This summer, when advances by the Islamic State (IS) through northwestern Iraq were beginning to earn the extremist Sunni group unprecedented notoriety, a large number of social media users switched their profile pictures to the Arabic letter nuun, for Nasrani (Nazarene, that is, Christian), in an echo of the symbol scrawled by IS fighters on thedoors of Christian families in the cities they capture. IS supporters adopted the black flag of Islamic conquest, featuring the stamp of the Prophet Muhammad and the statement “There is no God but Allah.”
Those posting the nuun did so in solidarity with the region’s oppressed religious minorities; those rocking the caliphate’s black banner were applauding the Islamic State’s swift expansion. The IS did not ask people to change their profiles, but the fact that they did tells us a lot about the group’s tech savvy: By exploiting the tendency of social networks to polarize users’ opinions around an issue, the group was taking advantage of social media in the same way it has used online networks to expand its presence.
This has helped the IS present itself as an alternative to a modern Western democracy, and the picture that has thus far emerged can be described as an Islamic utopia. Much like Israel for Jews, it is an expanding frontier land. It is theoretically accessible to every Muslim, but in practice, non-Sunnis are unwelcome and all entrants screened for their affiliations.