Jihadi Audiovisualities: Meanings, Aesthetics, Appropriations
(4-5 October 2018)
The first international conference of the junior research group Jihadism on the Internet: Images and Videos, their Appropriation, and Dissemination at the Department of Anthropology and African Studies, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz addresses a topical and socially relevant field that has yet hardly been investigated systematically.
A thorough assessment of Jihadi-Salafi images and videos reveals a great multiplicity of textual, verbal, and visual figurations, symbols, and patterns of appropriation. Groups and movements such as the ‘Islamic State’ articulate their claim on hegemony also by absorbing and appropriating these codes and symbols. Despite the fundamental polysemy of these signs, Jihadi-Salafis seek to define them as unambiguous and interpret them corresponding to their own ideology. This mode of appropriation can be found in still and moving images as well as in the use of poetry and singing. In doing so, Jihadists not only create a mediatized world of experience on the internet, but also construct a specific reality, which takes effect far beyond the World Wide Web.
It is misleading to conceive of these communicative offers and their dissemination on the internet primarily as political and social challenges. Throughout the multifaceted cultures of the web 2.0 images and videos of Jihadi-Salafi groups and movements are not only received passively, but rather are subject of appropriative strategies as they are circulated through social media and messenger services. Being engaged in a complex communication process, sympathizers as well as critics, artists, Muslim lay people and clerics actively connect to these communicative offers. They appropriate parts of these videos and images, transform them, or set their own interpretations against Jihadi-Salafi attempts of classification and disambiguation.
The first international conference of the junior research group Jihadism on the Internet: Images and Videos, their Appropriation, and Dissemination at the Department of Anthropology and African Studies, University of Mainz, takes these observations as an opportunity to take to the centre stage the field of extremist offers, their figurations and aesthetics, and the various forms of appropriation. We want to bring together experts and colleagues from multiple disciplines to foster multifarious exchanges, which will allow us to assess Jihadi audio-visuals in all their complexity.
During the conference, a public keynote presentation and roundtable discussion, three panels, and three workshops will be devoted to discuss the acoustic dimension of Jihadi-Salafi video communication, address the cinematic tools applied and the creative power involved in Jihadi audio-visuals , as well as focus on artistic ways of engaging with these communicative offers. This event will bring together artists, practitioners, academics, and a wider public to debate theoretical and methodological approaches that help to gain a better understanding of the complex world of experience created in and around Jihadist audiovisualities.
This conference is organized and hosted by the junior research group Jihadism on the Internet, funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.
The event is presented in cooperation with the Landeszentrale für politische Bildung Rheinland-Pfalz and is kindly supported by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and the Centre for Intercultural Studies (ZIS) at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.
During the past decade, audio-visual communication and the realm of digital media have been a focus of debates around Jihadi-Salafi groups, movements, and individuals on a global scale. While the discourse often centres around the techniques and dissemination of audio-visual media employed by these groups during the past decades, academics, journalists, and political circles have barely paid attention to the manifold reverberations, repercussions, and remixes that evolved around instances of Jihadi-Salafi media production.
The international conference Jihadi Audiovisualities: Meanings, Aesthetics, Appropriations aimed to fill this gap. The conference started off with an introductory note by CHRISTOPH GÜNTHER (Mainz). He proposed to understand Jihadi Audiovisualities as a communicative circle that is comprised of the mediated articulations of Jihadi ideologues, groups, and movements as well as the complex communicative entanglements and interactions that evolve around them in online and offline contexts. As a consequence, he suggested, it is imperative to bring researchers from different disciplines together and collaboratively decode the meanings of images, videos and chants as well as to examine the multiple ways in which people engage with these communicative propositions. In order to do justice to the multifarious linkages and interdigitations that evolve in the surroundings of Jihadi image, sound and video production, one needs to consider speech acts and image acts by Jihadis and their supporters, Muslim laypeople and clerics, artists, civil society activists, global youth, political forces, security agencies, and researchers alike.
The panel Vocals in Jihadist Messages, chaired by ALEXANDRA DICK (Mainz), addressed the usage of vocals or a cappella hymns both in jihadist and in wider political contexts. First, INES WEINRICH (Münster) gave an overview of the various understandings of these so-called anāshīd. She traced continuities and transformations from the Islamic chanting practice to the Jihadist appropriation. Second, JONAS OTTERBECK (Lund / London) analysed the political dimension of Islamic pop-anāshīd, a genre that is not per se political, but has increasingly been embedded in political contexts. Finally, CARIN BERG (Gothenburg) presented the findings from her PhD dissertation on the use of anāshīd by Ḥamās and Ḥizbullāh. All these presentations contributed to a better understanding of the role of anāshīd in politics, in general, and in Jihadism, in specific.
The Developments in Jihadist Propaganda panel, chaired by YORCK BEESE (Mainz), invited leading researchers from Jihadism and Games Studies to tackle the phenomenon of jihadist media. CHARLIE WINTER (London) presented a long-term study of photo reports published by the Islamic State (IS) via social networks. Going beyond a quantitative perspective Winter revealed topical relations within the material. MICHAEL KRONA (Malmø) addressed the practices of Islamic State beheading videos in his paper. Krona demonstrated that the well-planned video productions not only display constructions of power and humiliation but also perform them and therefore imply a relevance for various topical discourses in the social sciences. Finally, ANDREAS RAUSCHER (Siegen) presented the results of a survey of computer games produced by the Islamic State. Basing his studies on a differenced consideration of the ludis and paidia, Rauscher demonstrated that the mobile games of the IS hardly base themselves in gaming and reveal a procedural rhetoric of jihadisation.
This panel was followed by the public keynote lecture by KATHRIN FAHLENBRACH (Hamburg). Approaching the conference theme on a meta-level, she reflected on the structural chances and risks of image-based social protests in the wake of highly fluid and fragmented communicative infrastructures in the realm of social media. Further, she focused on the visual strategies and rhetorics of protest in online-activism, proposing three key types of activist online videos, i.e. documentary, informative, and expressive videos. Exemplifying this with a number of case studies, she argued that social, political and other activists use these types of videographic communication to render a conflict or problem visually evident, express their aims and attitudes, mobilize others for their cause, pick up rhetoric strategies of advertising and narrative strategies of movies, appropriate techniques of current pop-culture, and use highly polarizing images to further their cause. Kathrin Fahlenbrach concluded that online activism lowers the technical accessibility to broader, yet highly fragmented public spheres, but increase the access to broader public visibility and attention.
These insights generated questions that were addressed in the public roundtable discussion entitled From Satire to Social Work. How to Deal with Jihadi Media? On this occasion, SALOUA MOHAMMED (Bonn), YOUNES AL-AMAYRA (Berlin) and KATHRIN FAHLENBRACH (Hamburg) discussed and reflected on the extent to which humour and parody can be appropriate ways of addressing the concerns of those young people that are the primary audience of Jihadi propositions. Referring to her extensive experience in the field of social work, Saloua Mohammed emphasized that many youths suffer from a lack of acknowledgement of their capabilities, concerns, hopes, and aspirations on part of the broader society, which, under certain circumstances, makes it easy for Jihadi actors to attract these people to their cause. Social media in particular help stabilizing a relationship that is built on face-to-face contacts. At the same time, it might be helpful to produce producing online contents that convey narratives, values, and beliefs addressing young people’s concerns and enable them to channel their energy in positive ways – as long as the society at large supports and acknowledges their efforts.
The second day started with three parallel workshops. The Islamic State’s Audiovisual Branding workshop, organized by ALEXANDRA DICK (Mainz) and YORCK BEESE (Mainz) welcomed about 30 academics, researchers, and employees of various security sectors to co-work on contents and formats of the Islamic State’s (IS) branding strategy. Split into four working groups, participants focussed on the topics of jihadist chants (anāshīd), conveyed message, brand families, and film language. To start, the working groups analysed material prepared by the hosts and then presented the knowledge gained to the plenum with the common interest to identify the brand recognition of IS media. These presentations served to develop an open discourse on the aforementioned areas of research into which participants could integrate insights from their own research fields. The open format of this workshop provided space for wide-ranging discussions on the intentionality of IS videos, the historicity of messages, the film language in execution videos as well as the musical structure of anāshīd, which brought together perspectives and expertise from ethnomusicology and film studies.
In the workshop Media (Text) Rhetoric and Video Essays: Dealing analytically and creatively with ISIS videos that was conceptualized as a tripartite research report, BERND ZYWIETZ (Mainz) lectured on the challenge of analysing Islamic State propaganda videos as persuasive aesthetic media texts. In approaching these media, he proposed a theoretical-methodological mix of neo-formalist film analysis, media rhetoric and multimodality research. He then presented video essays as a creative form of expression for both the presentation and generation of knowledge. KEVIN B. LEE (Stuttgart) and CHLOÉ GALIBERT-LAÎNÉ (Paris) then presented their joint project “The Bottled Songs of Lost Children”, a series of essayistic video letters on the subject of Islamic State propaganda. They gave insights into their latest chapters: one on the ISIS hostage John Cantlie (“The Spokesman”) who is instrumentalized as a “correspondent”, and one on the case of a young Frenchman convicted of consuming ISIS online propaganda (“The Senlis Case”). During the workshop, participants were asked to discuss and reflect upon the creation of these works as well as the artistic considerations that guided Chloé and Kevin.
Interventions by CLAUDIA CARVALHO (Tilburg) and MARTIJN DE KONING (Amsterdam) opened the workshop on Ethics and Strategies of Online Research on Jihadism with a focus on ethics and security. While Carvalho talked about legal security, the security of the researchers and their interlocutors from the perspective of her research on Spanish-Moroccan women in jihadist online networks, de Koning payed attention to (digital) visibility and activism of researchers through considering how categories of his research on Salafism was used in court cases to prosecute his interlocutors. In the second part of the workshop ANNELIES MOORS (Amsterdam) and SIMONE PFEIFER (Mainz) discussed the themes of transparency and anonymity in the research process. In her intervention Moors presented the “right to anonymity” and the tension between the liability of researchers to their interlocutors and their obligations to university institutions. Pfeifer’s contribution considered anonymity and “double identity” of researchers in digital research contexts and reflected on the positionality of anthropological research in an interdisciplinary research team.
The panel on Artivism, chaired by LARISSA FUHRMANN (Mainz), was the final panel on the second day of the conference. This panel called for academics and practitioners interested in artivism in the so-called Arab world and the diaspora to discuss approaches, experiences, theories as well as current discourses and phenomena in the field. IYAD EL-BAGHDADI (Oslo) started with a discussion of the narratives underlying IS propaganda. He focused on his own biographical intersections and gave examples from the internet. MONIKA SALZBRUNN (Lausanne) then focused on the connection between arts and activism as well as the interlinkage between politics and aesthetics. The final panelist, KHALID WAD ALBAIH (Copenhagen), presented his artistic and very personal perspective on IS, enriched by examples from his own cartoons. The panel was a welcome contribution to the conference shedding light on the artistic counter narratives in the field of Jihadi Audiovisualities.