By Hasan Suroor
June 24, 2015
June 29 will be the first anniversary of the Islamic State (IS)’s bizarre declaration of the establishment of the modern world’s first “caliphate” on territories seized from Syria and Iraq. The occasion has spawned a series of unprintable morbid jokes about the grisly ways the IS might choose to celebrate its triumph.
But this attempt at humour actually conceals a deep concern over the IS’s menacing rise, and the global outrage its brutal tactics have provoked. The biggest worry, though, and for which no satisfactory explanation has been offered either by Muslims or counter-terror experts, is this: what makes a group with such a medieval ideology and mindset so attractive to so many educated and intelligent people around the world that they are willing to abandon everything — their families, careers — to join it, knowing fully well the risks involved?
There is, in fact, a widely held view that it is precisely this — IS’s romantic vision of restoring Islam to its pristine “glory”, its bloody-mindedness, its shock-and-awe tactics — that lie at the heart of much of its appeal. In the al-Qaeda days, it was simpler to explain Muslim radicalisation, especially among second and third generation immigrant youth in the West: people said they were “alienated” from the societies they lived in, by the everyday racism they experienced, by the post-9/11 Islamophobia, and the West’s “anti-Muslim” foreign policy. The explanation made sense in the wake of the invasion of Iraq and talk of a new “Crusades”. In that sort of climate, dominated by anti-Muslim rhetoric, the bogey of “Islam under threat” and calls for pan-Islamic solidarity to “rescue” the religion worked. But this is unconvincing today, as the nature of Islamist extremism has changed — it is a very different beast than what it was even five years ago.
War within Islam
The IS has transformed what was once a global anti-West campaign into a sectarian civil war within Islam. The West is no longer the main enemy. To improvise Jean-Paul Sartre, “hell is other Muslims” in the IS scheme of things — the “others” are those Muslims who don’t subscribe to the IS interpretation of Islam. It’s not even so much about pan-Islamic solidarity as about pan-Sunni solidarity against other Muslims from “enemy” sects.
To still insist on the validity of old assumptions about Muslim radicalisation is to ignore the elephant in the room: the pull of religion. Radicals are responding to the IS call for Islamic revival. Nothing more, nothing less. Other factors — alienation, searching for a “meaning’’ in life, the lure of adventure — is secondary. The alienation theory was long busted after it turned out that many, if not all, of those attracted to extremism were actually well-adjusted and well-integrated into their communities. And the notion of testosterone-fuelled boys dying for a slice of Jihadi adventure has been disproved by schoolgirls and housewives heading for jihad.
As I write this, Britain is rocked by the strange case of three housewives (sisters born and brought up in Britain and married to men of Pakistani origin) who have fled to Syria (along with their nine children aged between 3 and 15) to team up with IS militants. They left their homes ostensibly for a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, and secretly flew to Turkey and Syria after the pilgrimage, leaving their families in the U.K. and Pakistan distraught. Nobody knows what made them do it.
A report by a British think tank, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, propounds the theory that those who join IS are not victims of brainwashing because they know what they’re doing. This, they say, is particularly true of women who are more likely to analyse their actions than men. But this theory completely ignores the power of propaganda and persuasion that can make people believe in the righteousness of a ‘cause’ and that urges them to perform certain acts as part of their “Islamic duty”.
A Common Pattern
It is important to note that people thus targeted have little knowledge of Islam and, therefore, swallow the interpretations they are sold. There’s a pattern: they are not particularly interested in religion until the point that they are radicalised, and then suddenly they become ultra religious — they grow beards, women start wearing Burqas and avoiding men, they turn to Namaz, shed their old lifestyle and become secretive. None of them describe themselves as “victims”; only their families and friends do. The process of radicalisation is a lot more complex than is assumed, but the ultimate pull factor is religion. Any de-radicalisation strategy, in order to be effective, will have to be anchored in a religious counter-narrative. And it will have to come from imams and Maulvis — not from counter-extremism think tanks and reformed radicals.
Today, nearly ten million people live under repressive IS rule. In spite of a determined U.S.-led international bombing campaign that has killed several of its key figures, IS has managed not only to retain and consolidate previously occupied territories, but also gain new ones. And it shows no sign of slowing down. According to a Guardian newspaper investigation, it has emerged as the uncrowned king of the terrorist jungle; even al-Qaeda is struggling to catch up.
Meanwhile, for all the apparent outrage and hand-wringing in the West, the fact is the IS poses less of a threat to it than al-Qaeda did. Not only is its strategy not focussed against the West, it has effectively taken al-Qaeda off the West’s back by drawing it into a series of regional conflicts for supremacy. It is not a coincidence that there has been no major terror attack on a Western target since the emergence of IS. No wonder this has spawned conspiracy theories about IS being a CIA creation. But that is another debate, for another time.