ISIL and the misuse of the imagination

There may be lessons about the rise of ISIL in unusual places.

Baghdad bombing
A boy walks at the site of suicide blasts in Baghdad's Sadr City [Reuters]

As ISIL’s bombs explode in Baghdad, only one week after they killed 129 in Damascus and Homs in Syria, the group continues its rampage. It is under increasing pressure, but it remains effective; there may be lessons about the rise of this terrible phenomenon in unusual places. One direction is to art.

If one looks at some of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, one cannot but be fascinated and perplexed by the fertility of his imagination. Half-men, half-beasts, peculiar sexual acts, misshapen faces, infernos, religious symbols and quasi-chaotic crowds populate his work.

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For some, this painter of the 15th century was moralising, attempting to show the nature of depravity or sin, and, so, drawing people away from it. He also presented a land of dreams and nightmares, the product of a rich and fecund imagination that captivates. We are either repulsed or drawn in, wanting to know more.

Ugly and mad acts

It is this same power of the imagination that empowers ISIL, lures its recruits, and propels their ugly and mad acts through the media.

Their brutal actions and inversion of nature, like Bosch, capture our minds, gaining the crucial attention that they desperately seek. ISIL’s leaders know that the power of imagination can trigger a cascade of actions, including a flood of recruits.

READ MORE: Who to blame for ISIL

There are are many who have done excellent work in understanding the motivations of ISIL and other violent extremists. American anthropologist Scott Atran stands out, recounting in detail how ISIL members are drawn by the upside and the excitement of that world.

The lure of the fight and camaraderie has drawn men since The Iliad, if not before.


He explains that “dismissing the group as ‘nihilistic’ reflects a dangerous avoidance of trying to comprehend and deal with its profoundly alluring mission to change and save the world”.

Tragically, Atran is right. ISIL offers a successful and attractive programme for some tempted by a natural rebelliousness. Young men, under certain conditions, are particularly vulnerable to fanaticism, and to ISIL’s supercharged mission, so much so that they are ready to destroy all around to achieve its ends.

The lure of the fight and camaraderie has drawn men since The Iliad, if not before. An inflamed mind and desire for glory also gathered stockbrokers at the Tower of London in 1914 to go to fight in Flanders – only to be later torn to shreds by machinegun bullets and artillery.

The initial excitement did not foresee the rats and mud in the trenches, nor the rattle of machineguns that turned them into dead men or ghosts.

Apocalyptic glory

ISIL presents an image of partaking in apocalyptic glory, of a millennial caliphate, but, in reality, something closer to Bosch materialises. Real life with ISIL in Iraq and Syria includes the terror of being bombed from the air, or being controlled by ideological masters, a chamber of horrors from which exit is not as easy as entry.

ISIL fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province [Reuters]
ISIL fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province [Reuters]

Nevertheless, some find this hell, like Bosch’s paintings, perversely attractive, including its haunting religious symbolism.

We don’t dwell much on the role of imagination in politics.

We are often too busy diving into its enthusiasms to even think about it. But, as Atran states, “until we recognise the passions [ISIL’s] message is capable of stirring up among disaffected youth around the world, we risk strengthening them and contributing to the chaos that ISIL cherishes”.

The pursuit of meaning is a basic human need, not an indulgence, and, if not directed positively, it can be rechannelled destructively towards terribly cruel acts by some manipulating us into deceptions.

READ MORE: Dismantling ISIL’s propaganda machine

Their skills are in creating the imaginings that entrap, and the attractive strands of meaning, whether it is the tweets of ISIL or the simplistic shouts of demagogues across the world – if the message catches, we’re caught.


It is also these very manipulators who lack the capacity to imagine the reality of their message. They present a captivating cartoonish world, but they are autistic about the consequences of their actions. Both leaders and followers have the capacity to be blinded by states of high emotion, ignorant of the realities around the corner, whether it is the devastation of Syria and Iraq, or of any war.

Virtues of violence and conflict 

In our day and age, anyone trumpeting the virtues of violence and conflict should read John Hersey’s account of the aftermath of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima for a taste of the real.

In the meantime, we have Bosch to dwell on, to remind us that horrors are not just paint on canvas but living dynamics, images that can come to life, and take us to heaven or hell, depending on our inclination.

Unless we are aware that imagination is only a temporary glimpse into the possible, rather than a world worth fighting and dying for, we can be lost.

Bosch himself also offers the way out. In many of his paintings, an owl is depicted, often small and unnoticed, sometimes on garments, or humorously sitting on the head of a nun. The owl can be understood as the creature that sees in the night when others are blind. It is a metaphor for the quiet and sober observer that we must all tap into to see through illusion and move towards a more solid and fulfilling reality.

John Bell is director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as a political adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.