February 22, 2015
A long article about ISIS by Graeme Wood in the March issue of The Atlantic is enlightening about this phenomenon and offers guidance about how to deal with it. The leaders of ISIS are not just using religion as a cynical ploy to attract followers and support for their cause, they are true believers in an interpretation of the Koran that is arguably barely less plausible than more benign ones. Their understanding of their sacred duty resembles that of Christian extremists who find in the Book of Revelations authority for belief in the Second Coming, End Times, Antichrists, and Armageddons. Their interpretation of human destiny, which they have been called upon to fulfill, involves establishing a Caliphate, which, unlike Al-Qaeda, requires a political state that controls and expands territory and ruthlessly dispatches Muslim apostates and infidels alike. Great battles and conflict are to be a part of the process. Messianic zeal, doctrinal certainty, and internal integrity is a source of ISIS’s strength and success. It appeals to Muslims who yearn for deep meaning in their lives and seek to perform acts of spiritual purification that Allah will look upon with favor. But these doctrines are also a source of weakness, because they are based on premises that the vast majority of Muslims and sane people of every faith find repellant, and because, as their divinely ordained script fails to play out as promised, the movement will face increasing disillusionment and defections among its own adherents. There is a good chance that it will eventually collapse from within.
There are persuasive reasons, which I will not discuss here, why the United States should not introduce ground forces into the fields of contention, but it does seem that the present policy of degrading ISIS through air strikes and aiding forces opposing them is sound. ISIS should be contained and, if possible, strangled.
The situation is immensely complicated by other factors, most significantly that one of the principal bulwarks against ISIS is the murderous criminal regime of Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. It would be highly desirable if Assad were removed from power and a government installed that is dedicated to the welfare of the Syrian people. Assad’s regime is responsible for far more deaths than ISIS. A great many months have passed since Obama said, “Assad must go,” but to the extent we degrade ISSIS, we relieve Assad of one of the principal threats against him.
Another great complication is that the area occupied by ISIS is predominantly Sunni, but the government in Baghdad, which is our ally, as well as Iran, is basically Shiite. Forces opposed to ISIS are planning to try to dislodge it from Mosul, a major Iraqi city that ISIS has made its de facto capital. It’s not known how the non-combatant sunnis in Mosul will react to forces they perceive as shiites, conquering their city. On all fronts confusion and desperation abounds.
What can be done? Both in predominantly Muslim countries and predominantly non-Muslim countries, responsible leaders should make strenuous efforts to encourage young Muslims to adopt as the true version of their faith something other than the grotesque and nihilistic creed of ISIS. Western governments should adopt an inclusionary policy toward Muslims and pursue policies that will open up and expand educational and work opportunities for them (as well as all others). The United States should step up efforts to develop and nurture a coalition of Muslim and non-Muslim countries committed to discrediting, containing, and degrading ISIS until it dissolves in its own acid secretions.