“We hate you, first and foremost, because you are
disbelievers; you reject the oneness of Allah – whether you realise it or not.”
From ‘Reasons why we hate you’, in Dabiq, issue 15.
There is a scene at the start of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings wherein a youthful Moses, still a member of the Egyptian royal household and unaware of his own past, visits the Israelites to try and understand their ways.
“What do you pray for?” he asks an uncommunicative group of elders.
“We pray to see Canaan again,” reluctantly answers one (Ben Kingsley). Moses assures them that they have no chance of return – “…it’s inhabited by tribes fiercer than Egypt’s military…” – but gets a swift response – “God says otherwise.”
“Which God? Your God? The God of Abraham – the one that says you are special? Chosen?” The rationalist Moses then summons the elder up onto his feet to deliver some home truths:
“You’re wrong,” says Moses, searching the elder’s face for reaction. “I can see you’re unconvinced and that’s a problem…because next to unrealistic belief lies fanaticism, and next to that sedition, and next to that revolution.”
Fast forward to the present and the very same tensions - between religious and sceptical minds, and modern states wrestling with burgeoning fifth columns – remain persistent sores. But how should such populations be handled? With diplomacy, tea and sympathy? Or by calling a spade an effing spade? Or some mixture thereof – classic ‘good cop bad cop’? All this comes to the fore with one very modern question: how Islamic is the Islamic State? With most Muslims desperate to put clear blue water between themselves and what must be the world’s ultimate Marmite entity – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State in Iraq and Syria - the framing of ISIS has become a highly sensitive issue.
Enter the British historian Tom Holland, whose Channel 4 documentary, ISIS: The Origins of Violence, unpicks this very question. He starts by visiting Paris, scene of several recent ISIS attacks including those on the Bataclan, whereupon he observes that ‘…these were not simple murders; these were murders in the service of an idea’ (i.e. killing in the name of God). Travelling east, he reads from an ISIS manual, ‘The Management of Savagery’: We need to massacre others…hostages must be eliminated in a terrifying manner. The circumstances we are now in resemble those faced by the first Muslims.
He then looks back at those first Muslims: at Constantinople, capital of the Christian Roman empire in the early 8th Century AD, and suggests that the Quranic concept of Jihad – struggle in the name of God – was rebooted into violent struggle, ‘sacred violence’, in order to take the city. Holland’s point is clear – that the progenitors of ISIS can be found at the very formation of the Ottoman empire.
Having laid down his premise, Holland shifts focus to those who have fallen within ISIS’s crosshairs. He visits Mar Mattai, a monastery in northern Iraq, in what was once the beating heartlands of Christendom – and which today stands on the very edge of ISIS-held territory. Throughout the documentary, the historical account is interwoven with heavy emotion, and in interviewing Father Youssef, a lone figure looking every bit like the last Quagga, the point is painfully evident.
But Christians are ‘People of the Book’ whereas the Yazidis, for ISIS, are mushrikun – Pagans – and in August 2014, ISIS attempted to expunge them off the face of the earth. Why? Because according to their weltanschauung, they were simply implementing God’s injunctions – as per their interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law) – something which even Middle-Eastern Christians are being killed for:
‘Mr Speaker,’ beseeched a Yazidi woman in front of the Iraqi parliament, in what was one of the most harrowing moments in the documentary, ‘we are being slaughtered under the banner of la ilaha illallah.’
Holland sees such injunctions as ‘…unexploded bombs lying in wait in the rubble, and something then happens to trigger them. And there are clearly verses in the Qur’an and stories told about Mohammed, that are like mines waiting to go off.’ Which then prompts him to ask, ‘What has triggered them?’
To answer, Holland again looks back in time, this time to the modern West’s first conqueror of Muslim lands – Napoleon, who in 1798 invaded Egypt and began a project to not simply colonise their land but, as Holland emphasizes, to colonise Muslim minds – to remake the East in a Western image. And from that point in time, with the Muslim world’s curve in freefall and post-Enlightenment Europe going from strength to strength, the hard and ‘soft’ influence that the West has exercised over Muslim societies, has proven intolerable for some. And this, for Holland, is the trigger for ISIS: ‘…that they dream, like us, of seeing their values triumph across the world, and they fear that they are losing. Democracy, the tolerance of other religions, universal human rights – that millions of Muslims believe in these, is precisely what makes ISIS dread that Islam is being corrupted – makes them determined to scour it clean…’
Is this credible? Undoubtedly, ISIS express their motivations in just such terms (see the Dabiq excerpt at the top). However twenty years ago, ISIS did not even exist. Even if Holland is right re. their self-proclaimed mandate, and its basis, an even more fundamental question has been left begging - how have they been able to storm the stage?
In his book The New Threat from Islamic Militancy, the journalist Jason Burke puts a wider set of trigger points on the table:
“…much remains unclear about al-Baghdadi’s background, but what we do know is this: the environment in which he grew up during his formative years was one of religious resurgence, increasing regime brutality and corruption, ruinous Western-backed sanctions and airstrikes, and extremist proselytisation. All, of course, before the invasion of 2003…”
Surely, it’s obvious – for a 360-degree understanding of the genesis of the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’, it might be instructive to look at the recent histories of Iraq and Syria. Denis Halliday, the former UN co-ordinator for Iraq once remarked that ‘…the death toll for Iraqi children under-five over 1990-1998 – the period of the 1st Iraq war followed by economic sanctions - was probably close to 600,000. And if you included adults, it’s well over one million Iraqi people.’ In 1996, Madeleine Albright, then United States Ambassador to the United Nations, was asked during 60 Minutes: ‘We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?" To which she answered, ‘I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.’ As with the Bataclan atrocity, this too is death ‘in the service of an idea’… Writing in the aftermath of the Manchester bombings, Burke speculated that “…even al-Qaida would probably consider killing teenagers at a concert to be beyond the pale. Not ISIS however. The group relies on escalating brutality to terrorise target populations, whether in the west or the Middle East.” Thus their strategy is one of ‘total war’ - but one can only conclude that ISIS are mere amateurs at ‘total warfare’, when compared to the Americans.
In the aftermath of what looks very much like yet another terrorist attack, this time in the heart of London, Douglas Murray and others are calling out the facile routine we have been herded into. They have a point – the pat response is looking increasingly ridiculous.
Beyond taking on the barbed ‘Is the Islamic State Islamic?’ question, Holland had a secondary motive – to not be bowed by ‘political correctness’; cowed by accusations of racism / Islamophobia. And he is absolutely right – when free-speech, even free-thought is harried, it’s stifling. So in that spirit, it’s time to be clear – the deliberate ruination of Iraq is not responsible for the virus that spawned ISIS – as Holland lays out, that’s theirs alone. However, by turning that whole country into a petri dish within which that virus could take hold, the US and UK are absolutely culpable for it spreading. And moreover, the ‘political correctness’ that prevents leaders from acknowledging this, feeds into the idea that all Muslims are implicated. It obscures the reality – that most Muslims, including most Sunni Muslims, view al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State as intellectually and morally bankrupt, and the Salafi mindset that underpins it as theological corruption. This is crucial – that Muslims in general aren’t appalled by terrorism because of mere embarrassment, or because they are Muslim-lite / have been corrupted by the West – they are appalled because they do not share the same religious / theological space as these perpetrators. For them, the Saudi brand of Islam and its variant expressions, of which ISIS is most definitely one, is pure fucking poison. But the cod response to terrorism – which ignores the elephant in the room of foreign policy - effectively tars them all.
None of this invalidates, or even diminishes Holland’s narrative in ISIS: the Origins of Violence. Personally, I saw nothing to challenge in the conclusions he reached – just in those that he did not. (One wonders how, after explicitly asking, ‘What has triggered them?’, Holland failed to finger the ‘war on terror’. Clearly, history is a pliable whore…)
Post-religious nations are embroiled in a legitimate debate re. their ‘elasticity’ – how much difference can they accommodate, and at what rate. And there is no shame in calling out a very real fifth-column – those who seek to live under a foreign flag, benefit from shared resources – and then wage war on the very people who gave them a new home. But that constituency is not ‘the Muslims’.
From Napolean to the present day, a strain of Western thought has sought to control - subjugate - the wider world. And what those armies taking Constantinople and ISIS show, is that there’s a strain of Muslim thought that has exactly the same ambitions. That’s where the fault-line lies – not between Islam and the West, but between opposing imperialisms. And there is no inconsistency in seeing oneself as secular, or Western, or Muslim, and outright rejecting both.