New Islamic State Currency Worth More Than Its Weight in Gold

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It looks like the Islamic State’s official currency has at last gone from design mock-up to actual minted coin.

Image via independent.mk

Image via independent.mk

The coin will be called the Islamic dinar, will be struck in precious metals, and will theoretically function as the currency of day-to-day exchange throughout regions controlled by IS.

Mashable quotes an analyst from Flashpoint Global Partners, a private intelligence agency, who dismisses this development with troubling glibness.

“The group could feasibly make as many gold, silver and copper coins as it wishes to, but the only value this so-called currency is going to have is the value of the precious metal itself.”

In all fairness to Flashpoint and Mashable, at least they’re thinking about the political biases of the Islamic dinar. Other sources, from the Washington Post to the BBC have offered little-to-no analysis, while one editorial circulating around SkyNews, YahooUK and elsewhere offers a few scrambled economic truisms before moving on to the admittedly more thrilling, but less informative, blah blah death cult drum-beating.

That granted, any argument for the Islamic dinar’s worthlessness is, at best, a polemical strategy. It does not reflect economic reality. And from a media-theoretical perspective, it’s absolutely incorrect.

Currency is a medium. Besides functioning as a means of barter and trade, it communicates, reinforces, and even introduces cultural values and practices. In this sense, the Islamic dinar has the potential to be highly valuable as a tool for transmitting and rewriting the cultural practices of regions controlled by IS.

The Flashpoint spokesman is absolutely correct that the Islamic dinar per se will have no value outside its region save as precious metal. But this is only a small fraction of the what currency does. What Flashpoint’s position ignores is the surplus cultural value implicit in that unexchangeability. Most local currencies are hard, if not impossible, to exchange. We can see examples of this surplus cultural value in such existing local currencies as the BerkShare, Bristol Pound or Amsterdam Makkie. And when the value implicit in local currency is applied to a region as unstable as the middle east, and a culture as totalitarian as IS would prefer, this value has the potential to increase exponentially.

The primary biases of local currencies with limited exchangeability are threefold:

1.) A local currency strengthens community identity. This point is almost self-evident. A currency that shares the name of one’s region or community, and belongs only to members of that community is both a symbol and enforcer of in-group identity.

2.) Local currency keeps wealth circulating within a proscribed region and society. It discourages hoarding, speculation and foreign extraction of wealth. As a consequence, there tends to be more opportunity for intra-community business, especially for small and medium-sized operations. Local currency therefore tends to foster the perception of an equal citizenry, while discouraging the formation (or at least the visible formation) of an economic elite.

3.) By the same token, local currency tends to foster a sense of regional isolation. When a local currency may not be exchanged for a non-local one, trade between regions and nations becomes exceedingly difficult. To use the BerkShare as an example, one may purchase locally-produced groceries in BerkShares, but not computers, copper or automobiles. The Dutch Makkie is backed by users’ volunteer hours within their community, and is thus primarily accepted as payment for other services, not goods. In Massachusetts and Amsterdam, where citizens have access to  national currencies, these local moneys are complementary. They may improve community cohesion and commerce, but always within the field of a larger national economy. In IS-controlled territory, however, such complementarity will not be an option, and regional isolation and in-group chauvinism are likely to flourish as a result.

Taken together, these biases promise to deliver exactly the cultural climate sought by the Islamic State. Facility of day-to-day trade improves infrastructure and the perception that IS is fit to govern, while the bias against hoarding supports IS’s rhetoric of (Sunni) Muslim equality in the emerging Ummah. Meanwhile, the practical impossibility of foreign trade bolsters IS’s attitude of righteous aggrievement and besieged urgency.

Since so much of IS wealth flows from Gulf-State sources, this new arrangement also has the potential to create a two-tiered monetary system—one for the citizens, and one for government. The currency of statecraft, (which alone can purchase guns and ammunition) will continue to flow to the political elite in the form of riyals, while the currency of wages will become segregated in the Islamic dinar. Upon full adoption of the dinar, it will therefore become even more difficult for any inhabitants of the Islamic State to acquire military, police, or political power without the blessing of IS leadership, thus protecting the entrenched Islamic State from local challenges to its authority.

It’s no surprise that the press sometimes comes up short in its appraisal of a phenomenon as complex as IS. As a former (small-time) journalist, I’m sympathetic to the pressure on reporters to master a complex subject in the time it takes most people to write an email. But Flashpoint is not a journalist on deadline. It’s a private intelligence adviser, presumably one with clients whose actions impact those of us living here in the West. It’s entirely possible that their quote to Mashable was strategic—or out of context—and does not represent the sum of their understanding when it comes to the Islamic dinar. I hope so, for so long as our analysis of IS remains polemical, we remain at a disadvantage, and therefore at risk. Our political goals may be motivated by ideology—liberty, suffrage, the rule of law—but the West will only begin to beat back totalitarian Islamic fundamentalism when our approach begins with actual facts rigorously organized by proven theory. Reality must always precede ideology, or else the latter is doomed.

If anyone is interested in learning more about currency as a medium, I strongly recommend Douglas Rushkoff’s doctoral dissertation, Monopoly Moneys, available online for free via Utrecht University Repository.

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Analysts Fail to Consider ISIS Execution Videos In Context

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Over at Slate, Joshua Keating has published a piece warning readers that ISIS’s execution videos are proving an effective recruitment tool. It’s a brief article, and does not purport to be exhaustive. Nevertheless, I believe it exemplifies a broader failure on the part of Western analysts to truly understand ISIS as a media phenomenon. ISIS’s Violence, the headline reads, Is Its Message. With all due respect to Keating, whose work I follow closely, this focus on raw content is at best an incomplete assessment. In fact, the persuasive power of the Islamic State’s messaging can only be understood when considered as a part of the larger media ecosystem in which it exists.

The ISIS phenomenon does not exist in a media vacuum any more than it does a political vacuum. Which is to say, the ISIS videos are not merely the sum of their frames. Indeed, these videos’ true persuasive power resides in the modality of their presentation. As I’ve argued before, Western censorship (both corporate and governmental), by deferring full dissemination to marginal, or even sympathetic, media organs, ironically does the work of a media buyer for ISIS’s “advertising and marketing” wing. When CNN (or Slate) fails to show these videos for their complete grotesque duration, they abdicate the power to contextualize, and therefore to shape meaning. That power then falls to the jihadi BBSes, the Western-critical leak sites, and avowed neoconservative propagandists who, for a variety of motives ranging from neutral to malicious, honest to Machiavellian, are willing to present these executions in full. Contrary to Keating’s implication, viewers, including potential ISIS recruits, never experience raw content. Raw content does not exist out of context. Rather, viewers consume, interact, and even merge psychologically with the totality of the media-viewing experience, with all its many messages, explicit and covert, friendly or otherwise.

At this point, Western analysts with better resources than mine are measuring and debating the actual effectiveness of the ISIS videos as recruitment tools. Good luck to them. But unless they conduct their research with an eye toward the complete media ecosystem in which these videos exist and are consumed, their conclusions will be at best incomplete, and more likely inaccurate and misleading. Perhaps such repellant acts of cruelty really are effective means of recruiting “ordinary” soldier-types. But if so, I sincerely doubt this would continue to be the case were the power to shape their meaning not already handed over to so many malicious and irresponsible actors.

Filtering Extremist Content Only Massages the Process of Radicalization

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For reasons described below, this blog links to some very graphic content, which is labeled NSFW. Caveat spectator.

The Islamic State’s recent release of video depicting the murder of Kenji Goto [NSFW] comes amid increasing pressure from European government towards social media platforms to suppress violent and extremist content. On Friday, PandoDaily published a brief report on the European Parliament’s quixotic plan to block extremist digital content prior even to upload. Addressing the parliament, Google policy manager Verity Harding compared such an effort to “screening a phone call before it’s made.”

But beyond its practical impossibility, there is an important strategic argument against both the prior restraint favored by EU lawmakers, and such after-the-fact censorship as is already in place at user created content platforms like Facebook and YouTube. Whether filtering occurs as a result of government censorship or corporate policy, it nevertheless serves to organize extremist media into messaging hierarchies, according to levels of likely audience receptivity.

Extremist ideology may be understood as a commodity, one that is marketed and advertised for the purpose of acquiring moral, economic, political and military support. By filtering the worst expressions of extremist ideology, governments and media companies actually serve terrorist organizations in the manner of a media buyer to a brand, helping to target the groups’ marketing messages to the most likely receptive markets. Censorious digital media platforms shield casual viewers from that hateful and violent content which would most likely repel them. Meanwhile, humanizing messages such as @ISILCats and more conventional propaganda of righteous aggrievement are permitted to serve as the public face of the Islamist brand, offering a soft sell initiation into the terroristic sales funnel. Ideological consumers—charmed or emotionally moved by agreeable, public-facing propaganda—may then delve deeper into successively less censorious platforms, and their more extreme jihadi content.

The process of radicalization is, in part, one of acclimation and desensitization. Content filtering initiatives, such as those proposed by EU member nations, only massage that process. By removing terroristic messages from ready public viewing, we are neither punishing violent extremists, nor protecting innocent citizens. A call for total openness on our digital media platforms is not a free-speech-fundamentalist argument (though it admittedly serves those values). Violent jihadi propaganda is its own best counter-marketing. If presented without filter, its repellence and barbarity far outweigh its appeal. But that balance of content is only possible if this media is allowed to reach potential converts prior to their desensitization.