ISIS Creates the Difference between the “Rational” and the “Committed.”

religion and atrocitiesThe foundational logic of governing is this: resources, both material and symbolic, are not equally distributed among people. Individuals and groups differ with respect to their personal abilities, education levels, talents, environmental resources, and particular skills. The fact that people in groups are organized around this inequality of resources makes for the “politics of difference.” In other words, politics is fundamentally about managing differences and making it so these differences and the tensions associated with them are under control. It also means that a culturally plural society that demands group-differentiated policies is the norm. Finally, it is a truism that groups seek to maximize their own desired outcomes and it is the communication process that controls these forces. Deliberation, dialogue, bargaining, negotiation, and all sorts of agonistic discourse are part of the political process.

But even though the politics of difference is the norm there are typically forces that are historically more powerful and responsible for driving differences between people and groups. Religion, for example, has become a symbolic resource that separates and marks groups as “different” or an object of distrust. The ISIS revolution is real and a genuine threat. Read Scott Atran on how ISIS is growing and winning its revolution. ISIS is a growing and dynamic counterculture that in two short years has expanded its territory and recruited thousands. It is a radical Sunni revivalism that is beginning to succeed at historic proportions. As a Atran explains, ISIS possesses the largest and most diverse volunteer fighting force since the Second World War.

While the West dithers and considers ISIS’s behavior to be nonrational and horrific it fails, as a Atran explains, to make the distinction between “rational” actors and “committed” actors. Horrific violence is coded into the ISIS religious consciousness so that statements such as “paradise lies under the shade of swords” or there will be  “volcanoes of Jihad” become alluring images for the development of a combination of violent and religious consciousness that justifies monstrous behavior with all the power of the “word of God.” What else would prompt a mother to abandon her baby so she could murder innocent people in San Bernardino and then sacrifice her own life. ISIS controls something more than the West controls when it commands behaviors that are infused with significance, when it makes its members feel as though they are part of an authentic consciousness that makes their life worth living. This they are “committed” to. Their behavior is not rational in any practical sense of the term but symbolic of their commitment to this authentic consciousness.

Patriotism, fidelity, obedience, and courage are all abstract psychological conditions that distort the secular motivations of those who are “rational.” These emotions are for ISIS tied to God or Allah and thus held in higher standing. Subjecting them to rationality (e.g. “I will not fight because I might get hurt.” “I must maximize my personal interests.” “My ideals are not worth hurting someone else.”) is ineffective. No, they are subject to commitment. ISIS fighters are committed to obedience and fidelity which makes it easier for them to do anything in the name of obedience and fidelity to God and cause.

Read the Atran article and think more about the “committed.”





About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on January 25, 2016, in Communication and Conflict Resolution. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Richard Schmitt

    A very interesting blog, Don.

    I wonder, though, whether commitment does not play an important role on both sides of the conflict between ourselves and Isis. When young American men and women enlist to fight in the Mideast, endangering and sometimes losing their lives or their good health, are they not also committed to certain values? We believe that Isis is a threat to the world and to ourselves. But Isis, of course, believes that we are a threat to them and to their religious values.

    As I understand the blog, it points out that relations between groups involve communication but they involve more than that. They involve values and the desire to gain the power to protect those values and may be imposed them on others.

    Did I understand you correctly?

  2. Your point is well enough taken. Still, there are some distinctions to be made. More later

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