As ISIS storms through Iraq, its allies and enemies wage an information war on television. Elliott Colla, professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown and author of the crime novel, Baghdad Central, has been watching the events unfold onscreen alongside his wife's Iraqi family, who recently resettled from Baghdad to Amman. Colla reads part of his essay, “Watching ISIS on TV,” published in the online magazine Jadaliyya, and talks with Brooke about the origins of Iraq's frenzied media landscape.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As it struggles against the mighty forces of Twitter, allies and enemies of ISIS wage an information war on television. Elliott Colla is a professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, in Jordan for the summer. And he spent the last few days with his wife’s family, who recently resettled from Baghdad to Amman, and much of their time together has been spent in the light of the flickering screen. We asked him to read part of his essay, just published in the online magazine, Jadaliyya, called, “Watching ISIS on TV.”
ELLIOTT COLLA: One government channel, downplaying the recent events in Mosul, aired loops of scenes suggesting that “life had returned to normal.
[HUBBUB/VOICES IN BACKGROUND]
Pictures of people sweeping up litter and debris from streets, as well as a color piece about the local fish market. After identifying the scale-less fish for sale, my hosts shrugged, “Sunnis eat that kind of fish, we don’t.” Elsewhere, we saw the counterpoint to this — cellphone videos, taken surreptitiously, of streets where only masked men with Kalashnikovs and RPGs dared to walk. My hosts occasionally commented, "Thank God we left." One cousin got up to check Facebook to see if his friends in Mosul were safe. He returned a moment later to say that the Maliki government had shut down both Facebook and Viber.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
Al-Rafidain played nostalgic loops of what can only be called, "greatest hits" - music video clips of military kills and nationalist songs played over real-time footage of IED strikes against US occupation forces, from a decade ago. Humvee doors are catapulted into the sky, trucks catch fire and roll down abandoned highways and tank turrets are blasted from their moorings. For its part, Iraqiya played loops of video clips of drone strikes. No music plays on these loops. These are designed to instill the confidence of cold technological power. The screen is filled with an overlay of tracking numbers and coordinates. The image is composed of shadowy figures in Toyota trucks, dancing across the desert or attempting to hide under an overpass. Then the missile strikes and we queue to the next scene. Again, my fellow watches shrugged, "This is just PlayStation stuff."
[SOUND OF CROWD CHANTING]
For the next few hours, we watched scripted scenes of men gathering in public squares to volunteer for the fight. Groups danced and sang their promise to defend Shiite Iraq, using tunes and lyrics that used to belong to Saddam Hussein.
Men shot pistols, rifles, and automatic weapons into the air in an unabashedly phallic frenzy.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
Channels broadcast glossy recruitment videos for the army. We watched scenes of brave professional soldiers saluting the flag and then boarding helicopters that flew across the country. They deploy across golden fields of wheat, facing an enemy who never appears before the fade out. One cousin shook his head, "These were the guys who just ran away."
We listened to a bombastic marshal ballad, performed by a full orchestra and a chorus of men and women wrapped in the Iraqi flag. The lyrics praised the steadfastness of the army and the people and promised that ISIS would be destroyed. They actually mention ISIS (داعش) by name. We wondered how they had managed to compose the song, then get seventy people to perform it, and then film it and broadcast all within one or two days. One of my hosts pointed to the screen, "Look, look, none of them are actually singing the words." Sure enough, the singers were singing something but clearly not the words of this song.
At some point, my wife's cousin went into the kitchen to fix some cardamom tea. Then she brought out a delicious watermelon. We eventually decided to watch an American movie playing on MBC. It is really remarkable to watch Tom Cruise in Risky Business. He was so young back then.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Colla says the sprawling array of Iraqi
television stations can be traced back to 2003, when the US occupation spread cash and a capitalist ethos across Iraq's media landscape.
ELLIOTT COLLA: You saw the deregulation of a very restricted and, and authoritarian system. We saw privatization, an explosion of the freedom of the press. In fact, Iraq was a model for media diversity. In 2003 and ‘4 it was arguably the freest media in the Arab world and maybe the freest media that had existed in the Arab world. Lots of people wanted to come in, and what we saw was a real free-for-all, complete competition. And competition, of course, was considered success.
But deregulation also meant the removal of oversight. When you add to that, like, the emergence of satellite channels that can’t be shut down, add to that a disintegration or a fracturing of Iraqi society and the rise of sectarianism, and then you begin to see something probably never intended, a huge polarization and fragmentation of the media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Applying American principles, we say generally that we defend the speech we hate.
ELLIOTT COLLA: Right, absolutely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But?
ELLIOTT COLLA: The “but” here is you are what you watch. And, as the political situation in Iraq begins to deteriorate, people start to tune into those channels that reinforce their world view. And this simply begins to reinforce that kind of polarization and fragmentation in society.
No one knows what is happening, which is why we’re watching. And, at the same time, the images and the stories that are being broadcast are not actually information, right? And so, they're not going to teach you anything. They are only going to mobilize when you already think about what probably is happening.
Everyone I was watching it with was commenting, and that's true in the Arab world and probably true everywhere. Audiences are not passive.
And what I’m hearing is a very tired but also sectarian point of view, which is to say, this is a war on Shiites. It has its roots in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Syria and, in fact, the entire Arab world. And, at the same time, the Shiite leadership is corrupt and self-serving. You don't see any discussion of why might Sunnis be so thoroughly alienated from the central government that they would, in some cases, join ISIS, in other cases passively accept them, in the absence of any station that’s able to step above this.
I think it will take a long time for that to ever be articulated on mainstream Iraqi media which, at this point, is almost entirely Shiite.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Elliott Colla is the professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown and author of the crime novel, Baghdad Central.