The World According to ISIS

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This article is excerpted from Fawaz A. Gerges’s forthcoming book, ISIS: A History.

Although the spectacular surge of ISIS must be contextualized within the social and political circumstances that exist in Iraq and Syria and beyond, the group’s worldview and ideology should be taken equally seriously. Ideology is, after all, the superglue that binds Salafi-jihadists known as revolutionary religious activists or global jihadists of the ISIS variety to each other. The Salafi-jihadist movement emerged from an alliance between ultraconservative Saudi Salafism (or Wahhabism) and revolutionary Egyptian Islamism which was inspired by the Egyptian master theorist, Sayyid Qutb. The Afghan war against Soviet occupation from 1980s onwards baptized Salafi-jihadists by blood and fire and lay the operational foundation of what subsequently came to be known as Al Qaeda. Ever since, a vibrant ideology has allowed the Salafi-jihadist movement to renew and revitalize itself after suffering crushing blows. A traveling and expanding ideology, Salafi-jihadism has evolved into a powerful social movement with a repertoire of ideas, iconic leaders, worldwide supporters, networks of recruiters and enablers, theorists, preachers who provide members with ideological and theological sustenance. It has taken hold of the imagination of small Sunni communities worldwide.

Regardless of what happens to ISIS—which is an extension of the global Salafi-jihadist movement which includes a litany of groups, like Al Qaeda central—this messianic ideology is here to stay and will likely gain more followers in politically and socially polarized Arab and Muslim societies. Despite a costly civil war unfolding between ISIS and Al Qaeda Central, particularly in Syria, Salafi-jihadists continue to expand their influence and attract new recruits. A fringe social movement during the second half of the 20th century, Salafi-jihadism now vies for public influence and offers an alternative for both mainstream and radical Islamists. It is a popular, enduring brand. A sense of triumphalism permeates the discourse and public pronouncements by Salafi-jihadist ideologues and propagandists who openly proselytize. They boast that the tide of history has shifted their way and that they are on the cusp of a historical breakthrough.

Researchers have tended to underestimate the power of the Salafi-jihadist ideology at their own peril. The challenge is to shine light on this growing ideology and make sense of it. Although ISIS is an extension of the global Salafi-jihadist movement, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS who anointed himself caliph in the summer of 2014, and his cohorts represent another wave, a post-Al Qaeda generation, of Salafi-jihadists. At present, ISIS—its ideology, as well as its state and security status—has successfully tapped into a fierce clash of identities between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims in the Middle East and beyond.    The US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 caused a rupture in an already fractured Iraqi society. America’s destruction of Iraqi institutions, particularly its dismantling of the army and the Baathist ruling party, unleashed a fierce power struggle, mainly along sectarian lines, creating fissures in society. These growing ruptures provided the room necessary for non-state actors and armed insurgent militias, including Al Qaeda (AQI), to infiltrate the fragile body politic in post-2003 Iraq. In contrast to Al Qaeda Central whose key concern is the far enemy—that is, the US and its close European allies—AQI and its successor ISIS are a hyper-Sunni identity driven by an intrinsic and even genocidal anti-Shia ideology. ISIS’s lineage of Salafi-jihadism forms part of the ideological impetus; the other part of its ideological nature is an identity frame of politics. Despite the group’s insistence that it operates within a different value system from that promulgated by Western liberalism and the nation state system, its ideological rhetoric is anchored not in novelty but in identity politics whose main articulating pole is religious. Religion can act as a potent framework for social identity, especially in war environments where insecurity runs high and cultivates group loyalty by projecting itself as the truth and the right path to follow.

By providing a clear structure through strict sets of rules and beliefs and a worldview that encompasses life on earth and in the afterlife, ISIS presents individuals with the promise of an eternal group membership, which can prove particularly attractive for people prone to existential anxiety. Moreover, scholars point out that several factors feed into (Abrahamic) fundamentalist ideology, including dualism (absolute evaluations of good versus evil), authority (of a sacred book or leader), selectivity(choosing certain beliefs or practices over others), and millennialism (confidence in eschatology as God’s will). Of all factors, however, one facet is thought to be vital:“reactivity,”F[1] which takes the form of a hostility toward secular modernity that is directed not only toward people outside of the fundamentalists’ religious in-group but also toward members of their own religious group who are not viewed as “true believers.”

In this light, ISIS’s development of a pure and absolutist ideology can be seen as part of a strategy to feed its members’ fundamentalism by emphasizing their exclusivity while projecting a universalist vision. For example, the widespread use of suicide bombers by Salafi-jihadist groups such as ISIS constitutes a recent modus operandi in Islam rather than a return to the roots. Few Muslim communities appear to be currently entangled in a war of subjectivities that stems from a series of ruptures that started with the Enlightenment and that takes the form of an Islamic-Islamic civil war over the Muslim identity itself.[2]  Meanwhile, many Arabs are also involved in an interpretative dispute about their being-in-the-world in which both the Arab world and the world at large are questioned and contested. According to an Arab philosopher, Fathi al Makdisi, the current rise of Salafi-jihadism and terrorism represented by ISIS is the result of not only creeping sectarianism or a crisis of the modern state, but also a growing nihilism that signals the collapse of progressive values and tolerance in its conception of humanity.[3]

Nevertheless, far from being sui generis, genealogically and ideologically ISIS belongs to the Salafi-jihadist family, although it marks another stage in the evolution or, rather, mutation of the ideological gene pool. Over the past half century, the Salafi-jihadist movement has developed a repertoire of ideas, a frame of reference, theorists, thousands of followers, and “martyrs” who provide inspiration for new volunteers and who ensure the durability of the brand. ISIS has been able to draw from this repertoire, re-articulating old concepts and presenting them as new or revolutionary. Its rhetoric makes use of religious ideology to articulate identity politics. Indeed, religion has for some time been the glue that maintains the coherence, if not the unity, of various factions and divisions, and the rationale for vicious and flamboyant violence. Salafi-jihadists from various orientations, including ISIS, always cite verses from Qur’anic scripture to portray their offensive jihad as blessed.

The world according to ISIS is frozen in time and space, incorporating the rules and laws of seventh-century Arabia into the twenty-first century. Its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and his associates depict themselves as battling the “antichrist” and paving the way for the ultimate triumph of the “Mahdi” and Islam (in Arabic, the Mahdi means “the Guided One,” the central crowning element of all Islamic end-time narratives, or an expected spiritual and temporal ruler destined to establish a reign of righteousness throughout the world). This millenarian thinking is at the heart of ISIS’s caliphate ideology and the global jihadist movement in general. The problem is not to know whether ISIS is Islamic—of course it is, though Muslims worldwide disavow it and distance themselves from its actions—but rather to understand how this organization borrows heavily but selectively from the Islamic canon and imposes the past on the present wholesale. Baghdadi and his propagandists overlook centuries of Islamic interpretations and counterinterpretations and rely on a narrow, strict, and obsolete textualist reading of the Islamic doctrine, a move that is very controversial and deeply contested by the religious community and al-Islam al-Sha’bi (lived Islam). There is no swell of public support for ISIS in Muslim societies, including the areas in Syria and Iraq under its control and hardly any important preacher or a cleric has lent his voice to Baghdadi’s Caliphate. Despite its sound and fury, ISIS remains a fringe phenomenon that is too extreme for mainstream Muslim opinion but sounds like a sweet melody to the ears of its social base. This base continues to replenish the ranks of ISIS and similar organizations with willing combatants and suicide bombers. Time and again politicians and observers have penned the obituary of the global jihadist movement only to be shocked by its resilience and capacity for self-renewal. Ideology is a significant factor in this process of regeneration, and it confers legitimacy on ISIS’s actions.

Under ISIS, there is no breathing space for social mobilization and political organization, including by like-minded Salafi-jihadist activism. ISIS possesses a totalitarian, millenarian worldview that eschews political pluralism, competition, and diversity of thought. Baghdadi and his associates criminalize and excommunicate free thought, and the idea that there should exist a legitimate other—be it a Muslim of differing ideological disposition or a non-Muslim—is alien to their messianic ideology. Any Muslim or co-jihadist who does not accept ISIS’s interpretation of the Islamic doctrine is an apostate who deserves death. In the same vein, any Muslim or co-jihadist who refuses to submit to the will of the new caliphate faces either expulsion from the land or death. One here needs to recall the words uttered by ISIS’s chief propagandist and official spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, following the establishment of the Islamic State. In a communiqué, Adnani, whose real name is Taha Sobhi Falaha, demanded that all jihadist factions everywhere pledge allegiance to the new caliph, Baghdadi, as the legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations was now null and void. In his own words, “The land now submits to his order and authority from Aleppo to Diyala.”[4]Adnani made it clear that there is only one Islamic state and one caliphate, with no room for dissent: “Indeed, it is the state. Indeed, it is the khilafah [caliphate]. It is time for you to end this abhorrent partisanship, dispersion, and division, for this condition is not from the religion of Allah at all. And if you forsake the State or wage war against it, you will not harm it. You will harm yourselves.”[5] He also warned that all Muslims must obey the commander of the faithful, including former and current aspirants to the title, and ordered his fighters to “split the head” and “strike the neck” of anyone who breaks the ranks and does not submit to the will of the new caliphate.[6]

In ISIS’s worldview, then, the caliphate is not just a political entity but also a collective religious obligation (wajib kifa’i), a means to salvation: Muslims have sinned since they abandoned the obligation of the caliphate, and, ever since, the umma has not tasted “honor” or “triumph.” ISIS’s repeated message to Muslims is that they must pledge allegiance to a valid caliph, Baghdadi, and honor that oath and live a fully Islamic life.

Politics and Tactics

Behind the romantic idea of the caliphate, however, lies identity politics, as the core of ISIS’s ideological framework is the affirmation of its “Sunni Islamic” identity and its redefinition of true Islam. Adnani’s orders might have given the illusion that the establishment of the Islamic State entails a real rupture from the present state system, but, just like under Saddam Hussein, under ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq is headed by an absolute leader who tolerates no dissent. In fact, ISIS’s conception of sovereignty does not break away from the autocratic mode of governance that has plagued Arab countries for decades: for example, both Hussein in Iraq and the Assads in Syria have used identity politics as a pillar for their policies—albeit an ethnic rather than a religious version.

ISIS has used its messianic ideology to brutally suppress both Islamists and nationalists (Baathists) in areas under its domination. Its raison d’être is to convert everyone to its cause, including rival jihadists who share a similar vision. For example, in a severe rebuttal, Adnani harshly criticized Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda Central and the most senior living jihadist, for daring to side with the chief of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, against Baghdadi in the power struggle for Syria. ISIS’s chief spokesman bluntly reminded Zawahiri that should he make it to the territories of the Islamic State, he would have to swear baiya (fealty) to Baghdadi and serve as one of his footsoldiers. As Baghdadi pledged allegiance to Zawahiri in 2010, this open attack represents the ultimate insult.[7]

ISIS’s hard-line stance has caused much havoc within the global jihadist movement, even leading to a split between ISIS and al-Nusra, which was originally constituted on Baghdadi’s orders. A key cause of the rift between the two organizations was that Joulani rejected an order by Baghdadi in April 2013 to annex his front to ISIS. Baghdadi considered Joulani’s snub treacherous and ever since has waged all-out war against al-Nusra and its Islamist and nationalist Syrian allies. The intra-jihadist confrontation in Syria has killed thousands of skilled fighters from both camps and has seen atrocities committed by each side, including wholesale rape, beheadings, and crucifixions. The war within the jihadist tribe is as savage as the war with outsiders. Islamic State followers and those of Al Qaeda Central excommunicate one another and marshal religious discourse to show that they are the real jihadist vanguard, while their rivals are pretenders. In Syria ISIS could not coexist with al-Nusra or any other Islamist group because that would have challenged its monopoly on the scared and on the global jihadist project as well. In addition to mastering the art of making enemies of all regional and global powers, ISIS eliminates conventional politics altogether and aspires to organize society along puritanical lines of seventh-century Arabia, a worldview that imposes the distant past on the present.

It is no wonder, then, that ISIS engages in cultural cleansing, purifying the Islamic lands of all alien and infidel influences, including traditional Sunni practices that clash with its fundamentalist and timeless interpretation of the Islamic doctrine. The idea of purifying the Islamic lands is deeply ingrained in the imagination of radical religious activists, but ISIS is the first social movement to attempt to operationalize this ideology. As Islamic State militants swept across Syria and Iraq, they destroyed, damaged, and/or looted numerous cultural sites and sculptures, condemning them as idolatry. Celebrating their cultural cleansing in spectacular propaganda displays, Islamic State fighters show by deeds, not words, their intent to purify the lands and resurrect the caliphate. While ISIS’s propaganda is abhorrent to the outside world, it is greedily devoured by its social base. Its slickly produced recruitment films about cultural cleansing not only reinforce its strategic message of triumph and expansion but also divert attention from battlefield setbacks.3[8]

 A Pure Caliphate

For an authentic Islamic state to be erected, the Sunni militants of ISIS feel that the Islamic lands must be cleansed of apostasy and heretics, regardless of the human or civilizational costs. In fact, ISIS’s fighters are keen on displaying an ideological zeal and purity in an effort to outbid their Islamist rivals like Jabhat al-Nusra, the official arm of Al Qaeda Central. For example, in an attempt to cleanse Sunni society of other cultural influences, ISIS has sought to dismantle the diverse social fabric made up of Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians that has developed and persevered since the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq. Broadly, their wrath is directed at minorities whom they view as infidels without human rights. A case that illustrates ISIS’s ideology of ethnic cleansing is its extraordinary punishment of the Yazidis, a tiny religious minority, representing less than 1.5 percent of Iraq’s estimated population of thirty-four million, whom ISIS considers heretics. After the capture of Mosul and its outlying towns in summer 2014, including Sinjar, near the Syrian border, home to tens of thousands of Yazidis, ISIS engaged in systemic cultural cleansing, forcing hundreds of thousands of minorities from their homes and using sexual violence as a weapon by indiscriminately raping Yazidi girls and women. ISIS viciously attacked the Yazidis, killing men and boys of fighting age and abducting a total of 5,270 Yazidi girls and women (at least 3,144 of whom are still being held at the time of writing), who were subsequently forced into sexual slavery, according to human rights organizations, United Nations figures, and community leaders. To handle the modern sex trade, ISIS has set up a Department of “War Spoils” and a detailed bureaucracy of sex slavery, including sales contracts notarized by its Islamic courts, according to a cache of documents seized by US Special Operations Forces in a May 2015 raid in Syria that killed top ISIS financial official Aby Sayyaf.[9]And systemic rape has become an established and increasingly powerful recruiting tool for ISIS to lure men from deeply conservative Muslim societies, where casual sex is taboo and dating is forbidden.[10]

According to the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and investigative reports by the media, ISIS has destroyed hundreds of Yazidi women’s lives.4[11] Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser, spoke to forty Yazidi women who had managed to escape from ISIS captivity, and said that what ISIS had done to them amounted to war crimes. “Hundreds of Yezidi women and girls have had their lives shattered by the horrors of sexual violence and sexual slavery in IS captivity,” she said.[12] Zainab Bangura, a UN envoy investigating sexual violence in the conflict, has confirmed that an ISIS pamphlet that gives prices for the purchase of women is real and that “the girls get peddled like barrels of petrol.” Bangura notes that prices for boys and girls aged one to nine are about $165. Adolescent girls cost about $124, and it’s less for women over twenty. “They have a machinery, they have a program,” she told Bloomberg News. “They have a manual on how you treat these women.”[13]According to ISIS’s ideology, Yazidis are seen as polytheists and, worse, devil worshipers, and they are not even entitled to be treated like “People of the Book,” Christians and Jews, who can atone for their sins by paying a tax known as jizya to be set free. In contrast, ISIS either kills or coverts Yazidis by force and enslaves their women, a punishment sanctioned, they say, by their experts of Islamic jurisprudence.

ISIS’s involvement in the sex trade and its enslavement of girls and women from the tiny Yazidi religious community are driven not only by power and male (patriarchal) domination but also by ideological zealousness. Baghdadi and his shura council (cabinet) want to distinguish themselves from Islamist rivals by attempting to revive traditions, rituals, and practices that have been dormant for over a thousand years in Muslim history. They have falsely made emulation of the Prophet Mohammed a strict duty, a tool to display their religious purity and authenticity.[14]For example, citing selective sayings of the Prophet, a booklet entitled “From Creator’s Rulings on Capturing Prisoners and Enslavement,” calls for both kindness and cruelty to captives by ISIS. Enslaved women should not be separated from their children, the booklet says, but the rules allow the group’s combatants to have sex with female slaves[15]ISIS has also publicly boasted about its enslavement of Yazidi women in their magazine called Dabiq and in their propaganda videos. ISIS has justified its actions on religious grounds by juxtaposing the distant past with the present and selectively citing verses from the scripture or the Sunna (the traditions based on the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Mohammed) to justify their sex slavery. In an October 2014 article titled “The Revival of Slavery before the Hour,” the group argues that the Yazidi women “could be enslaved unlike female apostates [the Shia], who the majority of the fuqahā’ [experts in Islamic jurisprudence] say cannot be enslaved and can only be given an ultimatum to repent or face the sword. . . . After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Sharī’ah [Islamic law] amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations, after one fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State’s authority to be divided as khums [the one-fifth of booty or spoils that goes to the state].”[16]

Christians do not fare much better. After capturing Mosul and other cities in Iraq and Syria, ISIS presented Christians in both countries with a stark choice: convert to Islam, pay a special tax (jizya), or get out immediately and be disinherited from everything you own. Recent evidence shows that despite paying the special tax, Christian girls and women have been victims of ISIS’s practice of systemic rape. In light of this ultimatum, the ISIS surge has triggered another wave of exodus by Christians, an exodus that began in earnest when its forerunner, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, also commonly known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, forced 1 million of Iraq’s surviving 1.5 million Christians to flee the country between 2003 and 2010. There is a real danger that Baghdadi could finish the job of his predecessor, Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006 by the United States—a job that would entail ridding Iraq of its ancient Assyrian community, nearly two thousand years old.

Moreover, ISIS’s totalitarian religious ideology also openly targets Muslims. Trying to distinguish themselves theologically from like-minded Islamist radicals, including Al Qaeda Central, Baghdadi and his cohorts are intensely takfiri44F—that is, followers of the takfiri doctrine, which calls for excommunication of a person or a group of kuffar (infidels) or non-Muslims. ISIS considers Shia Muslims to be apostates, sanctioning the shedding of their blood as well as that of Sunnis who oppose their vision. While it can be argued that Arab authoritarian rulers such as President Bashar al-Assad and former Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki have not done enough to protect the region’s minorities against ISIS, these sectarian-based regimes created fertile conditions that allowed Salafi-jihadist groups like ISIS to build a popular base of support among Sunnis and surge. Indeed, ISIS is the main beneficiary of the divisive and destructive policies of the central governments of Iraq and Syria and the breakdown of state institutions in the Arab arena in general. From the beginning Baghdadi and his cohorts depicted themselves as the sole defenders of excluded and aggrieved Sunni communities against Shia-dominated regimes, first in Baghdad and then in Damascus.

As discussed at the beginning, ISIS is a near-enemy revolutionary movement, focusing on the Arab-Islamic world, not a far-enemy organization targeting the Western powers, even though it has recently devoted more resources to carrying out attacks against the far enemy, including Russia, Europe, North America, and Southeast Asia. It is an ideational, hyper-Sunni movement that harbors a genocidal ideology against the Shia, which means that roughly 120 Shias are marked for death. After it burst out of its original home in Iraq, ISIS expanded to Syria in 2012, with grand ambitions to spread to neighboring countries. In his second address to the world in November 2014, Baghdadi confirmed that his imperial ambitions were not limited to Iraq and Syria but also included Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and beyond.[17]

Theorist Enablers of ISIS

Although ISIS does not have its own reputed scholars or theorists, it has mined Salafi-jihadists’ repertoire of ideas and selectively borrowed whatever fits its unique worldview. At times, the organization has even been accused of falsely appropriating the works of extremist Salafi theorists. For example, a prominent Salafi-jihadist scholar, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, lashed out angrily against Baghdadi’s cohorts for stealing his writings considered to be foundational by Salafi-jihadist and claiming them as their own. Maqdisi, however, is not a major inspiration for ISIS, as the group is nourished on a bloodier and deadlier diet. Baghdadi and his inner circle rely particularly on three Salafi-jihadist manifestos to rationalize and justify what they do.