Islamic State murder of Jordanian pilot: can you talk to a death cult?

In his article “Islamic State murder of Jordanian pilot: can you talk to a death cult?” The Telegraph, 7 Feb 2015 (, David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Jones raise an interesting discussion relating to the ‘death cult’ label which appears to have been unanimously accepted by commentators as an appropriate label for ISIL. The authors raise caution about the fact that terms of engagement invited by those opposing the ‘death cult’ appear to veer in two directions, neither of which is an approach based on a realistic assessment of the essence of ISIL.

On one hand, the group’s actions are written off as so increasingly barbarous and extreme that it will necessarily implode under its own instability. The authors paraphrase this view by quoting the reaction of New York Times writer Roger Boyes to the broadcasted January 2015 immolation of Jordinian pilot Moaz Kasaesbeh, declaring ISIL has “over reached itself” with this action. This view contains a judgement that the group should be given no quarter to be perceived as legitimate or enduring.

On the other hand, the authors say that the clout garnered by ISIL’s strengthening presence demands a grudging acceptance by world powers to accept the group as a bona fide political entity, an admission which justifies negotiations through the proper political channels. The authors invoke comments made by the British political advisor Jonathan Powell to exemplify this stance, who recommended that the proper course of action to deal with ISIL is to “treat them as statesmen”, because “governments proclaim they never negotiate with evil, yet they always have and will.”


As mentioned above, the authors deem both approaches inappropriate, as neither sufficiently take into account what is termed the ‘postmodern appeal’ of the ‘apocalyptic millenarian caliphism’ practiced by ISIL. To understand the motivations of the group, the authors suggest looking to the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, Spain. This was an embryonic moment for the current shape of radical islam which was captured in the self-appointed slogan ‘you love life, we love death.’ The authors contend that the apparent attitude of desensitization to violence communicated through this slogan and the subsequent media broadcasts from the ranks of ISIL is a misguided perception. To understand the ‘death cult’ is to necessarily realize that the act of death-dealing is instead sacralized, with more transgressive acts being equated to a stronger perception of being sacral.


This explanatory religious element to the particular makeup of ISIL’s ‘death cult’ label is coherent. The western world, argues the authors, experiences cognitive dissonance when trying to comprehend something which goes against its general cultural narrative of life affirmation. The reactions, whether they gesture towards dismissal or diplomatic fantasy, speak for themselves. In reality, ISIL is the product of third-generation ‘thoughtful jihadists’ who developed the centralized concept of 9/11 era al-Qaeda into their own direction of equally nihilistic but far more amorphous violence. This religious explanation is uncomfortable, but becomes useful when the western knee-jerk moral condemnation of ISIL can be suspended long enough to consider a conceptual space in which adherence to explicity anti-western religious values is a true possibility.


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