Search Box

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

"What ISIS Really Wants"

This Atlantic piece does an excellent job of explaining what ISIS is all about. The author, Graeme Wood, explains exactly why they do what they do, and how they are in fact practicing the purest form of Islam.

(Warning: the linked piece is long, and takes roughly half an hour to read.)

If you don't have a half hour to spare, here are a few of the highlights:

-The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

-We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al‑Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as “Sheikh Osama,” a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaeda’s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group’s priorities and current leadership.

-Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it.

-All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day."

-The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

-The waging of war to expand the caliphate is an essential duty of the caliph.

-Islamic law permits only temporary peace treaties, lasting no longer than a decade. Similarly, accepting any border is anathema, as stated by the Prophet and echoed in the Islamic State’s propaganda videos. If the caliph consents to a longer-term peace or permanent border, he will be in error. Temporary peace treaties are renewable, but may not be applied to all enemies at once: the caliph must wage jihad at least once a year. He may not rest, or he will fall into a state of sin.

-One way to un-cast the Islamic State’s spell over its adherents would be to overpower it militarily and occupy the parts of Syria and Iraq now under caliphate rule. Al‑Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground. The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding.

-Muslims can say that slavery is not legitimate now, and that crucifixion is wrong at this historical juncture. Many say precisely this. But they cannot condemn slavery or crucifixion outright without contradicting the Koran and the example of the Prophet. “The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid,” Bernard Haykel says. "That really would be an act of apostasy.


Steven said...

Excellent. I like this bit:

In the past, Westerners who accused Muslims of blindly following ancient scriptures came to deserved grief from academics—notably the late Edward Said—who pointed out that calling Muslims “ancient” was usually just another way to denigrate them. Look instead, these scholars urged, to the conditions in which these ideologies arose—the bad governance, the shifting social mores, the humiliation of living in lands valued only for their oil.

Without acknowledgment of these factors, no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

Anonymous said...

"One way to un-cast the Islamic State’s spell over its adherents would be to overpower it militarily and occupy the parts of Syria and Iraq now under caliphate rule."

I eagerly await the military action to accomplish this goal - which of course should be conducted by the ring of countries directly threatened by ISIS: Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan, etc.

Ah the good old days, when strong men kept a lid on it all: Sadam in Iraq, Assad in Syria, Gaddafi in Libya, Mubarak in Egypt.

Which of these countries in mayhem is not the direct responsibility of the US? (OK - Egypt only had to suffer through a revolution and a military coup - both given the green light by the US)

ISIS arose in the power vacuum created by US mis-adventures in Iraq and Syria; and gained a good deal of its arms by the same means.

ISIS is a group with cannot manufacture its own weapons; has no industry and no real economy. Yet they can run wild, slaughtering people in unimaginably horrific ways.

The US War Party (i.e. Republicans) can't wait to get into this new fight. They demonize terrorists and Islam, and play on US revulsion to the barbaric brutality.

They would be offering a more logical case if they said "we are directly responsible for ISIS, so we are also responsible to clean it up".

As far as the US population is concerned - getting killed by a member of ISIS on US soil is as likely as being struck by lightning.

The US should recognize that it has not only failed in the Middle East - it is responsible for hundreds of thousands dead. It is responsible for chaos in Iraq, Syria and Libya. It has improved life for no one, and unleashed a new monster far greater than any leader it has unseated.

Will the US recognize its failures, inability to make a positive difference, and let the Middle Eastern countries fight it out on their own?

I doubt it.

- Ed

Anonymous said...

ISIS could be wiped out in a few months, we know their bases and their locations on a map, we have satellites that can pick up a telephone call or a walkie talkie. We could find Saddam in a spider hole and we can't deal with a roving band of militants??

The West is letting ISIS exist, they most likely funded them and created those beheading and burning videos.

Give me a good reason why the West hasn't destroyed ISIS, it's almost been a year since they came to significance.

This seems to me that the conspiracy theorists are right about this.

John Craig said...

Anon --
I wonder about that myself. The generals keep saying that ISIS can't be defeated without boots on the ground, but it seems to me with the satellite capabilities you refer to, we could make pretty short work of them.

The US has been using drones all over the Middle East for years now, without boots on the ground nearby to guide them, it does seem as if the same could be done in Iraq.

But, the generals know more than I do.