Amidst the steady drumbeat of grim headlines in the Middle East, the trend I’ve been most concerned by is the strange drawing power of ISIS, also known as Islamic State or Daesh, the brutal extremist group rampaging through Iraq and Syria, capturing cities and committing horrendous acts of violence. ISIS seems to exert an almost magnetic attraction, drawing in not just the disaffected, the disgruntled, petty thugs and criminals, but also young Muslims from middle-class Western families, people who’d seemingly have no reason in the world to join such a violent and squalid sect. Even American military leaders are baffled by its recruiting success.
How can we explain the appeal of ISIS? A better answer than any I’ve yet seen is given in an article by Graeme Wood, What ISIS Really Wants, which argues that the group is “no mere collection of psychopaths” but is driven by a complex apocalyptic interpretation of Islamic scripture:
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.
…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.
Wood’s argument is that al-Qaeda and ISIS are alike in only superficial ways. al-Qaeda was a diffuse, franchise-style organization with a motley collection of short-term political goals, like driving the U.S. out of the Arabian Peninsula. By contrast, ISIS’ leaders view their mission as resurrecting the “caliphate”, the true Islamic theocracy on Earth, which hasn’t existed since the medieval era. Once the caliphate exists, in their view, all true Muslims have a religious obligation to flock to it, to fight in its defense, and to wage jihad to expand it.
Within the caliphate, a rigorous interpretation of Sharia law governs every aspect of daily life. The goal is to copy, as perfectly as possible, the beliefs and practices of the earliest era of Islam and the template laid down by the Prophet Mohammed. In part, this includes practices like slavery or amputation as punishment. It also includes brutal execution methods like crucifixion, the goal of which is to coerce people into obedience by terrifying them with the consequences of apostasy or heresy – not unlike the medieval Christian inquisitors who sought to save souls through torture.
The most striking part of Wood’s argument is that ISIS’ apocalyptic beliefs are, in some respects, similar to the apocalyptic beliefs of Christians. Like Christian fundamentalists, they believe that the end of the world is imminent, and that they have a role to play in bringing it about:
During the last years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Islamic State’s immediate founding fathers, by contrast, saw signs of the end times everywhere. They were anticipating, within a year, the arrival of the Mahdi — a messianic figure destined to lead the Muslims to victory before the end of the world.
According to Wood, ISIS was exultant when it conquered, at enormous cost, the strategically useless Syrian city of Dabiq; because according to certain interpretations of Islam, this will be the site of a climactic battle which will precipitate the End of Days and the final confrontation between the forces of Allah and the Dajjal, the Islamic equivalent of the Antichrist. (This is just like what apocalyptic Christians believe about the hill of Megiddo.)
As you might imagine, the idea that ISIS might have a deeply felt religious motivation isn’t something that more moderate and liberal Muslims like to hear. Nihad Awad, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and other Muslim scholars wrote a lengthy open letter to argue that ISIS’ actions are forbidden by a proper understanding of Islam. The apologist Dean Obeidallah also wrote a piece arguing that ISIS isn’t Islamic and saying that they are helps their cause. (You may remember Obeidallah from his virtually identical No True Muslim argument about Boko Haram.)
The claim of these moderate Muslims is that they have the correct understanding of what Islam requires and that ISIS doesn’t. But the problem with this ought to be obvious to everyone: religious beliefs are untestable. Because all interpretations are based in faith, there’s no possible way to settle a dispute between competing theologies or judge which one is more “authentic”. (The primary argument of the moderate scholars is that ISIS’ interpretation is ahistorical, which may well be true; fundamentalist sects often are. But even so, since when is the age of a religious belief an indicator of its truth? Every faith in the world started out as a break with what came before.)
We may certainly believe the moderate interpretation – or even the alternative, “quietist” sect of Wahhabi Islam that Wood describes – is better in the sense of being more moral, more in accord with democratic and secular values. But the question of which interpretation is more genuine or more in accord with God’s will is unanswerable. If ISIS believes its actions are rooted in Islamic theology, I fail to see what we stand to gain by pretending that isn’t the case. Understanding what drives them and how they see the world will, if anything, make it easier to defeat them.
This picture of ISIS, I think, explains its attraction in a way that other theories don’t. It’s not just a random mob of thugs and killers that’s arisen in response to a power vacuum. That’s part of the picture, to be sure, but that fails to explain why it’s more than just a local problem, why Muslims from other parts of the world are drawn to its banner. The bigger answer is that ISIS offers the same appeal as other fundamentalist sects and cults: the same stark simplicity of purpose, the same black-and-white view of itself and its members as ultimate good fighting ultimate evil, the same promise of finding true meaning in life by following the only people who really understand the will of God. To Muslims who feel rootless and without purpose, this can be a powerful clarion call – even if the reality fails to match their grandiose vision.