The Manifestos of the Islamic State: Part I is available here.
By Erik Goepner
Potential recruits hear at least two different messages from the Islamic State. The first is a grievance-based message that can, by definition, be ameliorated over time. The second, though, appears to be timeless, albeit subject to significant waxing and waning of appeal.
God infuses this second message, which makes it enduring. With more than 80 percent of the world’s inhabitants professing a religious identity, including 1.6 billion Muslims, God is bigger than the Beatles and it is Nietzsche who is dead. However corrupt IS’ message might be, it is God-focused. Each speech begins and ends with praises to Allah. References to key Quranic figures, such as Muhammad, are common. Verses from the Quran are interspersed throughout their proclamations.
No doubt IS carefully selects certain passages and overlooks others, but in its larger context, the verses remain the expression of God. For the faithful, that can be quite powerful.
The message also endures because of its purported purity. The message calls its hearers to purity before Allah and the message itself is pure, in that it is unambiguous. Purity before God is an important pursuit for many religious people, and this pursuit often requires personal sacrifice. At God’s command, Abraham had his knife out, ready to slay his own son. Flogged for their faith, Jesus’ followers rejoiced for being “counted worthy” of suffering for God. Sacrifices seen as callings from God can have profound implications for the pious believer.
IS also communicates a black and white story. In a nod to Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot before them, grey cannot be found in IS’ messages, and with no shade of grey goes any need for doubt or accommodation. As a result, their message is particularly effective on youth, who have great capacity to see hypocrisy in others but oftentimes have not yet developed the wisdom needed to see their own hypocrisy and shortcomings.
As for IS’ grievance-based theme, it may be more successful in attracting recruits, but it need only have temporal appeal. “Upon whom do they [the Americans, Jews and rafidah] plot and conspire night and day?” The Islamic State, answers their spokesman (1:50 into the video). Transgressions are being meted out against Muslims in “Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Burma, Nigeria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, India, China, the Caucasus, and elsewhere,” claims IS.
As IS tells it, the Sunnis (often represented as the “true believers”) are under siege:
- The Egyptian Brotherhood outlawed and imprisoned, again
- Sunnis have become second-class citizens in Iraq following Saddam’s ousting
- They are the “out-group” in Syria (despite being the majority)
- Israel’s treatment of Palestinians
- Killing of Muslims in Burma
In Andrew Bacevich’s recent op-ed, he notes Syria has become “at least the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces have invaded or occupied or bombed…since 1980.” This latest foray he expressively phrases, “Greater Middle East Battlefield XIV.” There is no hint that the force was unjustified, but rather his article raises interesting questions about how that force may be interpreted and reacted to.
Over time, the grievance-based theme can be substantially ameliorated by the efforts of a variety of actors within the Middle East (e.g., by enfranchising Sunni communities to a greater extent or providing increased economic opportunities for youth). The God-focused message, though, may prove more problematic. While its appeal seems to vary greatly through the centuries, the 9/11 Commission noted (see ch 12, p. 362) it follows a tradition “from at least Ibn Taymiyyah [~1300], through the founders of Wahhabism, through the Muslim Brotherhood, to Sayyid Qutb [1950s].”
So what is a possible way forward? “Reform coupled with respect,” suggests Fareed Zakaria, where intellectuals and theologians celebrate and emphasize the tolerant, liberal, and modern parts of Islam, while also giving devout Muslims reasons to take pride in their faith.