When asked to contribute a blog on ISIS to introduce the upcoming “Transnational Security Crises” seminar, my initial response was one of trepidation. The current state of affairs in Iraq and Syria is very complex, outside of my primary field of study (history of religion with a specialization in Buddhism), and unfolding in new ways that defy analysis even by experts of political science. And then, just as I was preparing to politely decline, an extremely informative FRONTLINE investigative report began to air on YLE 1. Watching The Rise of Isis (produced and written by correspondent Martin Smith), certain questions came to mind, questions that I realized may actually be of interest to others trying to make sense of this nascent force in the world. My limitations notwithstanding, I decided to share them here.
The first question to arise was how such a group could gain so much power so quickly. While assuming some knowledge of the situation on the part of the reader, it is still probably necessary to make note of the former Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki’s incendiary actions, the underlying Sunni-Shi’a sectarian divide in the region, 40% unemployment in Iraq, and the strong support of ISIS by al-Qaeda. After the exit of the United States, existing causes and conditions in Iraq literally ignited to become a self-perpetuating nightmare. In his interview with former Director of the CIA Leon Panetta, FRONTLINE’s Martin Smith suggests that the government “created the monster because of their fear.” Panetta’s response? “Exactly.”
One has to equally acknowledge the agency of ISIS itself, especially its ability to exploit chaos and obvious hunger for change. But what kind of change? Regime change? Religious reformation? What is the group’s motivation? Some, like Prof. Robert Pape at the University of Chicago, see its goal to be primarily political in nature: “ISIL primarily seeks to establish de facto sovereignty for Sunnis in territories in Iraq and Syria.” While this is not the place to enter into a discussion of (the neologism) Islamism, the extent to which the term can be applied to ISIS is certainly an important question.
But if the motivations of ISIS are political—and economic, considering the fierce battles waged over the oil-rich territories of Iraq—its language is clearly religion. Simply put, ISIS appears to be using religious vocabulary that is resonant with the cultural worldview of the region (and Muslims around the world) in order to achieve very worldly aims. ISIS is by no means the first religious movement to leverage faith to effect material and political gain, especially in the Middle East where religion and politics are so closely intertwined, but what strikes me about this case is the way in which it highlights some very fundamental contradictions and potential divides within Islam itself.
As one fighter in The Rise of ISIS puts it, “If you want God’s reward, start Jihad.” Such language is nothing new, of course. But stop to think about it for a moment in the context of political science rather than theology. Is God’s reward an oil well? ISIS strategists have succeeded in convincing people to fight—and to die—for an ideal that transcends this world, and yet the actual gains realized by their sacrifice are very mundane indeed. One has to wonder, will it be sustainable in the long run for ISIS to use a single—and, by its nature, exclusive—language for such competing agendas?
ISIS can also be credited with effectively exploiting the religious landscape of Islam in their establishment of a caliphate (khilafa). This is a hyper-charged term that summons for many pious Muslims an image of the golden historical period of successors after the death of Muhammad, a period when Islam spread rapidly from its humble origins. This image fits with the larger narrative that ISIS has painted for itself—traditional, righteous, and authentic—but, even more importantly, as a powerful religious image it invokes a sense of obligation in the believer to pledge loyalty. As Prof. Fred Donner of the University of Chicago notes, “There is a mystical belief that, if you just establish the caliphate in the right way, Muslims will come to you and everything will fall into place.” Yet, use of such terminology is risky. If anything, religious language can be factious. And now it has led al-Qaeda in Yemen to denounce ISIS and declare the self-proclaimed caliphate to be illegitimate. A strong wedge has just been driven between the faithful.
And, finally, we come to the beheadings, perhaps one of the things for which ISIS is best known, in part through the group’s use of social media. Despite attempts by YouTube and Twitter to take down videos and suspend accounts, they still spread—widely and effectively—once again demonstrating that something does not need to be smart, funny or cool to go viral, but rather the opposite. There are different theories why ISIS would take up such a gruesome practice: for the sake of sheer publicity, to shock and challenge its enemies, to differentiate itself from Al-Qaeda, and so on. From the perspective of religion, however, ISIS appears to be using decapitation both to frame itself in the historical tradition of hadiths and to send a clear message to other Muslims: get with our program or die.
The history of decapitation finds its roots in the Qur’an itself. Sura 47 says, “So when you meet those who disbelieve [in battle], strike [their] necks until, when you have inflicted slaughter upon them, then secure their bonds, and either [confer] favor afterwards or ransom [them] until the war lays down its burdens.” This verse has been taken in very different ways over the centuries, either as an exhortation to behead one’s enemies or as a prescription to only do what is necessary in battle to take prisoners. Historically speaking, Islamic scholars have tended towards the former, more literal interpretation. For example, the widely studied commentary on this verse by the Sunni scholar Maḥmūd ibn ʿUmar al-Zamakhsharī (d. 1144 CE) explains “strike [their] necks” as a command to aim directly at that place, to ensure that the enemy is killed. In support of its actions, ISIS draws on over a thousand years of tradition.
As might be expected, the Western media has focused primarily on the decapitation of Europeans and Americans. But ISIS has also posted photos of a number of beheaded Syrian soldiers (purportedly as many as 75). The question that keeps coming to mind for me, which I will close with here, concerns the battle over the defining face of Islam today. While ISIS may be able to attract fundamentalist followers through radical actions like beheadings, those with a different interpretation of the Qu’ran—or a different psychological disposition—may be actively repulsed by them. Initial stress fractures between ISIS and Sunni tribes in Iraq are evident. ISIS has chosen the path of the sword, but if some of the contradictions outlined here are any indication, it is a dangerous double-edged sword.
 My decision to use the acronym ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham/Syria) rather than ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) follows the UN convention.
Text: Dr. Albion Butters, Lecturer, Department of Comparative Religion
Photo: Wikimedia Commons