ISIS and the caliphate

Hassan Hassan writes: ISIL is not an apocalyptic cult as people tend to make it out to be. It employs Islamic eschatological ideas but only as part of its wider religious and political project. Messianic movements do not attract large followings in the way ISIL seems to.

The disproportionate focus on this part of its propaganda, which might be a result of familiarity with the concept in the West, risks misdiagnosis of the appeal of ISIL.

ISIL has a strategy for a clear religious and political project. Its focus on Dabiq [the location in Syria of an epic battle between Muslims and Christians, which prophecies predict] is nothing new. Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, ISIL’s founding father, spoke about the prophecy during his jihadi operation in Iraq. According to Yaroslav Trofimov, author of Siege of Mecca, Al Zarqawi took the idea from his Jordanian mentor Abu Mohammed Al Maqdisi.

In its videos, ISIL refers to its fighters as the “soldiers of the caliphate”, not the soldiers of Dabiq. It is the caliphate, or the Islamic state, that draws the attention of new recruits and invigorates them to fight for the group. It claims to represent the interest of Sunnis in Iraq, Syria and beyond. So it is this idea that must be the focus of attention for those fighting ISIL.

As politicians and commentators repeatedly warn about the danger of radicalization and the need for effective de-radicalization programs, this way of framing the threat posed by ISIS seems to me to involve an implausible proposition: that those who have a passionate desire to create a caliphate can be persuaded to abandon that desire.

Much as the issue of radicalization has in recent months focused on European Muslims who have been drawn into the ranks of ISIS, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the bulk of ISIS’s fighters did not abandon the comforts (or alienation) of Western societies. They came from Muslim countries that hold out no promise of becoming Islamic states and whose governments have little interest in representing the interests of the populations over whom they rule.

Millions of Muslims, without being extremists of any variety, see the Islamic world as having been carved up by Western colonialism, robbed of its sovereignty, and placed under the control of compliant and corrupt rulers. Broadly speaking, what’s on offer right now is a brutal ISIS caliphate vs. a fractious status quo. That seems like a lousy choice.

As Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Libya demonstrated over the last half century, the project of pan-Arab secular nationalism was a spectacular failure.

On the other hand, the Arab monarchies have the durability of a chronic disease — their ability to survive has accomplished little more than cripple the region.

If ISIS and the other forms of Islamic extremism are seen for what they are — symptoms of a disease, rather than the disease itself — then the remedy cannot be found by merely looking for ways to suppress its symptoms.

What is called for is a better vision that can be embraced on a larger scale than what ISIS or anyone else is currently offering.

This isn’t about de-radicalization but instead, real radicalism which goes to the root and is built around a vision of what it wants to create rather than what it endeavors to destroy.

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