A millennium ago, the Middle East and its great cities such as Baghdad and Damascus led in the creation of many innovations that came to define the modern world. With their foundations rooted in learning, tolerance and trade, the Arab caliphates gave future generations numerous inventions ranging from algebra to surgery. Yet now, little seems to remain of this romanticism, and instead the Arab states have descended into a modern tragedy – endless waves of unrest, fighting for democracy and the desperate wish for peace are met with war, empty promises and the failure to generate wealth.
Terror and misery rule much of the Middle East as tensions rise and the situation becomes increasingly vulnerable. Whilst Egypt and Libya are dealing with the consequences of the Arab Spring, Lebanon is trying hard to keep its steady resilience against neighbouring pressures. At the same time, Iran is attempting to close a nuclear power deal and Iraq is under continuous threat of violent extremism. Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad is simultaneously reiterating his dedication to end terrorism to the West, whilst murdering and suppressing his own people.
But it is the heartlessness of the Islamic State which is so absolute, it cannot quite be comprehended. The extremist rebel group is known for its savagery; at first, an offspring of al-Qaeda in response to America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, its progenitor has criticised IS for being too bloodthirsty and disassociated itself from the group. Between 2007 and 2011 IS faced fierce opposition on its homeland, but the Syrian civil war presented them with an opportunity for expansion and control; in June 2014 IS declared itself the State of the Islamic Caliphate (SIC), reflecting their obsessive desire for religious, political and military authority over all Muslims globally. A caliphate is originally the “government under a caliph”, a spiritual leader of Islam, said to be the successor of Prophet Muhammad. Many Muslims are outraged by their claim as a caliphate is governed under Islamic Law which IS is, ironically, breaking.
According to the Qu’ran, terrorism and any other form of murder are strictly forbidden. Furthermore, if the motive is religious, it is impermissible by Islamic Law. The attempt to impose Islam on others is not allowed: “There is no compulsion in religion. The right way has become distinct from error” (Qu’ran – The Cow 2:256). Islam, a religion so often associated with the forceful pressure of religious belief and horrific consequences if it is to be rejected, condemns it by definition. The belief in God must be chosen willingly and the relationship to Him is to be based on kindness and selflessness. At its very core, Islam preaches peace and tolerance; even with regards to paradise, the Qu’ran states that Christians and Jews are ‘awaited by the Lord’, so long as they lead righteous and good lives.
The question of Jihadism is of kindred spirit. As described by the Qu’ran, Jihad refers to the internal and external struggles to be a good believer as well as working to inform people about the faith. Generally, it is not a violent concept but if military jihad is required, it can be performed using legal, diplomatic, economic and political means. If, however, no peaceful alternative exists, the use of force is allowed but must abide according to strict rules: innocents and essentials for survival, such as livestock or water supply, cannot be harmed and propositions of peace by the opposition must be accepted. Id est, war must be ‘just’ – only those fighting ca be fought.
Dangerous falsehoods are being promulgated across nations, and yet violent extremism is setting the international scene of horror. However, the terror goes far beyond physical atrocities such as torture and mass-murder. The recent destruction of ancient artefacts and holy sites, just highlights the underlying and fundamentally quite juvenile base of IS: blindness. Fighters and leaders alike are followers. Instead of embracing the great creations of their ancestors and understanding its significance in the journey and the development of Islam, they negate their own roots. But why? Is there even a coherent reason? In the words of New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, “there is no ‘why’ in the heart of darkness”. Attempts to explain the horror by investigating the psychology or justification of the perpetrators are meaningless; and even though many would deny the title of Islamic to the Islamic State, it is just as impossible to separate the (granted, misconstrued) religious connotations IS acts upon, as it is to detach the cruelty exhibited by the Crusades. Neither accurately represented their scriptures. Nevertheless, Islam, like Christianity and any other belief-system, is more than the sum of its holy books.
And yet, just like Martin Luther attempted to strip the embellishments provided by the Catholic Church and affirm the primacy of the Bible, Ibn Taymiyya, a 13th century scholar based in Damascus, studied the practices of the first three generations of Muslims: the “forebears”, or “Salafs”. The Islamic State might be misinterpreting the scripture and acting in unforgiveable ways which repulse moderate Muslims, but it is decisively Salafist. The destruction of statues of pagan gods and other ancient articles follows the example given by the Prophet Muhammad when he demolished the idols in Mecca. One IS fighter stated “these statues and idols, these artefacts, if God has ordered its removal, they became worthless to us even if they are worth billions of dollars”. When the Islamic State proclaimed itself the special trop of a would-be global empire, they are also following the example of the warriors of the first caliphate. Their execution of enemy soldiers and the imposition of discriminatory taxes on Christians, as well as their enslavement of the women of defeated opponents can all be found in history. The miscommunication within the religion is central to its perceived cruelty and hysterical mania and still, many scholars such as those representing the Islamic Supreme Council, consider the course of action taken by IS as contradicting Islam.
But given the news of beheadings and wide-spread civilian suffering, what attracts young mujahideen from around the world? When Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana, three schoolgirls from Tower Hamlets, smuggled themselves to Syria during their half-term holiday, it was an unexpected shock. Why would three young women leave the comfort of democracy to serve a life of brutality? Following them it was “Jihadi John” (Mohammed Emwazi), a Kuwaiti-born student based in London. The notion of radicalisation takes a narrow and reversed view on the mujahideen’s journeys. It begins with their rage against the West and its perceived unforgiving, ever-suspicious view of Islam whilst assuming that these are enough reasons to turn to violence in revenge. But for most mujahideen joining the movement is rarely political or religious. The recruits are diverse – an estimated 4000 Europeans are currently fighting for IS. Thus, as their stories and their assumed roles differ, it implies that the magnetism to the Islamic State goes beyond cultural and religious ideologies or upbringing. Many come from non-practicing Muslim families and were fully integrated communities prior to their joining. In fact, according to Le Monde, a quarter of French mujahideen in Syria are from non-Muslim backgrounds. Even those who are, often possess the same disassociation from Muslim communities as from other societies.
Kenan Malik, author of The Quest for a Moral Compass, suggested in an article published by The Guardian that most are drawn to the Islamic State by something as simple and natural as the search for identity and meaning. Like most young people globally, they have a yearning for finding themselves. Their alienation takes a much more existential form than the conventional feeling of estrangement. With the continuous influx of media and easy accessibility of social networks, the context of the age-old search for ‘the self’ has shifted. In an increasingly interconnected, globalised world moral lines are often blurred and identities distorted. Social alienation may have incentivised people to join movements for political and social change in the past, but contemporary disaffection finds its foundation not in progressive politics but in politics of identity. Here, problems are not seen in political and economic terms. Instead, the focus is on cultural and ethnic identity – perhaps most prominently: who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? Islam as advertised by IS provides a way to create an identity that is intensely parochial but seemingly universal, connecting Muslims across the world in their struggles and giving the impression of being part of a global, spiritual movement of enlightenment. Islam offers the illusion of a fight against an immoral present and for a utopian future.
To claim that the executed savagery is rooted in certain people or a certain religion is to forget that the great atrocities of our age have been perpetrated on different continents by people professing different ideologies and different religions. Before the Islamic State there was Rwanda, and the Lord’s Resistance Army and the killing fields of Cambodia, and before that, in Europe, the Holocaust. It is a complete delusion of power. An attempt to annihilate all people of a specific ethnicity, religion or movement has, fortunately, rarely been successful. Official UN assessment has rated the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities by mujahideen in Iraq as genocide. In early February Kuridsh Peshmerga fighters discovered a mass grave with the mortal remains of Yazidi men, women and even children killed by IS mujahideen. In addition, IS terrorists are being accused of further crimes against humanity and war crimes – but they are not alone, the Iraqi military has also been suspected of heavy delinquencies.
The endless cycle of fighting fire with fire is perfectly represented here, though it is important to remember tactical thinking in the face of emotional outrage. Any movements in the area require a precise strategy reminiscent of chess play: solid and adaptable strategic planning will anticipate the moves of the impulsive, young opponent. Though difficult, it is necessary to remove emotions when deciding on actions to undertake; outrage and disgust, though an understandably human reaction, could be blinding in the process. Long term planning, not only reacting to provocations, is key.
It is a grotesque reality to question: how could it be the case that such a vast number of intelligent and resourceful young people identify with an ideology which advocates mass beheadings, slavery and the denial of rights to women? How could nothing else be more appealing? How could it be that Western nations are finding their hands tied by past experience, unable to truly intervene? The rise of IS in Iraq means that failure of the post-colonial state in the region is once again imminent. Post-Saddam Iraq was supposed to become a model of democracy and inclusivity from which other nations in the Middle East could take inspiration. Instead, it is a fragile state increasingly weakened by ethnic and sectarian divides. This gulf originates from the unstable pillars on which the current Iraqi regime was established and the recurring failures of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s policies.
The fragility is almost a curse of the region. The process of nation-building has been overall rather unsuccessful due to exclusionary politics characterised by the behaviour of regiments, particularly in Iraq. IS has a similar focus: it desires to build its own recognised state and to consolidate the powers in the areas it had previous control over. Whilst in the summer of 2014 the vast majority of fighting in which they engaged seemed territorial, much of this has shifted. IS is expanding into surrounding areas not only in an attempt to spread their ideologies, but also to simply fulfil their chosen mission. On 19 March 2015 the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Tunisia Bardo Museum massacre, killing over 20 people. It stated that the attack had targeted “citizens of the Crusader countries” and that Allah had “brought terror to the hearts of the infidels”. Their claim to represent the original Islamic Caliphate is a key trigger in this expansion and will lead to more direct clashes with Western interests.
The political transformation necessary in Iraq and Syria continue to be unlikely in the near future. The system is broken. Iraq lacks competent and confident leaders with a clear vision of democracy and authenticity whilst Syria remains under the control of a man who is a slave to his hunger for power. In the light of fragility, IS has taken the one opportunity it found. Its brutality is real, as is its innovation – branding them as yet another group of fanatics is dangerous and it is vital not to underestimate their influence. While there exists a juxtaposition between what Islam preaches and the cruel adaptation of Salafism IS propagates, the Islamic State has redefined modern recruitment. How peaceful ideas can so easily turn into cruelty and bloodshed will forever remain one of the greatest struggles in humanity.
 Qur’an 6:151: “and do not kill a soul that God has made sacrosanct, save lawfully.”, 5:53: “… whoso kills a soul, unless it be for murder or for wreaking corruption in the land, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and he who saves a life, it shall be as if he had given life to all mankind.”
 Shahenn, Kareem. “Isis fighters destroy ancient artefacts at Mosul museum.” The Guardian. 26 February 2015.