Where the Islamic State hides – Peter Harling archive
THE ISLAMIC STATE WAS LONG IN THE MAKING. It is here to stay, if not in the Iraqi city of Mosul, then in people’s minds and our own memory. Under its current name or its next avatar, it likely will linger on in our lives like a trauma—a familiar fear, quick to surface, however deeply burrowed.
Indeed, it fills a hole we cannot plaster over: decaying power structures and social compacts throughout the Middle East, in parts of Africa and Central Asia, and in places closer to home, such as the urban fringes at the heart of Western societies. It taps into the same groundswell of inchoate anti-establishment anger that has been molded into virtually anything: from dissident democrats to insurgent republicans in recent American elections; from Occupy Wall Street to the Tea-Party movement; from a leftist takeover in Greece to its rightwing equivalent in Poland; from the British Brexit to the French Front National; and from hopeful uprisings in the Arab world to “ISIS,” their nihilistic antithesis.
The problem we face is an old one: the banality, the oddity of evil, which can seep into our lives and become the new normal. As this collection of images will show us, the “true” Islamic State may not be a beheading video, but a more ordinary scene.
To deny its hold on our reality, we make the Islamic State into something extraordinary, exogenous—a creature from the past, from an exotic elsewhere, with an inhuman rationality. But it doesn’t just mangle: it mingles too. Craving attention, it keeps creeping up on us, seeking ways to photobomb the course of history. And it is, without doubt, media-savvy: digitally-native, almost geeky in its use of modern communication tools, it promotes itself much less through a coherent ideology than via the equivalent of an aggregated, gigantic snuff-selfie.
Paradoxically, this portfolio is filled with the Islamic State’s absence. The movement is, indeed, a small one: it has far fewer troops than any of its opponents; its resources are mostly limited to what it can plunder; its paltry weapons pale in the tall shadows of the guns arrayed against it; its popular support is ambivalent at best; its violence is staged to maximize effect; and its territorial empire always comprised much desert and rubble.
This lesser militia nevertheless prompted the greatest de facto coalition of forces ever assembled in history: a US-led alliance of more than thirty countries, to which one must add Russia, Iran, the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, the Lebanese Hizbollah and others, all of which have declared the Islamic State as the epitome of evil and their paramount enemy. And still it is there, bizarrely hard to defeat.
This publication appears to revolve around this mystery: the truly massive disruptions we pin on such a diminutive entity. Perhaps there are three clues to this riddle. The first is that the Islamic State magnifies itself through the media’s echo chamber, by turning its opponents’ grandstanding into a multiplying factor, and by leveraging their truly superior power. It deliberately provokes the kind of response that serves its purpose—another “war on terror” that plays up the importance of its foes while further dilapidating the urban and social fabric they already prey upon.
Certainly ISIS ravaged archeological artifacts and stole many lives; but the wholesale destruction of large parts of Syria and Iraq is a service it owes to its proclaimed enemies. Only in that void can it thrive. The photographs in this collection capture, incredibly, this inhabited vacuum—a place of ample misery and so little meaning.