By Ömer Faruk Topal
Islamic State (formerly known as Islamic State of Iraq and Sham) has exceeded all of its predecessors and similar groups in terms of the violence it has inflicted. Considering the huge amount of violence, IS is often described as medieval or primitive. It is generally argued that mass atrocities and displacements perpetrated in IS-controlled areas, beheadings, post-mortem humiliations, and enslavement of women and children are barbaric reactions to the current course of humanity. Although it is an incontrovertible reality that IS’ actions are inhumane, incentives behind these actions are far from medieval. IS is an anti-traditional, anti-clerical, and unitary organization with an individualistic agenda. It aims to trigger social mobilization and employs rationally designed violence.
The Modern Face of IS
IS is anti-traditional. By no means does it aim to return to the past. IS members’ strong and continuous references to the age of the Prophet Mohammed operationalize an idealization of a certain period of history for ideological reasons rather than for a nostalgia for the past. IS a member practice a religious understanding different from that of their parents, decrying the latter’s as cultural ritual, not pure religion. They oppose traditional and cultural aspects of Islam, such as Sufi orders or shrines, razing the latter whenever the opportunity arises.
IS is also anti-clerical. Although IS declared the establishment of a Caliphate with its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi using the title of “Caliph”, it should be noted that Caliph is a political term that is more related with political affairs rather than religious ones. Many members of IS are neither learned in Islam nor devout Muslims at all. The case of two IS militants who ordered the book Islam for Dummies from Amazon before their departure to Syria is now a quite well-known example of this reality. MI5’s Behavioural Science Unit summarizes in their findings that “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practice their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could be regarded as religious novices.” Ideologues of the group can be likened more to powerful speakers rather than saintly preachers.
Mainstream religious authorities in the Muslim world such as grand-muftis, imams of great mosques and prominent scholars of eminent universities have come to form alliances with the established political authorities, even if they are dictatorial, unjust or corrupt. These mutual relations have been consistently questioned by numerous voices from a variety of social strata and have lost their credibility and prestige to some extent in the process. IS and like-minded groups portray these religious figures as collaborators of despotic regimes who abandon Allah’s way for their own personal gain and desires.
IS is individualistic. IS addresses individual responsibilities and accountabilities in realizing Islamic values and goals. Joining IS or fighting for its cause is an individual choice and “jihad”, the main dynamic behind the IS propaganda machine, is an individual duty. According to IS ideology, the individual is responsible to Allah and Allah alone, not to primordial loyalties like religious orders, tribes or families. IS members often regard secular Arab regimes or pro-democracy movements as taghuts, an Islamic term used to denote idolatry or the worship of anything except Allah. By using this terminology, IS seeks to portray that it is opposed to the enslavement of the human being and that it seeks to liberate people from false gods. In addition to this, IS exploits the personal woes of its recruits, offering oppressed, repressed, deprived individuals the chance to become heroes of the Muslim ummah and holy warriors, or the chosen sect. IS gives its members a sense of belonging, moral and spiritual security and legitimacy to fight against Shia Muslims in the current chaotic sectarian war. As anthropologist Scott Atran pointed out in his testimony to the US Senate in March 2010: “[w]hat inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Quran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world.”
IS’ violence is modern. This extreme violence is neither irrational nor unplanned. It is a strategy designed to appeal to radicals worldwide, to show local people what might happen if they do not obey IS and to attract attention and therefore remain on the global agenda. Moreover, violence is not new in this area. Al Qaeda in Iraq inflicted almost the same amount of violence on local residents, but the actions of IS are more apparent because the group has become a global problem that has come to draw greater attention from the media. Moreover, the political and military clique that dominated the Iraqi state and military in the Saddam era also used violence as a chief instrument in the implementation of their policies. Similarly, IS commits violence in line with a strategy, not for the sake of pure barbarity.
IS aims for social mobilization. When Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the spokesperson of IS, declared the establishment of a Caliphate, he urged Muslims to come to Iraq and Syria not just to fight but to live. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has also made the same call. He called on “scientists, scholars, preachers, judges, doctors, engineers, and people with military and administrative expertise of all domains” to come and settle in IS-ruled territories. IS has institutionalized its struggle through extensive and integrated networks. It is well organized, amply resourced and attractive for many. In his address to the Muslim ummah during Ramadan in 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed that emigration to the land of Islam is obligatory and exhorted all Muslims to come and settle in Islamic State.
IS is unitarist and state-centric just like modern nation-states. As can be understood from its name, IS claims statehood and it deserves to be labeled as at least a pseudo-state or rudimentary state. They have a flag, implement law, have built effective military power including tanks and training camps, provide road safety, run schools and clinics, and manage to operate oil wells and a refinery. Moreover, it is generally accepted that IS-controlled bureaucracy is less corrupt than many regimes and even other rebel groups. For IS, the establishment of a state and Caliphate means the return of dignity, might, rights and leadership. It is also a prerequisite for the imposition of Shari’a and the restoration of an honor that was ravaged after the abolishment of the Caliphate in 1924. Other militant groups in Iraq and Syria are more practical. They do not see themselves as the sole sovereign of Syria and they cooperate with other rebel groups if need be. They are more local, a fact that is often emphasized by their leaders to show that they represent the native inhabitants. On the other hand, IS is more ideological and transnational in nature. Many foreign fighters are fighting for IS and the group excludes other groups for the sake of the creation of an Islamic caliphate. For IS militants, IS is not an organization; it is a sovereign state. So, external intervention or concession on any issue is utterly unacceptable.
In conclusion, IS is not a simple terrorist organization; in comparison to other rebel groups it has relatively well-defined interests and methods. It is in Iraq and Syria to stay. Reducing IS to a simple group of barbarians works to prevent the development of comprehensive strategies that would help to defeat the constellation at large.
Ömer Faruk Topal graduated from Department of International Relations at TOBB University of Economics and Technology. He is a master canditate at the Department of International Relations at Middle East Technical University.