The Importance of Understanding ISIS/ISIL

Graeme Wood has a really long, detailed and important article at The Atlantic explaining some of the many things about ISIS/ISIL that have up to this point been badly misunderstood. It’s really long, so please read the whole thing, but let me highlight a couple things:

The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al‑Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as “Sheikh Osama,” a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaeda’s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group’s priorities and current leadership.

Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)

We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature. Peter Bergen, who produced the first interview with bin Laden in 1997, titled his first book Holy War, Inc. in part to acknowledge bin Laden as a creature of the modern secular world. Bin Laden corporatized terror and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia. His foot soldiers navigated the modern world confidently. On Mohamd Atta’s last full day of life, he shopped at Walmart and ate dinner at Pizza Hut.

There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse…

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal…

In November, the Islamic State released an infomercial-like video tracing its origins to bin Laden. It acknowledged Abu Musa’b al Zarqawi, the brutal head of al‑Qaeda in Iraq from roughly 2003 until his killing in 2006, as a more immediate progenitor, followed sequentially by two other guerrilla leaders before Baghdadi, the caliph. Notably unmentioned: bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, the owlish Egyptian eye surgeon who currently heads al‑Qaeda. Zawahiri has not pledged allegiance to Baghdadi, and he is increasingly hated by his fellow jihadists. His isolation is not helped by his lack of charisma; in videos he comes across as squinty and annoyed. But the split between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State has been long in the making, and begins to explain, at least in part, the outsize bloodlust of the latter.

I certainly hope that there is a difference between what the American public understands about ISIS, which is virtually nothing, and what the government understands about them. I’d like to think that between the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department, there are experts who have a solid understanding of the group’s ideology and objectives that informs policy. But I may well be dead wrong.

I also hope there is a difference between what President Obama (and Bush before him) says publicly and what is understood in the halls of power regarding the religious component of ISIS. I do understand why both Bush and Obama repeatedly talked about Islamic terrorism being a “distortion” of Islam, the goal being not to drive a wedge between the West and the hundreds of millions of non-jihadist Muslims around the world. But behind that understandable public stance, I hope they do recognize that both the ideology and actions of ISIS are entirely driven by their particular form of Islam.

Maqdisi taught Zarqawi, who went to war in Iraq with the older man’s advice in mind. In time, though, Zarqawi surpassed his mentor in fanaticism, and eventually earned his rebuke. At issue was Zarqawi’s penchant for bloody spectacle—and, as a matter of doctrine, his hatred of other Muslims, to the point of excommunicating and killing them. In Islam, the practice of takfir, or excommunication, is theologically perilous. “If a man says to his brother, ‘You are an infidel,’ ” the Prophet said, “then one of them is right.” If the accuser is wrong, he himself has committed apostasy by making a false accusation. The punishment for apostasy is death. And yet Zarqawi heedlessly expanded the range of behavior that could make Muslims infidels.

Maqdisi wrote to his former pupil that he needed to exercise caution and “not issue sweeping proclamations of takfir” or “proclaim people to be apostates because of their sins.” The distinction between apostate and sinner may appear subtle, but it is a key point of contention between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Denying the holiness of the Koran or the prophecies of Muhammad is straightforward apostasy. But Zarqawi and the state he spawned take the position that many other acts can remove a Muslim from Islam. These include, in certain cases, selling alcohol or drugs, wearing Western clothes or shaving one’s beard, voting in an election—even for a Muslim candidate—and being lax about calling other people apostates. Being a Shiite, as most Iraqi Arabs are, meets the standard as well, because the Islamic State regards Shiism as innovation, and to innovate on the Koran is to deny its initial perfection. (The Islamic State claims that common Shiite practices, such as worship at the graves of imams and public self-flagellation, have no basis in the Koran or in the example of the Prophet.) That means roughly 200 million Shia are marked for death. So too are the heads of state of every Muslim country, who have elevated man-made law above Sharia by running for office or enforcing laws not made by God.

Following takfiri doctrine, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from the region suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims. Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government. Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as the jizya, and acknowledge their subjugation. The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute.

It sounds like the key to all of this is the apocalyptic nature of the ISIS cult. In contrast to al-Qaeda, which tended to focus on committing terror for specific political goals, ISIS’ apparently endless thirst for slaughter of their fellow Muslims and its penchant for releasing videos showing them carrying it out in order to shock the world makes little sense without understanding that their actions have little to do with short-term strategic goals or with taking on the West but in plunging all of humanity into an end-of-the-world conflagration that will end with the coming of the Mahdi. More on this question of the religious roots of the group:

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

Every academic I asked about the Islamic State’s ideology sent me to Haykel. Of partial Lebanese descent, Haykel grew up in Lebanon and the United States, and when he talks through his Mephistophelian goatee, there is a hint of an unplaceable foreign accent.

According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

This article is practically a book, it’s so long, but I strongly encourage you to read the entire thing. The more we understand about the new face of terror, the better equipped we will be to deal with it.

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  • colnago80

    And some of the usual suspects take issue with wood. Prime example is Juan Cole, which article I decline to link to, 2 fisted apologist for Islamic extremism. Can Glenn Greenwald be far behind.

  • dingojack

    And who is Graeme Wood, exactly?

    Graeme Wood is a lecturer in political science at Yale University, a contributing editor to The Atlantic and The New Republic, and books editor of Pacific Standard.

    He was a reporter at The Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh in 1999, then lived and wrote in the Middle East from 2002 to 2006. He has received fellowships from the Social Sciences Research Council (2002-2003), the South Asian Journalists Association (2009), the East-West Center (2009-2010), and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide (2013-2014). He has appeared many times on television and radio (CNN, ABC, BBC, MSNBC, et al.), was the screenwriter of a Sundance Official Selection (2010, short film), and led a Nazi-hunting expedition to Paraguay for a History Channel special in 2009.

    Graeme attended Deep Springs College, Harvard, Indiana University, and the American University in Cairo”.

    OK he is a lecturer in politics at Yale and lived in the Middle-East for four years (2002-6). Still, how qualified is he to presume to ‘know’ what ISIL wants? What where his methods for gathering data? How reliable are his sources?

    Are there more qualified experts who have studied the problem for longer, and in more depth? What are their opinions?

    Dingo

    ———

    The quote is from his own website.

  • http://reasondecrystallized.blogspot.com andrew

    My teenage years were defined by the Southern Baptists–aka “the largest protestant denomination in the US”–actively trying to jerry-rig the prophetic conditions for the apocalypse.

    I am dismayed, not that there’s a bit of competition in that racket, but by the widespread and active resistance to admitting the bleeding obvious. ISIS–like the SBC before them–more or less believes what they say they believe, and they act in a manner consistent with those beliefs. Anyone still mystified is being obtuse, and anyone in outright denial is an invidious salesman who should be beaten with a stick inscribed with every passage of Holy Writ wherein their doctrines are propounded and their misdeeds commended.

  • colnago80

    Re Schweinhund @ #2

    He’s at least as qualified as Juan Cole or Glenn Greenwald or PZ Myers, examples of apologists for Islamic extremism.

  • abb3w

    The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it.

    …which combination, incidentally, would also seem to grant them de facto legitimacy in terms of Westphalian sovereignty.

  • dingojack

    SLC – Yawn. This broken record of yours is beyond tedious. Try another — a factually based argument, would be a good start.

    Dingo

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org Area Man

    These include… voting in an election.

    Sounds like they’ve got common cause with right-wing zealots over here.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org Area Man

    What where his methods for gathering data?

    It would seem that his methods are based primarily on asking these people what they believe and assuming that they mean it, a highly innovative journalistic technique that is in all probability more likely to yield the truth than the much more common practice of guessing at shit.

  • zenlike

    It’s very funny you mention “examples”, SLC/Colnago, since your baseless accusations seem to be missing them. Also doubly ironic that this accusation comes from someone who repeatedly called for a nuclear genocide of millions of innocent civilians.

  • colnago80

    Re zenlike @ #9

    Yawn.

    Re Chihuahua @ #6

    Yawn^2.

  • zenlike

    So you’ve got nothing then…

  • Pierce R. Butler

    dingojack @ # 2: What where his methods for gathering data? How reliable are his sources?

    Have you read the article?

    … Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman… its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins… Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, 55, who has a fair claim to being al-Qaeda’s intellectual architect … Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology… Every academic I asked about the Islamic State’s ideology sent me to Haykel. … Dabiq, the magazine of the Islamic State… Peter R. Neumann, a professor at King’s College London… I traveled to Australia to meet Musa Cerantonio, a 30-year-old man whom Neumann and other researchers had identified as one of the two most important “new spiritual authorities” guiding foreigners to join the Islamic State. …Social-media posts from the Islamic State … I met with three ex-members of a [UK-]banned Islamist group called Al Muhajiroun (The Emigrants)… the Philadelphia mosque of Breton Pocius, 28, a Salafi imam who goes by the name Abdullah.

    Sounds like he did a little more homework than just hanging out chatting with falafel vendors in Cairo.

  • colnago80

    Re Pierce Butler @ #12

    Here’s a post from Hemant’s blog raising the issue as to whether an ISIL invasion of Italy is feasible. I was quite shocked at the description of Italy’s military capabilities which seem almost criminally inadequate. It would appear that a substantial intervention by France and Germany would be required to beat such an invasion back.

    http://goo.gl/C4C57l

  • comfychair

    Uh oh, eagleforum is leaking.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org Area Man

    Here’s a post from Hemant’s blog raising the issue as to whether an ISIL invasion of Italy is feasible.

    Sorry, but that’s some major-league demagogic bullshit. Apparently, ISIS will invade because immigrants. Immigrants that are arriving in large numbers to get away from ISIS. Although they probably have cantaloupe calves from all the Ebola they’re carrying.

  • http://saltycurrent.blogspot.com SC (Salty Current)

    I was quite shocked at the description of Italy’s military capabilities which seem almost criminally inadequate. It would appear that a substantial intervention by France and Germany would be required to beat such an invasion back.

    Yeah, not so much.

  • colnago80

    Re Area Man @ #15

    And how pray tell are the Italians supposed to distinguish between refugees from ISIL and ISIL infiltrators? The Obama Administration said the same thing before the ISIL took over much of Iraq last spring. How did that work out?

    I say this as someone who has strongly criticized the lamestream media for greatly overestimating the military prowess of ISIL. However, underestimating them like you are doing is just as foolhardy.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org Area Man

    It would appear that a substantial intervention by France and Germany would be required to beat such an invasion back.

    Well, either that, or we’ll have to put an end to the current naval supremacy that ISIS enjoys in the eastern Mediterranean with their vast armada of make-believe ships. I heard somewhere that you can’t launch an invasion across a major body of water without that, or you know, the other team drowns all your troops and supplies.

    Or, if we’re going to speculate for the purposes of raising fear about immigrants, we can grant that ISIS members may smuggle themselves aboard one of the ships being used by the traffickers. At which point, a couple of hundred guys with Kalashnikovs will run down a gangplank in an Italian harbor shouting “Allahu akbar!” It might very well take the Italian military dozens of troops to fight that off. It could last hours.

  • http://saltycurrent.blogspot.com SC (Salty Current)

    I haven’t read the article yet, but it seems to me that they’re fascists. The past century has seen (and continues to see) the rise of multiple fascist movements – Christian, pagan-racist,… Of course their particular fascist ideology is based on their interpretation of Islam (and there’s plenty in the monotheistic holy texts to support fascistic readings). It’s as ridiculous to deny this as it would be to deny that Franco’s regime in Spain was Catholic. But it’s a mistake to focus on this aspect and present them as enemies of “the West.” As fascists, they’re the enemies of democracy and everyone, of any religion or no religion, who’s opposed to fascism and in favor of freedom. The same is true of all varieties of fascism, “Western,” secular, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or whatever, and “the West” has hardly been devoid of fascist movements and regimes. So in short I think it’s more useful to see them in political terms – as an Islamic variant of fascism rather than a fascistic variant of Islam.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org Area Man

    And how pray tell are the Italians supposed to distinguish between refugees from ISIL and ISIL infiltrators?

    Well,o ne good idea is to confiscate any weapons the migrants may have, and that way they can’t really do anything even if they are bad guys. I’m pretty sure the Italians already thought of that, and that it is not possible to acquire military-grade weaponry in Italy without the government knowing about it, so fear of “infiltrators” is rather silly.

    Of course, the answer that some people want is to drown the migrants, and fear of ISIS is just a pretext for that.

    However, underestimating them like you are doing is just as foolhardy.

    I am quite certain that I am not underestimating their capabilities to say that they have absolutely zero chance of a successful invasion of Italy, that trying to invade a country hundreds of miles across a sea when you don’t have a navy and they have a 100,000 strong high-tech army just isn’t going to work. The Chicago Cubs have a better shot at winning last year’s Superbowl.

  • comfychair

    The Atlantic piece is far from a slam dunk.

    http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2015/02/americas-most-prominent-muslim-says-the-atlantic-is-doing-pr-for-isis/

    I’m not saying either position is right, just that like everything it can’t be boiled down to a simple binary black or white.

  • comfychair

    Shorter colagno80: Anyone who doubts that our ‘the beatings will continue until morale improves‘ strategy used for the past ~14 years is the only sure-fire way to bring peace to the world is clearly a Terror Apologist.

  • EnlightenmentLiberal

    @comfychair

    Your link is quoting CAIR. CAIR is a well known to have Islamist leanings. Not the best source.

  • comfychair

    So, only sources that agree with the original claims are allowed as valid?

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    comfychair: The problem is that what Awad calls “factual errors” amount to theological disagreements he has with ISIS leadership. This only means ISIS isn’t Islamic if you want to pretend there’s one valid version of Islam.

  • EnlightenmentLiberal

    @comfychair

    I’m just noting that CAIR as an organization seems to be theologically much closer to ISIS than the real moderates of Islam. CAIR seems to be a legit exampel of wolf in sheep’s clothing.

  • comfychair

    I guess I didn’t use strong enough language about how none of this means, or can be used to prove, that either side is right or wrong. If disagreement is automatically dismissed as “well, that’s exactly what a (terrorist symp, nigger-lover, Commie, atheist, etc.) would say, isn’t it?”, then there’s really nothing here to discuss.

  • EnlightenmentLiberal

    @comfychair

    I’m merely noting that you should not use sources which have a clear history of lying, and especially you should not use sources which have a clear motivation to lie in the issue at hand.

  • bmiller

    Comfychair: There is no right answer, the arguiment is between cult leaders basing their nonsense on faded old books transcribed decades after the fact by nasty tribal leaders, the pompous pronouncements of bearded mystics and madmen, and cultural “traditions” that involve absolute submission to some Semitic Sky God.

    It is not a case of any “side” being right or wrong. Islam is NOT TRUE factually speaking. So, ISIS can as “legitimately” claim to Islamic” as CAIR.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org Area Man

    I haven’t read the article yet, but it seems to me that they’re fascists.

    The whole point of the article is to disabuse us of the notion that their beliefs resemble anything like a familiar ideology where people believe things for national interest or self-interest. These people are religious fanatics who are trying to bring on the apocalypse. They’re different even from other Islamists who are mostly preoccupied with worldly concerns and would like to find legitimacy within the international system. ISIS is an end-times cult, and their “caliphate” exists because they believe their religion and the apocalypse require it. And they’ve got a shitload of killing to do.

  • comfychair

    Here’s the Juan Cole piece colagno was so disgusted by.

    http://www.juancole.com/2015/02/todays-about-daesh.html

    Yes, they are fanatics doing horrible things and need some kind of response, but I really don’t see how they are a credible threat to the existence of civilization. To believe that would be on the level of believing that the US came within mere inches of being overthrown by al Qaeda on 9-11.

  • http://saltycurrent.blogspot.com SC (Salty Current)

    The whole point of the article is to disabuse us of the notion that their beliefs resemble anything like a familiar ideology where people believe things for national interest or self-interest.

    But of course this describes fascism. It’s abstractly fanatical and death-cultish pretty much by definition, whatever particular form it assumes. The idea that this organization’s vision is utterly foreign to “Western” history (or current “Western” movements) is bullshit. Many of our familiar ideologies are highly irrational. It’s extraordinarily unlikely, and requires quite a leap of the imagination (and perhaps some measure of bigotry), to think that this movement is completely different from the horrifically violent rightwing movements that have preceded it, from anything that’s existed or currently exists in the world.

    ***

    It is not a case of any “side” being right or wrong. Islam is NOT TRUE factually speaking. So, ISIS can as “legitimately” claim to Islamic” as CAIR.

    Yes, it’s a silly and pointless argument. It serves the purpose of keeping the focus on (a specific) religion, though, which is politically useful to many involved.

  • comfychair

    The only existential danger comes from how we react, what we do to ourselves in response.

    Not much different than the strategy behind the ‘dirty bomb’ – very little danger from the device itself, lots of danger from overreacting and freaking out. We’re our worst enemy and over-hyping the threat from a bunch of religious madmen is the dangerous part.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org Area Man

    But of course this describes fascism. It’s abstractly fanatical and death-cultish pretty much by definition, whatever particular form it assumes.

    Fanaticism and mass killings are not what make fascism, fascism (the commies were pretty fanatical and employed mass killings too). Fascism is not an empty vessel. One thing we know about them: they have always and everywhere been self-interested. You will not find a single fascist regime that wasn’t busy looting shit and giving patronage to its rich, corporate supporters. But if Wood’s article is correct, nearly all ISIS members are in it to die, not to profit. Another thing we know: the core belief common to all fascists is ethnic nationalism. But this is completely absent not only from ISIS but from Islamism of any stripe (one of the ISIS supporters interviewed for the article is an ethnically Irish Australian for fuck’s sake; ISIS doesn’t care who you are or where you come from, only that you believe. The Nazis however were pretty well obsessed with people’s ethnicity and the greatness of the German state). And while fascists like to use religion as a tool for promoting traditionalism and cultural conformity, they aren’t apocalyptic end-times cultists. They’re people who ultimately thirst for power, and lots of it. ISIS members on the other hand do not appear even to care about power, at least not for themselves. According to their own prophecies, they intend to be murdered down to a mere 5000 before Jesus (yes, that Jesus, the guy who occasionally makes appearances in bathroom mold and tortillas) shows up to kill the Persian anti-Messiah and cause the end of the world. If this sounds crazy, oh yes, it is very crazy. They believe this shit because they…believe.

    Wood’s whole point, which you are free to disagree with if you want, is that absent their theology, you can’t understand ISIS. It’s not will to power or a thousand-year Reich they’re after, it’s the goddamned End Times, and soon. Beyond a strong penchant for violence, ISIS has virtually nothing in common with fascism. It is a serious categorical error to try to shoehorn them into it.

    The idea that this organization’s vision is utterly foreign to “Western” history (or current “Western” movements) is bullshit. Many of our familiar ideologies are highly irrational.

    “Irrational” is not what makes ISIS, ISIS (the commies were pretty irrational too). Being based around religious end-times prophecy is what they’re about, along with their willingness to kill absolutely everyone who disagrees in even the slightest way. The only thing I’m aware of that comes remotely close in the modern West is the Christian Reconstructionist movement, and those losers haven’t even beheaded anyone.

    By the way, reading the article would be far more fruitful than arguing with me with off-hand guesses as to what you think ISIS might be like. If you want to disagree with the article, that’s fine. But would it hurt to actually read it?

  • Dunc

    Gary Brecher (aka The War Nerd) is well worth reading on the subject, as he actually lives in the region and has an in-depth knowledge of the local politics: http://pando.com/author/garybrecher/

    His main conclusion seems to be that ISIS are massively over-hyped. Horrible, yes, but not actually competent.

    We’re talking about a group that has been bogged down in a completely unsuccessful attempt to capture a minor Kurdish border town, defended only by a lightly-armed militia, for the best part of a year – despite having captured a load of state-of-the-art armour and heavy weaponry. They’re very good at terrorising unarmed civilians in areas they already control, and they’re completely awesome making and distributing snuff videos via social media, but they completely suck at fighting anybody who actually shoots back.

  • http://saltycurrent.blogspot.com SC (Salty Current)

    Fanaticism and mass killings are not what make fascism, fascism (the commies were pretty fanatical and employed mass killings too).

    Please don’t twist my words. I didn’t argue that these are what make fascism fascism, or that they don’t characterize any nonfascist movements. My point was that they don’t disqualify a movement from being fascist, and in fact are elements of fascist movements.

    Fascism is not an empty vessel.

    Nor did I claim this.

    One thing we know about them: they have always and everywhere been self-interested.

    This is wrong (other than for an extremely broad definition of self-interest, which would include practically anything). The Nazis’ fanatical race-war and pagan-Germanic ideology was front and center. Hitler was willing to immolate Germany in the end because it had failed his vision.

    But if Wood’s article is correct, nearly all ISIS members are in it to die, not to profit.

    Fascism is not about profiting. Of course, there is always graft and personal enrichment, but, for example, see Paxton’s definition:

    A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion. [emphasis added]

    That appears to fit ISIS. It does not fit Koresh or Jim Jones. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that millenialist religious cult and fascist political movement are antithetical. I don’t think they are. But in any event I’m not convinced that the end-times aspects aren’t being blown out of proportion here, at the expense of the medieval Islamic state aspects, which are even more compatible with fascism.)

    Another thing we know: the core belief common to all fascists is ethnic nationalism.

    That’s also wrong. It’s not a core or necessary belief. You’re getting too hung up on specifics rather than understanding the basic political elements.

    Wood’s whole point, which you are free to disagree with if you want, is that absent their theology, you can’t understand ISIS.

    I’m sure that’s true.

    It’s not will to power or a thousand-year Reich they’re after, it’s the goddamned End Times, and soon. Beyond a strong penchant for violence, ISIS has virtually nothing in common with fascism. It is a serious categorical error to try to shoehorn them into it.

    Well, this is wrong, but I see here the same tendency to depoliticize a political movement that characterizes most views of Muslims in general. It’s very dangerous, in my view, to characterize this organization as a crazy, irrational religious sect with weapons. We live in a culture that tends to view Muslims as inherently prone to irrationality and violence. This makes it all too easy to claim and exaggerate the alleged political and economic self-interest and rationalism of “Western” movements and to be convinced that Muslim movements and organizations have no political goals (and note here that I’m not suggesting that all political goals are reason-based or narrowly self-interested) and their adherents are simply “in it to die.” They’re acting very much like fascist movements of the past (by the way, “¡Viva la Muerte!” was an actual Francoist slogan).

    I’ll probably read the article, but my point is that even if the central arguments that people have quoted and described are fully correct, I don’t think they would disqualify this from being a variant of fascism.

    ***

    His main conclusion seems to be that ISIS are massively over-hyped. Horrible, yes, but not actually competent.

    This is probably correct.

  • colnago80

    Re Dunc @ #35

    I read Brecher’s article several weeks ago and it is a welcome correction to the garbage that the lamestream media promulgated last spring. What should not be overlooked is the salutary effect of the tactical air support being given by coalition forces to the PeshMerga in Iraq and the Kurdish militias defending Kobani. There is nothing like close air support, properly executed, to buck up ground troops. Perhaps, if the same support had been provided to the defenders of Mosul, that city might not have fallen.

    What is most disturbing is the situation in Egypt where the EAF has been fighting a guerrilla war against ISIL affiliated terrorists in the Sinai. The recent extension to Libya is, IMHO, threatening to overextend the EAF, and, if the government is forced to withdraw forces from the Sinai to combat the ISIL affiliated terrorists in Libya, the recent progress against them in the former region may be jeopardized. Apparently, Egyptian President el-Sisi is also worried about this as he is calling for an extension of the current coalition air campaign in Syria/Iraq to Libya.

  • http://saltycurrent.blogspot.com SC (Salty Current)

    So I’ve now read the article. Nothing in it contradicts my assessment that this is a fascist movement/organization/state. In fact, it confirms that assessment. (Indeed, the last quotation in the article is from Orwell describing the allure of…fascism.)

    I am puzzled by some of the claims he makes:

    There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State.

    …Many [“Westerners”] refuse to believe that this group is as devout as it claims to be, or as backward-looking or apocalyptic as its actions and statements suggest.

    …another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul.

    I haven’t really seen that to be the case. It’s possible that some people see it like this (he doesn’t provide any examples), but I think most people recognize it as a fundamentalist religious movement. (Furthermore, religious ideology matters very much in Washington.)

    After its battle in Dabiq, Cerantonio said, the caliphate will expand and sack Istanbul. Some believe it will then cover the entire Earth, but Cerantonio suggested its tide may never reach beyond the Bosporus. An anti-Messiah, known in Muslim apocalyptic literature as Dajjal, will come from the Khorasan region of eastern Iran and kill a vast number of the caliphate’s fighters, until just 5,000 remain, cornered in Jerusalem. Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off, Jesus—the second-most-revered prophet in Islam—will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory.

    How does a vision in which they continue to take over territory militarily, win a key battle, conquer a vast region or the entire planet (which would take a pretty long time), suffer great losses but ultimately emerge victorious come to be seen as a suicidal longing in the present? It’s a fascist blueprint for expansion.

  • Mobius

    As Sun Tsu said, “Know your enemy…”

    Failing to know your enemy is not necessarily a recipe for defeat, but it certainly makes victory a lot harder. Without knowing our enemy (ISIS), we are just responding to symptoms and not addressing the root causes.

  • Nick Gotts

    Here’s the Juan Cole article colnago80 doesn’t want you to read!

  • Nick Gotts

    Another article contesting Wood’s. Foc Nation and Breitbart, OTOH, love it. I’m not convinced by it, because aspects of the article itself contradict his (and Haykel’s) analysis. For example:

    1) He says:

    Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.”

    But among those who say this are the Wahhabi theocrats of Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood, and people closely associated with Al Qaeda!

    2) He claims that ISIS “rules an area larger than the United Kingdom”, yet the map he includes shows its areas of actual control as extremely limited; for the rest it “operates freely”, but “has not established a permanent presence”. As a citizen of the UK, I can attest that its government does indeed have a “permanent presence” throughout the territory it claims.

    3) “In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam”. Orly? Fighting from horse- or camel-back, with scimitars, are they? Quite apart from the actual weapons, a feature of ISIS much remarked on is their sophisticated use of the Internet. What was the URL for Muhammad’s website? It’s basically impossible for anyone to be an “authentic throwback to early Islam”, because that would require the complete forgetting of 1400 years of history.

    SC, I can see resemblances to fascism in ISIS, but your own quote from Paxton:

    A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

    indicates differences as well. ISIS are not nationalists, are not a mass-based party, and didn’t “abandon democratic liberties” because they never had or pursued them. Nor was religion as central to “classic” (inter-war, European) fascism as it is to ISIS (fascism in the shape of the Falangists was only one component in the Francoist regime, as I’m sure you are well aware). OTOH, clearly they are “marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity” and do pursue “with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion”. But fascism grew out of the culture that had come to dominate the world – led by, and recruiting, those who felt they had been denied their rightful slice of the spoils of that domination; a movement growing from a culture that long thought it was destined to dominate the world, and was then subject to colonisation by its long-time enemy, is bound to be different in important ways.

  • Nick Gotts

    Further to #41, Wood’s article also largely ignores the specific circumstances in which ISIS arose: the American invasion of Iraq, dismantling of the Iraqi army, and subsequent establishment of a sectarian Shi’ite regime which completely alienated the formerly predominant Sunnis. He does note that ISIS prioritises attacks on Shi’ites, but sees this wholly as a theological matter; but ISIS was able to advance as it did because it gained the support of much of the Sunni Arab population, including former Ba’athist soldiers. I doubt many of them are expecting the “End Times”, or looking forward to a shodown with the forces of “Rome” in which all but 5,000 of them will die, before being saved by Jesus. (Talking of which, is all this “End Times” stuff typical of early Islam? I know Islam has had apolcalyptic elements, but neither Muhammad nor his early successors were expecting an imminent ends, and these elements have not been particularly prominent over the past few centuries AFAIK. Where might they have got the idea that the “End Times” approach, I wonder…)

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.”

    Yet another weapons-grade moron letting reflexive hatred of Muslims override any sensible calculation of how to deal with extremists. Who but an idiot would call critics of barbaric violence naïve Polyanna-style PC sissies? Would he say the same thing about Malala Yousefsai, after she’d criticized the Taliban for trying to kill her?

  • http://saltycurrent.blogspot.com SC (Salty Current)

    Nick Gotts:

    Like others, you’re getting too hung up on particulars – there have been significant differences across fascist movements even in Europe. My central point was that this movement can be understood in modern political terms (and not as “Islamo-fascism” which seems a piece of rhetoric used to mean generally “scary Muslims” or “terrorists”). As a political movement, it seems to me, it can most usefully be analyzed in terms of fascism. This is not to argue that it’s identical to interwar European fascism(s) in every way, but I want to challenge the argument that this is best seen as primarily a religious cult (whether orthodox or heretical) outside of “normal”/”Western” politics which are understood as fundamentally rational, and I think this is the most useful general category in which to analyze it despite any novel or unique features.

    a movement growing from a culture that long thought it was destined to dominate the world, and was then subject to colonisation by its long-time enemy, is bound to be different in important ways.

    That’s certainly true, but there’s no reason to exclude movements in a(n anti-)colonialist context from the analytic category.

    ISIS…didn’t “abandon democratic liberties” because they never had or pursued them

    Of course we can’t know the personal trajectory of every member of ISIS (or every Nazi), but this wrongly implies that democratic traditions and movements haven’t long existed in the region, and anticolonial and independence movements haven’t taken democratic forms. Those paths were and are available for them to reject or abandon. This movement has grown out of the same ferment that gave rise to the Arab Spring. They’ve rejected democratic politics in favor of an Islamic form of fascism.

    In any case, Nick, I’m not inclined to continue responding to you. I don’t like, and in fact feel betrayed by, how you’ve aligned yourself with a certain group elsewhere. That’s all I’ll say on the subject, but I thought I should mention it so that you’ll understand my nonresponsiveness from here on out.

  • Nick Gotts

    In any case, Nick, I’m not inclined to continue responding to you. I don’t like, and in fact feel betrayed by, how you’ve aligned yourself with a certain group elsewhere. That’s all I’ll say on the subject, but I thought I should mention it so that you’ll understand my nonresponsiveness from here on out. – SC@44

    Suit yourself. I don’t owe you any kind of allegiance, so I can’t “betray” you by “aligning” myself with others, and it’s simply bizarre that you think I can, or that I’m obliged to quarrel with anyone you quarrel with. I’ll continue to respond to your arguments, when we happen to be commenting in the same place, as and when I see fit.

    Like others, you’re getting too hung up on particulars – there have been significant differences across fascist movements even in Europe.

    Differences in particulars are how we distinguish between classes of things. I consider the entirely different socio-economic and cultural context, and of the political form taken by the movements concerned, enough to make the application of the term “fascism”, with or without the “Islamo-” modifier, misleading.

    My central point was that this movement can be understood in modern political terms (and not as “Islamo-fascism” which seems a piece of rhetoric used to mean generally “scary Muslims” or “terrorists”).

    I agree with your criticism of the term “Islamo-fascist”, but it’s surely in itself an attempt to portray Islamist extremists as interpretable through modern (and European-derived) terminology, so i’m puzzled by your rejection of it. If ISIS is fascist at all, it’s fascism with Islamist rhetoric.

    “normal”/”Western” politics which are understood as fundamentally rational

    By whom?

  • Nick Gotts

    The expert extensively cited by Wood in his article appears to be not entirely happy with Wood’s interpretation of his views: What the Atlantic left out about ISIS according to their own expert.

  • http://saltycurrent.blogspot.com SC (Salty Current)

    Suit yourself. I don’t owe you any kind of allegiance, so I can’t “betray” you by “aligning” myself with others,

    Funny, I thought we were friends of a sort. And I do consider that I have a sort of allegiance to my friends, at the very least an obligation to speak up if they’re being misrepresented and unfairly attacked and not to ally myself with the attackers and misrepresenters (an obligation that extends beyond my friends but certainly includes them). But of course that’s probably not how you see it, which is surprising and sad.

    and it’s simply bizarre that you think I can, or that I’m obliged to quarrel with anyone you quarrel with. I’ll continue to respond to your arguments, when we happen to be commenting in the same place, as and when I see fit.

    This reads as a rather petulant declaration. Not once did I demand that you do anything of the sort, or that you not respond to my arguments. I said: “I’m not inclined to continue responding to you. …I thought I should mention it so that you’ll understand my nonresponsiveness from here on out.” The remark was about my wish and intent not to respond to your comments, which will continue including in cases in which I disagree with you. Knowing this, you’ll make your own choices about whether it’s worthwhile to respond to my comments. If your purpose is primarily to have a discussion with me, you won’t, so that would be pointless. If it’s primarily to make your own argument relative to mine for the purpose of general challenges or clarifying a position for other readers, regardless of what my response might be, then I assume you’ll continue.

    My purpose was to make clear that I won’t be responding to your arguments – including those challenging or addressed to me – for personal reasons, so that you would know the reason for my nonresponsiveness going forward, regardless of whether you consider my feelings or motives legitimate.

  • Nick Gotts

    SC@47,

    If I had felt you were being misrepresented and unfairly attacked to a greater degree than you were misrepresenting and unfairly attacking others, I would indeed have spoken up for you. As it was, I felt there was wrong on both sides.