All world-altering revolutions are born in danger and death, brotherhood and joy. How can this one be stopped?
“Virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue…”
Maximilien Robespierre, On the Principles of Political Morality (1794)
As pundits and politicians stoked the recent shootings in California into an existential threat; as French troops were deployed in Paris; as Belgian police locked down Brussels, and US and Russian planes intensified air attacks in Syria following yet another slaughter perpetrated in the name of the so-called Islamic State, it was easy to lose sight of a central fact. Amid the bullets, bombs and bluster, we are not only failing to stop the spread of radical Islam, but our efforts often appear to contribute to it.
What accounts for the failure of “The War on Terror” and associated efforts to counter the spread of violent extremism? The failure starts with reacting in anger and revenge, engendering more savagery without stopping to grasp the revolutionary character of radical Arab Sunni revivalism. This revival is a dynamic, countercultural movement of world-historic proportions spearheaded by ISIS, (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). In less than two years, it has created a dominion over hundreds of thousands of square kilometres and millions of people. And it possesses the largest and most diverse volunteer fighting force since the Second World War.
What the United Nations community regards as senseless acts of horrific violence are to ISIS’s acolytes part of an exalted campaign of purification through sacrificial killing and self-immolation: Know that Paradise lies under the shade of swords, says a hadith, or saying of the Prophet; this one comes from the Sahih al-Bukhari, a collection of the Prophet’s sayings considered second only to the Qu’ran in authenticity and is now a motto of ISIS fighters.
This is the purposeful plan of violence that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-anointed Caliph, outlined in his call for “volcanoes of jihad”: to create a globe-spanning jihadi archipelago that will eventually unite to destroy the present world and create a new-old world of universal justice and peace under the Prophet’s banner. A key tactic in this strategy is to inspire sympathisers abroad to violence: do what you can, with whatever you have, wherever you are, whenever possible.
To understand the revolution, my research team has conducted dozens of structured interviews and behavioural experiments with youth in Paris, London and Barcelona, as well as with captured ISIS fighters in Iraq and members of Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria). We also focused on youth from distressed neighbourhoods previously associated with violence or jihadi support – for example, the Paris suburbs of Clichy-sous-Bois and Épinay-sur-Seine, the Moroccan neighbourhoods of Sidi Moumen in Casablanca and Jamaa Mezuak in Tetuán.
While many in the West dismiss radical Islam as simply nihilistic, our work suggests something far more menacing: a profoundly alluring mission to change and save the world.
In the West, the seriousness of this mission is denied. Olivier Roy, usually a deep and subtle thinker, wrote last month in Le Monde that the Paris plotters represent most who flock to ISIS; they are marginal misfits largely ignorant of religion and geopolitics, and bereft of real historical grievances. They ride the wave of radical Islam as an outlet for their nihilism because it’s the biggest and baddest countercultural movement around. And how else could one explain a mother who abandons her baby to die butchering innocents in San Bernadino who never did her harm?
But the worldwide ISIS revolution is hardly just a bandwagon for losers. Although attacked on all sides by internal and external foes, the Islamic State has not deteriorated to any appreciable degree, while rooting ever stronger in areas it controls and expanding its influence in deepening pockets throughout Eurasia and Africa. Despite recent White House reassurances, US intelligence tells us that ISIS is not being contained. Repeated claims that ISIS is being degraded and on the way to inevitable defeat ring hollow for almost anyone who has had direct experience in the field. Only Kurdish frontline combatants and some Iranian-led forces have managed to fight ISIS to a standstill on the ground, and only with significant French and US air support.
Despite our relentless propaganda campaign against the Islamic State as vicious, predatory and cruel – most of which might be right – there is little recognition of its genuine appeal, and even less of the joy it engenders. The mainly young people who volunteer to fight for it unto death feel a joy that comes from joining with comrades in a glorious cause, as well as a joy that comes from satiation of anger and the gratification of revenge (whose sweetness, says science, can be experienced by brain and body much like other forms of happiness).
But there is also a subliminal joy felt across the region for those who reject the Islamic State’s murderous violence yet yearn for the revival of a Muslim Caliphate and the end to a nation-state order that the Great Powers invented and imposed. It is an order that has failed, and that the US, Russia and their respective allies are trying willy-nilly to resurrect, and it is an order that many in the region believe to be the root of their misery. What the ISIS revolution is not, is a simple desire to return to the ancient past. The idea that ISIS seeks a return to medieval times makes no more sense than the idea that the US Tea Party wants to return to 1776. “We are not sending people back to the time of the carrier pigeon,” Abu Mousa, ISIS’s press officer in Raqqa, has said. “On the contrary, we will benefit from development. But in a way that doesn’t contradict the religion.”
The Caliphate seeks a new order based on a culture of today. Unless we recognise these passions and aspirations, and deal with them using more than just military means, we will likely fan those passions and lose another generation to war and worse.
Treating the Islamic State as merely a form of terrorism or violent extremism masks the menace. All novel developments are “extremist” compared with what was the norm before. What matters for history is whether these movements survive and thrive against the competition. For our singularly self-predatory species, success has depended on willingness to shed blood, including the sacrifice of one’s own, not merely for family and tribe, wealth or status, but for some greater cause. This has been especially true since the start of the Axial Age more than two millennia ago. At that time, large-scale civilisations arose under the watchful gaze of powerful divinities, who mercilessly punished moral transgressors – thus ensuring that even strangers in multiethnic empires would work and fight as one.
Call it “god” or whatever secular ideology one prefers, including any of the great modern salvational -isms: colonialism, socialism, anarchism, communism, fascism and liberalism. In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes deemed sacrifice for a transcendent ideal “the privilege of absurdity to which no creature but man is subject.” Humans make their greatest commitments and exertions, for ill or good, for the sake of ideas that give a sense of significance. In an inherently chaotic universe, where humans alone recognise that death is unavoidable, there is an overwhelming psychological impetus to overcome this tragedy of cognition: to realise “why I am” and “who we are.”
In The Descent of Man (1871), Charles Darwin cast this devotion as the virtue of “morality… the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy” with which winning groups are better endowed in history’s spiralling competition for survival and dominance. It is the sacred values, immune to material tradeoffs, that bind us most. In any culture, an unwillingness to sell out one’s kin or religious and political brotherhoods and motherlands is the line we usually will not cross. Devotion to these values can drive successes which are out of all proportion to expected outcomes.
Often these values, tethered to beliefs such as our “God is great, bodiless but omnipotent” or our “free markets are always wise,” are attributed to Providence or Nature. They can never be verified by empirical evidence, and their meaning is impossible to pin down. The term “sacred values” intuitively denotes religious belief, as when land is holy, but can also include the “secularised sacred” such as the “hallowed ground” of Gettysburg or the site of the attacks on New York City of 11 September 2001 (9/11). The foundational beliefs of the great ideological -isms and the quasi-religious notion of the Nation itself have been ritualised in song and ceremony and sacrifice.
“Nothing human is alien to me,” said Terence, the Roman slave who became a playwright and gave my own field of anthropology an enduring credo: to empathise with those most different from one’s own moral culture, without necessarily sympathising. This is our call to comprehend. If we can only grasp why otherwise normal humans would want to die killing masses of other humans who have harmed no one, we might ourselves better avoid killing and being killed.
In our liberal democracy, intentional mass bloodshed is considered evil, an expression of human nature gone awry. But across most of human history and cultures, violence against other groups was considered a moral virtue, a classification necessary for killing masses of people innocent of harming others.
Besides, brutal terror scares the hell out of enemies and fence-sitters. Kurdish leaders told my research group that when 350-400 Islamic State fighters came in a convoy of some 80 trucks to free Sunni captives (and massacre more than 600 Shia inmates) from Badoush prison in Iraq’s second largest city Mosul, a relatively well-equipped Iraqi army of some 18,000 troops under US-trained leaders immediately disappeared or ran away. When I asked one Arab Sunni soldier embedded with a Kurdish Peshmerga force on the Mosul-Erbil front why fellow soldiers fled, he simply said: “They wanted to keep their heads.”
The shutdown of Brussels in the wake of the Paris attacks, or of Boston in the aftermath of the marathon bombings in 2013, speaks to a comparable fear, and contributes to an underlying lack of faith in our own societies and values, something that terror attacks are designed to promote. During the Second World War, not even the full might of the German Luftwaffe at the height of the Blitz could compel the UK government and the people of London to cower so. Today, mere mention of an attack on New York in an ISIS video has US officials scurrying to calm the public. Media exposure, which is the oxygen of terror in our age, not only amplifies the perception of danger but, in generating such hysteria, makes the bloated threat to society real.
This is especially true today because the media is mostly designed to titillate the public rather than inform it. Thus, it has become child’s play for ISIS to turn our own propaganda machine, the world’s mightiest, into theirs – boosting a novel, highly potent jujitsu style of asymmetric warfare that we could counter with responsible restraint and straight-up information, but we won’t.
The outcome is dangerous and preposterous. The US Justice Department, with overwhelming support from Congress and the media, now considers the common kitchen pressure cooker to be a “weapon of mass destruction” if used for terrorism. This ludicrously levels a cooking pot with a thermonuclear bomb that has many billions of times greater destructive power. It trivialises true weapons of mass destruction, making their acceptance more palatable and their use more conceivable. In this present hyperreality, messaging is war by other means. ISIS’s manipulation of our media creates a sense of foreboding of mass destruction where it isn’t really possible, and at the same time obscures any real future threat.
Asymmetric operations involving spectacular killings to destabilise the social order is a tactic that has been around as long as recorded history. Violent political and religious groups routinely provoke their enemies into overreacting, preferably by committing atrocities to get the others to drive in the sheep and collect the wool.
When the Romans occupied Judea following the death of Christ, the first revolts involved Jewish youths throwing stones. The Jewish Zealots and especially their most extreme variant, the Sicarii (“dagger men”), amped things up, attacking Roman soldiers and Greek underlings in self-sacrificial acts during public ceremonies, cranking the wheels of revenge and retribution. The revolts ended with Rome expelling Jews from Judea, which became “Syria Palaestina,” renamed for the Philistines who had previously occupied the coastal areas. But the Jewish Diaspora spread its monotheistic faith to the far corners of the world, seeding the universal missions of both Christianity and Islam.
The violence of the Islamic State, like the revolutionary violence of many who came before, might be best characterised by what Edmund Burke called “the sublime”: a willingness, indeed need and passion, for the “delightful terror” of a sense of power, destiny, giving over to the infinite, ineffable and unknown. “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear,” noted Burke in On the Sublime and the Beautiful (1756). “For fear being an apprehension of pain or death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain. Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too…”
But for terror to succeed in the service of the sacred and sublime, “obscurity seems in general to be necessary,” Burke goes on. “Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye.” Baghdadi, Prince of the Faithful, surely fits that bill. More generally, as France’s Charles De Gaulle noted in 1932, “there can be no prestige without mystery, for familiarity breeds contempt”; and so “great leaders have always carefully stage-managed their effects” to “concentrate all… efforts on captivating men’s minds” in order that they might transcend themselves to act for a glorious, group-defining cause.
The sublime is also intensely physical and visceral, steeped in emotion and identity. Any reasoning attached to it is the slave rather than driver of the passions. There is no brainwashing, a leftover canard about allied soldiers during the Korean War being broken like Pavlov’s dogs by Red China’s psychological manipulation wizards. In Mein Kampf (1925), Adolf Hitler declared that: “All great movements are popular movements, volcanic eruptions of human passions and emotional sentiments, stirred either by the cruel Goddess of Distress or by the firebrand of word hurled among the masses.” But the word must be framed within the spectacular theatre of the sublime. When Charlie Chaplin and the French film-maker René Clair together viewed Leni Riefenstahl’s visual paean to National Socialism, Triumph of the Will (1935), at a showing at the New York Museum of Modern Art, Chaplin laughed but Clair was terror-stricken, fearing that, if it were shown more widely, all might be lost in the West.
“O soldiers of the Islamic State, continue to harvest soldiers,” Baghdadi fulminated in 2014, “erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere” and “dismember [enemies] as groups and individuals” to liberate mankind from the “satanic usury-based global system” leached by “the Jews and crusaders” – an appeal that resonates with many, and stirs at least some to atrocity.
An ICM poll in August 2014 suggested that a quarter of France’s young adults of all creeds, aged 18 to 24, had at least a “somewhat favourable” attitude towards ISIS. These specific results have not been replicated. But after the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, our research team set out to probe support in France and Spain for values favouring and opposing those professed by the Islamic State: for example, the strict Sharia of the Caliphate versus religious equality and tolerance of dissent in democracies. Among young people in the hovels and grim housing projects of the Paris banlieues, we found fairly wide tolerance or support for ISIS’s values, and even for the brutal actions carried out in their name. In Spain, among a large population sample, we found little willingness to fight in order to defend democratic values against onslaught.
It matters little that, as J M Berger wrote last month in The Atlantic, “the Islamic State’s ideological sympathisers make up less than 1 per cent of the world’s population [and] that active, voluntary participants in its caliphate project certainly make up less than a tenth of a percent.” Few, if any, revolutionary vanguards in history achieved success by first capturing a significant portion of the world’s population, or even the support of people in their home regions. During the surge of US troops in Iraq, up to three-fourths of the fighters were neutralised in Al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate, which would become ISIS, and an average of about a dozen high-value targets were eliminated monthly for 15 consecutive months, including its top leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Yet the organisation survived and the group went on to thrive beyond all expectation amid the chaos of Syria’s civil war and Iraq’s factional decomposition.
Just since the Second World War, revolutionary movements have on average emerged victorious with as little as 10 times less firepower and manpower than the state forces against them. Behavioural research in conflict zones indicates that sacred values such as national liberation, God and Caliphate, mobilised by devoted actors, empowers outsize commitment in initially low-power groups. They are able to resist and often prevail against materially more powerful armies that rely on standard incentives such as pay, promotion and punishment.
As history and empirical studies show, what matters in revolutionary success is commitment to cause and comrades. Even in the face of initial failures and often devastating defeats, this can trump overwhelming material disadvantages. In 1776, American colonists were frustrated not over economics but over a perceived denial of truths “sacred and undeniable” (Thomas Jefferson’s original words for the Declaration of Independence). They were willing to sacrifice “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honour” against the world’s mightiest empire. Britain sent a naval force of 30,000 men against the fledgling revolution in New York, home to 20,000 inhabitants, and at first almost crushed George Washington’s army. Haggard remnants of the colonial army were heading for home when Washington addressed them with an inspired appeal: “You will render that service to the cause of liberty… which you can probably never do under any other circumstances.” The army fused together in the harsh winter at Valley Forge, henceforth able to withstand any adversity.
But the sort of liberal democracy initiated by the American Revolution has never been very good at adjudicating across religious and ethnic boundaries, especially when, as in much of the Middle East and Central Asia, such boundaries are tribally based. Democracy took root in Britain’s American colonies, which had the world’s highest standard of living at the time and unprecedented opportunities for people other than Native Americans and African slaves to strike out on their own into virtually limitless territory, relatively free to realise their aspirations.
In Western Europe, democracy gradually developed during the 19th century under the tutelage of authoritarian rule. France’s Napoleon III not only continued Napoleon Bonaparte’s promotion of cultural secularism and tolerance of religious plurality, but also went on to introduce legislative elections, permit organised political opposition, and legalise the right to strike. In Europe, people were torn from ancestral lands (under laws closing the commons) to work mostly in urban centres of the industrial revolution, bound in toil and war to a novel, overarching notion of national identity.
In this landscape, liberal institutions began to develop, enabling hitherto anonymous strangers to work with one another and, if necessary, to fight together. These institutions included free and universal education, a press accessible to a wide range of information and argument, equality of all citizens before the law (at least in principle), and a culture of growing tolerance towards minorities and others. Without an overarching national identity and the liberal values and institutions to sustain it, popular choice and elections lead only to a tyranny of the majority, as both ancient Athens and post-Saddam Iraq confirm.
The chasm between values is compounded by alternate historical arcs. The West and the Arab and Muslim world have long lived mostly separate and parallel histories. In the West, people generally believe history began with Ancient Sumeria around the 26th Century BCE. Centred in the southern part of modern-day Iraq, Sumeria was birthplace to written law and literature, and to Abraham and his monotheistic creed. Civilisation then moved west to Greece and Rome. After the fall of Rome, came the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, the first political revolutions, the world wars and the Cold War. Human rights and democracy became triumphant and seemingly inevitable.
The Arab and Muslim world also begins with Sumeria but, until the world wars, Rome, Greece and the rest were peripheral. Christian Europe was the dark continent; Muslim heroes, myths, legends and references were all basically different. Sure there is Moses and Alexander and Jesus, but their profiles in Islam are distinct: Musa’s (Moses’s) life paralleled Mohammed’s and foretold the Prophet’s coming; Iskandar (Alexander) or Dhul-Qarnayn (Arabic for “The Two-Horned One”) was a religious figure to whom Allah gave great power and the ability to build a wall of civilisation to provisionally keep out the forces of chaos and evil. And Isa, or Jesus, was Allah’s righteous messenger, not his son, who did not die on the cross but, like Mohammed, was raised to heaven.
All of the European political imports and even nationalism itself (except maybe for Turkey, Egypt and Iran, which are still more built around ethnicity and faith than national identity per se) have failed in the Middle East, and miserably so. People are longing for something in their history, in their traditions, with their heroes and their morals; and the Islamic State, however brutal and repugnant to us and even to most in the Arab-Muslim world, is speaking directly to that.
Yet the US and Western powers don’t seem to recognise that revival. The hackneyed solutions amount to a tired call to shore up the broken nation-state system imposed in the aftermath of the First World War by the European victors, Great Britain and France, and a reaffirmation of “moderate Islam,” which appeals to young people’s longings for adventure, glory, ideals and significance even less than does the eternal promise of shopping malls.
Still, the popular notion of a “clash of civilisations” between Islam and the West is woefully misleading. Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. This is the dark side of globalisation. Individuals radicalise to find a firm identity in a flattened world. In this new reality, vertical lines of communication between the generations are replaced by horizontal peer-to-peer attachments that can cut across the globe.
As I told the UN Security Council this spring, what inspires the most lethal assailants in the world today is not so much the Quran or religious teachings but rather a thrilling cause and a call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. Foreign volunteers for the Islamic State are often youth in transitional stages in their lives – immigrants, students, people between jobs and before finding their mates. Having left their homes, they seek new families of friends and fellow travellers to find purpose and significance.
France’s Centre for the Prevention of Sectarian Drift Related to Islam estimates that 80 per cent come from non-religious families; West Point’s Center for Combating Terrorism finds that their average age is 25. For the most part, they have no traditional religious education and are “born again” to religion through the jihad. About one in four, often the fiercest followers, are converts. Self-seekers who have found their way to jihad reach out through private gatherings or the internet. They might be people who feel uncomfortable with binge-drinking or casual sex, or have seen their parents humiliated by employers or the government, or their sisters insulted for wearing a headscarf. Most do not follow through to join the jihad, but some do. More than 80 per cent who join the Islamic State do so through peer-to-peer relationships, mostly with friends and sometimes family. Very few join in mosques or through recruitment by anonymous strangers.
What we know about the Paris attackers fits this pattern. As with the perpetrators of the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the 2005 London Underground bombings, several of the principal plotters in the January and November Paris attacks lived for a time in the same neighbourhood, several enlisted friends and family members, and some moved in the same criminal networks and spent time together in jail.
In France and elsewhere in Europe, many of these young people feel disenfranchised by both the country they live in and their country of origin. Unlike the US, Europe was not built to absorb immigrants. In the US, Muslim immigrants attain parity or surpass the average American in wealth and education in the first generation. In Europe, they are much more likely to be poorer than the average citizen and poorer still after the second generation, a legacy of decolonisation left largely to fester unattended.
In France, 7 to 8 per cent of the total population is Muslim, the largest percentage of the total population of any state in Europe; at the same time, up to 70 per cent of the prison population is Muslim, contributing significantly to an underclass ripe for radicalisation. One 24-year-old who joined Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, described his experience in Germany:
Most European volunteers join ISIS rather than Nusra because “they believe the Caliphate is here today and there’s no need to wait for tomorrow.” Yet many volunteers for the Islamic State are far from marginal in their home countries. As one family physician wrote to me earlier this year:They teach us to work hard to buy a nice car and nice clothes but that isn’t happiness. I was a third-class human because I wasn’t integrated into a corrupted system. But I didn’t want to be a street gangster. So, I and my friends decided to go around and invite people to join Islam. The other Muslim groups in the city just talk. They think a true Muslim state will just rain down from heaven on them without fighting.
A banker from Mosul recounted:During the past few months, two groups of medical students from the University [of Medical Sciences and Technology in Khartoum, Sudan] have fled to the Levant in order to join ISIS. The families of those students have had difficulties coping with their loss. It was almost grievousness of death. The students who left from our university… are well-funded by their parents (higher middle class with multi-background). I find difficulty identifying the factors that led those smart, straight-A students, to [ISIS]. Could it be lack of identity? Could it be the universities’ fault? Could it be… the family’s lack of influence?
The Caliphate is an attractor to all of these young people, providing purpose and freedom from what they have come to see as the vice of a meaningless, material world. The Islamic State Caliphate is supposed to conform to the pure, Salafi vision of the Prophet’s initial followers (ie of the salaf, or “forebears”). It is an imperial enterprise that demands offensive jihad, or holy war, against the infidel (kafir), as an “individual obligation” (fard al-’ayn) of everyone who belongs to the “House of Islam” (Dar al-Islam).Daesh fighters came into the bank and our staff was terrified. They offered to help in any way. An Algerian, about 25, polite, asked only to be led to our computers. In a short time he downloaded all of our bank’s transactions. He said that he came to the Islamic State to put his education in computer engineering to good use.
Adherents of this pure Caliphate are violently opposed to the idea of greater jihad as an inner spiritual struggle. They consider this bogus notion of jihad to be the heart of the Sufi heresy introduced in the later Abbasid Caliphate, which corrupted the pure Arab-led form of the Caliphate and led to its decay and downfall.
At the East Asia summit in Singapore last April, some people insisted that the Caliphate was nothing more than a myth masking traditional power politics. Our research in Europe and North Africa shows this to be a dangerous misconception. The Caliphate has re‑emerged as a mobilising cause in the minds of many Muslims, and even has some appeal to Muslims who favour interfaith cooperation. “I am against the violence of Al‑Qaeda and ISIS,” said an imam in Barcelona who helps to run an interfaith dialogue initiative with Christians and Jews, “but they have put our predicament in Europe and elsewhere on the map. Before, we were just ignored. And the Caliphate… We dream of it like the Jews long dreamed of Zion. Maybe it can be a federation, like the European Union, of Muslim peoples. The Caliphate is here, in our hearts, even if we don’t know what real form it will finally take.”
Whatever form it assumes, we can be sure it will be rooted in the history and culture of the Arab states, not the West. That perspective includes the reality of Muslim dominance of middle Eurasia until the European industrial revolution and a rejection of the Western world order, be it liberal democracy or socialism, imposed after the Ottoman collapse in the early 20th century.
Perhaps above all else, the Islamic State aims to put an end to Sykes-Picot, the neocolonial order that Britain and France imposed on the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. In the spring of 2014, when ISIS bulldozed the border markers between Iraq and Syria, it generated a sense of liberation and joy for many across the region and beyond. Unlike the US and the other great powers, including Russia and China, many people in the region do not consider the current mayhem to result from failed states that now must be revived and reinforced at whatever cost, but to emanate from the expedient fictions that created those states in the first place.
Revolutions past and present are moral events. Deteriorating or rapidly changing economic and social conditions can initiate a cascading series of events to produce a political crisis. But this leads to revolutionary challenge to the prevailing order only when action becomes motivated by a new moral order, and when seizure of state power can enforce the “sacred values” that define that order.
In Egypt, the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood – the militant Islamist movement that became a political party – had been on the rise well before the Arab Spring. Although the Brotherhood initially refused to participate, the disunity of secular forces allowed it to rush in and fill the moral void after that revolution. But unlike the founders of the Islamic Republic of Iran who purged the army, controlled the bazaari (the urban commercial class) and took root in the rural religious population, Egypt’s leaders (as they told me at the time) believed that the army, economy and affection of the people would fall into line if the Brotherhood’s leadership first managed to control the messaging and Ministry of Information.
By contrast, the Islamic State has moved swiftly and ruthlessly to impose a new-old ethos among Arab Sunnis in the war-torn wastelands of the Middle East, and promises total war against the “satanic” morality of Iran and the Shia and their helpers (including the US, its allies, and Russia) in a mortal struggle for the Muslim soul and ultimately for the salvation of all mankind.
Historical analogies are always of limited usefulness, but they are also one of the only means by which we can make sense of what is new, or at least recognise where true novelty begins.
There are striking historical parallels in the history of modern revolutions ever since the Jacobin faction of French revolutionaries, led by Maximilien Robespierre, introduced the political concept of “terror” and decapitation by guillotine; this extreme measure for the defence of democracy was seen as a divine form of violence. For a decade, at the end of the 18th century, the French Revolution consumed its own like bloodied sharks, all the while fighting a fractious coalition of great powers that sought to destroy it. Yet it thrived. United and transformed into an imperial mission to reform and save humankind – as all revolutions since have endeavoured to do – revolutionary forces conquered nearly all of Europe before the Empire’s fall. And ever after, commitment to “total war” in the service of some indomitable moral and spiritual force has continued to inspire nearly all revolutions.
A series of revolutions inspired by a vision of social equality and universal brotherhood swept through Europe in 1848. Their failure has many parallels to what, in hindsight, is the wishfully misnamed (by mostly Western commentators) Arab Spring. Beginning in Sicily in January of 1848 and cascading throughout much of Europe by March and April, from Denmark to the borders of Russia, the revolutions spread through social networks and word of mouth even more widely and rapidly than did the Arab Spring through social and commercial media. Like the secular forces leading the Arab Spring, those of the 1848 revolutions showed little political unity or practical knowledge about how to create a new moral order, upon which the survival and success of every revolution depends.
Reactionary nationalist elites in concert with the Church muscled into that gap, creating a new morality of nationalism with all the quasi-religious trappings of flags, ceremonies, anthems, parades and imaginary kinship symbolising common roots in blood, soil and ethnicity. This new political morality aimed to bind to traditional elites the loyalty of peasants and workers who might otherwise again aspire to break down social hierarchies and political boundaries in the name of universal brotherhood. The 20th century’s titanic global struggle between fascism and communism is part of this legacy. It is far too early to tell what the ultimate legacy of the failure of the Arab Spring will be.
The current rivalry between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State echoes that between the anarchists and Bolshevists. Beginning in Russia in the 1870s as a movement against the power of the state and capital, the anarchist movement soon spread throughout Europe and on to the Americas. Between 1881 and 1900, assassins closely linked to the anarchist movement had killed the Czar of Russia, the President of France, the Prime Minister of Spain, the King of Italy and the Empress of Austria. In September 1901, the anarchist Leon Czolgosz assassinated the US President William McKinley.
The Great Powers considered anarchism to pose the largest threat to the internal political and economic order, and to international stability. In the face of repeated anarchist attacks randomly targeting Parisians in “bourgeois” cafés, theatres and the like, French leaders and the popular press demanded that the French people “awaken” and “unify” to fight a scourge that threatened civilisation itself. The political (and to some extent social and economic) consequences from this first wave of modern terror were similar in many respects to those of the 9/11 attacks. Teddy Roosevelt made the defeat of anarchism an overriding mission of his administration: “When compared with the suppression of anarchy, every other question sinks into insignificance. The anarchist is the enemy of humanity, the enemy of all mankind; and his is a deeper degree of criminality than any other.”
But Roosevelt didn’t restrict the fight against terrorism to anarchists alone. He expanded the war on anarchy into an imperial mission to intervene in any country around the world if necessary to protect it from foreign evil and preserve it from chaos. “Chronic wrongdoing,” he said, “or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilised society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilised nation, and may lead the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.” Most tellingly, the war against anarchy and terror helped to justify the brutal repression of an ethnic Muslim (Moro) insurgency against US rule in the Philippines.
Despite political and popular belief in the existence of an “Anarchist Central,” there never really was anything of the sort. As with Al-Qaeda, the anarchist movement was largely a decentralised movement of volunteers led by fairly well-off and well-educated folk. (Indeed, ever since the anarchist movement, revolutions have been initially led by a plurality of medical students, doctors and engineers, now mostly computer engineers, who have hands-on practical knowledge about how to accomplish things, as well as dedicated commitment to a course of action that requires willingness to delay gratification.)
What ultimately killed off the anarchist movement as a geopolitical force were the Bolshevists, who knew much better how to manage a shared political ambition through military and territorial management; they were also, on the whole, much more ruthless. In a series of recent interviews with Jabhat al-Nusra fighters from the Aleppo and Dara regions of Syria, it has become increasingly clear that ISIS is eating Al-Qaeda in much the same way that the Bolshevists co-opted and practically annihilated the anarchist movement. Even some Nusra fighters echoed this sentiment, conceding that Daesh, or the Islamic State, is better led, organised and supplied, rooted in territory, and more uncompromising and brutal in action. As one Nusra fighter lamented: “Daesh has taken our power and financial resources from us, their media is more powerful, and so we are like a fish out of water.”
Opponents of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party argued that the Nazis were neither a party of workers nor socialists. Today, we are told again and again that Islamic State is “neither a state nor Islamic,” and that when we use the term “Islamic State,” it only “feeds into its hands.” In fact, the contrary is true: believing that refusing to call the Islamic State by its own name can somehow delegitimise it is only self-deluding. (A rose, or a National Socialist, by any other name is still what or who it is.)
In fact, there is a deeper connection between the Nazi movement and the Islamic State, an association that I noted some time ago. George Orwell, in his review of Mein Kampf in 1940, descried the essence of the problem:
Man for man, the German army outfought all allied armies by any measure. In classical military doctrine, about a 30 per cent loss in a fighting unit usually leads to entropy so, when that degree of destruction is confirmed, the victorious army moves on to the next task. (This was basically how the Israeli Army fought the Six-Day War in 1967.) But German units often suffered in excess of 50 per cent loss and held fast, fought bravely and sometimes knowingly to the death in defence of a devoutly believed cause, however horrible it might seem.Hitler knows… that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene … and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice… Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.
Post-war social-psychological studies reveal that the German soldier believed in what he was doing, and fought for a cause as much as for comrades, whereas there is little evidence that the Allies fought for democracy or communism, despite Hollywood and Soviet propaganda. The German armies were destroyed only by the massive superiority of US firepower and by the massive manpower of more than 20 million Russians given over to slaughter. Perhaps it will come to something like that with the Islamic State. But, for now, the means arrayed against this dynamic revolutionary movement look feeble, and what the US government grandly dubs the “global ISIL coalition” of 65 nations seems a very tenuous, if not fatuous, thing (with several of its members ever-ready to stick knives into one another’s back).
Of course, “wars are won in the material world,” a truism that Berger duly notes in The Atlantic, but a spiritual commitment to cause and comrades conveys great advantage, all things being equal. As 14th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun first noted, comparing Muslim dynasties in North Africa with similar military might, long-term differences in success “have their origin in religion… group feeling (asabiyah) [wherein] individual desires come together in agreement [and] mutual cooperation and support flourish.”
In remarks last year, the US President Barack Obama endorsed the judgment of his Director of National Intelligence: “We underestimated the Viet Cong… we underestimated ISIL and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army… It boils down to predicting the will to fight, which is an imponderable.”
Our research suggests quite the opposite: predicting who is willing to fight and who isn’t, and why, is quite ponderable and amenable to scientific study. Thus, in our recent interviews and psychological experiments on the frontlines with Kurdish fighters of the Peshmerga and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, with captured ISIS fighters, and with Nusra fighters in Syria, we have a good initial indication of willingness to fight. Two principal factors interact to predict readiness to make costly sacrifices (go to prison, lose one’s life, have one’s family suffer, etc).
The first factor is perception of relative commitment of one’s own group versus those of the enemy to a sacred cause. This can be measured through behavioural experiments and tracked via neural imaging to show four elements. 1) Disregard for material incentives or disincentives: attempts to buy people off (“carrots”) from their cause or punish them for embracing it through sanctions (“sticks”) don’t work, and even tend to backfire. 2) Blindness to exit strategies: people cannot even conceive of the possibility of abandoning their sacred values or relaxing their commitment to the cause. 3) Immunity to social pressure: it matters not how many people oppose your sacred values, or how close to you they are in other matters. 4) Insensitivity to discounting: in most everyday affairs, distant events and objects have less significance for people than things in the here and now; but matters associated with sacred values, regardless of how far removed in time or space, are more important and motivating than mundane concerns, however immediate.
The second factor in predicting willingness to fight is the degree of fusion with one’s comrades. Consider, by way of illustration, a pair of circles where one circle represents “me” and a larger circle represents “the group.” In one set of experiments, we asked participants to consider five possible pairings: in the first pairing, the “me” circle and “the group” circle don’t touch; in the second pairing, the circles touch; in the third they slightly overlap; in the fourth they half overlap; and in the fifth pairing, the “me” circle is entirely contained within “the group” circle. People who choose the last pairing think and behave in ways entirely different from those who choose any of the other pairings. They experience what social psychologists call “identity fusion,” wedding their personal identity (“who I am”) to a unique collective identity (“who we are”). Such total fusion demonstrably leads to a sense of group invincibility and a willingness of each and every individual in the group to sacrifice for each and every other.
Only among the Kurds do we find commitment to the sacred cause of “Kurdeity” (their own term) and fusion with fellow Kurdish fighters comparable to commitment to cause and comrade among fighters of the Islamic State.
Willingness to fight and make costly sacrifices is also strongly associated with perceptions of physical formidability on the battlefield and, even more importantly, with spiritual strength. My research group found that Nusra fighters consider Iran (by which they also mean Hezbollah) to be the most formidable foe in Syria, both in terms of physical and spiritual strength, but they consider the Islamic State growing to parity on both scores. These Al-Qaeda combatants consider the US to be of middling formidability, and the Syrian and Iraqi armies to be relatively weak physically, and spiritually worthless, and thus an inconsequential enemy in the long run.
To be sure, not all who fight with the Islamic State are committed zealots. When we asked captured Islamic State fighters in Iraq: “What is Islam?” they answered: “My life,” but they had little knowledge of the Quran or hadith, and none of Muslim history. Their sense of religion was fused with the vision of a caliphate that kills or subjugates any nonbeliever, but their conversion was not complete. In the face of almost sure execution by the Kurds, most were ready to recant. In one conversation picked up by a Kurdish walkie-talkie, a fighter with a local accent asked for help: “My brother has been killed. I am surrounded. Help me take his body away.” The reply: “Perfect, you will join him soon in Paradise.” The fighter retorted: “Come for me. This Paradise, I don’t want.”
Support might be conditional, but the demands of ISIS are not. The Islamic State will say to a local sheikh: “Give us 20 young men or we loot your village.” To a father with three sons, they will say: “Give us one or we take your daughter as a bride for our men.” Last March, we were told of a girl of 15 who was “married” and “divorced” 15 times in a single night to a troop of Islamic State fighters (under some readings of Sharia law, “divorce” is as easy as repeating “I divorce you” three times, which makes it easy to cast rape as marriage).
In the face of such brutality, wavering supporters of the Islamic State could well rally to an Arab Sunni force, possibly allied with the Kurds. By contrast, foreign fighters often stand their ground, no matter what. As the chief of the Kirkuk police station housing the prisoners put it: “The foreign fighters are the most dangerous and fearless. They fight to win and they fight to die. They believe in what they are doing and will not surrender.” One 25-year-old Nusra fighter who originally joined ISIS but grew tired of “blowing up innocent civilians” confirms the Kurdish police chief’s take on foreign volunteers who desire struggle and self-sacrifice more than anything in life:
The core strategy used by the Islamic State to attract supporters and unhinge opponents is hardly a mystery, although few people engaged in policy and decision-making seem to have taken note. Its manifesto for action, a required playbook for the Islamic State’s emirs (religious, political and military leaders), is The Management of Savagery/Chaos. It was written over a decade ago, under the pseudonym Abu Bakr Naji, for the Mesopotamian wing of Al-Qaeda that would become ISIS. Think of the recent massacres in Paris, Beirut or Bamako, and then consider some of the book’s axioms.As a teen, I just wanted to play football and video games. I used to love reading fiction books. Looking back on my thoughts, it seems that my mind was too focused and distracted by the mundane: studying, getting a good job, socialising, having fun and being a family man. The concept of jihad was something scary at the time, something of sacrifice and hardship and impossible to pull off. It wasn’t long before I was informed about the concept of martyrdom (shuhada)… Immediately, my mind would conjure images of two armies fighting each other on an open plane. Warriors wielding their swords and riding along on beautiful horses, my mind in overdrive with thoughts of fighting in the way of Allah and attaining martyrdom. I never really watched much jihadi propaganda online and I was so eager to get to Syria I walked in blind with two brothers I was with, who were locals from the UK… [to] rid society of its many filths and return the Earth to a state of purity where the law of God is supreme and surpasses everything else, jealous about brothers who had been killed fighting in the way of Allah.
1) Hit soft targets: “Diversify and widen the vexation strikes against the Crusader-Zionist enemy in every place in the Islamic world, and even outside of it if possible, so as to disperse the efforts of the alliance of the enemy and thus drain it to the greatest extent possible.”
2) Strike when potential victims have their guard down to maximise fear in general populations and drain their economies: “If a tourist resort that the Crusaders patronise… is hit, all of the tourist resorts in all of the states of the world will have to be secured by the work of additional forces, which are double the ordinary amount, and a huge increase in spending.”
3) Capture the rebelliousness of youth, their energy and idealism, and their readiness for self-sacrifice, while fools preach moderation and avoidance of risk: “Motivate crowds drawn from the masses to fly to the regions which we manage, particularly the youth… [For] the youth of the nation are closer to the innate nature [of humans] on account of the rebelliousness within them, which… the inert Islamic groups [only try to suppress].”
4) Draw the West as deeply and actively as possible into the quagmire: “Work to expose the weakness of America’s centralised power by pushing it to abandon the media psychological war and war by proxy until it fights directly.” Ditto for America’s allies.
“The Extinction of the Grayzone,” a 12-page editorial published in ISIS’s online magazine Dabiq in early 2015, describes the twilight area occupied by most Muslims between good and evil – in other words, between the Caliphate and the Infidel, which the “blessed operations of September 11” brought into relief. The editorial quotes Osama bin Laden, for whom ISIS is the true heir: “The world today is divided. Bush spoke the truth when he said, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,’” with the actual “terrorist” being the Western Crusaders. Now, “the time had come for another event to… bring division to the world and destroy the Grayzone.”
In reality, last month’s Paris attack was just the latest, ever more effective, instalment for fomenting chaos in Europe, just as recent attacks in Turkey and Beirut sought to instigate more savagery and chaos in the Middle East. A welcome to Syrian refugees would clearly represent a winning response to this strategy, whereas wholesale rejection of refugees just as clearly represents a losing response to ISIS. We might wish to celebrate diversity and tolerance in the grayzone, but the general trend in Europe and the majority of the US political establishment and population is to collude in erasing it.
In Europe, the rise of radical Islam has coincided with the revival of xenophobic ethno-nationalist movements. The two trends in tandem owe in part to Europe’s low replacement rate of 1.6 children per couple, creating the need for immigration to maintain a productive workforce. At a time where there has never been less tolerance for immigration, there has never been more need.
In areas under or adjacent to Islamic State control, the general populations likely do not support either the Islamic State or the Western (and now also Russian) forces arrayed against it. They are not zealots or samurai, and do not want to die as martyrs. ISIS knows this and entices its enemies to attack the population centres that it controls, even though the ability of ISIS to diffuse its highly mobile military assets and personnel in a semi-nomadic regime without borders means that there is little infrastructure available to target. Mostly, then, the local populations suffer. Although many would run away from both ISIS and the bombs of its enemies if given half a chance, they cannot move and must exclusively depend for protection on the black banner, where evidence of gray can be punished with death. And history shows that aerial bombing campaigns generally harden populations against the bombers, whatever the regime.
In Syria and much of Iraq more generally, there is hardly any grayzone left, especially for youth torn from home and forced to join a warrior group or leave for limbo as a refugee.
In the West, the imminent death of ISIS has been greatly oversold. ISIS is destined to fail on its own, in part because it is a “desperately poor nation trying to fight a three-front war,” in part because of a “noxious ideology of governance” as two professors recently argued in Politico. The authors, the economist Eli Berman at the University of California, San Diego and the political scientist Jacob Shapiro at Princeton, invoke the doomed destiny of the current Zimbabwe State and the collapse of the Soviet Union to bolster their argument.
But historical precedence and present evidence don’t encourage their point of view. Poverty, multi-front wars and extreme or exclusive ideologies can also end in revolutionary triumph or lasting influence, as with Republican France and possibly the Islamic Republic of Iran. The authors’ contention that “as the Soviet Union was to communism, so ISIL is to jihadism” might be on the mark. However, before the Islamic State’s inherent contradictions confine it to the dustbin of history, there are likely miles and miles of grief to go. Before the revolutionary flame burns itself out, it can also burn away much in its path, and profoundly reshape the region and beyond.
The 9/11 attacks cost between $400,000 and $500,000 to execute, whereas the military and security response by the US and its allies is in the order of 10 million times that figure. On a strictly cost-benefit basis, this violent movement has been wildly successful, beyond even Bin Laden’s original imagination, and is increasingly so. Herein lies the full measure of jujitsu-style asymmetric warfare. After all, who could claim that we are better off than before, or that the overall danger is declining?
This alone should inspire a radical change in our counter-strategies. Yet, like the proverbial notion of insanity being the repetition of the same mistakes while expecting different results, our side continues to focus almost exclusively on security and military responses. Some of these responses have proven hopelessly ineffective from the outset, such as relying on the Iraqi, Afghan or Free Syrian armies.
By contrast, there is precious little attention to social and psychological needs. I don’t mean to suggest that we solve things by offering potential jihadists better jobs. A still-unpublished report by the World Bank shows no reliable relationship between job production and violence reduction. If people are ready to sacrifice their lives, then it is not likely that offers of greater material advantages will stop them.
Instead, we must meet their psychological and aspirational needs. In just one example of how we fall short, the US State Department continues to send off-target tweets through negative mass messaging in its ineffectual “Think Again Turn Away” campaign. Compare this to ISIS, which can spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist single individuals. Through its social media, the sophisticated Islamic State learns how personal frustrations and grievances can fit into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims, and then translates anger and unrealised aspiration into moral outrage. Some estimates have ISIS managing upwards of 70,000 Twitter and Facebook accounts, with hundreds of thousands of followers, and sending approximately 90,000 texts daily. ISIS also pays close attention to the pop songs, video clips, action movies and television shows that garner high ratings among youth, and use them as templates to tailor their own messages.
By contrast, the US government has few operatives who personally engage with youth before they become a problem. The FBI is pressing to get out of the messy business of prevention and just stick to criminal investigation. “No one wants to own any of this,” one group from the US National Counterterrorism Center told us. And public diplomacy efforts don’t quite get that hackneyed appeals to “moderation” fall flat on restless and idealistic youths seeking adventure, glory and significance. As one imam and former Islamic State facilitator told us in Jordan:
Local grass-roots approaches have had better luck in pulling people away. The United Network of Young Peacebuilders has had remarkable results in convincing young Taliban in Pakistan that enemies can be friends, and then encouraging those so convinced to convince others. But this will not challenge the broad attraction of the Islamic State for young people from nearly 90 nations and every walk of life. The lessons of local successes must be shared with government, and ideas allowed to bubble up before they boil over. To date, no such conduit exists, and young people with good ideas have few institutional channels to develop them.The young who came to us were not to be lectured at like witless children; they are for the most part understanding and compassionate, but misguided. We have to give them a better message, but a positive one to compete. Otherwise, they will be lost to Daesh.
Even if good ideas find ways to emerge from youth and obtain institutional support for their development to application, they still need intellectual help to persuade the public to adopt them. But where are the intellectuals to do this? Among Muslim leadership I’ve interviewed around the world, I listen to PowerPoint presentations intoning on “dimensions of ideology, grievance, and group dynamics,” notions that originate exclusively with Western “terrorism experts” and think tanks. When I ask: “What ideas come from your own people?”, I’m told in moments of candour, as I was most recently by a Muslim leadership council in Singapore, that: “We don’t have many new ideas and we can’t agree on those we have.”
And where among our own current or coming generation are the intellectuals who might influence the moral principles, motivations and actions of society towards a just and reasonable way through the morass? In academia, you’ll find few willing to engage with power. They thus render themselves irrelevant and morally irresponsible by leaving the field of power entirely to those they censure. Accordingly, politicians pay them little heed, and the public couldn’t care less, often with good reason. For example, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, many in my own field of anthropology principally occupied themselves with the critique of empire: is the US a classic empire or “empire light?” This was arguably a justifiable academic exercise, and perhaps a useful reflection in the long run, but hardly helpful in the context of a country moving fast to open-ended war, with all the agony and suffering that extended wars inevitably bring.
Responsible intellectual endeavour in the public sphere was once a vibrant part of our public life: not to promote “certain, clear, and strong” action, as Martin Heidegger wrote in support of Hitler, but to generate just and reasonable possibilities and pathways for consideration. Now this sphere is largely abandoned to the Manichean preachings of blogging pundits, radio talk-show hosts, product-pushing podcasters, and television evangelicals. These people rarely do what responsible intellectuals ought to do. “The intellectual,” explained France’s Raymond Aron 60 years ago, “must try never to forget the arguments of the adversary, or the uncertainty of the future, or the faults of one’s own side, or the underlying fraternity of ordinary men everywhere.”
Civilisations rise and fall on the vitality of their cultural ideals, not their material assets alone. History shows that most societies have sacred values for which their people would passionately fight, risking serious loss and even death rather than compromise. Our research suggests this is so for many who join ISIS, and for many Kurds who oppose them on the frontlines. But, so far, we find no comparable willingness among the majority of youth that we sample in Western democracies. With the defeat of fascism and communism, have their lives defaulted to the quest for comfort and safety? Is this enough to ensure the survival, much less triumph, of values we have come to take for granted, on which we believe our world is based? More than the threat from violent jihadis, this might be the key existential issue for open societies today.