Barbarism and self-righteousness are not unique to ISIS, and nurtured each other long before its appearance. Nor is this toxic combination a unique Islamic pathology. The West has its own list of disreputable ideological movements that resorted to mass killings in the name of making the world a better place: French revolutionaries rolled heads in the name of fraternity, liberty and equality in the 18th century; Stalin’s henchmen executed millions to glorify the Communist ideal; and the Nazis murdered Jews, homosexuals, and handicapped persons to ensure racial purity. Yet ISIS stands apart from other 20th- and 21st-century movements in that it is the only one that openly flaunts its carnage.
In Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death, researcher Saul Friedlander probes the motivations of average citizens to join one of the most horrendous extermination machines in history, and concludes: “Nazism’s attraction lay less in any explicit ideology than in the power of emotions, images, and phantasms.” ISIS, too, speaks to emotional problems. Like Nazism, it attracts people who have experienced humiliation as part of a group, nation, or faith and are drawn to a megalomaniac vision in which the oppressed rise up and take over the world as its new moral elite.
The trampling of Muslim honor is a major element in the identity of ISIS members and leaders, who often declare that Muslims must take control of their destiny in order to recover their lost dignity.
For example, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi declared that soon “a day will come when the Muslim will walk everywhere as a master, having honor, being revered.”
According to this narrative, Muslim honor will be restored once ISIS purges Islam of its destructive corruption.
Unfortunately for the leaders of ISIS, very few of the 1.7 billion Muslims in the world are prepared to fight the forces oppressing them. ISIS does not consider those who avoid such confrontation as real Muslims, but rather as pretenders or “hypocrites” (munafikun – a Koranic term for people who converted to Islam but refuse to fight against the enemies of the Prophet.) According to Baghdadi, “the world has been divided into two camps... with no third camp present: The camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of kufr [unbelief] and hypocrisy.” To him, non-believers and hypocrites are equally flawed in their faith, but the latter are much more dangerous as they present themselves as believing Muslims, introducing heresy into Islam. Baghdadi’s list of present- day hypocrites includes Shi’ites of various denominations, Muslim rulers and the clerics that serve them, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and similar religious movements that do not understand the importance of jihad.
The use of the term “hypocrite” reveals ISIS’s reliance on historical precedents from the time of the Prophet Muhammad. The leaders of ISIS believe that what their movement is experiencing at present is a direct continuation of what the Prophet and his followers underwent in the seventh century. As they put it explicitly: “History repeats itself by Allah’s divine decree.” This forms the basis for the elitist self-image of ISIS: Just as the Prophet and his men were the chosen community in the early days of Islam, so ISIS are the chosen ones today.
Another analogy between ISIS and early Muslims relates to immigration – a fundamental concept in the history and philosophy of Islam. The leaders of ISIS assert that just as the Prophet and his men migrated from Mecca to Medina in the seventh century, so ISIS supporters must leave their homes and go to Syria.
There they will join the largest group of Muslim immigrants in the world, which is training to fight the Christians in “the great battles prior to the hour.” Just as the arrivals in Medina were the elite at the time, so those who join ISIS in Syria are today’s elite.
This comparison to the Prophet and his followers helps ISIS leaders explain why they are fighting on so many fronts, including against Islamist movements such as the Taliban and al-Qaida: “Just as the Companions had to face coalitions of various Jewish, pagan, and hypocrite parties in the Battle of al-Ahzab [the battle of the factions], the Muslims of the Islamic State face various coalitions of kuffar [apostates] having a common interest in seeing the caliphate destroyed.” Rather than see the fact that the whole world is against them as a sign of diplomatic or tactical failure, ISIS believes that this proves its similarity to the Prophet and his supporters, who faced the same challenges.
ISIS suffers the loneliness of purists, but interprets this isolation as testament to its status as a select minority.
Apocalypse: The reality beyond reality
Members of ISIS are convinced they know something that the rest of us either don’t or couldn’t handle if we did: That the human race is on the brink of the end of days, known in sacred Muslim texts as “the fierce wars.” These wars mark the arrival of the mahdi (a figure similar to the Jewish messiah). Accordingly, ISIS sees itself as the messengers of God and cosmic goodness, who are destined to confront and overcome the forces of evil.
ISIS’s apocalyptic vision assumes the existence of a hidden reality that must be revealed (the original Greek apokalypsis means “uncovering the truth”); those who do not see this reality are blind. According to its apocalyptic scheme, the Prophet and his friends defeated their opponents despite being outnumbered, conquered much of the known world at the time, and conferred Islam upon humanity. However, over time, Islam slid into moral decay and political decline, and lost its world dominance. It is ISIS’s role to restore Islam to its former glory, building up the power to embark on “the fierce wars,” vanquish enemies, and fulfill the apocalyptic vision of Islam.
This ideology, which merges past with future, yields a unique interpretation of the present. In order to build up Muslim power for the ultimate war, ISIS is re-establishing the Caliphate – an institution that symbolized the might of Islam until it was abolished in 1924, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Islamist circles were shocked by this declaration, with most voicing harsh criticism of ISIS. But enthusiasts believe that under the Caliphate, they are building up the forces that will confront the armies of the rest of the world in northern Syria and specifically in Dabiq, a town mentioned in apocalyptic Muslim traditions as the site where Muslims will vanquish their enemies.
ISIS’s leaders believe that only they can decipher Allah’s plans, and therefore they do not have to bother with mundane military analysis. For example, a rational analysis of the power balance between ISIS and its enemies would have led them to seek ways to ease their confrontations on various fronts. However, the organization steadfastly ignores this information and continues to carry out petrifying terror attacks such as those in Paris, Istanbul and Brussels, goading its enemies into even greater use of military force. This self-view moves ISIS to believe that it can function in a parallel universe of sorts, which is fueled by two fantasies: a delusion of omnipotence and a belief that it represents absolute justice.
The fantasy of power that ISIS cultivates is strikingly similar to that of apocalyptic Christian movements in the Middle Ages. In The Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn wrote that members of these medieval movements deemed themselves to be “more than human, Saints who could neither fail nor fall.” Similarly, ISIS members believe that they have been chosen by God and are directly guided by Him, and are therefore above the limitations of nature and history. Their deep inner conviction has led to an inversion of morality, which not only permits but even commands that opponents be abused and murdered en masse.
These blinding fantasies are leading ISIS towards a military and political downfall. At the same time, they are also a source of power. The illusion of omnipotence sustains belief even in the face of failure. As long as young Muslims rage against what they see as injustice caused by corrupt rulers or by condescending European societies, and so long as they continue to seek ways to correct this, some will undoubtedly buy into these delusions of grandeur and join ISIS. Even if they are a negligible percentage of Muslims around the world, this tiny force is enough to ensure ISIS’s hold on areas where central governments have lost their grip.
ISIS’s fantasies echo the world’s nightmares: both envisage the organization as disproportionally more powerful and threatening than it really is. In part, such rhetoric conveys the sincere, albeit megalomaniac, beliefs of ISIS devotees, as well as the candid anxieties of its potential victims. Yet in part, it is the outcome of an unscrupulous pursuit of political interests. ISIS’s sinister image is a product both of its own manipulations and of the inadvertent aid it receives from its Western enemies.
Western politicians, for instance, often abuse ISIS’s image to attain electoral goals, even at the price of enhancing the organization’s strength. Preying on American fears after the San Bernardino and Orlando attacks, presidential candidate Donald Trump opined a series of policy clichés that do not offer useful solutions but, rather, play into the hands of ISIS’s incitement and warmongering.
Speaking in favor of a discriminating immigration policy that would prevent nearly all Muslims from entering the United States, Trump handed ISIS another victory in the arena of psychological warfare. Targeting the Muslims collectively, as he did, is precisely fanning the flames in the way that ISIS would like to see, in the hope that this will offend Muslims, radicalize their views, and widen the gap between them and other Americans.
ISIS’s image is distorted by politicians at the other end of the spectrum, too. US President Barack Obama’s refusal to place ISIS within the orbit of Islam by labeling it “radical Islam” is puzzling. It is essential to place ISIS within the socio-religious framework of Islam, and confront it with Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders who have the tools to address its arguments and diminish its appeal. While armies can combat ISIS with military means, only Muslim spiritual leaders can contest its religious credentials and lessen its impact on Muslims.
The key to blocking ISIS’s influence and ability to recruit frustrated Muslims is cooperation with moderate Muslims, who are in fact, an overwhelming majority among Muslims. Only they have the stature and intellectual know-how to challenge ISIS in religious and spiritual terms. To do so, Western media must stop exacerbating the fear factor – since such rhetoric has become a weapon in ISIS’s arsenal. Such language alienates potential moderate allies and strengthens ISIS, who utilizes the exasperation that cynical Western politicians arouse among Muslims, in order to recruit them.
If Western pundits and politicians wish to stop being the unwitting accomplices of ISIS, they need to speak about the organization more professionally and responsibly.
The writer is a historian of Islamic movements – medieval and contemporary. He teaches in the Department of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and is a co-founder of the Forum for Regional Thinking at the Molad Institute.
A full version of this article appears on the Forum's website (www.regthink.org/).
Translated by Michelle Bubis