Like any social or political institution, ISIS needs communication strategies, information campaigns, propaganda, and technological access in order to manipulate its audiences, inspire volunteers, and complete the general tasks of public communication. ISIS is sophisticated and relies on any number of communication strategies in order to further its goals. ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has set numerous persuasive goals: He seeks to reestablish the caliphate and must convince others of the worthiness of this achievement; ISIS competes with al-Qaeda and must position itself competitively as the two groups compete for status and recognition. And, for lack of a better word, propaganda plays an important role in motivating and encouraging fresh recruits into the ISIS psyche so they will carry out brutal acts of violence and further jihadist propaganda. Essentially, ISIS uses two general strategies of persuasion. You can read more about ISIS persuasive strategies here.
The first is based on the value of establishing cultural resonance between individuals and the traditions of Arabic and religious rhetoric. More specifically, sermons delivered by ISIS leaders exploit the rhythm and metaphors of liturgical sermons. These sermons have a long history and theory of oratory and narrative that defines the Arab world. ISIS leaders will invoke the structure of the Quranic verses – which include prayers, invocations, quotations, and sermons – all in the service of messages designed for religious or political purposes. al-Baghdadi’s speech announcing the establishment of the caliphate is a good example of his use of narration and religious invocations to justify his arguments. Moreover, he invoked religious symbols and structure to justify ISIS’s policy of violence including execution, imposition of sharia law, taking of hostages, and violence if necessary toward rival political and religious factions.
The second predominant persuasive communication strategy is the adept use of various communication channels designed to reach targeted audiences. ISIS’s early use of the Internet was quite successful at maintaining anonymity, finding specific audiences, and presenting innovative forms of propaganda. The Internet is able to handle longer disquisitions on politics as well as shorter messages and video. But the Internet is also full of misinformation, potentially poor security, rumor and innuendo, as well as a host of other mistakes and distortions. Consequently, the Internet has lost some of its power and effectiveness although it is still an important persuasive tool.
ISIS’s magazine called Dabiq remains a successful publication outlet that seeks to provide religious and political justification for ISIS. You can read about it and retrieve a copy of Dabiq from its Wikipedia page here.
In addition to online magazines and Internet sites, ISIS broadcasts on a radio station (al-Bayan) as well as a TV station. The TV station makes for sophisticated possibilities with respect to programming and high quality visuals. Social media are often used very skillfully to create characters that signify historical leaders and powerful individuals who speak the language of jihad and express opinions and historical claims consistent with the ISIS political agenda.
ISIS could not succeed without some communication and persuasive strategy designed to produce messages that direct their desired audiences toward a particular definition of reality. ISIS has been particularly adept at discovering effective channels of communication and exploiting them. And, of course, their use of traditional Arabic religious symbols and liturgy has been crucial to their success. But we should remember that all forms of communicative contact have security vulnerabilities capable of being breached. This is a breach we must step into in order to moderate, if not defeat, these messages.
It is already the case that it will have taken the US longer to defeat Al Qaeda and ISIS than it did Germany and Japan. There are two reasons for this. The first is the tendency to blame the United States for these problems, and the second is the role of religion in foreign policy.
Blaming the US
I find the argument that the US is responsible for ISIS and we are reaping what we sow to be indefensible and a rather weak argument. Here’s how the current litany of arguments blaming the US goes: ISIS is George Bush’s fault because of Iran. The Taliban are Ronald Reagan’s fault because we armed them to fight the Soviets. The splinter groups in Syria and Yemen are offshoots of Al Qaeda. The PLO, Hezbollah and Hamas are Israeli creations all because of the occupied territories. The jihadists in Libya are our fault because we supported the overthrow of the vicious dictator Qaddafi. I suppose I haven’t heard an explanation for how we are responsible for Boko Haram but I’m sure someone can construct one. We seem to be engaging in “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacious reasoning such that the existence of a terrorist group is looking for a cause and pointing to some prior act of United States.
America apparently has more influence than Islam even though jihad has a long history and every Middle Eastern slight gets easily interpreted as caused by Europe or the West. There are more than a few motivations that have their basis in religious imperatives that existed before the United States did. I accept that there are two sides to the argument about the legitimacy of the war in Iraq and related terrorist activity, but there’s a difference between justification for the war in Iraq and its prosecution.
WMDs (nuclear weapons) are one day going to be responsible for catastrophic destruction. The US is going to have to remain diligent and aggressive to prevent a mushroom cloud over New York City. And this is not hyperbole. The most likely political entities to make them available to terrorists are Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan. Stopping their potentialities in Iraq or anyplace else before they’re able to be used elsewhere is sensible policy. The levels of violence, organizational structure, and ideology associated with Al Qaeda or ISIS is beyond the capabilities of the United States. Even if United States is implicated in the creation of a few of these groups claiming that we are directly responsible seems to be quite a stretch.
And if Bruce Hoffman’s predictions are correct then ISIS and Al Qaeda will merge and the US will be the only “answer” to the problem rather than its cause.
Religion and Foreign Policy
The second reason Al Qaeda and ISIS are so difficult to defeat is the role of religion. This is, of course, a large issue and we can address it more fully at another time. But Jacob Olidort explains how soft power and attempts at democratic and rational conflict management are no match for the pull of theology and religion for ISIS and Al Qaeda followers. Salafism and other tenets of Islam provide a theological basis for jihad and other relationships between religion and politics. The United States is in no position to challenge the theology of ISIS or Al Qaeda when in fact this is exactly what must be done. Foreign policy rooted in religion make problems more recalcitrant and difficult to manage. Religion makes the actors on both sides more “devoted” than “rational” as Scott Atran explains. This makes them less subject to a shared an intersubjective reality that one day can provide the basis for common ground.
There is a hadith, or saying of the prophet, that goes: “Know that paradise lies under the shade of swords.” Increasingly, this saying makes me think of American party politics as much as an ISIS credo.
I have spent a good part of my professional life studying group conflict that is informed by ethnicity, religion, and ideology. And of all the ugly and murderous strands of conflict the world is subject to those where religion and fundamentalism prevail are the most troubling and recalcitrant. American political discourse, especially inside the conservative wing of the Republican Party, is beginning to sound more like arguing with those who believe they know the mind of God. The unseemly nature of the Republican campaign and the existence of core values that are not subject to adjustment or moderation by democratic discourse, is a communicative expression of these incommensurate conflicts.
There has been no shortage of criticism of the quality and temperament of the leading Republican candidates so I will not elaborate on that except to add my voice to the chorus of those who are dismayed at how vapid Donald Trump is, and how Cruz is a fear-provoking evangelical who believes in using the state to bring about an apocalyptic vision of the end of the world. Rubio is a Roman Catholic but also attends a Southern Baptist Church in Florida probably for pure political expediency. They both have unforgiving religious boundaries and there isn’t much of a difference between them.
For a good and clear summary of evangelicals including their Protestant foundation and politics read an article in Foreign Affairs by Walter Russell Mead.
Turns out that candidates like Cruz and jihadist organizations like ISIS engage in the same rhetoric that is part of the logic of the discourse that characterizes incommensurable realities. (Those competing incommensurate realities are this group of Republican candidates and their liberal opposition). Cruz, who is immovable with respect to walls preventing immigration, the elimination of social safety nets, wiping out the IRS and making taxes unavailable for the public good, and wild and dangerous statements about carpet bombing ISIS, engages in the same rhetorical strategies as the Islamic state does with the West. Here are a few discursive patterns that underscore both groups.
Islam and the West tell different stories and have rival narratives. The language of the stories is constitutive of the meaning and embedded in the psychological, sociological, and political life of each group. Each group is trapped inside a story and there are no points of convergence between them. This is equally true of the Republican candidates exemplified mostly by Cruz. President Obama is not someone to disagree with but must be completely delegitimized; the Supreme Court becoming more liberal is so horrifying that it requires violating the Constitution and stopping the President from making an appointment; our country has been in decline and only the acceptance of Cruz’s God and family values will stay the decline.
Uncontrollable ingroup-outgroup mentalities that distort communication such that contrast effects create a reproducing cycle of perceived differences. Just as the West perceives differences that favor its own group history and culture, so too does the conservative-liberal intergroup mentality maintain a constant sense of differences with positive attributions made to the ingroup and negative attributions made to the outgroup. That’s why “name-calling” is so common and even effective because just labeling someone as a member of an outgroup is sufficiently damaging. There is no place for nuance. Calling someone “right-wing” or “liberal” categorizes them with all the implications.
The political parties (sorry, the Republicans more than the Democrats these days anyway) easily fall victim to the belief that language is dead – as exemplified by the Supreme Court and Scalia’s notion of strict constructionism – and any term or concept has a specifically decided upon meaning whose intent is clear and well understood and cannot be changed. This “dead” notion of language forces a contest between two or more groups for control of the meaning. It directs attention away from trying to find solutions or points of meaningful articulation and more toward self-justification. Meaning, while not completely free, is a living entity that is subject to new insights and discoveries. This mentality has escaped the current campaign as the candidates seem more intent on overwhelming their opponent then actually engaging the public.
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.
Language certainly has the power to direct you towards pre-selected portions of reality. It makes it possible for false comparisons and confusion over categories of meaning. For example, there is a common statement that circulates in the public that is not only a facile generality but dangerous. If you actually believe this statement, if you are ensnared by its rhetorical trickery and literally accept the two propositions as being equal, then it reveals you as a less than rigorous thinker who cannot recognize or make important distinctions. If you accept the equivalence of the two propositions you are likely to put yourself and others in danger by being paralyzed with an inability to act and justify definitional clarity that allows for clear decision-making. The dangerous cliché I’m talking about is:
One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.
If you believe this then Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda are the same as what might be considered a defensible national liberation movement. The semantic foundation of the cliché implies that nothing matters except perspective. It’s a cliché championed by terrorists because they want to present their own causes as positive and justified. And the logical extension of this thinking is that no violent act can be too odious because it is all in the service of national liberation. Terrorists love this phrase because it blurs the distinction between goals and the means to achieve the goals, when in fact no political movement can serve as a justification for terrorism.
This issue has emerged again given the events in Paris. And interestingly, ISIS is so extreme there has been very little political justification for their violence.
This cliché cannot stand and we need more political leaders and public intellectuals to condemn it. There needs to be public discussion and argument. Freedom fighters who are truly struggling against oppression do not kill innocent people and sow panic and confusion – murderers do. Why would the democracies and liberal political regimes around the world allow the word “freedom” to be used in this way? ISIS does not bring freedom they carry fear and oppression. The best reading on this is by Boaz Ganor and can be found here. It is crucial to make the distinction between terrorism and national liberation.
Let’s try to be a little clearer about terrorism. As Ganor describes, terror is (1) violent. Peaceful protests and demonstrations are not terrorism. Terrorism is (2) political. Violence without politics is simply criminal behavior. And (3) terrorism is against civilians with the goal of creating fear and confusion. It mixes with the media to produce anxiety. So what is not terrorism? Terrorism is not accidental collateral damage when the original target is military. Using citizens as shields places the onus of responsibility on those manipulating the citizenry, not those who initiated the attack if it was against a military target. It is also important to recognize those situations where targets of violence are clearly military and uniformed soldiers. Using guerrilla tactics does not necessarily mean terrorism.
It is important, too, that motives be taken into consideration. The real thorny problem is the idea that any form of national liberation – believed sincerely by a presumably oppressed group – justifies violence that is not considered terrorism. This perpetuates the dangerous relativism of the cliché. The hard mental work of distinguishing terrorism from other forms of violence is important if we are going to pass legislation to protect the public, have effective international cooperation, and assist those states struggling with terrorism.
If enough people genuinely accept this relativist cliché then all bets are off. Any sort of violence can be justified and the international community will have a collective shrug of its shoulders essentially saying, “who cares” because someone considers the violent group “freedom fighters” wrapped in vacuous rhetoric designed to justify violence. As difficult as it is to fashion a precise definition of terrorism, it is equally as difficult to imagine accepting ISIS and jihadist attacks against the French as the work of “freedom fighters.”
Note: This post was first published December 23, 2013
Famished and queuing despondently as far as the eye can see, these images will have the Islamic State’s slick propaganda unit spitting feathers.
In scenes more familiar in the most impoverished refugee camps, scores of downtrodden Syrians wait in line for hours for food in the terror group’s self-declared capital Raqqa.
It’s a far cry from the all-conquering image of prosperity its jihadi PR machine would like the world to believe.
The pictures were posted on Twitter by a member of the anti-ISIS campaign group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently who risk their lives every day by documenting atrocities from inside the city.
ISIS looks like a nightmare from the past. Its tactics are brutal, it’s religiously extreme and it is certainly dangerous. By way of their own words, they want to eliminate infidels, impose strict religious law, and establish the “caliphate.” Many feel already psychologically defeated by ISIS; there is a sense that ISIS’s growth in the future is inevitable and that their sophisticated propaganda will succeed in helping them build the foundation of a genuine state and territory it controls.
But as Stephen Walt has pointed out in Foreign Affairs ISIS is not the first extremist group to pose a threat. Similar movements have been associated with France, Russia, the Chinese, Cuba, as well as Iranian revolutionaries. They were all ruthless and sought to demonstrate their power and determination to everyone else. The good news is that these historically violent and revolutionary groups were all contained and their threats, while in some cases still viable, have all been diminished.
Thomas Lynch III, in a recent report that I highly recommend from the Wilson Center, is quite critical of ISIS and argues that they have underperformed in South Asia and failed their constituents in many ways. They pose no serious threat to Al Qaeda in the global Salafi jihadist project. Lynch compares them to the mythological Icarus by writing that ISIS has flown too close to the sun and engaged in brash and risky strategies that will consume it.
Walt explains that outside efforts to destroy revolutionary movements usually backfire because they harden positions and give these movements more possibilities for expansion by enlisting others in the fight against an outsider. A strong US presence with the stated goal of destroying ISIS would likely aggravate the hostility to the West and encourage ISIS’s claim that infidels and outsiders want to encroach upon their land and culture. The US would be better off “leading from behind” which means to stay in the background and provide quiet support. ISIS controls very small amounts of land and has very few military resources to enforce its doctrines. The Soviet Union could impose communism because of its powerful military establishment. ISIS has relatively few troops and no real military power. Moreover, Lynch poses problems for ISIS and their decision to declare an Islamic State. I elaborate a little on these below. All of these are serious weaknesses or mistakes for ISIS any one of which could potentially lead to their downfall.
- The decision by ISIS to declare an Islamic state has encouraged an international coalition of jihadists to oppose it. The declaration of a Caliphate did not resonate with established groups who differ on how they believe the Caliphate should come into being and when the time is right. ISIS will receive no support from various Islamic groups for its proposed Islamic state.
- The declaration of the Islamic state is a significant break and a challenge to Al Qaeda’s that only it will make such determinations. ISIS, for example, believes in violence against local opposition groups where the Al Qaeda believes that infidels (that would be Americans and Westerners) must be eliminated as a first priority. ISIS believes in unbridled violence where Al Qaeda is more willing to temper violence – difficult as that is to imagine.
- Lynch explains that Al Qaeda supports the slow evolution of Islamic Emirates that one day will merge into a caliphate. This strategy is too slow for ISIS who have declared a caliph now (al-Baghdadi). This has again caused a break in Salafist ideology.
The establishment of a caliphate is unlikely to generate much emotional intensity. It has caused divides among the various groups and will weaken everyone’s credibility. ISIS’s methods might scare Americans and attract some fanatics but it is not popular with many Muslims. And it must compete successfully with many Middle East identities that are national, sectarian, religious, and tribal. There’s a good chance both Al Qaeda and ISIS will implode. This means containment is the most sensible avenue at the moment. Let the United States remain cool for now and treat the main actors as an annoyance that we must keep our eye on, and our pistols cocked, but we will still bide our time.
ISIS or the Islamic state is one of the most vicious and retrograde political and military forces to emerge in recent history. Their cruelty and wanton destruction of culture and history, along with a desire to install a restrictive and punishing religious order such as the caliphate, has attracted attention and stimulated jihadists. Most even minimally enlightened world leaders believe ISIS is a sufficient threat to warrant some sort of action. The issue is how to do it. Do we send in troops composed of Americans or do we maintain some distance and simply try to contain ISIS?
ISIS is a political system with a religious basis. It claims to be a state but rules primarily by force rather than political principle. It is also a terrorist organization. It must be stopped from acquiring territory or controlling geographic communities because that simply legitimizes them further and increases their capacity to operate. ISIS is determined and sophisticated (note their skilled media use) and the combination of their religious, political, and ruthless nature poses a particular difficulty and dilemma.
The best soldiers, the most ideal, would be Sunni who oppose ISIS. If you compose an opposition force of Shia then ISIS will just be further convinced that they are surrounded by an enemy that must be stopped. A Sunni opposition force requires money and training and this puts the US in the same place it is now – training a foreign force to fight the battles we want but are often a little bit less motivated. Between Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we have not had all that much success at training soldiers in other cultures to fight the enemy we choose. The reasons for this are complex but it remains so difficult that it’s worth considering other avenues of influence. There is a tendency to fantasize about powerful and skilled US troops simply overwhelming and outsmarting the evil ISIS. Almost a movie version of how the good guys prevail. But it’s time we wake up from this dream and try more diplomatic maneuvering. Clearly, there is a place for military action and we should exploit it whenever possible.
Consequently, an alternative approach would be to persuade supporters of Syria to remove Assad but do it in a way that an Islamic state does not replace it. The presence of Assad is a recruiting tool because many extremists join ISIS pleasured by the thought of eliminating Assad and overthrowing a minority Islamic leader who is killing Sunnis. ISIS is a Sunni organization and no friend of Shia Iran. In fact, we have experienced US-Iran cooperation and coordination in the battle against ISIS. We should continue to cultivate a more cooperative relationship with Iran and enlist their help whenever possible. The nuclear treaty might play a significant role in improving the relationship between the United States and Iran (that’s one of its goals). The US should also be prepared to offer considerable humanitarian aid to the disadvantaged people of Syria.
We have to remember how difficult and intractable religious wars are. They are the most vicious and resistant to change because of the deeply held beliefs rooted in theology by both sides. Religious wars in Europe lasted for centuries. Borders were unclear and populations where displaced, destroyed, and disadvantaged. I would not expect such religiously motivated wars to be any different in the modern Middle East.
Finally, we have to remember that we are fighting an ideological war. Military action is called for but will certainly be insufficient by itself. The US and its allies will require a deep penetration into the workings of ISIS and the jihadist states that support it. There is a tendency to believe that ISIS is an independent operator when in fact they are supported by jihadist states. It is also typical to think that ISIS and jihadist states are so religiously committed and motivated that they cannot be deterred. There is some truth to this but it does not diminish our ability to weaken them and deter their supporters such as arms dealers, financiers, and other institutional forms of support. Defeating this aggressive, subversive, and expansionist politico-religious movement will not be easy.
Just when you thought you had heard of about every atrocity and psychotic group behavior, ISIS creeps into your dreams like a nightmare from ancient history. Beheadings, chemical warfare, mass murder, destruction of cultural, religious, and artistic sites are all tools for new political theory. Then, as the world sort of drifts into a coma rather than sleep we get nightmare 2.0 in the form of theocratized rape and slavery. Apparently, the Quran justifies rape and slavery as long as you pray properly beforehand and stay within the religious leaders “Handbook Governing Rape”. Yes, as David Brooks reported in the New York Times on August 28, ISIS leaders have a handbook to govern how to handle rape and slavery and it even has a helpful question and answer section. The example section below is from the David Brooks opinion article on Friday, August 28, page A21. Question 13 below is from the religious leader’s handbook of when rape and slavery are theocraticly justified
“Question 13: Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who hasn’t reached puberty?
“It is permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who hasn’t reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse; however, if she is not fit for intercourse it is enough to enjoy her without intercourse.”
Anonymous, writing in the New York Review of Books, and Paul Berman writing in Tablet have confessed to confusion about how ISIS seems to defy some of the standard explanations for revolutionary movements. ISIS continues to succeed in gaining the respect of local communities, attracting foreign fighters from all sorts of cultures (some Islamic some not) and even managing an infrastructure of administrative efficiency, police services, military strength, and economic development.
How can this be!? Most experts, as Anonymous explains in the New York Review of Books, don’t get it. They admit to being confused. One explanation is that ISIS inherited Saddam Hussein’s Baathist administrative structure including a security apparatus and an officer corps. There is probably some truth to this but it’s not much of an explanation for the barbarism that defies human history. ISIS has transgressed every tick of human progress. Just when you thought there were times in history when the moral carcass of human nature lifted its head to inch forward in progress – the times of democratic flowering in Greece, the Reformation, religious tolerance, the Enlightenment, the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, world organizations for peace – when you thought we had learned something and were progressing, ISIS comes along and reminds us that mankind has not really learned its lesson.
I suppose we are not capable of learning. Some generation seems to make progress, and we experience something like the Nazis and assume we’ve learned a lesson. But the lesson is for naught because a new generation is born of a blank slate; we can’t pass the lessons onto the next generation except through education which is itself subject to so many influences the that it is an unreliable teacher.
ISIS is raw and naked group identity. The individual members share a set of basic values and belief in enduring characteristics. This sense that a group’s history is unique and its traditions preserve the group’s identity and comprise it is particularly true of religious groups. ISIS’s desire for positive evaluation is so great that they can justify anything. They make intergroup comparisons and of course value their own group to such an extreme that anything, even the most despicable violence, is justified in the service of their group identity.
Durkheim theorized, probably correctly, that all societies made the distinction between the sacred and the profane and something becomes sacred the more it is associated with the collectivity and the power of the collectivity to protect, reward, and punish. The sense of tribal or group identity is the building block of religion.
Future posts will take up this issue and explain how intergroup conflict is particularly recalcitrant when it comes to religious group identities – but “recalcitrant” is too mild a word for the existence of ISIS.
You can read more about these issues here
Last week a respected friend and colleague sent me an email making the standard claims about how all the problems in the Middle East are the result of imperial borders, colonialism, and US foreign policy. It’s the “blame the US” refrain. If you believe the West is responsible for ISIS and Middle East violence then you are easily manipulated by the Islamic state into believing just what they want you to believe. Sure, there is much to criticize about colonialism but borders are not so central to contemporary problems. Let’s take up the case of Iraq (for additional reading go to an article in The Atlantic available here). The three provinces of Iraq – Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra – were historically treated as the one area (called Mesopotamia) and Iraq’s eastern border with Iran dates back to the early Ottoman Empire. The boundaries of Iraq are not so arbitrary. Interestingly, the country with some of the newest Western carved out borders is Jordan and it is the more stable country as a result of King Abdullah.
We fool ourselves into believing that how the Middle East was carved up after World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire is responsible for all the problems. Did you ever ask yourself what it is about a political culture that allowed extremism to take root in the first place! I can give you five explanations for the spread of fundamentalist violence and jihadism. The answers to these issues are always complex, and surely the United States is not completely innocent, but the list below better captures the realities of the political system that absorbs extremism.
- It is not a stretch, and an easy connection to make, when one blames so many leaders in the Middle East who failed to deliver a semblance of prosperity and freedom. Countries like Egypt modeled their secular world on the Soviet Union rather than Western market economies and have paid the price ever since.
- Political participation is one of the last things authoritarian leaders want so they have encouraged citizens to take solace in mosques. Consequently religion and the language of religion is the most common currency. Saudi Arabia has directly supported the fundamentalist Wahhabi strand of Islam.
- Ruling elites must give up something and guide the transition to democracy and open economies, but they have failed to do so in many places. Elites are crucial for the transition to modern political systems.
- The Middle East has lived by oil and will die by oil. An economy based on one resource is doomed to fade away in time but for now provides tremendous wealth to some but not others. The Gulf economies have failed to develop in certain economic areas and once again Islam stepped in as a refuge. The work of diversifying economies has yet to be done.
- Finally, the Muslim confrontation with modernity has partially damaged the culture rendering it less able to adapt and once again reinforcing religion as the common identity binding language.
It’s natural to look for explanations for things but reducing the violence, and confusion, and complexity of the collection of countries in what we call the Middle East to American foreign policy or humiliations is not very productive.
ISIS, which probably constitutes the most stable future threat, was created by all sorts of forces very few of which are rooted in US foreign policy. An excellent reading on this matter is “Who is to blame for the rise of ISIS?” It explains how the Iraqi Army has failed to defend borders and people; the Iraqi people have not challenged ISIS sufficiently; Nouri Al-Maliki the leader of Iraq failed to put together a majority power-sharing government; and even premature troop withdrawal is partially the blame for the rise in ISIS’s power.
In the end, ISIS came to power because individuals made the choice to adopt and support the movement. They chose violence over reconciliation. The vile quality that allows ISIS to consider itself murderously superior is well enough understood in history and social scientifically. Western democracies such as the US are not primarily responsible for the creation of ISIS, but will certainly have to play a major role in its elimination.
Below is a video of Obama’s comments at the prayer breakfast where he compared the Crusades to the religious extremism of ISIS. It was a clumsy comparison and I probably would have counseled him to find another way to make the point. But he was speaking casually. Still, he was not wrong. The general principle that any exclusivist claim to truth – whether it be religious or secular – creates a psychology of sanctity and sets into motion extreme justifications is defensible.
The sense that a group or an idea is larger than us and we identify with it is basic to our evolutionary psychology. Group and ideational identification has a survival value and it is deeply set in our consciousness. That’s why people identify so strongly with political groups, national entities, belief systems of various types (communism, socialism, capitalism, Stalinism), and of course religions. But it remains true, as others have quipped before, that you will die for your ethnic or religious group but not for your golf club. You might belong to a book group and acquire some group identity as a result, but you cannot imagine dying for your book group in the same way you would for your country or your religious group. The difference is sanctity or the belief that your national or religious group and its actions have divine reality. Nobody believes their book group is divine.
In the most extreme cases death and an afterlife become a truer reality for believers. One Muslim extremist group commented after a bombing that they “chose death as a path to life” a sentiment that on its face makes no sense but upon reflection refers to a truer and higher reality yet to come. They seek and believe in a divine reality that transcends individuals and requires integration. Violence in the service of this higher divine reality is simply a tool. The Rev. Paul Hill, who killed a doctor at a women’s clinic, spent his days in jail exclaiming that “the Lord had done great things through him.”
When something is sacred it takes precedence over everything else. In the heart of the true believer nothing stands in the way of duty to God, sacred land, or artifacts. Yet it remains worth asking the question why some resort to such vicious violence and others do not. Some Christians, Jewish religious settlers, and Hindus (BJP) have all engaged in violence, and have a strong sense of the sacred, but not on the scale of ISIS. One explanation is the centrality and intensity of sanctity along with the politics that requires purification. The more this world is considered “unclean” and the next world is “more real than this reality” then moral and ethical frameworks that soften judgments of others begin to melt away.
Acting in the name of a nation or the simple politics and power of resource acquisition is a mundane concern that has pragmatic value only. But when a territory or an idea is sacred boundaries close in and walls go up with almost no room for interpretive latitude. Moreover, the actions of an individual or group hold no value when they are simply pragmatic and consequently it is easier to perpetrate violence against them. And one reason managing conflict with the sanctity motivated is so difficult is that the very act of changing your behavior either for others or because of secular incentives is understood as a violation of the sacred. It becomes proof that the “true path” is being violated.
So, it is nothing doctrinal about Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam that supports greater violence; rather, it is the intensity of the sacred.