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A Beginner’s Guide to ISIS

Graeme Wood of The Atlantic has just published one of the most serious, searching profiles of the ideology of the self-proclaimed Islamic State that you will encounter. In it, Wood travels the globe in order to interview ISIS’s intellectual champions and allies, asking them to articulate why they find Baghdadi’s claims to authority to be rigorous, authoritative, and binding (though they each skirt the issue of their own professions of allegiance in order to stay out of jail). Wood goes on  to interview the foremost scholars on the organization’s ideology, who heap scorn on those who seek to dismiss ISIS as simply “un-Islamic.” Wood writes,

Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

Wood explains just how damaging some of that misguided miscategorization has been, when he details how the U.S.’s attempt to use a senior jihadist cleric, and ISIS critic, to persuade ISIS to free U.S. citizen Peter (Abdul Rahman) Kassig may have guaranteed his demise:

It entailed the enlistment of Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, the Zarqawi mentor and al-Qaeda grandee, to approach Turki al-Binali, the Islamic State’s chief ideologue and a former student of Maqdisi’s, even though the two men had fallen out due to Maqdisi’s criticism of the Islamic State. …

Maqdisi gets mocked roundly on Twitter by the Islamic State’s fans, and al‑Qaeda is held in great contempt for refusing to acknowledge the caliphate. Cole Bunzel, a scholar who studies Islamic State ideology, read Maqdisi’s opinion on Henning’s status and thought it would hasten his and other captives’ death. “If I were held captive by the Islamic State and Maqdisi said I shouldn’t be killed,” he told me, “I’d kiss my ass goodbye.”

Kassig’s death was a tragedy, but the plan’s success would have been a bigger one. A reconciliation between Maqdisi and Binali would have begun to heal the main rift between the world’s two largest jihadist organizations.

He also details ISIS’s obsession with the town of Dabiq, where they believe a final millenarian battle with Rome will take place, bringing about the Day of Judgment.

If the United States were to invade, the Islamic State’s obsession with battle at Dabiq suggests that it might send vast resources there, as if in a conventional battle. If the state musters at Dabiq in full force, only to be routed, it might never recover.

And yet the risks of escalation are enormous. The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself.

Wood finally offers “quietist Salafism” as a possible ideological off-ramp that could channel those seeking extremist faith into pursuing their own purification, instead the purification of the world of an ever-growing list of apostates: “The people who arrive at the faith spoiling for a fight cannot all be stopped from jihadism, but those whose main motivation is to find an ultraconservative, uncompromising version of Islam have an alternative here.”

The entire essay is very worthwhile, and a serious engagement with ISIS’s ideology in order to try and understand how to use ISIS’s commitments against it. He writes, “It’s hard to overstate how hamstrung the Islamic State will be by its radicalism,” and that its authority will wane should it not be able to continue expanding as it is ideologically committed to continually attempt. How best to starve the Caliphate is a difficult and fraught question, however. I recommend reading the whole thing.

about the author

Jonathan Coppage is a TAC associate editor. He received a BA in Political Science from North Carolina State University, and previously attended the University of Chicago, where he studied in the Fundamentals: Issues and Texts great books concentration. Jonathan also worked at The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society. Jon can be followed on Twitter @JonCoppage, or reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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