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What Does Its Chosen Banner Say About ISIS?


The so-called Islamic State or ISIS is known for its social media savvy. But the pictures and videos you see online feature a much more traditional propaganda technique - the group's flag.

TED KAYE: The flag is black with white charges, representing the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith. Large letters across the top in an archaic Arabic script give the first part of the shahada - there is no God but Allah. And in the center is a circular disk in white and on it are three words in black - God, messenger, Muhammad - from the second part of the shahada.

VIGELAND: Ted Kaye is a vexillologist, a person who studies flags. And he coined some basic principles of flag design. I asked how the ISIS flag shapes up.

KAYE: The first and most important principle of flag design is that the flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory because flags flap, flags drape, flags must be seen from a distance and from their opposite side. Under these circumstances, only simple flags are effective. The ISIS flag is not simple. It has writing on it that's rather complex. However, the overall design is indeed simple. It is recognizable from a distance. It's easily made, and yes, a child could draw that flag from memory.

VIGELAND: Another rule that you outline is to use meaningful symbolism. So what does the ISIS flag tell us about how that organization is trying to portray itself to the world at large?

KAYE: In this case, the most important symbolism is two things - one, the black of the flag itself, which is Muhammad's banner. It's very unusual to see a black flag in the world. But the black flag of Muhammad is what's being called up by this flag of the Islamic State. And the other important symbol is the image of the seal of Muhammad. Sometimes the white disk in the center of the flag has an irregular border, making it look more authentic like the original seal. And by calling on Muhammad's seal, ISIS is using its symbolism to legitimize itself in the Islamic world.

VIGELAND: So given all of that, do think this is an effective flag?

KAYE: Certainly, it's an effective flag. In fact, a basic idea of flag design is form should follow function. And the Islamic State seems to use the flag very effectively in the media. It provides strong symbolism in press coverage of rallies, parades, military scenes. Hardly a week goes by without an image in The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times.

VIGELAND: How do ISIS' uses of its flag compare to previous propagandists, say, Hitler's Germany, for example?

KAYE: Well, I think it's very similar of any political movement or military movement to use flags in scenes of its military. It's interesting to me to see the images of the flag where they appear to be mass produced. They always look pristine. They haven't been carried in battle. And sometimes the flag is used to mark territory. But I think most importantly, it's a message from the Islamic State saying we are here.

VIGELAND: Ted, how do you think this flag is viewed by Muslims in the Middle East who do not support ISIS?

KAYE: It's interesting that a flag that has Allah on it is a challenge to people who oppose the Islamic State. I've seen an image of protesters in Afghanistan wanting to burn the flag. And they had to create an alternative flag that said ISIS on it instead of the actual flag so they wouldn't be burning a flag with the word Allah on it.

VIGELAND: Ted Kaye is a vexillologist based in Portland, Oregon. Ted, thank you.

KAYE: Thank you, Tess. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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