From Hatred to Hope: Rwandan airwaves against animosity

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Photo: Arja Oomkens

Photo: Arja Oomkens

By Arja Oomkens

In Rwanda, the radio is deeply interwoven into the social fabric of everyday life. Wherever you travel, from the capital city to the rolling hills beyond, the frequencies of the radio resound. On a hazy morning in Kigali, I too find myself listening to the radio while waiting for a Rwandan friend. This is my second visit to Rwanda and I am excited to tell him about my plans to conduct research on the role of the radio in the country. When my friend finally arrives, I ask: “do many Rwandans still listen to the radio?” He smiles and replies that everyone does and even if they do not have a radio at home, people will visit their neighbors to listen together. When I continue to ask if there are things that are not allowed over the airwaves, he looks surprised and says: “Of course there are. People have the right to say what they think, but not something that would destroy this country.”

During the genocide in Rwanda, the private radio station Radio-Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM) functioned as an important tool for the genocidal authorities to disseminate their hate propaganda against the Tutsi ethnic group. RTLM dictated the rules set-up by the genocidal government and presented this playfully in a talk show format. In its daily programs, announcers made historical allusions by recalling the foreign origin of Tutsi and thereby claiming this ethnic group had no right to be Rwandan. Tutsi were dehumanized as “cockroaches” and stereotyped on the basis of their physical appearance. But the macabre practical use of RTLM was only realized during a later stage of the genocide, when the radio station even directed Hutu perpetrators by providing specific information on how, where and when to kill. After the genocide, RTLM was prohibited and one of the main RLTM announcers, Ferdinand Nahimana, was found guilty of indirect and public incitement to commit genocide by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (UNICTR).

Given the propagandist role of the radio during the 1994 genocide, the Rwandan media sector has been the subject of special attention to both the Rwandan government and foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For the RPF-led government, the aim to unify and reconcile Rwanda goes hand in hand with upholding a high level of censorship for the media sector. In 2002, the RPF established a law against “divisionism.” This law prohibits “any act of division that could generate conflict among the population or generate dispute.” Like my Rwandan friend noted before, it is not allowed to say anything that would destroy the country. On the same note, referring to someone’s ethnic background is also strictly prohibited. But what exactly falls into the category of forbidden words and utterances that could “destroy the country”? Here, the government to this day remains anything but clear.

Despite this lack of freedom, the RPF did allow the media sector to slowly open up in 2003, when it legalized private radio stations. Therefore, and since the radio remained as popular as before the genocide, several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have incorporated the radio as a means to sensitize and reach out to the population. One of those NGOs is Radio La Benevolencija (RLB), a Dutch initiative that combines education and entertainment to encourage “hope, empowerment and benevolence.” Since 2004, their radio-soap called Musekeweya (meaning “New Dawn”) can be heard twice a week over the Rwandan airwaves.

RLB has fundamentally changed the use of the radio in Rwanda. Conceptualized as a media intervention, the purpose of Musekeweya has been to relief some of the psychological pressures that, according to RLB, contribute to transgression into mass violence. The main pressure to which RLB refers in Musekeweya is the practice of scapegoating (or the encouragement of hate and fear towards the “other” group). In the radio-soap, examples are provided that explain how scapegoating can contribute to deterioration into violent conflict. Inherently related to these examples is the idea that an understanding of the influences that lead to mass murder and genocide will reduce the possibility of recurring violence.

In the 2003 Design Document of Musekeweya, RLB made clear that the radio-soap would not be about the legacies of the 1994 genocide, as this would have been too distressing in regard to the traumatic experiences almost every Rwandan had gone through. Instead, their objective has been to identify and promote positive role models in Rwandan society. These role models have been incorporated into the main storyline of Musekeweya, wherein the citizens of two fictional villages, “Muhumuro” and “Bumanzi,” are entangled in a conflict over land distribution. To heighten tensions between the villages, and with the aim to create an understanding amongst the audience that the radio-soap is similar to Rwandan history, the citizens from Bumanzi and Muhumuro have been given a different, yet unnamed and equally fictional, ethnic identity. In doing so, RLB believes that a safer space is created for the audience to discuss and reflect upon sensitive and traumatic issues that are currently present in their own country or village.

A prominent example of promoting positive role models that runs through the storyline of Musekeweya is the love relationship between Shema, a man from Bumanzi, and Batamuriza, a woman from Muhumoro. On both sides, their parents try to convince them not to relate with someone from the other village, because of the long-lasting and deeply rooted conflict between the villagers. Rather than listening to their parents’ negative statements about the people from the other village, Shema and Batamuriza decide to marry each other. In doing so, they move away from the conflict between the two villages (and their families). The moral of the story is clear: Shema and Batamuriza do not only personify present-day difficulties of interethnic love and marriage in Rwanda, they also present the possibilities of transitioning into a peaceful society. More specifically, by presenting how Shema and Batamuriza overcome the conflict of an older generation, RLB envisions to prevent scapegoating and overcome passivity in times of crisis.

Even though the current media landscape is very much restricted, RLB has been able to address sensitive issues by drawing a fictional, yet clear and transparent, analogy to Rwandan history. In doing so, RLB actively supports a change in the meaning and function of the radio. This change has been clear throughout the conversation I had with my Rwandan friend. When I asked him whether he was familiar with the radio-soap Musekeweya, he replied: “of course I do, everyone does. It is a theater show that makes us laugh and brings us together.” Our conversation demonstrated that the radio continues to be interwoven into the social fabric of Rwanda, but that the loom is now different. Thanks to the efforts of RLB, the radio has changed from being a symbol of hate and destruction to one of hope and reintegration.

See for further reading: Ervin Staub, The Roots of Evil: The origins of genocide and other group violence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

‘Question their continual existence to this day’ – The Islamic States’ ‘Dabiq’ magazine and its violent rhetoric

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Photo: Bob Coleman/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA)

By Koen Kluessien -

When attacks by the Islamic State took place in several small villages in the Syrian province of Aleppo, most rebels of the Free Syrian Army were stunned: these villages were of no real strategic importance. However, although the villages had no direct military goal, the jihadists of the Islamic State had a very clear plan when taking over the area close to the Turkish border. One of the villages, Dabiq, is to IS of the utmost importance, not for military but religious reasons. Similar to Christianity and Judaism does Islam anticipate the end of the world combined with a final confrontation between good and evil. According to the Hadith – a collection of sayings and deeds attributed to the Prophet Muhammad – Dabiq is the place where these apocalyptic events will take place. The prophecy is taken very serious by the jihadists as they do not read Muslim literature as mere spiritual guides, but as literal blueprints to follow towards the end of times in order to become true and authentic Muslims. It will therefore come as no surprise that the religiously and historical important village of Dabiq is a constant returning topic in IS propaganda. The Islamic State now even has its own glossy magazine, named after the mysterious village of Dabiq. What role does this magazine play in the violent propaganda of the Islamic State?

Some may know the name of the small village from the almost 16 minute long video Although the Disbelievers Despise It, which was distributed on Twitter and jihadi forums on November 16, 2014. It shows the simultaneous beheading of Syrian pilots, and the severed head of US aid worker Peter Kassig. One of the executors who is often referred to as ‘jihadi John’ – hinting at the British background of the jihadist – addresses Obama and his ‘Crusade’. Later, the British jihadist ends with a warning to Obama and the American troops: ‘Here we are, burning the first American Crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.’ The written propaganda is no less violent or megalomaniac.

The magazine gives an insight in the manner in which the Islamic State is framing its political, military, and religious programs. Especially the latter seems to be the core of the slick English-language magazine. According to Colin Clarke, a political scientist at the RAND research organization: ‘What you see with Dabiq is the combination of Islamic theological credentials with battlefield success. ISIS really takes great care to back up everything that it does with religious justification. That’s one area where Al Qaeda got soft over time.’ Indeed, the Islamic State is not the first organization of its kind to have its own magazine. Indeed, as mentioned before in my previous article on IS’ social media campaign, although its strategies are not necessarily new, IS has combined and optimized already existing strategies. Resulting in online jihadist propaganda that is frighteningly professional. The quality of IS’ Dabiq magazine can be illustrated by laying it side-by-side with al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine which specifically focuses on encouraging Western terrorist individuals to attack Western targets. The magazine is more of a how-to guide for aspiring terrorists, whereas Dabiq focuses on a global reach to recruit immigrants to build its state. Simply informing readers around the world of the military offensives would persuade maybe a few enthusiasts. The way in which IS articulates its vision in a comprehensive way truly shows the strength of its propaganda machine. Although the Islamic State is far from reaching its goal to have wide support of the worldwide Muslim community, it shows that IS is not a vague terrorist cell hiding from the world but a proto-state, finding out the best way to get the attention from both enemies and potential followers.

Moreover, the manner in which the Islamic State is documenting and presenting its massacres to the outside world seems unprecedented in modern history. Even textbook genocidal regimes have not proclaimed their acts of violence so openly and unrestrained. For example, the Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM) was a radio station that played an important role in the incitement of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi in 1994. However, even in this clear case of incitement to genocide would the broadcasters use euphemisms such as ‘go to work’ as a call to kill the Tutsi and those Hutus who opposed the regime. The direct and clear language and images in Dabiq stand in stark contrast with the euphemistic propaganda of other violent perpetrators. The lengths to which the organization will go to achieve its goals is graphically portrayed in the page-long photos of mutilated corpses of ‘infidels’.

The fourth issue of Dabiq includes a five page article on the enslavement of the Yazidis. Last year in August, thousands of Yazidis were trapped on a mountain for days near their settlement of Sinjar. Large groups of the polytheistic people were massacred and many women and children went missing. The article claims to have researched whether or not the Yazidis are ‘mushrikin’ – polytheists, or to the definitions used by IS ‘pagans’ or ‘idolaters’ – and thus can be enslaved, because ‘[…] enslaving the families of the kuffār [disbelievers] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Sharī’ah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Qur’ān and the narrations of the Prophet and thereby apostatizing from Islam.’ This rhetoric which justifies rape and the enslavement of women through Islamic verses seems to be roughly based on a pamphlet on female captives and slaves, released by ‘The Research and Fatwa Department of the Islamic State’ between October and November 2014. The pamphlet contains answers on very ‘practical’ questions such as ‘Question 13: Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who has not reached puberty?’ Sadly, the answer is yes.

The Dabiq article goes even further in the propagating of violence aimed at the Yazidis when it tells the reader that they are not only allowed to kill the pagan minority, but that it is their duty as true Muslims to ‘question their continual existence to this day [because it] is a matter that Muslims should question as they will be asked about it on Judgment Day’. This questioning of the mere existence of the Yazidis is later manifested in a call to action that is, according to IS’ ‘scholars’, based on Islamic scripture: ‘And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the mushrikīn wherever you find them, and capture them, and besiege them, and sit in (sec) wait for them at every place of ambush.’ Recently, several mass graves of Yazidis have been found in the Sinjar area and in other regions, which proves to show that these are not merely empty words coming from the Islamic State. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is currently analyzing the situation after the Kurdish Human Rights Committee appealed to investigate the Kurdish Yazidi and Christian minorities massacres. As Marieke stated in her article on the definition of genocide, it is a rather complicated term as it ‘does not only consist of the killing sites where the murders were carried out. Genocide is not just an event, it is a long enduring process – a continuum of destruction – involving many agencies, actors, and institutions.’ However, the killing of the Yazidis seems to make for a strong case as, according to research fellow at the Hoover Institution Bertrand M. Patenaude, it involved methods of ‘forcible conversion, rape, and then outright killing of people.’ Upon which he concluded: ‘I have no trouble with the use of the word genocide here.’ This does not mean that the ICC will agree or that there will be a case at all as Iraq – the country in which the crimes were committed – is not a member state. However, it is clear that Islamic States’ glossy magazine Dabiq will play a key role in determining the nature of the mass killing as this glorification of mass violence by its perpetrators is direct, openly violent and unprecedented in modern history.





‘Media Mujahideen’ – The Islamic State and its online warfare

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Image: Sean MacEntee/Flickr

Image: Sean MacEntee/Flickr (CC BY)

By Koen Kluessien -

Israfil Yilmaz is an avid user of many different social media platforms: he posts photos of kittens on his Tumblr page, discusses a wide range of topics on Twitter, answers questions from people around the world on his account, and he shares photos with a ‘vintage’ filter on Instagram. He seems to be an average internet user, apart from the fact that he is a jihadist. Yilmaz was a professional soldier of the Dutch army and is currently training jihadists in Syria. Indeed, there are many kittens on the jihadist’s Tumblr page, but they are accompanied by the hash tag ‘#mujahideenkittens’ and quotes like, ‘we live, and die by the sword’. The questions he answers on are not always as innocent as they are with normal users, they will for example be about the weapons he uses in battle. Yilmaz shares photos with a funny Instagram filter, but it will depict himself smiling at the camera with an automatic rifle in his hand. Even his internet alias – normally a quirky online pseudonym – ‘@chechclear’ has an air of violence surrounding it as it refers to a both notorious and gruesome internet video showing the beheading of a Russian soldier by Chechens. Although the manner in which he is sharing his information is the same as the average social media user, the content is rather different.

Yilmaz is no stranger to the media as he is neither too shy to discuss jihad in a live Channel 4 debate, nor afraid of being interviewed by a Dutch news program. The Turkish Dutchman recently also showed up in a number of headlines in which he was accused of marrying a 19-year-old Dutch girl, abusing her, divorcing her already after a few months and eventually selling her to a Tunisian friend. The Dutch girl had changed her name to Aïcha and started wearing a niqab after she had converted to Islam. Aïcha had never met Yilmaz, but was impressed by the Robin Hood-like attitude he presented himself with online. It is unclear if the allegations of abuse and modern slavery are correct, but this case shows how sensitive young people can be to a sly social media user. Although Yilmaz has denied to be a member of any jihadist organization, he has posted words of praise for the Islamic State (IS). Moreover, his sectarian denunciations of Sufi and Shiite Muslims do not seem to underline this claim either. Yilmaz neatly fits into the modern jihadi propaganda machine of ‘media mujahideen: jihadists who use social media to propagate the coming of a caliphate and to recruit new followers.

Islamist militant websites and internet fora had always been hidden in the dark corners of the Internet, most of the time only visible for the intelligence agencies who did their best to find them. Now, the Islamic State is using the same online platforms as any business owner would to promote his company, often in (the more accessible) English instead of Arabic. The Islamic State’s social media tactics range from the cunning tricks of internet savvy youngsters who have grown up in a society surrounded by technology, to the programming of applications that require highly specialized skills – skills that baffle even social media experts. For example, last year the Islamic State created an application called The Dawn of Glad Tidings which could dodge Twitter’s spam filters and send up to 40,000 tweets per day. At the same time the online jihadists are using simpler techniques such as ‘hitchhiking’ along popular, already existing Twitter hash tags. Major events like the football World Cup are often given hash tags such as #Worldcup2014, allowing Twitter users to easily access and post content related to the World Cup. IS used this popularity of the hash tag to spread their message, flooding the news feeds of many football fans.

The Islamic State is not the first jihadist organization using social media, but it does stand out when looking at the quality of their strategy and content. The videos of attacks and training missions often have a quality that seems reminiscent of certain Hollywood movies. For example, the propaganda video Although the Disbelievers Despise It is a 16-minute video showing the beheading of 22 Syrian soldiers which took six hours to make and, according to the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) and counter extremism think tank ‘Quilliam’, cost approximately 0,000 to produce as the video required multiple HD cameras and expensive editing equipment, making Al-Qaeda’s blurry propaganda videos seem like child’s play. Moreover, the ‘media mujahideen’, or people claiming to be one, cunningly use references to modern culture that are already present in society, and will appeal to some adolescents. Much of the Islamic State online propaganda uses very clear references to videogames, movies, or certain phrases that are popular among young people. For example, one video depicts a random killing spree of Islamic State jihadists shooting from a car, largely resembling a drive-by from the Grand Theft Auto videogame series. The Islamic State is conveying its often gruesome messages with a corporate-like sophistication combined with pop culture references, resulting in a remarkable modern propaganda cocktail. This makes for a shocking contrast of on the one hand seemingly innocent references, and on the other the propagation of very gruesome material.

The way in which these perpetrators glorify their crimes is almost unique in modern history. The fact that you can contact these same perpetrators with a few clicks of a button is remarkable, and the tactics of the jihadists to use seemingly innocent references to propagate material that is often very gruesome is paradoxal.  Moreover, the use of social media for jihadist propaganda is only one of many Islamic State online tactics: online media are also used for moral support to the battlefield and even real-time warfare. What is currently happening online is almost unprecedented, often difficult to grasp and will raise many questions. However, it is important to try to understand the strategies behind this online warfare. Most of Yilmaz’ social media accounts are blocked, but he will pop-up soon enough. I will keep track of him and his fellow jihadists, trying to find answers to these questions.