In his September 10th address, President Obama asserted that the Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state. And there is some truth to both assertions.
ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (sometimes known as ISIL since al Sham is the Arabic name for Levant, which in turn is the old name for Greater Syria)—is a radical movement. Though in its megalomaniacal way it has recently dubbed itself “the Islamic State” (as if there could be only one), it remains a fragile coalition of groups and interests held together by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Despite his name al Baghdadi comes from the city of Samarra and was previously a key figure in al Qaeda in Iraq before it was quelled by the Awakening movement engineered by General David Petraeus during the US occupation of Iraq in 2008.
Now the movement is back, center stage. Al Baghdadi merged the al Nusra jihad movement in Syria with his Iraq group—over the protests of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The angered al Baghdadi dropped the name al Qaeda and ISIS was born. In a blitzkrieg, the militant forces of ISIS spread out from eastern Syria, where they were well entrenched, to the Sunni dominated areas of western Iraq, even conquering Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, which it plundered for its wealth and military armament.
It’s fair to describe ISIS as a terrorist regime, since it uses extreme acts of violence to intimidate both its enemies and its own population. The savage beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers that were posted on the Internet were matched by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of beheadings of recalcitrant Sunnis under ISIS’ control who refused to go along with its demands or who dared to be identified as Christians, Yazidis and other minorities—or even as modern people who liked to dress in a Western style. For ISIS, terror has been an instrument of governance.
Yet it is governing. Though its state is not recognized by any other government, and is despicable in its actions, the region under its control is administered as a state. According to some reports from Mosul, the city is better managed than it was before, largely because old Baath party members and officers in Saddam Hussein’s army who had been denied employment by the Shi’a dominated government in Baghdad before now had the opportunity to return to work, and to run the city efficiently. So despite our reluctance to honor it with the term “state,” ISIS actually is operating a kind of state.
Much the same can be said about calling it Islamic. Muslims around the world have risen up to protest against what they describe as the non-Muslim attitudes and actions of ISIS. Iyad Ameen Madani, the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a group that represents 57 countries and 1.4 billion Muslims, said ISIS “has nothing to do with Islam and its principles.” Similar denunciations have come from leading Muslim clergy in Egypt, Turkey, and around the world.
Still, the leaders of ISIS claim Muslim authority for their actions, strict Shari’a law as the basis of their jurisprudence, and the promise of salvation for those recruited into its ranks. In a recent essay in The New Republic, Graeme Wood described the core supporters of ISIS as an uneasy coalition of three groups: psychopaths, believers and pragmatists.
The pragmatists are largely from Sunni regions of Syria and Iraq who have been disenfranchised by the Shi’a regimes of Bashir Assad in Damascus and Nouri al Maliki in Baghdad. On the other hand, the psychopaths and believers are often foreigners, including Muslim youth from Britain, the US, and other Western countries, like the cruel executioner who appears in the YouTube videos of the beheadings of foreign journalists and aid workers who, according to some authorities is believed to be a 23-year old former rapper from West London.
The young men who are lured to ISIS join for a variety of motives. Perhaps the strongest is the desire to be involved in a great war, a cosmic struggle that allows them to play out all of their computer game fantasies of warcraft, valor and gore. But some also come out of a sense of extreme piety, a conviction that they are laying their lives on the line for their faith.
The religious credentials of al Baghdadi gives some credibility to this religious appeal. He’s received a PhD in Islamic Studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad and knows the scriptures and the tradition of Islam better than most jihadists. Osama bin Laden had no religious credentials, and though he pretended to be an engineer, his college training was in business management; Ayman al Zawahiri was a medical doctor; and al Baghdadi’s predecessor in leading al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, was a street thug from Jordan. By contrast, al Baghdadi looks fairly legit.
His credentials do not make the movement Islamic, however. Nor do the Islamic whitewashing of the regime’s terrorist actions and cruel restrictions make them Muslim. The judgment is in the eye of the beholder. And to most Muslims, ISIS represents the antipathy of the faith.
Of course, much the same can be said of extremist movements in every religious tradition. The actions of Timothy McVeigh in bombing the Oklahoma City Federal Building and Andres Breivik in attacking the Oslo youth camp were regarded by many Christians as alien to their faith, even though the literature related to both McVeigh and Breivik were all about preserving Christendom from the rabble of minorities and multiculturalism.
Likewise, most Jews decried the extreme anti-Arab rantings of Rabbi Meir Kahane as un-Jewish, and many Japanese proclaimed that Shoko Asahara, the Buddhist master behind the release of deadly sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subways, was not really a Buddhist. Muslims around the world were convinced that 9/11 was not conducted by Muslims but by some conspiratorial cabal involving the CIA and the Israeli secret police, since no Muslims could possibly do such a thing.
Yet some Muslims—and some Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs—do bad things. And sometimes they do them in the name of their religion. This is the dark side of all religious traditions, and though it’s difficult to accept, it’s impossible to avoid.
Some years ago the popular televangelist Rev. Robert Schuller advocated positive thinking as the basis of the Christian message. As part of his efforts, he designed a version of the Bible that excised all of the bad parts—the wars, the fighting, the sex and the violence. Some might think there would not be much left, and it’s true that it was a thinner book than before.
But it was also a thinner message. To accept the significance of the religious imagination is to accept all aspects of it, the positive and negative, the peaceful and the violent. As much as we might despise what ISIS is and what it stands for, ultimately we have to make sense of it within the tradition of faiths.