Fighting ISIS, Grappling With Islam


Whether or not violent Islamists represent the ‘true’ Islam is beside the point: they kill and die believing that they do. Logic decrees that the key weapons will never be cruise missiles and drones. Rather, the most potent strategy hangs on a keen and clear-minded willingness to understand what motivates such actions and goals.

The recent recapture of Ramadi, Iraq, from the Islamic State is a welcome development to emerge from a region not known for good news. The withdrawal of ISIS fighters displays the jihadists’ military weakness in the face of the American-backed Iraqi national forces. Before pats on the collective back of the anti-IS alliance are shared, however, we need to pause and consider the nature of the threat before us.

The fascination with the Islamic State’s gruesome tactics has meant that the ideological foundations of the caliphate have been underestimated. World leaders might claim a victory against ISIS in the months to come, but this will be a limited triumph; the repercussions of the caliphate will be felt for decades.

The Islamic State was never going to be a conventional army for long, considering the overwhelming firepower facing it. Its ability to capture and control entire cities, a powerful propaganda tool, could not last and the current rolling back of its territory is not surprising. The jihadists’ use of heavy weapons and armed convoys will lessen as they sustain further losses under bombardment from Russia, and the US and its allies in Iraq and Syria.

We can safely assume that the Islamic State leadership is well aware of the probable doom of their caliphate. The decentralisation of their forces, as they don civilian clothing and infiltrate Iraq, Syria, and nations further afield—did someone mention France?—has doubtless begun. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, or the Islamic State of Iraq during the 2007-8 troop surge, they will become sleeper cells or wage a low-level insurgency, biding their time until the West’s attention has shifted to another hot spot. When the time is right, they will re-emerge to continue the holy fight they think has been raging since the 7th century and push the expansion of Dar al-Islam, the House of Islam.

Such is the commitment of these fighters to their religion, whether a misinterpretation or not. It’s a reality that the West, if it continues along its current path of believing what it wants to hear about Islam, will struggle to understand and never acknowledge. Until the West is willing to recognize a few hard truths, the threat posed by violent Islamists will continue to be misconstrued as the results of neo-colonialism, poor economic prospects, political dissatisfaction, and general disenfranchisement among Muslims.

Now, to be clear, these may well include legitimate grievances, and all are worthy of consideration. But if someone truly thinks that a combination, or indeed all of these factors, is the only motivation for the barbarities unleashed by violent Islamists—whether the Taliban, IS, or Hezbollah—then we’re justified in questioning their commitment to truth. Why? Because of what the groups themselves spend their time talking about and fighting for: Islam.

Whether or not the violent Islamists represent the ‘true’ Islam is beside the point; they kill and diebelieving that they do. Their ideas, which they insist are taken directly from the Koran and Islam’s last prophet, cannot be beaten with Tomahawk cruise missiles or Predator drones. Only through a deep engagement with Islam, can the West begin to understand Islamist fervour, motivation, and goals. There is no promise that this engagement will help defeat violent Islamists per se, but it seems to be the only route remaining to be properly explored.

If the creed followed by the Islamic State can be defeated, it will only be through greater understanding — not by grasping at the simplistic and exculpating claims of those who don’t bother explaining why IS has nothing to do with Islam, insisting all the while that it doesn’t, and expect us to believe them.

Islam, as a religion, culture, worldview, political structure, legal system, and its multiple interpretations, must become open for discussion. Islam’s final prophet and his words and actions must become as widely known to Western citizens as their own post-Enlightenment worldview and their societies’ basis on Judeo-Christian ideals. If knowledge is power, then the West has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to the world’s fastest growing religion.

This article first appeared on Quadrant Magazine Online.

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