Jihadi John as Thug

Daily Express Jihadi John headline. 2015.

British tabloid coverage of Mohammed Emwazi (“Jihadi John”) has been predictably irritating. The SunThe Daily Mail, The Daily Star, and more have all printed obscene headlines about the man, with the clear objective of terrifying their readers into supporting counterterrorism.

It is also no coincidence that the right-wing press is fixating on this person so close to the general election in May. Broadly, tabloids are being used to pander to specifically white British voters’ fears and insecurities, which leads to a violent feedback loop. Problems with Islamic militarism get overblown into a “jihadi threat” which threatens the whole of the United Kingdom. Reactionary leaders are elected to fix the problem. Their policies create more terrorists. Repeat.

Of course, according to many newspapers, it’s not that simple. Indeed, even the phrase “policies create more terrorists” has begun to be read as controversial. Tabloids have conditioned their readers to respond with questions about the role of individual agency. “Oh sure, blame society, but what about him? He chose to be violent!” The reason that we are being forced to hear even the most mundane details about “Jihadi John” is because papers like The Sun have a policy of slashing feelings of social solidarity by redefining causality.

The causal mechanisms for violence are no longer seen as socioeconomic. You can’t “blame the police” or “blame the economy” for creating a jihadist. You can only blame the jihadists themselves. These headlines may be crude, but they represent a complex step towards rooting the causes of violence and social unrest in personal moral standards, rather than objective forces in modern life. It is interesting that Islamic militarism is being framed this way at exactly the same time that problems like poverty, welfare, and excessive drug use are being attacked by these papers on the same grounds. There isn’t much of a gap between arguing that jihadism arises from deficiencies in personal morality and character, and saying much the same thing about how the poor simply don’t work hard enough.

The critique is generally based in a neoconservative belief that certain populations have abandoned the Protestant Work Ethic. This is used to explain their allegedly deviant behavior, as well as their marginalization in society. Some people just haven’t internalized discipline, and Christian values (secularized as “British values.”) This headline in Daily Express shows how tabloids play off this idea in extremely sinister ways. Why was it necessary to use an out-of-focus picture of Emzawi that features him wearing a baseball cap? What about his facial hair? Even before reading the story, the audience is made to perceive Emwazi the same way they would a black “thug” in the inner-city. Emwazi’s outfit, expression, and light beard are being used to establish that he has broken with the Protestant social values of conservative Britain. This argument is then used to account for him joining Islamic State.

Obviously, this is at the expense of intelligent discussion about what actually happened. Neoconservatism is so obsessed with linking social problems to deficiencies of personal character that it has trapped many voters in an irrational opinion that socioeconomic conditions don’t matter in fostering violence. Suddenly, we “can’t confuse correlation with causation,” and the grim reality that MI5 and London Metropolitan Police share responsibility for the radicalization of these people is met with loud proclamations like “Now it’s all the police’s fault!” in the Daily Mail. Similar rhetoric has been used when it comes to seemingly unrelated events like those in Ferguson.

It’s extremely important to link “Jihadi John” to inner-city violence through the use of this photo, and other violations of the Protestant work ethic like hip-hop and sexual permissiveness. Similar to poverty, jihadism is said to arise from individual moral deviancy. Tabloids have a way of reminding you that contrary to popular belief, the United Kingdom is still a Christian nation, which constantly frames its media production.


Photograph courtesy of Daily Express. All rights reserved.

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