Despite many previous iAffairs Canada contributors having already written at length on various facets of the Islamic State, and given the passage of time and the further scholarly assessment the self-proclaimed caliphate has undergone, it might do to return for a further evaluation.
Actual assessments of the ideology and origins of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have abounded. Some have sought to highlight the religious fundamentalism underpinning ISIL’s ideology (perhaps an easy linkage to make, given their name) with one of the more provocative iterations being The Atlantic’s article by Graeme Woods “What ISIS Really Wants” from March of this year.
In Woods’ general argument, he refutes many of the arguments set forward by those who clamor to claim that ISIL’s actions are un-Islamic in their barbarism and brutality, and further asserts that we in the West have underestimated the religious bonafides of the Islamic State, and in doing so, their apparent hunger for the “last battle” before the end days are upon us. While Woods tends to, in my opinion, overstate the apocalyptic millenarianism of ISIL, or at least as it should be understood by policy makers, he highlights a number of the reasons why ISIL has found so many willing recruits to flock to its banner, primarily its efforts to directly implement what many Salafist Muslims had hoped for in practice, a way of life more closely and directly emulating that practiced by the those first forebears, the Salaf, “predecessors” generally understood to refer to the first three generations of Islam.
What is key is the allure that ISIL has, as it fulfills the fanatic’s need for authenticity, by invoking the earliest and most violent aspects of Islamic law, as set out during the conflict riven time of the Prophet himself, such as slavery, crucifixion, and sanctioned executions of different groups. ISIL has undercut all the other jihadist groups by embracing those aspects of a literal interpretation of Islamic texts that even Al Qaeda and other Salafi-Jihadists were reluctant to.
And indeed, the Islamic State in fact has been found to utilize a relatively sophisticated, disciplined, governance structure, with divisions between civil and military functions to ensure capable rule over the territories under their control. Organized systems of taxation, moral monitoring, and regulation of the price and quality of goods have been implemented in the conquered areas. Perhaps most importantly, ISIL has found a way to ensure regular payment of its fighters and civilian workers, something that certainly other fighting groups in the region, and even national governments, have not always been able to effectively manage.
However, other assessments have pointed to the more secular/nationalist causes as arising from the aspirations of Sunni Arabs, long marginalized by the Assad regime in Syria, and more recently by the post-Saddam Hussein democratic regime in Iraq. The reported presence of many former Iraqi Ba’athists (not necessarily known for their religiosity under Saddam) among the ranks and even leadership of ISIL seem to lend credence to this.
This was the highlight of a recent a Der Spiegel report with information gleaned from a former Iraqi Ba’athist intelligence officer’s papers (named Haji Bakr, an early leader in ISIL who was killed in January of 2014) that detail the initial architecture of the Islamic State, and the takeover in Syria before the 2014 invasion and conquest of parts of Iraq. Of note is that these founding documents are less an “article of faith” and more the blueprint for an “Islamic Intelligence State” more along the lines of Cold War East Germany as run by the notorious Stasi. In this understanding of the origins of the caliphate, the goal of “Sharia” as put forward by this original architect, served less as a religious end goal and more as a means of ensuring control and surveillance of the populace within the regions under IS’ control. It is modeled much more clearly on the old Iraqi Ba’athist security state under Saddam, and Bakr, the apparently influential planner also clearly believed that the faith of others could be exploited, another means to the end of his security state.
In spite of some of the aforementioned considerations of the more secular, modern origins of the Islamic State, the primacy of a fundamentalist form of Islam for much of its followers is still critical, as evidenced through word, deed, and even body language. Although certain elites may have sought to capitalize on willing fanatics’ devotion to Salafist Jihad, the internecine bloodletting it has unleashed on the region may have unintended knock-on effects. Just as Assad used the spectre of the Sunni domination to rally minorities to his banner in Syria, so too have the Jihadists weaponized fundamentalist Islam in order to bring fighters from across the Middle East and the entire globe to fight for the purported “caliphate”.
This combination of modernity and martial past is in part summed up by answering the question that has puzzled analysts so thoroughly, of why ISIL has been able to attract so many foreign fighters, and even other Salafi-Jihadist groups globally, to their banner. It is primarily due to their promotion of an alternative vision of the future that hearkens back to past glories and is in opposition to the liberalizing effects of a globalizing world, and their nuanced and tech-savvy use of social media and communications platform to produce an attractive promotional package of their mission and worldview.
For example, many of ISIL’s claims about successes in places like Libya (often overstated) are directly calculated to give the impression of continuous momentum and success in order to sway other Salafi-Jihadist groups, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, to its banner. What some analysts have called an African “long con”, in order to appear stronger and more influential than it in fact is, to further differentiate itself from past radical Islamist groups that had limited success post-9/11. In doing so, it has even claimed responsibility for attacks that are more likely the result of Al Qaeda operatives, in order to steal Al Qaeda’s thunder.
In closing, it is largely irrelevant whether external analysts or Islamic authorities believe or argue that ISIL is un-Islamic, as it is enough that many of its willing recruits believe it is. The programme and seemingly religious playbook used by ISIL’s leaders has provided them with a flag for their soldiers to fight under, and a ready means of controlling the territory they capture, both allegedly ordained by God. However, ultimately, the burden of waging unending war (apocalyptic or no), against myriad enemies on all fronts and of attempting to provide the necessities of an alleged nation-state will likely prove to be too much for ISIL.
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George Stairs is a second year M.A. candidate in the Conflict Analysis and Conflict Resolution field at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He has written on various conflicts before, including extensive research and writing on the possibility of instability in the Middle-East arising from the Arab Spring uprisings.
Featured Photo by Fadi El Binni.