A new book about the self-proclaimed Islamic State explains who and what is behind the violent jihadists – when, where and how they came to power and, perhaps most importantly, why they exist.
The Why is one of the most intriguing insights in "ISIS: The State of Terror" by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger (2015, HarperCollins).
As with some other ultra-fundamentalist groups, the terrorists of ISIS/ISIL, like al Qaeda and the Taliban, have a persecution complex and see the world in polarized good-and-evil, black and white terms. They believe in the need to purify the world before armageddon and the apocalypse – "the final hour" or "end times."
"ISIS has begun to evoke the apocalyptic tradition much more explicitly, through actions as well as words ... While Muslim apocalyptic thought is diverse and complex, most narratives contain some elements that would be easily recognized by Christians and Jews: at an undetermined time in the future the world will end, a messianic figure will return to the earth, and God will pass judgment on all people, justly relegating some to heaven and some to hell."
Stern and Berger write, "For both Sunnis and Shi'ites, the Mahdi's role is, in part, to end the disunity of the Muslim community and to prepare for the second coming of Jesus Christ, who is understood to be a prophet in Islam." In a fascinating cover profile of ISIS in the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic, Graeme Wood discusses the Prophetic narration that claims Jesus as "the second-most-revered prophet in Islam," who will return to "lead the Muslims to victory."
Why the extreme and gory violence, including crucifixion and beheadings?
The answer may be in what author Mark Juergensmeyer calls "ancient religious rites of sacrifice" and martyrdom. In his pre-9/11 book, "Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Terrorism" (University of California Press, 2000), Juergensmeyer mirrors arguments made by the authors of "ISIS" fifteen years later: Persecution complex, belief in moral superiority, and a call for sacrifice resulting in a form of martyrdom.
"There is some evidence that ancient religious rites of sacrifice, like the destruction involved in modern-day terrorism, were performances involving the murder of living beings. The later domestication of sacrifice in evolved forms of religious practice, such as the Christian ritual of the Eucharist, masked the fact that in most early forms of sacrifice a real animal – in some cases a human – offered its life on a sacred chopping block, an altar. In the Hebrew Bible, which is sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, the book of Leviticus gives a detailed guide for preparing animals for sacrificial slaughter. The very architecture of ancient Israeli temples reflected the centrality of the sacrificial event. The Vedic Agnicayana ritual, some three thousand years old and probably the most ancient ritual still performed today, involves the construction of an elaborate altar for sacrificial ritual, which some claim was originally a human sacrifice. This was certainly so at the other side of the world at the time of the ancient Aztec empire, when conquered soldiers were treated royally in preparation for their role in the sacrificial rite. Then they were set upon with knives ..."Juergensmeyer shows the similarity of beliefs in Osama bin Laden's interpretation of Islam, Timothy McVeigh's association with Christian Identity White Supremacy, and Shoko Asahara's Aum Shinrikyo cult's armageddon terrorism. There are uncanny links to persecution complex, blind belief and various forms of millenarism through homegrown and international terrorist groups. Our former enemies in World War II also held messianic beliefs and feelings of persecution which may have fueled atrocities in that war.
While evidence shows that most Muslims around the world reject ISIS, there is a danger, according to the authors, in ignoring the strong beliefs held by "true believer" jihadist extremists, who think behavior such as beheadings, slavery, and sexual assaults and other cruelty toward women is ordained, based on their faith and interpretation of a written word or "law."
If that helps explain The Why, what about The How in dealing with the people rallying behind the black and white flags? How should we combat the threat of ISIS/ISIL?
Graeme Wood takes a pessimistic view:
"Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group's message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even it fit doesn't last until the end of time," he concludes.
Stern and Berger provide suggestions including ostracism and an outright siege to let them rot, countering through social media, not taking the bait when provoked, and insisting on a nuanced educated conviction in our approach – not interpreting things in black-and-white.
"Empathy is the antidote to human cruelty," they advise.
So is education, science, reading and critical thinking.