Behead, Burn, Crucify, Crush: Theorizing the Islamic State’s Public Display of Violence 

Simone Molin Friis (University of Copenhagen)

During the summer of 2014, the militant group known as the Islamic State (IS) emerged as a central security concern on the international agenda. An important element in IS’s rapid rise to infamy was the group’s ability to exploit the contemporary media environment to render its retributive justice and bloody triumphs excessively and instantly visible to a global audience. Through slick high-definition videos showing beheadings, burnings, and other atrocities, IS has continuously attracted international attention and spurred vehement reactions. This paper examines IS’s public display of violence. By placing the phenomenon in a broader historical-political context and interpretative field that reaches beyond the immediate sense of horror, the paper seeks to surpass the sensationalism in order to explicate the logic, dynamics, and politics of the deliberate display of cruelty against individual human bodies. In doing so, the paper highlights that the violence in IS’s videos is a form of violent dialogue, which is predominantly about the effects on witnesses; which relies on the power of transgressive violence to create the spectacular effect; and which mobilizes the victim to produce the public appearance of consent. Subsequently, discussing the broader political function of IS’s pubic display of violence, the paper argues that IS’s staged violence is both a form of terrorism and a way of undermining sovereign states, but also an integral element of a state-project and a way of manifesting sovereignty. Finally, the paper reflects on what the case of IS can teach us about the way in which spectacles of violence are being transformed in the 21st century.

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