The Ideology Of ISIS

Kevin McDonald argues that its origins are not at all medieval, but rather modern, and indeed, even Western:

It needs to be said very clearly: contemporary jihadism is not a return to the past. It is a modern, anti-traditional ideology with a very significant debt to western political history and culture. When he made his speech in July at Mosul’s Great Mosque declaring the creation of an Islamic state with himself as its caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi quoted at length from the Indian/Pakistani thinker Abul A’la Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami party in 1941 and originator of the contemporary term Islamic state. Maududi’s Islamic state is profoundly shaped by western ideas and concepts. He takes a belief shared between Islam and other religious traditions, namely that God alone is the ultimate judge of a person, and transforms this – reframing God’s possession of judgment into possession of, and ultimately monopoly of, “sovereignty”. Maududi also draws upon understandings of the natural world governed by laws that are expressions of the power of God – ideas at the heart of the 17th-century scientific revolution.

Ella Lipin focuses on its allusions to Islamic eschatology and how ISIS uses the promise of an apocalyptic battle as a recruiting tool:

In July, ISIS released the first two issues of Dabiq, its digital magazine, revealingly named after a Syrian town believed to be the site of the future climactic battle, to be fought between Muslims and Romans, that will lead to Judgment Day.

The use of Dabiq draws from hadith, revered accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings or practices. The relevant passage states that the end of days won’t come until the battle at Dabiq. After the battle, the triumphant Muslims will go on to conquer the Western world (symbolized by Constantinople). ISIS reprinted this hadith in full in the first issue of its new publication. Herein lies ISIS’s propaganda strategy: employ Islamic apocalyptic tradition – with the West as the modern day Romans – to mobilize followers. Both the organization and its new recruits understand this script, made all the more relevant and compelling by the recent debate about U.S. airstrikes in Syria. …

This interpretation of events is not limited to Sunni extremists; a large number of Muslims believe these events may be imminent. A 2011-2012 Pew survey found that a high percentage of Muslims in the Middle East believe they would witness events leading to the Day of Judgment. In Iraq, where ISIS has recently expanded, 72 percent of respondents expect to experience the coming of the Mahdi, a messianic redeemer who will restore the political and religious purity of Islam. While the figures were lower in other Muslim countries—Tunisia (67 percent), Lebanon (56 percent), Morocco (51 percent), the Palestinian Territories (46 percent), Jordan (41 percent), and Egypt (40 percent)—the apocalyptic tradition clearly resonates deeply throughout the region.

Last week, Laurie A. Brand looked into how ISIS is trying to promote its ideology by rewriting the school curriculum in the areas it controls:

The term “Syrian Arab Republic” is to be removed completely and replaced with “the Islamic State,” and the Syrian national anthem is to be discarded or suppressed. There is to be no teaching of the concepts of national patriotism (wataniyyah) or Arab nationalism (qawmiyyah); rather, students are to be taught that they belong to Islam and its people, to strict monotheism and its adherents, and that the land of the Muslim is the land in which God’s path (shar’ Allah) governs. The words “homeland” (watan), “his homeland,” “my homeland,” or “Syria” are to be replaced wherever they are found with the phrases “the Islamic state,” “his Islamic state,” “land of the Muslims” or the “Sham (or other the Islamic State-governed) Province.” The teacher is instructed to replace any gaps in Arabic language and grammar instructional materials that may result from the suppression of these terms with examples that do not conflict with sharia or the Islamic State. In addition, all pictures that violate sharia are to be removed, as are any examples in mathematics that involve usury, interest, democracy or elections. Finally, in the science curriculum anything that is associated with Darwin’s theory or evolution is to be removed and all creation is to be attributed to God.

Meanwhile, Michael Koplow cautions against conflating the defeat of ISIS with the defeat of the ideas it espouses:

ISIS’s ideology is a revolutionary one seeking to overturn the status quo and to constantly expand, which makes it particularly susceptible to living on beyond the elimination of its primary advocate. Much like Voldemort’s life force after he attempts to kill Harry Potter as a baby, ISIS’s ideology will not die just because its host body is decimated. It will lurk around until another group seizes upon it and resurrects it, and much like ISIS seems to be even worse than al-Qaida, whatever replaces ISIS is likely to be more radical still. The problem with Obama’s speech yesterday was that it set an expectation that cannot be fulfilled. Yes, ISIS itself may be driven from the scene, but the overall problem is not one that is going to go away following airstrikes or even ground forces.