Donald M. Bishop, publicdiplomacycouncil.org
Sunday, August 30th 2015
The March, 2015, issue of The Atlantic included an essay, “What ISIS Really Wants,” by contributing editor Graeme Wood. The editors introduced the article by saying, “The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”
Graeme’s long essay described:
-- how the “very Islamic” Islamic State differs from al-Qaeda, Wahhabism, and Salifism;
-- the justifications for the caliphate in Islamic scripture, especially as a condition for salvation;
-- the religious obligation to revive the caliphate, and the caliph’s obligation to implement shari’a;
-- “the prophetic methodology” and views of the apocalypse;
-- devotion, executions, punishments, slavery, apostacy, prophecy, and jihad.
Public Diplomacy practitioners, even those serving in countries far from the Islamic world, need to understand the contours of the Islamic State in the realm of ideas. Graeme’s article provides an introduction.
We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al‑Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as “Sheikh Osama,” a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaeda’s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group’s priorities and current leadership.
Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)
We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature. * * * *
There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse. * * * * *
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam. * * * * *
The United States and its allies have reacted to the Islamic State belatedly and in an apparent daze.