Theo Hobson

Islamic State is reviving an unfashionable concept: primitivism

Islamic State is reviving an unfashionable concept: primitivism
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What do they mean, these Islamofascists, by using children in their publicity films? Last month one of their films featured a cute British kid of about six called Isa Dare: he looked on admiringly and then threatened the kaffir. Earlier this month a new film showed an English-speaking boy of about ten actually beheading a Syrian prisoner with a little knife. It wasn’t widely reported. (Has such stuff become routine, or has the quality press decided to refuse to mediate such messages?)

Why the use of children? Does it make their regime seem scarier? Not really. Does it ensure such videos get maximum attention? Yes, but there’s more to it than that. It also heightens the attraction of the regime. To understand why, we have to revisit a rather unfashionable concept. This use of children is a form of primitivism. Isis is presenting itself as pure of heart, as a force of nature, as innocent in its violence.

In a sense Isis is the most complete expression of primitivism that the world has ever seen. For the term ‘primitive’ began life as a religious term: it was used by Protestants who sought to revive the ways of the early church. And of course radical Islamism is a back-to-basics reform movement. It wants to restore a religious tradition to its pristine beginnings, purging centuries of complicated error, compromise and muddle.

But Islamism is also primitivist in the wider, more secular sense. It presents itself as the romantic, exotic alternative to dull mechanistic modernity. It appeals to those who yearn for simpler forms of culture that seem more vital, more adventurous, heroic. The rest of us should be able to understand this, for we are hardly immune to such yearnings. In fact, primitivism has been a huge aspect of our recent cultural life. And we’re awkward about admitting it. For we’re aware of its dangers – it was central to our own version of fascism.

We’re awkward about it for another reason – an even bigger reason. Primitivism is tied up with the colonial and racist appropriation of other cultures, seen as refreshingly pure and simple. What a minefield ‘primitivism’ is – many would say that using the term at all is illegitimate. But maybe we have to revisit the whole complex concept, to understand the dark appeal of our enemies.