Graeme Wood’s article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” in the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic is a fantastic summary of how the Islamic State (ISIS) interprets Islam – and, perhaps more importantly, how the rest of the Islamic world looks at ISIS. It does a great deal of damage to President Obama’s preferred narrative about how the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam, as well as his characterization of the terror state as “nihilistic.”
In truth, their brand of Salafist Islam is apocalyptic, but that is not the same thing at all. ISIS has a constructive agenda for its conquered territory, with an expansive and specific to-do list that must be checked off before the End of Days can get rolling.
Contrary to the Obama administration’s rhetoric, even Muslims who are strongly opposed to the ISIS agenda can see that the terrorist group is accurately quoting Islamic teachings to justify its actions. A far more robust response than simply declaring them “non-Islamic” – as if the political leaders of secular Western nations possess the religious authority to make such a determination! – is called for. Woods’ suggestion is interesting, if perhaps overly optimistic.
Woods memorably portrays the rise of ISIS as comparable to “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 crucial difference between ISIS and other Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the Islamic State’s godfathers in al-Qaeda, is that ISIS dogma is based on seizing and holding territory – the creation of an aggressive nation-state, the “Caliphate,” which is perpetually at war with everything around it. The head of this religious state, the Caliph, must meet certain criteria, all of which are purportedly filled by ISIS head man Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Furthermore, the Islamic State is squatting on exactly the territory it needs to control to fulfill Koranic prophecy about the end of days, particularly the Syrian province of Dabiq, from which the official magazine of ISIS takes its name. The fields of Dabiq are supposed to host a massive showdown between Muslim armies and the forces of “Rome,” which ISIS propagandists sometimes interpret as a blanket term for all of Christendom, and sometimes interpret as the actual city where the Vatican is located. (That’s one reason the Italian government is so nervous about the prospect of ISIS capturing Libya and adding it to the Caliphate.)
ISIS and its followers are very excited at the thought of “Rome’s” army showing up at Dabiq to receive the defeat Mohammed predicted Islam’s forces would inflict upon them, a detail Woods judges Western analysts often miss, because they don’t understand why the head-choppers keep ranting about a seemingly obscure town in Syria. Note that ISIS mentions both Dabiq and the conquest of Rome in the new snuff film where they beheaded 21 captive Egyptian Christians in Libya.
There’s actually a bit more to the apocalypse after the prophesied battle at Dabiq, and the Islamic State’s long-term objectives involve preparing themselves for it. As Woods tells the story:
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.
Far from being aimless and “nihilistic,” as President Obama likes to describe them, ISIS seeks to slot itself into the prophecy and set its events in motion. It advertises itself to unhappy Muslims around the world as the closest anyone has come in the modern era to creating a true “Caliphate” with paramount temporal and religious authority, and a good chance of initiating the detonation sequence for the prophesied end of history.
It is a fairly persuasive argument in the ears of fire-breathing imams who follow the Salafist tradition, as Woods learns by interviewing several examples of the breed. “The Islamic State’s ideology exerts powerful sway over a certain subset of the population. Life’s hypocrisies and inconsistencies vanish in its face. Musa Cerantonio and the Salafis I met in London are unstumpable: no question I posed left them stuttering,” Woods writes, referring to an Australian imam who is regarded as one of the most influential recruiters for ISIS:
They lectured me garrulously and, if one accepts their premises, convincingly. To call them un-Islamic appears, to me, to invite them into an argument that they would win. If they had been froth-spewing maniacs, I might be able to predict that their movement would burn out as the psychopaths detonated themselves or became drone-splats, one by one. But these men spoke with an academic precision that put me in mind of a good graduate seminar. I even enjoyed their company, and that frightened me as much as anything else.
Another important point to understand about the appeal of ISIS is the Salafi philosophy, a subset of Sunni Islam that holds Mohammed and his first disciples as “the models for all behavior, including warfare, couture, family life, even dentistry.” That’s how they justify conquest, slavery, rape, pillage, and the horrific methods of execution they employ against infidels and “apostates,” a designation they are very enthusiastic about using for Muslims who oppose them. As Woods tells it, this enthusiasm for judging dissenting Muslims as apostates was one of the major sources of friction between ISIS and its somewhat more diplomatic progenitors in al-Qaeda. (Bad news for the Islamic State’s neighbors: eternal warfare against infidels and apostates is one of the core doctrines ISIS gets from its ancient forefathers. They are specifically forbidden to recognize national borders or make permanent peace treaties; they believe Mohammed instructed them to make peace only for as long as it takes to reload and attack again.)
It cannot be overstated how energetic ISIS is about applying Salafist doctrine to every aspect of governance and international conduct. It is how it builds the argument for its religious legitimacy: it is absolutely uncompromising in its pursuit of Koranic doctrine, supremely confident the group is interpreting Islam correctly, and unsparing in handing down judgments of heresy against those who disagree.
With such strong arguments presented for consideration, along with evidence that al-Baghdadi meets all the requirements for a true Caliph, those Muslims who already embrace the Salafi creed are finding it difficult to resist making the ritual pledge of allegiance, or bay’a, to the Islamic State. That is why ISIS has been spreading with sudden bursts of speed through areas like Afghanistan, where they are essentially convincing hard-line tribal leaders that the Taliban are a bunch of softies who do not really understand what Mohammed was driving at. ISIS recruiters and propagandists are selling an argument that the Islamic State is Islam; swearing fealty to the Caliphate is an indispensable component of the faith, a core element of the true Muslim experience. Of course, not everyone is buying it, but it’s selling disturbingly well.
The problematic section of Woods’ long and thorough article comes at the end, where he suggests the ideological defeat of ISIS can be achieved by directing its sympathizers to embrace “quiet Salafism,” which sounds an awful lot like the classical “moderate Muslim” argument of claiming jihad can mean an internal struggle for self-improvement. Quiet Salafism essentially amounts to ignoring everything Mohammed and his disciples said about taking slaves and waging perpetual war, interpreting the “Caliphate” as a broad social concept – i.e., “I pledge my allegiance to making the lives of all Muslims better,” rather than, “I pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”
“Quiet Salafists” must still buy into Mohammed’s end-of-days prophesy, but they are supposed to believe they can bring about the final battle by living exemplary Islamic lives until the time comes. “Quietist Salafis believe that Muslims should direct their energies toward perfecting their personal life, including prayer, ritual, and hygiene,” Woods writes, adding:
Much in the same way ultra-Orthodox Jews debate whether it’s kosher to tear off squares of toilet paper on the Sabbath (does that count as ‘rending cloth’?), they spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring that their trousers are not too long, that their beards are trimmed in some areas and shaggy in others. Through this fastidious observance, they believe, God will favor them with strength and numbers, and perhaps a Caliphate will arise. At that moment, Muslims will take vengeance and, yes, achieve glorious victory at Dabiq.
That sounds a lot less violent than what ISIS has in mind, but it is also much less exciting and satisfying for the sort of bitter, alienated, or adventurous youth the Islamic State has been recruiting. A quietist Salafi interviewed by Woods argues that a true Caliphate would be ordained by Allah and certified by “a consensus of scholars from Mecca and Medina,” which would be quite a bit different than ISIS’ notion of a cargo-cult apocalypse initiated by standing where the final triumphant Muslim army is supposed to be, and waiting for the Crusaders to show up for their drubbing. Is that argument really going to be persuasive among ISIS-leaning Muslims, who loathe the current stewards of Mecca and Medina?
A more certain way to short-circuit the ideological and religious appeal of ISIS is to defeat them. Blow them off the spaces they have taken on the great apocalyptic game board, and they will have a much harder time convincing fellow apocalypse travelers that they’re the authentic Caliphate of world-ending dreams.