What drives ISIS?

In an article entitled Iraq Illusions, published in The New York Review of Books, Jessica Mathews describes the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) as “only one of an almost uncountable mélange of Sunni militant groups” which form a “Sunni insurgency that has risen up against the government of Nouri al-Maliki”.  This narrative explains why ISIS encountered relatively little resistance as it swept across the Sunni Muslim heartlands of eastern Syria and western Iraq, but it does not explain why foreign Muslims are eager to join it.

Karen Armstrong, in the introduction to her book The Battle for God, describes a phenomenon which explains the ISIS success in recruiting Muslims from outside the Middle East.  She argues that “fundamentalisms” all follow a certain pattern:

“they are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis.  They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself.  Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil.

….  They fight back and attempt to resacralize an increasingly skeptical world.”

The ideal of ‘purification’, and doing what God wants them to do, is a potent motivation for foreign fighters to join the struggle against the West – and several thousand have done so.  This echoes Osama bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of jihad, which referred to the need to defend Islam against “the oppressive Crusader campaign led by America”.  The ISIS atrocities are seen by the perpetrators as being justified by a holy cause – and, as noted in this website’s previous post on this subject, the ISIS leadership is seeking publicity to lure the West into another unwinnable war in the region.

A jihad against the West is altogether different from a local political struggle.  If Jessica Mathews is right about the local political motivation for Sunni groups, then this is the language which should be used in talking about how to prevent ISIS from further ethnic cleansing.  It should not be seen as an American-led project.  America has been asked for help, and is giving it, but Western leaders should take care to avoid any language which suggests that this is their war.  It is a local war, with local participants, being carried out with Western assistance.

There is also the problem of labelling all Muslims as if they were the same.  Muslim leaders have distanced themselves from ISIS’s actions, describing them as un-Islamic.  ISIS is making a grab for power, using terror tactics and ethnic cleansing to achieve its aims.  This must not be seen as a religious war (which would help ISIS to recruit yet more people to its cause) but as a local territorial conflict which will ultimately need a political solution that overcomes some of the genuine problems experienced by Sunni Muslims.

Western leaders need to be very careful in the language they use to describe their intervention.  This is a local war about political power, and the West’s role is to help to restore calm.  ISIS wants escalation to an international holy war, and the West needs to be more careful in its language if it doesn’t want to get sucked in deeper.


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