Asking the Right Questions about ISIS: Between Politics and Ideology

The discussion around whether or not the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) is Islamic began as soon as the group entered onto the world stage. It throws up a number of queries for policy makers in the United States, Europe, and the Arab world, and the policy prescriptions will differ depending on how we answer the question of ‘how Islamic is ISIS.’ Or perhaps we have been asking the wrong questions.

A plethora of articles examine this question, including the now infamous Atlantic article by Graeme Wood, investigations by Jennifer Ruth in Vox, pieces by Muslim community figures like Mohamed Ghilan, and discussions in Foreign Affairs by Nathan Brown and myself. But as the debates continue, it seems clear that the analytical frames of discussion have yet to be adequately established. It ought not to be difficult to break down the issue of extremist radicalization in a more regimented fashion – but for years, the discussion has lacked this type of basic framing.

Social and Economic Factors

As policy makers proceed to continue discussions on ISIS, there is a particular frame that ought to be employed, by answering the following queries:

1.       Is there something we can describe as a single radicalization process?
2.       What are the factors that allow people to become more sociologically vulnerable to extremist radicalization?
3.       How can we tackle those factors?

In addressing the above, the following applies:

1. There is no such thing as a ‘radicalization process’—rather, there are many processes. The reasons why a Syrian whose family has been attacked by Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs might radicalize differ from those for a Malaysian in southeast Asia who has travelled to Syria to join ISIS. The paths of radicalization are particular to the social and political context for each individual.

2. The factors will not only differ from place to place, but also from person to person in the same place. For example, many Syrians have suffered the brutality of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but only a minority of them joined groups like ISIS or the Nusra Front. Scores of Muslims in the UK have suffered from anti-Muslim bigotry and racism, but radical groups have only recruited a precious few – less than 1 percent of Muslim Britons.

3.  As the international community understands the need to tackle these different socio-political and economic factors, it ought to be aware –tackling them is important to reduce the potential for an individual’s susceptibility or vulnerability to extremist radicalization. However, those factors are usually important in and of themselves to tackle, even if they did not increase susceptibility. Tackling injustices and legitimate grievances accomplishes two goals: it reduces the potential for radical groups to use such injustice and grievances for recruitment (a strategic goal) and reaffirms our values (an ideological goal). It is a moral and ethical imperative that, for example, bigotry in the West against more vulnerable sections of our societies be dealt with.

4. One should be careful, however, about directly linking efforts to tackling extremism in a causational fashion. All too often, the subtext of our argument is that if we do not deal with bigotry or exclusion—issues faced by far more than the Muslim community—extremism and radicalization would spread. But this thinking suggests that Muslim communities are easily tempted by more base impulses. This is grossly unfair and untrue—otherwise, there would be far more extremism, considering the social and political problems Muslim communities face inside and outside of the Muslim world. This is about vulnerability and susceptibility, not direct causality.

Ideological Factors

There are two additional ideological questions that need to be addressed when understanding vulnerability to ISIS recruitment:

1.       What is the ideological component of the ISIS variety?
2.       How do we tackle that ideological component?

There is the temptation to view ISIS as being motivated, even if only intellectually speaking, via an authoritative Islamic reference. The argument goes something like this – while ISIS is generally unpopular with Muslims, it does have a claim to authenticity, as it cites Qur’anic verse, and claims to be Islamic. Who, then, are we to judge?

There are two problems with that frame. The first is that it allows anti-ISIS forces to mistakenly leave out factors that exist on a socio-political level. Indeed, that’s probably the point for its advocates in the West – the political imperatives involved with tackling ISIS as solely the expression of an evil ideological construct are far less politically problematic than investigating the ramifications of poor governance in the region, or ill-fated military exercises such as the Iraq war. Fortunately, there are fewer voices in 2015 that argue that ideology is always the primary factor, to the exclusion of all others. But such voices remain – in the West, as it allows for the escape from a discussion into foreign policy discussions around the mistakes surrounding the invasion of Iraq; and in the Arab world, as it allows for the avoidance of discussions around human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Beyond that, however, there is the frame through which we view religion in general, and Islam in particular. Rather than pore over the number of references to Islamic tradition that ISIS employs in its recruitment for and administration of the group, one should step back and consider the issue of authenticity.  

Authenticity is direly relevant. In the 1920s, a movement called Positive Christianity (or Positives Christentum in German) tried to intertwine ideas of racial purity with elements of Christianity. It eventually faded into obscurity for a variety of social and political reasons – but also religious ones. Recognizable and familiar religious Christian authority in the Western context regarded ‘Positive Christianity’ as a heretical movement. Within the Muslim world, the religious establishment of Muslims similarly sees ISIS as mubtadi’, or ‘deviant,’ on theological and methodological levels.

The question, however, returns to this – if ISIS is ‘deviant,’ then what is ‘normative,’ and how is something properly deemed to be Islamic? Or to put it another way – how does religious authority function in Islam?

It is true that there is no church in Islam, if we refer to hierarchical, ecclesiastical institutions of authority. There are, however, systems of normative authority for Muslims, akin to academic peer review processes, which have developed into communities of scholarship and debate. Egypt historically has had Al-Azhar, Morocco has the Qarawiyyeen, and in Tunisia, the Kairouane played this role. The breaking down of religious authority in the Muslim world, for reasons ranging from the colonial impact upon educational establishments, to the birth of the Salafi movement, has allowed for ideas like those underpinning ISIS to emerge. The genuine revitalization of these systems is a topic that precious few seem to have explored.  

That will not please many Western allies in the region, because part of a real revitalization would require the empowering and independence of religious authority from the state. The state in the Arab world has been wholly uninterested in that, because it uses institutions and religious figures of authority to project its own political power. If we are serious about the battle of ideas, we have to start this discussion.

There are no quick and easy fixes to these problems. On the contrary, 2015 bears witness to the continued emergence of problems that have taken decades to develop. The world neglected them for far too long and we are now playing catch up. These are all long term issues that will require substantial effort over the coming years. If we simply react to them as crises, then we will continue playing catch up and the next generation will have to sort it out. 

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. He is also Associate Fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London.

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