ISIS is for Real
After drawing attention in last week’s post to the Scott Atran article on how ISIS is a genuine revolution and should be taken seriously, I had a friend observe that I sounded more like a conservative than in the past. It sounded more like I was taking ISIS seriously and perceived them as a genuine threat. I had posted once before (see entry for October 31, 2015) that ISIS was failing and underperforming. This was interpreted by some as not taking ISIS seriously and assuming that they were some sort of upstart movement that would die out easily and quickly.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I agree with Scott Atran that ISIS is a “real” revolution, that it is growing and increasingly attractive to many, that something should be done about it, and whatever we are doing now is probably not sufficient. Unlike many of the Obama haters I do not consider his patience, diplomacy, and slower hand to be signs of weakness. But there was recently a story in the New York Times making essentially the same point. What we are doing now to fight ISIS is not sufficient, but we should be approaching the problem from the long-game perspective and ultimate victory will take time.
ISIS’s violence is transcendental in that it is appeals to a sense of the sublime and gives serious meaning to its adherents with respect to their own destiny, power, and sense of the ultimate. ISIS does not need to see itself as composed of overwhelming numbers. No, it sees itself as a revolutionary vanguard leading the masses and informing them about what is to come. ISIS seeks a tremendous transformation. And the sublime appeal should not be taken lightly. ISIS is increasingly credited with technological and political sophistication and seems to be appealing to the 18-24-year-old group who report that they have some favorable attitudes towards ISIS. This is especially true among the downtrodden whose anger fits nicely into ISIS’s co-option of this anger. And, as Atran points out, these young people attracted ISIS are more willing to fight and engage in violence to defend principles they are not even sure of than are other young people willing to fight and defend democratic values against an onslaught.
ISIS is emerging as consistent with historical revolutions (e.g. French Revolution) where an abstract but powerful commitment to a spiritual force justifies about anything. Visions of universal equality or economic fairness have held equally as powerful sway as have dreams of the future governed by sharia law.
Finally, the rhetorical skills of ISIS and AQ must not be underestimated. They have, for example, reconstructed the concept of a caliphate – a political concept challenged by many historians – as an alternative to a meaningless material world. The caliphate justifies an expanded notion of jihad and holy war against infidels. ISIS leaders have changed maps and bulldozed territorial boundary signs as the remnant of Western colonialism and Sykes Picot rather than holy land that will be part of the caliphate.
Talking to ISIS will probably be futile for some time to come. The two sides are classically incommensurate in that the West engages in moral disagreement from a pragmatic perspective that is without foundational principles. And ISIS is steeped in Islamic foundational principles that are generative of its discourse. Perhaps one day there will be sufficient bridging discourse that the two sides have at least initial commonalities that can strengthen the bridge rather than only the supporters on each side.