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What Is (Who Are) the Islamic State? 17

January 8, 2016

The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, by William McCants (St Martin’s Press, September 2015), 159 pages + 20 pages of Sunni prophetic and jihadist texts and 50 pages of documentation.

McCants is the author of the article reviewed on page 6, “The Believer,” about the leader of IS. From the book jacket: “[McCants] directs the Project on U. S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution….and [is] a former U. S. State Department senior advisor for countering violent extremism….”

McCants’s (very detailed and readable) presentation in this book confirms and augments the material reviewed on the other pages of this episode, with a more full explanation.

Here are some of his points that I find especially helpful (I, your narrator, being someone with only a cursory knowledge of Islam, a bit more knowledge of colonial and US political and military activity in the Middle East before Bush I, and considerably more about US activity under Bush I and II).

It looks to me as though one major context of the rise of the self-declared caliphate, the Islamic State, is what I’ll call, following wording by Sunnis, The Way of Apocalyptic “Monotheism” (and here my understanding of Islam is on shaky ground):

God (the only entity who is such an entity) has a plan for humans that is being enacted by His People (the truly faithful, the only people who are such People). The plan (and its right implementation in the way people live) has been revealed by His Prophet, Muhammad. The plan has a time schedule, including a time of arrival, an End Time. The events of that End Time have been foretold, and they feature an apocalyptic series of battles, culminating in a final battle between the Great Unbeliever and the Great Believer (my terms), the latter being aided by a remnant of truly believing soldiers. With the defeat of Unbelief will come the return of the Savior, the Mahdi. All of the people in the world, everywhere, will then live according to the way God wants them to live, ruled by His People in a universal Monotheism, an Islamic world-caliphate.   It appears that those End Time events are happening today. A major event, and evidence that we are living in the End Times, was the Bush II crusader conquest and occupation of Iraq. We can participate in God’s triumphant series of events, by supporting the caliphate recently established by ISIS, in its “divine mission.”

I think that it is important that this is an idealistic vision of both teleology and daily life. The Mahdi will “[fill] the Earth with justice and fairness as it was filled with oppression and tyranny” (144) on the part of unbelievers and wrong-living Muslim rulers. Furthermore, life in the universal caliphate will feature (and, according to the al-Qaeda vision, life in any lands presently ruled by jihadists should feature) peace, prosperity, and practical comforts. For instance, local jihadist governance should provide for food and water, education, and quick and fair criminal justice.

Another major context, throughout the geopolitics of the region, is the historical animosity (to put it mildly) between Sunnis and Shi’i. I don’t see how this conflict can be resolved, because monotheism is their defining perspective, and neither sees the other as truly God’s People—quite the opposite. That division was established as part of the history of the caliphate (remember the universal nature and importance of the caliphate), beginning in the struggles for power after the death of Muhammad.

And there is the competition among Muslim nations and the animosity between them and Israel.

In addition, throughout the region there is tribal identity and organization. And there are nonMuslim minorities, who clearly are not among God’s People. They all must have their just place within the caliphate. The caliphate is not a democracy; its citizens are not equal. Group identity is very important, and the just position of each group is understood by interpretation of the Qur’an, including, for instance, legitimate sexual enslavement of persons deemed polytheists.

Indeed ISIS uses outrageous brutalities of many kinds, seemingly in bloodlust, quite effectively, in its subjugation of people, and in its recruitment of soldiers. This is a conscious strategy, adopted in contrast to the milder, slower approach advised by al-Qaeda, which has not been successful. In part, too, IS has been successful because it is staffed by former members of Saddam’s Ba’ath government and military. They know how to run a police state that terrorizes its citizens.

Furthermore, the position of al-Qaeda is that a true caliphate can only come into being when put in place by the mass of people. The founders, and the present leaders, of IS possibly are showing that a caliphate can be established by fiat, even against the will of the people.

The theological and political position of ISIS is that all of Islam is under mortal attack, in early battles that will soon lead to the return of the Mahdi, as has been prophesied many times; therefore the immediate task of God’s People—with no time to spare—is to victoriously fight those battles and prepare the way for the Mahdi by establishing the prophesied caliphate. God willing.

McCants proposes that ISIS does threaten vital U S interests that must be defended, rather than “chance the possible consequences of further inaction: refugees in the region numbering tens of millions, repeated shocks to world energy prices, and an ever expanding proving ground for future militants . . . inevitably poison[ing] the politics of . . . already tumultuous countries and creat[ing] further instability . . . .”

McCants believes that the current IS caliphate will not be sustained; but it is very difficult to combat and can only slowly be degraded. He surveys the risks that various options present, and assesses the likelihood of success with each. The main thing is to erode the legitimacy and appeal of IS by taking away its means of enduring and expanding.

But when IS has been defeated and no longer exists, jihadists will find ways to continue their struggle.

[Update, a few hours later:  I don’t think I’ve “done justice” to the brutality that I think is a salient feature of ISIS; so I’m working on a page about “the apocalyptic imagination” as death wish (both suicidal and homicidal).

9-21-16:  ISIS panicking in Mosul as Iraqi gov prepares to take it back; but what I find spec interesting is the note that ISIS is arresting/executing former Saddam officers.]

[Contents of this episode.]

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