ISIS often airs its threats to conquer Rome and convert St. Peter’s, above, into a mosque. These aspirations go all the way back to the early years of Islam, when Constantinople — capital of the Eastern Roman empire and bulwark of Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean and West Asia — was an early target of Arab ambitions.
In October 2014 an arresting image appeared on the cover of Dabiq, the slickly produced, English-language magazine of ISIS (the “Islamic State in Syria,” also known also as the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” among other names). The magazine features — as Robert Evans has detailed in an article of the “I read it so you don’t have to” variety — interviews with jihadis and photos of their brutally slain victims, together with other material calculated to entice the devout to join the cause of world domination.
The Photoshop job in question shows the ISIS flag flying in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, hoisted atop the Egyptian obelisk that marks the center of the piazza. The accompanying headline ‘The Failed Crusade’ imagines a reversal of the West’s medieval crusades, launched against the Muslim world from the Holy See. It also reverses the West’s more recent dispensations in the Middle East, from the divisions of the former Ottoman provinces after World War I to the results of the 2003 Iraq War.
ISIS is expert at representing its aspirations in prankish, media-friendly terms. Its black and white flag, inspired by ancient descriptions of Mohammed’s own banners, also coincides in color and general design with the Jolly Roger. It flutters in the image like a skull-and-crossbones raised over a captured vessel, the flagship of Western Christendom reduced to pirate’s booty.
The Italian daily Corriere della Sera was quick to take notice of the image, while in the International Business Times Umberto Bacchi pointed to the gloss provided by ISIS spokesperson Mohammed al-Adnani: “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah, the Exalted.” On one level he is trolling us with a cartoonish Orientalist stereotype (like Boris Karloff’s Fu Manchu urging his Asiatic hordes to “kill the white man and take his women!”) with the phallic obelisk mischievously restored to Eastern ownership. But al-Adnani is also quite serious.