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Thoughts on 2015: ISIS – Religion, Politics and the Yearning for Identity

January 3, 2015


The rise of ISIS has troubled and fascinated me in equal measures. For all the global attention it attracted in 2014, it remains an entity about which there are more questions than answers – at least to onlookers like me and surely to millions of others.  One way to try to understand the phenomenon is to think about the motivation of the leaders, the followers and those who oppose them.

For what they’re worth, here are my thoughts.

Let’s look at the leaders first. Is Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi just another religious fanatic with leadership skills? Does he in his heart of hearts really believe in the establishment of a caliphate – a model as flawed and unsuccessful as any other system of rule? Is he a reluctant leader – a man thrust into leadership – or is he an opportunist – a man with an eye on the main chance?

What about the followers who flock to Syria with Islam for Dummies in their backpacks? Are these boys and girls religious fanatics, or impressionable kids in search of an identity that fits them better than the choices at home? What leads them to become fighters and suicide bombers? Deep belief, or peer pressure and a desire for respect?

To the first question, it seems to me that ISIS is a political organisation first, and a religious one second. In another universe, Baghdadi and his crew would most likely be just as happy in Nazi jackboots or Mao suits. Religion is the instrument of his power, and he is using it to create a political entity. It’s an old game. His tools are ideology and hatred of the other – the other being anyone he proclaims to be non-believers. Perhaps he studied Hitler’s ideology of racial purity and the Fuhrer’s tactics in the Sudetenland and Austria. It’s a game he will probably lose, because unlike Hitler he doesn’t have the military means at his disposal to hold on to what he has for any length of time. What he has created is the result of political weakness and division on the part of regional and global stakeholders. When he is defeated – whether by military or other means – it will be at the cost of countless lives sacrificed on the altar of his personal ambition.

So perhaps we should stop being side-tracked by the religious dimension, and start treating him as just another political leader, albeit a murderous and possibly psychopathic one. We’ve come across a few of those before, haven’t we?

As for the followers, in This Year’s Best-Seller: The Rough Guide for Jihadis? I described the young men and women flocking to Syria and Iraq as gap year backpackers with attitude. The gap year analogy goes further. These are educated people, often with university degrees. But many of them are strangers in a strange land. Of a country but not part of it. Easy marks for what amounts to a cult masquerading under the cloak of a great world religion. In that other universe they could be storm-troopers or young communists. The common theme would seem to be a yearning for identity that leaves them vulnerable to manipulation by figures with spiritual or ideological authority.

Do religious considerations drive the coalition of Muslim countries determined to wipe out this dangerous interloper? There are countries close by that share much of ISIS’s ideology. Like ISIS, they police public morality on religious grounds, and exact harsh punishment on those who infringe their reading of sharia. So why would they not welcome this new addition to the fold? Although there are significant doctrinal differences – mainly centred on the definition and treatment of non-believers – the main issue seems to be that ISIS undermines the legitimacy of neighbouring regimes, and is actively recruiting from their populations. No wonder that the relatively stable states nearby regard ISIS – with good reason – as a political, military and social threat.

What of the role played by religious leaders? Are they part of the problem or essential to the solution? Critics of organised religion would claim that it’s a rare religious leader who reaches the pinnacle of their establishment for whom politics doesn’t to some extent compromise faith. They have a point. Religious leaders need political skills, especially if they are in their positions by appointment or election. They are to a greater or lesser extent beholden to those who put them there. I say this with apologies to Pope Francis, for whom principles seem to have informed politics rather than the other way round. His struggle with the Vatican Curia – an institutionalised bureaucracy for which “do what I say, not what I do” has long been a dominant ethos – is a case in point.

But who will history judge the more influential: popes, bishops, lamas and caliphs, or monks, poets, martyrs and outsiders whose examples have inspired generations? Who will be remembered longest for their spiritual impact? St Francis, Rumi and Martin Luther, or Pope Francis, Ayatollah Khomeini and Archbishop Cranmer?

As for the Muslim world, I struggle to find a religious leader universally respected for who they are, rather than for the position they hold. Most are products of the establishments that put them there, and their utterances, delivered from the safety of their state-sponsored pulpits, almost invariably follow the political line of the government in power.Worse still, clerical establishments are losing credibility with the youth of those countries. There are of course national religious figures who are respected by their own people. There are also those – such as the tele-sheikhs – who connect widely and across borders through satellite TV and the social media. But as far as I can see, there are none who appeal across the spectrum of belief; people to whom, when they speak, all Muslims – regardless of age, sect and school of thought – listen.

Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi is hardly a transcendental figure. But he is beholden to no one. His message reaches out to the excluded, the disaffected and the idealists who no longer want to be in a minority in the countries where they were born. For him, religion is politics, and politics is religion. Western powers will never neutralise the appeal of ISIS by diluting the secular nature of their societies. Distrust between generations will ensure that appeals from parents and religious figures in the west will often fall on deaf ears.

So we’re left with war, politics or a combination of the two. But to what end? To limit further destruction and loss of life, to return to a status quo ante that was already unstable and toxic, or a combination of both?

Your bet is as good as mine as to whether the defeat of ISIS by military means or by a strategy of political containment will save more lives in the long run. And to go back to the conditions prevailing that provided ISIS with its launch pad would be undesirable and impossible to achieve.

But my point is that despite the sectarian dimension that underlies the current conflict we’re not witnessing a religious war or a clash of civilisations. It’s a political struggle. If the cycle of violence is to be ended, it needs to be treated as such. Something the western powers learned to their cost in the aftermath of the defeat of Saddam Hussain. Military victory was not enough then, nor will it be now.

So what are the political options? Assuming enough force can be brought to bear to defeat ISIS militarily, the future victors should be working on a post-war political settlement now. Are they? Unlikely, since the potential participants in a decisive ground war have yet to be identified. Will Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Russia and the USA be able to agree on a post-war political settlement that stops the cycle of violence? Possibly, but there are so many conflicting interests at play that it will be extremely difficult to arrive at a workable consensus.

How about thinking the unthinkable – doing a deal with Baghdadi that recognises his caliphate in return for his undertaking not to expand its borders? To do so would be to accept that for decades to come there would be a volatile entity bent on exporting its creed by one means or another, capable of destabilising its neighbours just as Gaddafi did in his back yard. It would be a bitter pill for the new state’s neighbours to swallow, especially as it would have plenty of oil resources at its disposal.

It would also be by no means certain that Baghdadi would accept such a deal. His credibility most likely depends on being able maintain forward momentum – to expand the caliphate ever outwards. If he calculated that that ISIS had reached a high water mark beyond which, even temporarily, it could not go without risk of implosion, he might find that his creation no longer offered the same attraction to the thousands of young people who have joined its ranks over the past year. After all, a state with no enemy to conquer and no unbelievers to massacre or enslave would eventually start to feel like any other state.

On the other hand, as Osama bin Laden eventually discovered, a life of constant vigilance against bombs, drones and hit squads can have a debilitating effect on personal morale. How long can Baghdadi and his associates tolerate living in hiding, in constant fear of betrayal? The temptation to cash in his chips must eventually become very great. And even if the “caliph” himself opted to hang tough, would his lieutenants continue to stand by him, at the increasing risk of being picked off one by one?

These are all political, not religious, considerations.

In 2015 we will surely find out just how adept a politician ISIS’s leader actually is.

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