It is perhaps disingenuous to claim that ISIS is not “Islamic,” as many Muslim apologists have attempted, in part because there is no “true” and “false” Islam objectively accessible to human beings. Would-be Caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s interpretation may be far outside the mainstream contemporary or traditional approaches to Islam, but doesn’t make it “un-Islamic.” In fact, making these pejorative declarations about others’ faith (takfir) is a highly-controversial practice definitive of ISIS, which it uses to justify the persecution of religious minorities. Mainstream Muslims would be emulating their error to declare ISIS as non-Muslims in virtue of their fringe views.
Nonetheless, it is misleading to focus on ISIS’ supposed religion, in part because it implies that the group is organized around some well-worked out theological system, and that most of ISIS’ members subscribe to this system, having joined the organization for primarily religious purposes. There is absolutely no evidence to substantiate any of these premises.
For starters, most of ISIS’ members are indigenous Iraqis and Syrians. This is significant because al-Baghdadi’s belief system is heavily inspired by salafism—a movement which is only endorsed by a small minority of Sunnis, concentrated most heavily in the Persian Gulf and N. Africa. The beliefs and practices which define salafism are not widely accepted in Iraq or Syria, regardless of sectarian affiliation. Al-Baghdadi is not widely-viewed as a legitimate theologian, even in salafi circles. Instead, most prominent salafi intellectuals have decried his caliphate as ill-conceived at best and heretical at worst—even most jihadist theologians have dismissed al-Baghdadi and his caliphate, calling on those who are ideologically drawn towards ISIS to defect to more respectable groups.
The sense in which al-Baghdadi and ISIS have legitimacy among some sunni of Iraq and Syria is as an opposition force to their respective governments (although the extent to which ISIS poses a threat to these governments is probably radically overstated). That is, most of those who join ISIS have local rather than global aspirations–al-Baghdadi’s rhetoric notwithstanding, most are not interested in some global or cosmic war.
While ISIS’ membership are exclusively sunni, it is important to note that within Iraqi context “sunni” and “shia” represent socio-political identities more than religious ones. The sunni grievances with the government aren’t that it imposes shia interpretations of sharia law, or otherwise interferes with sunni religious practices. Instead, the sunni are outraged by political and economic disenfranchisement as a result of Iraq’s confessional political system (put in place by the U.S.), and the overbearing security apparatus which enforces this order. One should be similarly wary of viewing the Syrian sunni homogenously and as being sympathetic towards ISIS: by the available evidence, most of them support the government, or in any case, reject the armed opposition—including (perhaps especially) ISIS.
Rather than joining for religion, many recruits are driven to the organization for financial reasons. The economy of Syria has been decimated by the war—especially in the “rebel-held” areas which receive little-to-no government assistance and are often under siege or assault. Many in the rural areas of Iraq are also in economic crisis and believe the central government is misusing the oil wealth reaped from their territories. ISIS exploits this desperation, offering superior wages for those who join—be it on a freelance or regular basis. In short, a good deal of ISIS’ fighters are essentially mercenaries rather than zealots. In fact, a good deal of ISIS’ leadership are former (secular) Baathist military elites.
But many of ISIS’ staff are not even fighters at all. As the organization expands and diversifies its enterprises and governance, a large and growing share of its members are tasked with administrative and industrial functions. So not only do most indigenous ISIS members not join for the sake of jihad, many never even engage in the fighting. In case of emergency they could be used as reserves—this is why estimates claim ISIS can probably muster between 20,000 and 31,000 fighters: this is not their active combat staff, but people who are serving other functions and could (theoretically) be called up to the frontlines.
ISIS’ exogenous recruits tend to be more fanatical than the indigenous ones, and more focused on waging war, but even most of these are not driven primarily by religion. For those hailing from other parts of the Greater Middle East, they generally take up arms to fight against dictators, occupiers and their proxies—that is, with political goals in mind. Others are driven for the money: ISIS pays foreign fighters $1,000 per month, a fortune for many from Africa or parts of the Mideast.
Regarding ISIS’ Western recruits, they are driven by a host of psycho-sociological factors, but again, religion does not seem to be the major one. Many join to be part of a group, to participate in some larger cause, to make a difference and do something important. Others, because they seek “cognitive closure” and are thereby drawn to ISIS’ straightforward “good v. evil” narrative; many of these want to “fight the system” rather than purging infidels or pursuing the particular political goals local sunni are striving for. Still others are just thrill seekers, nihilists, or psychopaths looking to dive into a bit of carnage. Many of these are not Muslims, nor do they or their families hail from Middle East. Others are recent converts who adopted Islam as an expression of their pre-existing support for ISIS (rather than supporting ISIS as a result of their religious beliefs).
And so we can see the problem with calling on Muslim leaders to denounce ISIS (which, for the reference, they have done in droves)—it presupposes that those inclined to join ISIS are devout, well-educated in Islam, seek out the opinions of these leaders and follow their advice. This is very far from reality. As an exemplar: two Arab-American youths were arrested trying to join ISIS in Syria. Just prior, they purchased two books in preparation for their jihad: Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies (there are similar stories in the UK). In a very telling recent poll, 16% of French citizens (27% of youth 18-24) seem to support ISIS. Now, as Muslims constitute just over 5% of France’s population and, of course, French Muslims have been very vocal in opposing ISIS—this means almost all of the respondents who indicated support for ISIS were not Muslims at all (for the reference, one sees similar trends Europe’s growing anti-Semitism).
Sectarian Narratives, Sectarian Strategies
Not only is focusing on ISIS’ supposed ideology problematic for the reasons above, it is also generally unhelpful in guiding policies. Consider the Obama Administration’s anti-ISIS strategy: it assumes that, in virtue of building a coalition from among “sunnis,” the people of Iraq and Syria will welcome the bombings and turn against ISIS. The opposite has proved true.
Even in the longer run, the White House’s explicitly sectarian strategy will certainly do more harm than good. It will do nothing to endear the local populations to America and its allies, in part because the coalition is drawn from longstanding geopolitical adversaries of Iraqis and Syrians, and is moreover comprised almost entirely of repressive monarchies. Those who are sympathetic to ISIS would be more inclined to take up arms against these governments than partner with them against al-Daesh. In a further irony, it is these “moderate Sunni allies” who, themselves, are largely responsible for proliferating the very ideology from which ISIS is derived.
The idea of partnering with these powers to cultivate overtly sunni militias as proxies in Syria is similarly ill-formed—based once again on the erroneous idea that people are joining ISIS and/or fighting Assad for primarily sectarian religious reasons (and also, that empowering these sorts of proxies is effective, which is almost never the case).
By failing to understand what fuels the uprisings against the governments of Iraq and Syria, or the sources of ISIS’ appeal, the Obama Administration’s problematic narratives and indefinite military campaign are likely to instead bolster ISIS’ legitimacy both in the Mideast and abroad.
The media is complicit in this insofar as it discusses ISIS primarily as a religious movement rather than a political one—and then ignorantly, reductively, hyperbolically, and condescendingly speculates ad infinitum about the merits of ISIS’ supposed theological views in relation to those of the broader Muslim community. In doing so, they provide oxygen to a dangerous distraction from more serious and well-formed questions about how to undermine and ultimately overcome ISIS.
In fact, this is perhaps the best description of entire spectacle surrounding the “Islamic State”—a dangerous distraction from America’s other, far more pressing, societal and security concerns. The sooner the public and policymakers realize this, the better off the world will be. But one shouldn’t hold one’s breath: Washington seems to instead be gearing up for a conflict that will needlessly (and likely fruitlessly) persist over decades rather than months or years.