[ by Charles Cameron — part 1 of a series I’ve been working on for almost two week, that keeps morphing and growing as new news comes in ]
For a visceral take on Daesh / IS, ICYMI, there’s the PBS Frontline special The Rise of ISIS, highly recommended. Here’s a clip:
The whole thing can be viewed here: The Rise of ISIS.
Here’s as close as Frontline comes to an analysis of the religious driver that motivates Daesh / IS:
LAITH KUBBA, Fmr. Iraq Government Spokesman: By declaring the Khalifah, they did something nobody else has done.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] The caliphate.
LAITH KUBBA: The caliphate. The implication of this in the minds of the traditional Salafi believers is that they have a religious obligation to pledge loyalty.
MARTIN SMITH: Salafis being hard-core Islamist fundamentalists.
LAITH KUBBA: I would say the traditional religious fundamentalist. Due to their faith in that particular sect, they have an obligation to respond to a caliph if he calls them. Now, I know not all Salafis will do that. But even if 1 percent of the Salafis do that, you’re talking about tens of thousands of people now in Nigeria, in Saudi Arabia, in Jordan, in every Muslim country, Sunni country.
That’s okay, but it doesn’t go as far as Martin Dempsey:
This is an organisation that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision which will eventually have to be defeated.
An “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision” in Islam is a Mahdist vision — a Mahdist strategic vision. Remember those final 100 pages of Abu Musab al-Suri’s Call devoted to end times ahadith — of which J-P Filiu said there was “nothing in the least rhetorical about this exercise in apocalyptic exegesis. It is meant instead as a guide for action”?
That was a detailed “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision” too.
For a verbal take that’s more military and political than religious, the Soufan Group report, The Islamic State is excellent. Some quick quotes:
Its most active supporters are generally insufficiently knowledgeable about their religion to challenge the distortions of Islam preached by the ideologues of The Islamic State. They accept at face value the justifications provided for the widespread murder and absolutist style of government that are its hallmarks. Their individual motivation for joining has more to do with the dynamics of a social network that provides direction, identity, purpose, belonging, empowerment and excitement, than it does with religious understanding.
It’s not uncommon for pollsters, analysts and pundits to confuse or conflate religious ignorance and knowledge, religious observance or non-observance, and religious devotion or disinterest. In either form, it’s a dangerous confusion, since it is perfectly possible to be lax in observance and lacking in even basic religious knowledge – and yet be highly inflamed in religious devotion.
Likewise, the idea that participants’ “individual motivation for joining has more to do with the dynamics of a social network .. than it does with religious understanding” glosses over the fact that what the social network introduces to the prospective jihadist is in act an extremely simple “religious understanding” — of IS as the army of God in the the final battles of the end times.
It doesn’t take great learning to read the pages of Dabiq and accept this premise, along with the sense that numerous presumably informed scholars, not to mention Quranic verses and reputable ahadith, support it. And from there to passionate enthusiasm, augmented and empowered by the finality of the struggle and the divine mandate that supports it, is more like a rush to the head than a lightbulb above it.
The coalition airstrikes against The Islamic State, which have also targeted Jabhat al Nusra in Syria and senior al Qaeda members who are there to promote the al Qaeda agenda both in and beyond Syria, has revived attempts to bring the groups together in the face of a common enemy. These appeals are unlikely to succeed in the short term unless Abu Bakr is recognized as holding some superior position to the leader of any other group, including Zawahiri.
What seems significant here is that final phrase:
unless Abu Bakr is recognized as holding some superior position to the leader of any other group, including Zawahiri
There are three titles which would fit the qualification of “holding some superior position” to Zawahiri. In ascending order, they are:
This is the title the Shura Council of ISI, the predecessor group to ISIS and now IS, conferred on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now the “caliph” of Daesh / IS, in 2010. It is also the title by which Zawahiri recognizes the authority of Mullah Omar, And it is likewise claimed, as I mentioned — in my post A claim that al-Baghdadi is the Dajjal, maybe? — by King Mohammed VI of Morocco and Sultan Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar III of Sokoto.
This is the title Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed for himself in announcing that ISIS was becoming the Islamic State. It is a claim that has been repudiated by ulema including the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Grand Sheikh of Saudi Arabia, and Yusef al-Qaradawi
— not to mention on the Shia side, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, currently working to reconcile Shia and Sunni alike in opposition to the IS “caliphate”.
This is, in a non-musical sense, the final trump. There is no greater figure in the Islamic future than the Mahdi, the Rightly Guided one, who when Jesus descends to support him will invite Jesus to lead the prayers, and Jesus will demur.. And while this title has not yet been applied to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, currently known as Caliph Ibrahim
So what remains unspoken?
In neither the Frontline piece nor the Soufan Group‘s report is there any mention of the “ideology” involved being apocalyptic, eschatological, millennarian, and thus by implication Mahdist.
Let’s introduce that idea once again into the mix, and see what we may see.
From a religious point of view The Islamic State should have as an early objective the conquest of the Hejaz as the location of the two holy places, Mecca and Medina, but it has not given this as its aim. The challenge to the religious authority of the king of Saudi Arabia is clear enough, but in purely political terms, Abu Bakr’s group still reflects its origins as an Iraqi movement with Iraqi objectives though now with an increasing stake in Syria.