21 March 2015

Options: Conversion, Slavery, Payment, or Death

Quiz time: which of the following statements are wrong?

– Islamic State fighters and supporters are not all psychopaths

– Islamic State supporters take religion very seriously

– the proclaimed caliph, Baghdadi, actually descends from the rightful tribe of the Prophet, the Quraysh

– the establishment of a caliphate requires all Muslims to immigrate

– your only options if you don’t submit to the caliph are: to die, be a slave, or pay a tax (you don't necessarily get to choose)

– the Islamic State will survive and likely continue to attract overseas fighters in droves, as long as it continues to expand its territory

– religion has to do with the motivations of the Islamic State, as much as other political, social and economic factors

Reflection of a minaret of  Süleymaniye’s mosque in Istanbul

If you believe that any one of the above statements above is wrong, then you’re in for a big surprise: they are all correct. This enlightening piece by journalist Graeme Wood in this month’s edition of The Atlantic Magazine will give you a lot to think about. Why you should read it (you won’t because you’ll find it too long – makes me think I should finish my draft post on “the currency of paying attention”)?

– because the journalist couldn’t be ideologically further from the atrocities and ideology of the Islamic State, and yet got the informal stamp of approval from some of the group’s thinkers on his article

– because you will see how political correctness and a little brainwashing don’t make for a good understanding of what’s going on nor for elaborating the more relevant response

– because, alas, it won’t change anyone’s opinion and “those in charge will ignore” the prophecies written 1,400 years ago and rigorously followed by the Islamic State, “and screw things up anyway”

Yes, the Islamic State draws its roots from a literal and medieval-age, even learned, interpretation of Islam, that includes slavery, crucifixion and beheadings: it is undeniably Islamic. No, it’s not the only flavour of Islam – even al Qaeda’s version is different, to the point that its leaders are considered as apostates by the newly-found caliphate (the irony). Yes, it’s a perfectly coherent belief system, once one accepts its foundational axioms. No, nobody can tell for sure whether supporters of the Islamic State truly believe in what they profess but then nobody can say anything about anyone’s beliefs, so let’s just stick to what they say, write and do, shall we? Yes, other religions have also proven to be strong motivators for raping and killing and doing all sorts of other wonderful things. No, not all Muslims support the Islamic State, far from it (200 million Shia are already marked for death just because Shiism is considered an “innovation” for the Islamic State, and therefore regarded as apostasy).

The Islamic State is following the prophecy and example of Muhammad: it’s claimed, obsessively, seriously, across the board, loud and clear. No other group in recent history has been more faithful to the Prophetic model – and that’s what makes it fascinating. Of course, other political, social and economic factors have fertilised the soil on which the Islamic State has grown. But denying the millenarian group’s religiosity, to which legitimacy they have just as anyone else for their own beliefs, will simply lead us to continue underestimating it, devising absurd plans to counter its expansion. In fact, the group is completely predictable because it rigorously follows a known ideology: they are in “offensive jihad” – expanding into countries ruled by non-Muslims – an aspect of Islamic law that most Muslims thankfully don’t consider (yet) applicable. We should have identified those expansion intentions sooner. We haven't. Now we’re stuck with the least worst option: to slowly bleed it by containing its expansion with air strikes, constraining it to the almost-barren land it occupies, which will not kill its ideology but its emotional appeal. Invading on the ground? Don’t even consider it: past interventions in that region only opened up the space for such radical groups. In fact, the Islamic State would love to see Western soldiers on its soil, confirming their suspicion that the West is embarking on a “modern-day Crusade” to kill all Muslims.

So: claiming that the Islamic State is un-Islamic would be completely counterproductive. For most Muslims, slavery may not be legitimate in today’s world but it cannot be condemned without contradicting the example of the Prophet… which would be an act of apostasy. The debate is happening within Muslim ranks though (for it would be absurd for non-Muslims to tell Muslims how to practice their religion, even if it’s certainly worth reading the Quran before talking about it). But reform or other interpretations could take different paths – in fact, Salafism is another ultraconservative, uncompromising literal version of Islam, but it focuses (first) on personal purification, in principle detaching itself from politics, before considering the expansion the “land of Islam”. There’s perhaps not much point in debating on the ideological front though: people are already convinced, entrenched in their own opinions. But understanding what they believe in can help in opting for better solutions, while avoiding political correctness in the process.

Brace yourselves. We’re not at the end of terror attacks committed a little bit everywhere on the planet, including by people truly motivated by their beliefs, with the vast majority of victims actually sharing a different interpretation of the same belief. But that’s unfortunately part of mankind's history and implacable future – and in the case of the Islamic State, unlike al Qaeda (hoping it doesn’t join forces, just like Boko Haram recently did), its focus is on the “nearby” enemy, not (yet) some distant towers in another land. It doesn’t mean we can’t prevent some of those attacks but they will undoubtedly happen, time and time again. If at least political correctness – and perhaps ignorance – were not blinding most pundits and other so-called experts, if it were not leading states to stir things up and make mistakes, we’d perhaps be slightly less worse off. Just perhaps.