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Inside the head of an IS martyr

  • 20 March 2015

18 year old Melburnian Jake Bilardi is a martyr for IS. Ashley Johnson, a 28-year-old Canberra postman and former Army reservist originally from Queensland, is a martyr for the Kurdish resistance to IS.

Australian 'authorities' are concerned that the language of martyrdom is being used to recruit young Australians to brutal stateless warfare. And they are probably right. Because martyrs are morally superior to suburban burnouts.

IS propagandist Abu Ismail described Bilardi as ‘a lion on the battlefield although he was at a young age and with a weak body’.

So, Bilardi was a weak young lion and therefore ripe for battle. How obscene! Propaganda is the fine art of saying what needs to be said to convince people that human life is worth nothing.

Anthropologist David Graeber describes the appeal of the military to people outside the 'cultural elite’. They 'hate the cultural elite more than they do the economic elite,' he says, 'because they see them as a group of people who have grabbed all the jobs where one gets paid to do good in the world.'

Working in the arts, or journalism, or in social justice advocacy, there is an inherent risk. These professions require sacrifices in earning capacity alongside a high degree of education and training. Expecting to succeed in such fields usually denotes a family lineage that will support such endeavours culturally and financially.

'The only way they could get paid a decent salary to do something noble,' says Graber, 'something that’s not just for the money, is to join the army. So saying “support the troops” is a way of saying “fuck you” to the cultural elite who think you’re a bunch of knuckle-dragging cavemen, but who also make sure your kid would never be able to join their club of rich do-gooders even if he or she was twice as smart as any of them.'

The problem with the appeal of the military, in these terms, is that it does not entirely explain why middle-class, educated people like Jake Bilardi would seek martyrdom through IS. Surely there is something of profound alienation, fear, victimhood, and entitlement in Bilardi’s acts. And surely this is linked with the delusions of power contemporaneously associated with martyrdom.

During the Iran-Iraq war, Ayatollah Khomeini is said to have dispatched five hundred thousand 'plastic keys' to young soldiers, many of them children, before sending them to the front line for slaughter, or to the hills to be