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Philip Maghen 1

Philip Maghen
07 Oct 2014
ENG 212-W Marc Bousquet
Research Paper-Linear Essay

Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ) has recently been causing a great amount of
terror in the Middle East and this essay aims to investigate the current political turmoil caused by
ISIS through a melodramatic lens. ISIS is a Sunni Jihadist group which was formed after
splitting apart from Al-Qaeda in February 2014. Having taken its ideologies after Wahhabism,
ISIS has set its goal to establish a caliphate ( ( in Iraq and Syria, and for doing so, they have
murdered hundreds of non-Sunnis (Kirkpatrick, 2014). These terrorist activities can be viewed
through two contradicting melodramatic lenses. One view is that of the majority, where ISIS is
thought to be the villain, the religious minorities in the Middle East to be the victims and
America to be the hero; while the other view thinks of Sunni Jihadistswho only seek after the
almighty Godand follow the caliphate as heroes/victims and anyone who refuses to do so as
villains. As a Christian who comes from the Shia country of Iran and is familiar with the Shia,
Sunni, and Christian theologies, I will be attempting to do a thorough analysis of the history of
Wahhabismwhich sets the foundation for ISISs political and theological view, followed by
proposing reasons behind the current political activities of ISIS, and at the end, the way
melodrama has been playing two contrary roles; one in forming Americansas well as all non-
Sunnisnegative view of ISIS and the other, the way ISIS itself justifies its actions through
melodramatic principles.
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Wahhabism () is the most fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam which tries to
restore the Pure Muhammadi Islam or in other words the Islam that existed in the time of
Islams great Prophet Muhammad. Wahhabi was formed based on the principle of Tawhid ()
or the uniqueness of God by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the eighteenth century.
Visiting the shrines and tombs of Islamic Prophets (Hajj or ), Imams and Imamzadehs is a
common practice across most branches of Islam. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of
Wahhabism, viewed those visitations, as well as many other practices as idolatry and impurities
in Islam. It is important to note that at the time of Prophet Muhammad and his successorsthe 4
caliphatesthe Islamic conquests were at their peak and the way Prophet Muhammad would
conquer a land was by sending a letter to the leader of the region (Sad, 1990). The letters
included 4 main sections:
1. A brief description of Allah.
2. An invitation to Allah.
3. Stating that Muhammad was a prophet sent from Allah.
4. Giving them the option of either believing in Allah and being safe or not
believing in him and accepting the consequences.
Therefore, ibn Abd al-Wahhab, wanting to follow after Prophet Muhammads teachings, started
conquering different regions especially in Saudi Arabia and bringing people into submission of
the Pure Muhammadi Islam where there is no idolatry, by sending them letters containing the
main 4 sections of Prophet Muhammads letters. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab started his conquests under
the name of Jihad, and promoted the idea that whoever died while fighting for Jihad was a martyr
and would immediately enter into paradise (Moghadam, 2008). Having instilled fear of death and
afterlife in its members and the people of neighboring regions, Wahhabism had an explosive
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growth in Arabic countries and specifically the Persian Gulf region. More than a century after the
emergence of Wahhabism, Osama bin Laden who had somewhat similar views to ibn Abd al-
Wahhab decides to start a new group named al-Qaeda () and advocate his rather strict
interpretations of the Quran. Bin Ladens main goal was to make a unified Islamic state in the
Middle East, where everyone practices the Pure Muhammadi Islam, which would require for
all kafirs (infidels, or unbelievers of a certain branch of Islam) to either leave the region or die.
Having seen Americas intruding in the politics of the Middle East region, Al-Qaeda carried out
many attacksincluding 9/11on America in order to gain power. After the death of bin Laden,
in February 2014, ISIS branched off of Al Qaeda and started fresh with somewhat even more
strict doctrines. In order to reach the Pure Muhammadi Islam, ISIS has been sending letters to
many Shias, Christians, and Assyrians in Iraq and Syria giving them 3 options; whether to
convert to Sunni Islam, to pay a fine, or to die (Miller, 2014). ISIS has been destroying the
shrines of the Shia Imams in Iraqsince that is seen as idolatry, and killing women and kids
which has raised the concern of many countries including America, Israel and Iran.
Melodrama has been around for over 2 centuries and has taken many forms to itself. One
of the ways that melodramatic literature is used in todays society is in the form of news. As
mentioned by Jones (2009), Melodrama is a form of literature mostly involving emotion
evoking elements for the purpose of getting its reader or audience to a point envisioned by the
writer. Therefore, one can look at melodrama as a very effective tool and can use it to promote a
certain idea. Humans are emotional beings who are carried by their emotions, many times
without even realizing it. As unpleasant as this statement might sound, this is the principle
melodrama is founded upon. Many great leaders throughout history have used melodramatic
elements as a tool to advocate their ideas and attract people. One great example is Martin Luther
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Kings I Have a Dream speech which laid the groundwork for the abolition of slavery. Hence,
it would not be unexpected to see the mass medias great use of melodramatic elements in order
to promote certain ideas. Then it would also be safe to say that governments can use mass media
to instill certain beliefs in its citizens through usage of melodramatic elements. Therefore, a
government can use those elements in the news in order to brainwash its citizens into thinking in
a certain way and keeping them pleased which creates a sense of us and them morality
where if a country is not working in our favor then that country is evil (Goodwin, 2001). I
believe that American politicians are using this opportunity to show ISIS as a potential threat to
America and American values by portraying Jihadists as fierce animals who only kill, rape and
steal and hence, as threats to America and American values. This constant victimization of
America in American melodrama leads Anker to write Essentially, the melodramatic character
of the virtuous victim/hero signifies America and he continues by writing The villain is a
shifting category populated most often by a foreign invader or a domestic subversive seemingly
intent on destroying either American ideals or American territory. This definition of melodrama
is almost unfailingly observable in the way all foreign policies of America have always been
presented to the American public through mass media by victimizing America and villainizing
foreign countries that pose a threat to American values. The purpose behind using melodramatic
elements by the American governmentas it is with the government of most nationsis buying
respect from their citizens and forming their country into a unified body. Thinking the same way,
Anker (2005) writes Through the melodramatic narrative, "the American People" become a
united entity whose shared values and social solidarity create a homogenous body. Therefore,
homogenization of the country is key to understanding American melodrama.
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American forces invaded Iraq in 2003 and had been in power in that region ever since.
Barak Obama announced U.S. troops withdrawal from Iraq in 2013, a few months before the
formation of ISIS. Consequently, ISIS came to power in the beginning of 2014 and planned
many attacks within Syria and Iraqs borders. United States, having no longer its military forces
in Iraq, America was unable to resolve the turmoil which resulted in the massive killings of
Shias, Christians, and many other minority groups. Since the majority of the population of Iran is
Shia, and that Iraq borders Iran, this was a great threat to Iran. Two months after ISISs attacks,
the U.S. government suggested Iran to send its forces to Iraq to settle the mayhem, knowing that
Iran would refuse. But as Weber (2014) asks, how can ISIS actually just form in less than 5
months after American troops departure and actually have such military organization to take
over the power in two countries with only a few thousand soldiers? One logical explanation can
be that America wanted to show that Iraq was only in peace in presence of American forces, that
Iranwhich is not in good terms with America because of the issues with its nuclear power and
Israeldoes not care about Shias in that area, and also make its citizens want American forces
back in Iraq. Therefore, American politicians are trying to make their citizens believe that what
they have been doing is just and that they are the heroesthis is just a thought and not an
accusation.
Another way to look at the ISIS situation in Iraq and Syria is through seeing it through a
Jihadists perspective. Growing up in Iran, I have encountered a number Islamic extremists and
have been able to get an understanding of how they actually view the situation in the Middle
East. The main difference between Sunnism and Shiaism lies in the idea that Sunnis believe in
the 4 caliphates after Muhammad while Shias only believe in Imam Alithe fourth caliphate
and his 11 successors because they believe that Prophet Muhammad publically announced Imam
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Ali as his successors (Qur'an, 5:67) before his death but Sunnis disregarded his command and
chose 3 other caliphates before him. Hence, knowing that based on the Quran, the wages of
being kafir (or infidel) is death, Shias see Sunnis, and Sunnis see Shias as sinners, and therefore,
deserving death. The way Prophet Muhammad himself conquered many countries in the Middle
East was by fighting against the Mushrikinor sinners of practicing idolatry or polytheismand
invading their countries. Therefore, fighting against injustice and sin is a common practice in
Pure Muhammadi Islam and is prescribed to any Muslim (Quran, 2:191-193, 2:216). Now,
having an extremist group such as ISIS with its members being so committed to their religious
ideas that are ready to die for them at any moment leads to, as Durkheim (1965) writes, a feeling
of belonging to a collective effervescence which ultimately forms a Feeling of morality. The
emotionally solidary group generates its own standards of right and wrong. The highest good
becomes commitment to the group and sacrifice of individual selfishness in its service; those
who are outside the group, or worse yet, oppose it, are morally tagged as unworthy, evil, or
inhuman. Hence, the members of ISIS most probably believe that they are doing the right
thing and anyone who opposes them is wrong. Therefore, now we can see that there is the idea
of right and wrong or good and evil within such frightening group as ISIS too. So is that to
say that members of ISIS actually think they are the victims/heroes? I say yes with a high
confidence, because otherwise why would they put their lives in such jeopardy by constantly
living in a state of fear against such great powers as the U.S., Iran, or Israel? Therefore,
melodrama in this case is twofold. On one side there is America trying to be perceived as the
victim/hero by all non-Sunnis because of its ability to maintain peace in Iraq and on the other
side, ISIS trying to be the victim/hero in the eyes of its members and wanting them to think that
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they are rescuing Islam from the impurities of sinners and non-believes for the satisfaction of
God.
While one can have all the reasons to condemn ISIS because of their inhumane activities
in Syria and Iraq, it is important to be able to understand the Jihadists point of view of sin and
Islam to get a clearer understanding of the situation. The problem lies where one only looks at
the violent acts of ISIS from the somewhat biased view of the United State news condemning the
Jihadists and making themselves look virtuous. It is also important to notice that this violence
started after the U.S. claimed to call its troops back to the country. On the other hand when one
looks at the fundamental beliefs of the Quran it is easy to see that killing the nonbelievers is
actually what makes one virtuousthe purpose of this essay is by no means disrespecting a
certain religion (Quran, 2:191-193, 2:216). So, can there be two different definitions of virtue at
the same time? Yes again. It all depends on which perspective one looks from. Even though
Islam is obviously not a religion of violence, but fighting for ones beliefs is prescribed for its
believers. Now, the ISIS Jihadists might be taking that interpretation too far but in their minds
they are the ones doing justice and serving Allah by creating an Islamic state across Sunni
countries of Iraq and in Syria (CNN, 2014). As mentioned earlier the U.S. government tries to
villainize ISIS by zooming into their physical and sexual aggressions to make themselves look
virtuous and keep the country unified (Grant, 1995). I believe that the U.S. government is using
melodramatic elements such as extreme physical and violent actions in order to generate the
suffering crucial for strong, empathetic viewer responses (Friedman, 2006). Therefore, the issue
that this article is concerned with is the villainization of ISIS by the U.S. government for the
mere purpose of gaining public satisfaction rather than actually focusing on the issue as a
problem and trying to solve it. In the writings published by the U.S. media ISIS referred to as
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extremely hostile, lethal, terrorist and etc. in order to generate an emotional response
rather than actually revealing the both sides of the argument and looking for a solution (Parker,
2014).
The United States mass media uses many melodramatic elements in order to gain
satisfaction of the American people for the government through portraying the government as
virtuous and wanting its people to be unified in order to fight the common enemy. This might
be one of the reasons why America has survived after so much political disarray and is still
thriving. Therefore, I personally do not condemn the use of melodrama in media for purposes of
drawing people together in order to form and maintain a unified entity. My only purpose in this
writing is to highlight the fact that there are two sides to the ISIS situation, one of which we
typically ignore. But, if we always ignore the side of the story that is not presented to us, we can
turn into political machines that have no understanding of issues that are not directly presented to
them and fail to see both sides of an argument which can eventually alter our view of global
justiceAs in the on-going war between Israel and Palestine.







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Grant, Barry Keith. Film Genre Reader. Austin: U of Texas, 1986. 351-78.
Jones, Megan Sanborn. Performing American Identity in Anti-Mormon Melodrama. New York:
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Miller, Elhanan. "Syrian Christians Sign Treaty of Submission to Islamists." The Times of Israel.
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