Building the Mythology of Jihadi John

All this sensationalism does is fuel his notoriety and raise his profile, which is precisely what he and his fundamentalist friends want.

Ever since the ISIS murderer and propagandist ‘Jihadi John’ was revealed to be a British engineering graduate called Mohammed Emwazi, our news media has been saturated with reports about his school days, his personality, and the possible causes of his radicalisation: he ran into a goalpost as a kid; he went to school with Tulisa

The coverage grates.  Its full of cod-psychological comments from former pupils at his school, noting the fact that he was a ‘loner’.  Reading these quotes, I’m reminded of one of the insights from Serial, the podcast phenomenon about the murder of a Baltimore schoolgirl Hae Min Lee in 1999.  That series makes the point that people are susceptible to a confirmation bias in their memories.  When told that someone is a murderer, people naturally recall those incidents where the person acted weird or like a ‘loner’.  But alternatively, those who are convinced that the convicted person is innocent remember him as friendly and outgoing.

I think we lap up these reports about Mohammed Emwazi’s character because they reassure us that we could never be like him.  In portraying him as an inately disturbed person, we avoid having to deal with the question of whether it is society, or culture, or religion that breeds these monsters.  We avoid the awful possibiblity that we too could be brainwashed into unspeakable acts of violence.

Does this reporting help solve the problem of ISIS?  I think not.  Whether Emwazi was a sullen loner or a friendly extrovert, he is still out in Syria murdering charity workers with glee.  All this sensationalism does is fuel his notoriety and raise his profile, which is precisely what he and his fundamentalist friends want.

It is worth linking once again to Charlie Brooker’s report on how best to reports acts of violence – without senstation, and focussing on the victims.  Instead of the perpetrator.

The focus on Mohammed Emwazi takes the opposite approach, and may even prompt other troubled young men to choose the path of notoriety that ISIS offers.

A final thought:  This coverage helps our own propaganda too.  It builds up a new bogeyman, a personification of a complex threat in one brown face.  Since Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011 the media and our Governments have been in dire need of such a figure.  Now they have one.  Expect Mohammed Emwazi to be cited as a cautionary tale by every politician and commentator advocating an increase in defence spending and an expansion of the surveillance state.

1 thought on “Building the Mythology of Jihadi John”

  1. I took an interest in the mythology as I was also brought up in the same area of London, though decades apart. As it happens, we also shared the same secondary school (Quintin Kynaston).

    What was odd in this mornings radio 4 interview with the QK headmistress, was that the term ‘radicalisation’ was used by the interviewer repeatedly, as if that was an obvious thing to be looking out for at the time.

    I don’t think anyone used this term even five years ago. My browser’s spell checker doesn’t recognise the word. There have always been boggle eyed nuts like Melanie Philips imagining a London run by Bin Laden, but the concept of one Muslim ‘turning’ another was not common currency. Certainly not in a school.

    Hence the speculation of retrospectively seeing what ‘broke’ him (if it wasn’t Tulisa) is especially foolish. And I think this is leading to a sort of Bodysnatcher narrative, whereby an individual simply switches identities. From normal to headhunter.

    (Meanwhile, the growing number of irrational Christians is seen as harmless. Who is radicalising them?)

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