The glamour of joining Islamic State – and how to fight it

The Pentagon is trying to figure out why Islamic State has been so successful at attracting followers. Confronting Islamic State requires an exercise largely unfamiliar to the American military’s hardheaded pragmatists: thinking carefully about the elusive, seductive magic of glamour.

Making that task all the more difficult, it also demands recognizing the allure of ideas and images that baffle, offend or horrify most Westerners. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, glamour is in the mind of the audience.

Glamour is effective because it gives specific form to inchoate desires, whether for love, wealth, power, recognition, freedom, adventure or divine favor. In “The Power of Glamour,” I wrote: “The desires glamour serves and intensifies are never purely physical. They are emotional.”

That’s as true for a bored and angry young man contemplating jihad as it is for a harried working mother imagining a spa vacation. A glamorous image or idea offers its audience a shimmering promise of life transformed and perfected. It focuses the audience’s longings.

“What inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Quran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious and cool,” noted anthropologist Scott Atran, who studies what moves people to join jihadi organizations.

With this promise of camaraderie, glory, adventure and significance, Islamic State is tapping into martial glamour, whose many incarnations are as ancient as Achilles and as American as the Marine Corps. But in this case the cause is not patriotic but religious.

Islamic State’s recruitment imagery and Internet fan posts offer a different, more contemporary and overtly violent form of glamour. Videos, magazine features and Twitter memes mirror the glamour of action movies, shooter video games and gangsta rap. They make killing look effortless, righteous and triumphant. They promise to make the jihadist feel manly and important.

Indeed, the “intangible power” of Islamic State stems from its ability to meld common, often secular forms of martial and media glamour with a compellingly utopian version of religious faith. The result is a 21st-century Islamic version of the medieval Christian Crusades. Islamic State promises ordinary men adventure, fellowship and religious significance if they fight infidels and heretics in a distant land.

The challenge in countering these forms of glamour is to find a way to take advantage of an essential weakness. As inspiring as glamour can be, it often dissipates with experience. That’s because all glamour contains an illusion. It hides anything that might break the spell: flaws, distractions, hardship, tedium. Dispelling glamour, then, requires revealing the truth. But deliberately puncturing glamour can be harder than it sounds.

The State Department failed to do that with anti-Islamic State propaganda launched as part of its ongoing “Think Again Turn Away” campaign. It rightly drew widespread criticism with its ham-handed effort to horrify potential recruits with video imagery of crucified Muslims and a mosque suicide bombing. Islamic State doesn’t hide its brutal intolerance of Muslims who deviate from its notion of the true faith. A radical claim to purist authenticity – an ideal Islam violently purged of culture, history and variation – is in fact central to its appeal. The State Department video might scare recruits’ parents, but it would do little to deter their alienated sons.

Making Islamic State look fearsome and successful – countering its glamour with horror – only serves to heighten the movement’s allure. To dissuade potential recruits, something more banal is required. What glamorous visions of jihadi glory obscure isn’t violence. It’s drudgery, subordination, infighting, hypocrisy and general messiness.

“I’ve basically done nothing except hand out clothes and food,” a French volunteer in Aleppo complained in a letter home, as reported by Le Figaro. “I also help clean weapons and transport dead bodies from the front.”

Emphasizing Islamic State’s brutality may rally mainstream domestic audiences, but it won’t destroy the group’s glamour in the eyes of potential recruits. For that, we need more stories about menial chores, less publicity that turns terrorists into celebrities and, most essentially, battlefield evidence that effortless victory is an illusion – Islamic State is for losers.

Bloomberg View columnist Virginia Postrel writes about commerce and culture, innovation, economics and public policy.