aNewDomain — They slash innocent people’s throats. They hew off heads. They rape children, sell women into slavery and vandalize ancient museum pieces. Why would anyone want to join ISIS?
That’s the big question Americans and people in other Western countries are asking — because thousands of their citizens, many of them well-educated and reportedly of sound mind and body, are doing just that.
Unfortunately, mainstream media outlets seem unwilling and/or unable to explain the attraction of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Even when the topic is broached, as it was recently on syndicated talk host Diane Rehm’s NPR radio show, so-called experts can’t or won’t answer the question, instead repeating the usual ISIS-is-incomprehensibly-evil memes we’ve already heard a zillion times.
“I think one characteristic that we see from ISIS is that they pursue every avenue. They have a specific recruitment for women, they have specific recruitment for different countries, different languages. They’re really unusually large for a terror group [sic],” Jessica Stern told Rehm.
Others say ISIS recruits are thrill-seekers or alienated youths searching for meaning in otherwise empty lives, as The International Business Times argued recently.
If ISIS is America’s enemy, or at least a phenomenon it would be in our interest to weaken or destroy, it is not in our interest to dismiss its adherents as fools, lunatics or alienated losers. Underestimating your adversary plays into his hands. They’re not crazy, and they come from all walks of life: “Four decades of psychological research on who becomes a terrorist and why hasn’t yet produced any profile,” John Horgan, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, told The Guardian.
Before we attack the Islamic State — OK, it’s too late for that — it behooves us to understand it. Which requires understanding its appeal.
ISIS is a Nation-State.
Corporate media outlets like NPR call ISIS “the self-proclaimed Islamic State” or “self-described Islamic State” as if the predicate weakens ISIS’ legitimacy. Ridiculous! You could apply the same lame undermining modifier to any nation: the self-described United States of America, the self-proclaimed Republic of Ireland, whatever. Nations exist until they don’t; ISIS has no less de facto legitimacy than, say, Panama.
No one knows whether ISIS will survive, but it is the first serious attempt to carve out an Islamist nation-state in memory.
ISIS isn’t like Al Qaeda and its spinoff groups, or Abu Sayyaf, Al Shabab and Boko Haram (which recently pledged fealty to ISIS). Those are underground insurgent organizations. They carry out attacks against government and private targets in territory that they do not control. A closer analogy is the Taliban, whose formal name during their rule ISIS echoes: The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — but it’s not a perfect one because, since 2001, “Taliban-held” areas of Afghanistan have been partially held and transited by troops loyal to the Kabul-based central government.
ISIS is trying to build a full-fledged nation-state with all the trappings: discrete borders, coins, stamps, its own monetary system, ministries, control and expansion of infrastructure, educational curriculum, a standing army, social programs, a judiciary, and not least — a cool flag.
“This is more than just fighting,” an ISIS recruit explains on an online video. “We need the engineers, we need doctors, we need professionals … There is a role for everybody.”
ISIS’ message — join us! we aren’t thinking about building a fundamentalist Muslim society, or trying to transform an existing Muslim country, but we’re actually making one now — excites Sunni purists currently living in Western countries or in Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, whose leaders and values have been corrupted by Western and American influence. France, Germany and other countries with large populations of young Muslim immigrants have marginalized them in ghettos with high unemployment, subjecting them to racial profiling and harassment. They haven’t been made to feel at home. ISIS promises them they will be with them.
Ironically, it’s an appeal familiar to Jews who emigrate to Israel.
ISIS is a Caliphate.
Western commentators as well as some Muslim scholars scoff at ISIS’ claim to have reestablished the Islamic caliphate eliminated along with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat in World War I. ISIS’ caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is a shadowy Iraqi religious scholar turned jihadi who did time as a U.S. detainee — so what, they ask, is the basis of his legitimacy? Al-Baghdadi probably isn’t, despite his claims, a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammed, which according to classical scholars is required to be named caliph.
The naysayers are missing the point. “All that the Islamic State lacks is the legitimacy derived from mutual international recognition by other states, which it never sought in the first place. It also realized that states in the Muslim world resist its declaration of the Caliphate. Its legitimacy emerges from declaring a Caliphate and a state apparatus to sustain it, thus deriving legitimacy from a small, but devoted core of Muslims around the world, willing to leave their lives behind to travel and become citizens of the new Islamic State,” says Cal State historian Ibrahim al-Marashi.
To echo Nike, this is a “just do it” thing — you’re the caliph if you say you are, and enough people believe you to back you up.
The demise of the caliphate in 1924 stripped Islam of its centuries-old central governing body. Imagine, for example, how Roman Catholicism would be affected by the end of the papacy: new sects would break off, splinterism would rule, no one would agree on what a real Catholic believes or does. The desire to reestablish cohesion — under, of course, radical Sunnism — motivates Muslim fundamentalists who, such as Osama bin Laden, have long called for its restoration.
A caliph, however, is not a pope. He is a religious, military and political leader, all wrapped up in one — and God’s representative on earth. By definition, all Muslims are required to swear allegiance to a caliph and follow his dictates, or be branded apostates, and face death.
ISIS Kills Its Enemies. A Lot.
For ISIS, violence — slave markets, ethnic cleansing, mass slaughter, even of fellow Sunni Muslims — is not merely an unpleasant but necessary tactic, but an end in and of itself.
It’s not just rule by fear, though ISIS leaders use that too, as when they execute deserters by crucifixion. Like the Hotel California, ISIS is a place you can check in but never leave.
The brutality turns off some fighters enough to prompt them to flee, but for many others, it’s a major attraction. Slaughtering Shias, secular Sunnis and non-Muslims serves a double purpose: purification and revenge. For as long as most Muslims can remember — and this goes for liberal-minded Muslims too — they have been on the receiving end of violence: Israel, created by the U.S. and European powers from stolen Palestinian land. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen and countless other Muslim nations oppressed by U.S.-backed tyrants. After 9/11: secret prisons, kidnappings, torture, drone assassinations, multiple invasions, constant bombing.
ISIS offers humiliated fighters a chance to lash out…even if swimming in the blood of a captured Yazidi woman is a poor substitute for an American drone operator, or a congressman.
It will take more than intercepting recruits on their way to Syria and arresting them, or cheesy, hollow appeals to patriotic sentimentality, to counter these powerful motivating forces.
“Born and raised in the United States, [he] allegedly turned his back on his country and attempted to travel to Syria in order to join a terrorist organization,” said Loretta Lynch, Obama’s nominee for attorney general after the arrest of a Florida air force vet charged with trying to join the Islamic State. “An American citizen and former member of our military allegedly abandoned his allegiance to the United States and sought to provide material support to ISIL,” said assistant attorney general John Carlin.
There will be more like him.
For aNewDomain, I’m Ted Rall.