ISIS is a theological movement grounded in a very specific kind of Muslim eschatology.
In his groundbreaking analysis in The Atlantic, Graeme Wood argues that ISIS “has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”
The Islamic State differs from nearly every other current jihadist movement in believing that it is written into God’s script as a central character. It is in this casting that the Islamic State is most boldly distinctive from its predecessors, and clearest in the religious nature of its mission . . .
One must read Wood’s lengthy piece in its entirety to grasp the fullness of ISIS’s view of itself as the key inducer of the final days, but that this is its theological position is indisputable.
Wood notes that its eschatological schema “allows us to predict some of the group’s actions,” including its theological disdain for national borders (which violate their understanding of an Islamic caliphate). He addresses issues of Western military intervention and suggests that some form of such might be needed. However, Wood concludes that
". . . the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma … It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model."
ISIS is being as provocative as it can be precisely because it wants to bring about the end of days according to its understanding of Islamic teaching. It wants the West to attack and destroy it in order to bring about Allah’s triumph in history.
This version of Islam, right or wrong, is a major part of what is incentivizing ISIS’s campaign of brutality and terror. Its belief in the rectitude of the restoration of the “caliphate” – Islamic control of territory once governed by Muslims – is the other major factor.
The eschatological motivation of ISIS has received some interest in the mainstream press. Writing in Reuters, Mariam Karouny reports that those ISIS believes its efforts were
" . . . all foretold in 7th Century prophecies. From the first outbreak of the crisis in the southern city of Deraa to apocalyptic forecasts of a Middle East soaked in blood, many combatants on both sides of the conflict say its path was set 1,400 years ago in the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad and his followers."
With respect to how this should effect America’s response to ISIS, recognizing that its fighters welcome death and are eager to invite combat with the West should inform strategic deliberations by U.S. policymakers and military planners.
But what our strategy should be is distinct from the purpose of this paper. Rather, it is to make clear that while interpretations of the Koran and the Haddith vary, the Islamists are not stupid. Their grasp of the theology and eschatology contained in their sacred writings is not primitive but thorough. Let us not patronize them with palaver that ISIS is merely about jobs or opportunity; a good economy in, say, Iraq would not opiate its purveyors of violence.
There is little doubt that some ISIS terrorists are inspired both by the dream of money and power as much as by their religious beliefs. Omer Taspinar of the National War College and Johns Hopkins University contends that “Since poverty and ignorance often provide a breeding ground for radicalism, socioeconomic development appears compelling as an effective antidote.”
Granted: offer a poor boy whose future looks bleak money and a gun and the promise of big things, and there’s a good chance he’ll follow you. But to reduce ISIS’s appeal to issues of macho youthfulness, despair, lack of economic opportunity or similar causes is to dismiss the most obvious and most deeply- rooted reasons for its attractiveness to so many: Its religious teachings.
The leadership of the radical Islamists, most particularly those in ISIS, has a sophisticated grasp of the teachings of its holy books that transcends anything to do with economics or education or a lack of opportunity.
For example, the recently revealed “Jihad Johnny,” Mohammed Emwazi, was raised in London, received a degree in computer technology from Britain’s University of Westminster and came from a well-to-do family.
Writing several years ago in The New York Times, Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey note that Emwazi’s background is not atypical:
We examined the educational backgrounds of 75 terrorists behind some of the most significant recent terrorist attacks against Westerners. We found that a majority of them are college-educated, often in technical subjects like engineering. In the four attacks for which the most complete information about the perpetrators’ educational levels is available – the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the 9/11 attacks, and the Bali bombings in 2002 – 53 percent of the terrorists had either attended college or had received a college degree. As a point of reference, only 52 percent of Americans have been to college. The terrorists in our study thus appear, on average, to be as well educated as many Americans.
Yet there remain those who think religion is really not at issue. Business columnist Loren Thompson, writing in FORBES, even goes so far as to say flatly that “the ISIS fight isn’t about Islam.” Instead, he says,
"It appears that every culture produces large numbers of young males who can be mobilized in the pursuit of millenarian philosophies, not because of the specific content of the vision, but because young men yearn for power and status and resources (not to mention mates). If we focus too closely on the Islamic features of what ISIS leaders propound, we will miss the underlying motivational dynamics that explain why such movements have similar success at recruiting even when they espouse completely opposite ideas."
In other words, the young men who are drawn to ISIS are driven not by theology but by – what, hormones? “We can argue about what needs gave male violence value in evolution, but attaching its worst manifestations to one religion is misleading,” says Thompson.
No one (that I know of) suggests that religious-based violence is unique to Islam. But the violence that characterizes radical Islamists is drawn not from “male evolution” but from their interpretation of the Koran.
Are many of ISIS’s front-line soldiers young men compacted together by factors apart from religious faith? Yes. Some of those factors include cultural humiliation, relative poverty, and so forth. But they are also imbued with faith in a holy war and their part in accelerating the final apocalypse. And, without dispute, those who lead the movement are driven by their Islamic eschatology.
“In DC the idea that there is anything worth believing in outside of post-modernist nihilism and cynicism simply does not compute. DC tells us ISIS was born because they lack jobs – and yet many members are upper-class professionals,” writes a retired artillerist who served in Afghanistan in OpFor.com. While overstated, he gets at a key issue: Secularists simply have great difficulty grasping that religion actually motivates behavior.
We see this mindset at work here at home, albeit non-violently. It angers the aggressive Left and mystifies their passive secularist allies – those who assume that the echo chamber of the liberal commentariat is the repository of all wisdom – that Christians want to live-out their faith at work as well as within their homes or the four walls of their churches. Thus, bakers and florists are fined and police officials fired for refusing to compromise their religiously-driven moral convictions when it comes to homosexuality.
But back to ISIS: From northeastern Nigeria to Libya to Syria to Paris, the actions of radical Islamists are incentivized by what they believe about God and his plan for the world. To deny this, to reduce everything to the temporal and material, speaks to a very conscious contempt for and misunderstanding of the power of religious commitment on the part of many in the Western elites.
This contempt is a commentary on the culture of our time, one whose anti-theism or at least religious ignorance is affecting the public dialog if not national action. Such an attitude will leave policymakers surprised and unprepared as they deal with Islamism worldwide. No jobs program will suffice.