by Loren Seibold
The cover piece from the March Atlantic about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has received wide recognition, and for good reason: it's the most cogent explanation so far of this brutal Middle-Eastern movement. Most of us, when we heard of it, assumed ISIS was more of the same: another al-Qaeda-like terror organization. Graeme Wood explains its significant differences:
- Its level of devotion to what it regards as real Islam far exceeds that of the conservative Islamic groups we now know—and it's directed against other Muslims as much as against us infidels. While we take note of ISIS's beheading of a handful of Westerners, takfiri, excommunication of Muslims, is central to the movement, even requiring tortures such as amputations and beheading for Muslims who don't behave. ISIS is a brand of Islam that requires discipline and full devotion, which is what has made it attractive to Muslims all over the world. Furthermore, it holds al-Qaeda in contempt for not sufficiently embracing and enforcing piety.
- It's a territorial movement, revolving around the establishment of a geographical caliphate. Note that ISIS's terrorist acts have been within their territory, and they're not likely to become an offensive threat toward other nations until the caliphate is secure. Wood says, "Its threat to the United States is smaller than its all too frequent conflation with al-Qaeda would suggest." It seeks no recognition by other nations, nor other Muslims, and probably never will.
- It is also an apocalyptic movement. Al-qaeda has a self-destructive, psychopathic streak, but ISIS has a precise eschatology in mind that, they say, must lead to an end-time showdown in Dabiq, Syria. Where al-Qaeda is furtive and conveys confused motives, ISIS is relatively transparent, its intentions known.
- The strategies that have worked with other Islamic groups might not be applicable here. For example, sending tens of thousands of Americans in to defeat them would fulfill ISIS's prophecies and thus legitimize it. Says Wood, "The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself."
Wood adds an important nuance for those of us who have wanted to believe that Islamic terror sects don't represent real Islam. ISIS is, in fact, purely Islamic, following the letter of the Koran and the hadiths, though with a distinctly restorationist hermeneutic. "People want to absolve Islam," Wood quotes scholar Bernard Haykel. "It's this 'Islam is a religion of peace' mantra. As if there is such a thing as 'Islam'! [Islam is] what Muslims do and how they interpret their texts." Which is to say, Islam need not necessarily be violent, but it would be a mistake not to recognize that violent ISIS is Islamic.
Fortunately, Wood's entire piece is on line, and is well worth reading in its entirety here.