Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Martyrdom, Murder, and the Lure of ISIS with Mark Bourrie

People often throw around the word “ISIS” with a snarl and extra enunciation, to make sure their disgust for the group is clearly proclaimed. ISIS is known for its online recruitment of young people into terrorist warfare, Western journalist beheadings, foreign suicide bombers, and the general fear the organization has instilled into populations across the globe. I spent my Sunday afternoon listening to Mark Bourrie speak about ISIS: its propagandist recruitment activities, and the reasons we should be concerned about its existence – other than the obvious.


Bourrie started off the event by mentioning that his book, The Killing Game, is not a call to arms against the terrorist faction, or a display of good versus evil. Bourrie stressed that, like so many before us, the people involved in ISIS are simply in pursuit of higher meaning and fulfillment in a world they may feel has wronged them. In a society that is so highly connected online, but so fragmented in our face-to-face and community interactions, ISIS has sprung up as a response to socio-economic underperformance, inequality, and cultures that are fractured in many different ways.


Throughout the event, Bourrie accentuated the relationship between ISIS and Western media. Journalists have a duty to report what is important to its audiences, such as the gruesome killings and territorial warfare that ISIS carries out in the Middle East. But, when ISIS thrives on the fear and glory that is magnified with publicity, where should the media draw the line between public information and spreading propaganda? Further still, when the media chooses not to disseminate knowledge of horrific violent acts, is this censorship? 


The discussion at the event turned political at times, with Bourrie reminding us that the United States is successful at killing ISIS figureheads and fighters within the group who are the most useful as recruiters of young men in the West. However, stomping out members of ISIS also comes at the cost of civilian life. In sealing a Saudi Arms deal, the Canadian government has also opened up the opportunity for weaponry to fall into the hands of ISIS, due to their financial connections to Saudi royalty. Where do we draw the line? And do the ends – wiping out a terrorist faction – justify the means – loss of civilian life?


Though the subject matter of the afternoon was dark and often uncomfortable, Bourrie took a series of questions from the audience after the event that presented a somewhat positive outlook for the future. At an audience member’s suggestion, Bourrie spoke about the importance of engaging youth at a young age. By integrating young people into the welcoming communities that come with activities like sports, outdoor adventure, working with our hands, and improvisational theatre, we lower the chances of young people, especially second-generation Canadians, feeling disenfranchised from a country that might not always meet their expectations.