unprecedented”. It circumvents the prior power journalists had as the primary means of communicating information to the public (see Gamson and Wolfsfeld’s 1993).
So what can we learn from the emergence of ISIS as movement scholars?
Shum recommended starting with more qualitative studies to get a sense of how religion is being used by ISIS. In particular, he recommended a good place to start would be to do a content analysis to analysis of ISIS’s postings on social media.
We also can conduct comparative research on how social media is used by different kinds of movements in distinct contexts around the world. Scholars need to map out the many uses of social media and assess when these tactics are likely to be successful and when they are not.
There has been some research on movements’ use of digital and social media. However, much of the extant research is based in communication, journalism, and media studies (e.g. Atton 2002; Harlow 2011). For sociological perspectives, see Langman 2005 and Carroll and Ratner 1999. More sociological work should build upon these foundations.
There are obvious limitations on the availability of data on emerging movements in conflict zones. Movement scholars can learn from journalists in how we can collect new kinds of data more rapidly about emerging movements across the world as they unfold. Building ties with journalists could help us publicize our results more broadly to the public as well.