‘Divine Retribution’: The Islamic State’s COVID-19 Propaganda

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‘Divine Retribution’: The Islamic State’s COVID-19 Propaganda

The Islamic State’s narrative on the coronavirus pandemic reinforces anti-China and anti-Shiite sentiments.

‘Divine Retribution’: The Islamic State’s COVID-19 Propaganda

This frame grab from video posted online March 18, 2019, by the Aamaq News Agency, a media arm of the Islamic State group, shows IS fighters walking as they hold the group’s flag inside Baghouz, the Islamic State group’s last pocket of territory in Syria.

Credit: Aamaq News Agency via AP

The jihadist community has generally done very little to actively support the Uyghur cause against China; whether thanks to a lack of capability or focus is debatable. What has been interesting, however, has been their reaction to COVID-19, a now-global pandemic that originally emerged in China. Islamic State (IS) has both spoken of it as God’s divine retribution to China while at the same time chiding its followers for crowing about the toll the virus is taking.

While it may appear surprising for IS to restrain its followers from gloating over “retribution” against the oppressive China, a deeper reading of Islamic State’s position on the COVID-19 suggests no change in its antipathy toward China. The call for restraint is pragmatic, not ideological. This divine retribution narrative also extends to Iran following the outbreak in the country, further reinforcing anti-Shiite sentiments.

“May God punish China with death, as they had brought death to Muslims.” “As China beats Uyghur Muslims, coronavirus is now beating China.” “The virus is God’s army that destroys the kafir (infidels)..” These are the kinds of comments seen circulating within pro-Islamic State (IS) online circles since the outbreak of COVID-19 in mid-December 2019. Online chatter around the outbreak revolves mostly around the conviction that the virus is divine retribution against China for its treatment of Uyghur Muslims. IS itself, however, held back from commenting on the outbreak until February 6, when it finally shared its views in its Arabic weekly newsletter Al-Naba’ under the headline, “Indeed, the vengeance of your Lord is severe.”

The title is verse 12 of chapter 85 from the Quran; a chapter that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca during a period when the persecution of Muslims was at its peak. The chapter mainly aims to assure believers that their resolve and steadfastness in the face of tyranny and oppression will be rewarded, and that God’s vengeance upon their persecutors is absolute. The Al-Naba’ headline suggests that IS believes China deserves punishment for its alleged persecution of Uyghur Muslims, echoing the comments of its supporters. However, there was no outright gloating by the group. In fact, IS dismissed such rhetoric, saying that the persecution cannot be ascertained, even if China deserved to be punished. IS criticized China’s response to and handling of the epidemic as “arrogant,” referring to the self-interest and loyalty of Chinese government officials to their superiors and the Chinese system that overruled their responsibility to serve the people. But IS also warned that the epidemic could affect Muslims in China and spread to neighboring countries with large Muslim populations.

This surprisingly logical warning is one that echoes WHO and other official advisories. Fearful of the virus’ spread in this interconnected world, IS advised Muslims to avoid entering or leaving infected areas. For those who have been infected, IS urged that they seek immediate medical help and to avoid those who are unwell. Recognizing the need for proper treatment and medication, it called on doctors and scientists to work together to this end. Showing their religious conviction, IS also urged Muslims to pray to God for protection against infection, as well as for recovery of those infected. This advisory is then featured as an infographic in the 225th issue of Al-Naba’, with additional guidelines that include covering the mouth when coughing and sneezing and frequently washing hands. IS stated that the crisis should be seen as an opportunity for Muslims to recognize the importance of prayer, show fear of God’s retribution, and contemplate human weakness.

More than a week after cases of COVID-19 first emerged in Iran, IS, in the editorial of its 223rd issue of Al-Naba’ gloated over the virus outbreak in Iran and mocked the Iranians’ management of the epidemic. The editorial’s headline, “Lost are those you invoke except for Him,” was also taken from the Quran, part of verse 67 chapter 17. Although not explicitly named, IS used the terms “polytheists” and “Rafidite polytheists” to refer to Iran and Shiites throughout the article, and “fatal illness” to refer to the virus. IS mocked how a holy city for Shiites, presumably referring to Qom, is now the epicenter of the outbreak, and that shrines and tombs often visited by adherents to pray for health and wellbeing, ironically, are now being restricted from entry for pilgrims and visitors “in fear of the illness.” Most importantly, the article accused Shiites of hypocrisy, only turning to God in times of crisis and returning to polytheism in times of relief and ease. The verse in the headline as well as two subsequent verses highlighted in the article serve to drive home this point as well as God’s retribution upon hypocrites and ingrates. Nevertheless, IS hoped that the outbreak is seen as not only a sign and warning from God of the Shiites’ foolishness and blindness, but that it also brings divine guidance and leads them to discard their polytheistic beliefs.

The extremist community has always believed that disasters, whether natural or man-made, are God’s retribution upon those they deem to be kafir (infidels), apostates, and polytheists. This is especially so when these groups are alleged or known to have committed crimes against Muslims. For IS, dismissing the gloating comments from its supporters is a necessary step to avoid being seen as excluding innocent Muslims who have been or could have been infected in China and elsewhere. For those who have been affected, IS prayed that their suffering will be kaffarah (atonement) for their sins. For those who died, the group cited a prophetic saying that assures “one who dies of cholera is a martyr.” In other words, Muslims who die from a plague are considered martyrs. Compared to the Muslims killed as collateral damage in IS attacks, it seems that the group acknowledges and sympathizes with Muslim casualties of natural disasters. In the case of the outbreak in Iran, despite the lack of sympathy shown for Shiite Muslims in the article, IS did express a certain degree of hope for repentance, redemption, and salvation for Shiites. Both cases are an IS public relations move and nothing else.

In spite of its effort to extend some degree of “comfort” to afflicted Muslims, the Islamic State’s stand on the COVID-19 epidemic is clear from the Al-Naba’ headline: it is divine retribution for China. There is even a line in IS’s prayers for the protection of Muslims, where the group implores God to “cast plagues and diseases upon the infidels, exterminate their crops and exhaust their powers, so that they are distracted with themselves from assaulting Muslims.” The article talks about the deserved suffering of the Chinese people and criticism of China’s response in the face of suffering.

On the surface, IS may attempt to appear as consoling and calming its supporters. But in truth its advisory has not deviated from its anti-China sentiments. While IS called for attacks on Chinese people and interests in March 2019 to avenge the Uyghurs, it has subsequently shown little interest in deploying any resources or efforts to that end. If the article is anything to go by, then IS is willing to let  “God’s army,” meaning the virus, do the work. Meanwhile, the outbreak in Iran presents an opportunity for IS to further reinforce anti-Shiite sentiments.

Nur Aziemah Azman is an Associate Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. As ICPVTR’s Informatics team lead, she monitors, translates, and analyses content in Arabic extremist websites and social media platforms with a focus on Islamic State propaganda and narratives online.