If you read Graeme Wood’s absorbing Atlantic article “What ISIS really wants,” you’ll know of his thesis that ISIS has adopted apocalyptic medieval Islamic theology with the goal of establishing another Caliphate. That caliphate will arise after a final big battle, presumably with nonbelievers (i.e., the West), prophesied to take place near Dabiq, Syria.
In a new piece at the Daily Beast, “Isis wants a global civil war,” liberal Muslim Maajid Nawaz goes further, observing first that a lot of Muslim violence is perpetrated against other Muslims:
In fact, since the start of Ramadan last month, and till the time of writing on July 27, 2016, there have been 75 attacks in 50 days by various jihadist groups globally. This amounts to attacks in 21 countries at a rate of one-and-a-half per day, leaving over 1,169 dead, not including the injured and maimed. The 21 countries and territories attacked have been Jordan, Iraq, Bangladesh, Syria, Israel, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Libya, France, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Malaysia, Turkey, Mali, Palestine, Cameroon, Saudi, Thailand, and Germany. Sixteen of those are Muslim-majority territories.
What is the point of this? Well, one could say that they’re inching toward the Final Big Battle, but creating these brushfires in Muslim countries, most of whose religionists are Sunnis (ISIS’s own brand of Islam), doesn’t really make sense under that theory. Who is that Big Battle going to be against—will it involve all forms of Islam that aren’t exactly shared by ISIS?
Nawaz has a different take: that ISIS’s goal is not to move toward the one big apocalyptic battle, but to create perpetual civil wars everywhere. Why?
Nawaz claims that about 12 years ago ISIS “adopted a playbook Idarat al-Tawahhush, or the Management of Savagery.” Here’s what the playbook foresees from this civil strife:
This book on jihadist war theory first appeared online around 2004 and was attributed to an ideologue who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Bakr al-Naji. Naji instructed followers to incite ethnic, sectarian, and religious hatred throughout the world so that societies end up dividing along mutual mistrust and a desire for revenge. Naji’s hope was that Sunni Muslims would then largely be blamed—as they now are—as the cause of this intolerance and violence, rendering them hated and left isolated. Naji even highlights the importance of provoking heavy state military responses against Sunni Muslims everywhere, so that entire populations of Sunnis feel suspected and attacked by everyone else around them, and turn in on themselves. The idea is that through such division Sunnis would find no refuge from angry non-Muslims and over-reacting states, except in jihadists who would embrace them. In turn, Sunnis would end up swelling the ranks of jihadists’ militias as they began to protect themselves against reprisal attacks.
Behold, a world divided along sectarian religious lines, the ideal conditions for a “caliphate.”
In other words, the beleaguered Sunnis would finally see that their only salvation lies in uniting under the ISIS banner. And that, says Nawaz, is why ISIS is trying hard to incite hatred of the very people they ultimately want to recruit. His example is the provocation of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to overreact against his own people, which drew Sunni Arabs to the ISIS cause while, says Nawaz, “the international community stood aloof.”
And indeed, why would the international community get involved in Muslim-on-Muslim civil wars? There’s nothing for us in it, except a lot of deaths of Western soldiers and innocent Middle Easterners. Our dithering about what to do in Syria is exactly, says Nawaz, what ISIS wants. And that makes sense. Presumably the violence incited by ISIS in the West will just create more animus towards Sunnis, further spurring their unification under the black flag.
Well, who knows what ISIS wants, or who is really in charge? Nawaz’s views make as much sense as any other theory. But regardless of what ISIS wants, I think Nawaz’s solution—the one he’s trying to enact through his think tank Quilliam—is correct
Too many Muslims still insist that to challenge Islamist extremism breeds anti-Muslim bigotry, while they fail to grasp that it is the Islamists themselves who provoke anti-Muslim hatred thorough their divisive agenda, and by insisting on defining Muslims against others primarily by our religious identity. Our collective task will be to robustly stand against the division caused not just by the far-right who seek to isolate Europe’s Muslims, but to challenge the very same division promoted by the Islamists themselves within our Muslim communities. Only by reasserting the universality of our secular liberal democratic citizenship are we able to protect the multiplicity of identities, as opposed to the exclusionary religion-based identification that Islamists and anti-Muslim bigots thrive on.
No insurgency can survive without a level of ideological support within the community it seeks to recruit from. To isolate the terrorists from their host population must be a priority for us all. One needn’t be black to condemn racism. Likewise, one needn’t be Muslim to condemn any expression of theocratic Islamism.
While Nawaz calls on both Muslims and non-Muslims to “challenge Islamist extremism,” I’m coming around to the view that the crucial people for reforming Islam are liberal Muslims like Nawaz. Reform has to come from within, because it surely isn’t coming from without—not with non-Muslims scared of being labeled as bigots (or getting attacked). All the palaver by Westerners is like so many tinkling cymbals, and powerful Western leaders like Obama are simply too pusillanimous to “condemn theocratic Islamism.” Instead, they claim that ISIS is “not really Islam,” with some even blaming the violence on Western colonialism. Those attitudes, of course, do nothing to solve the problem of terrorism, and bombing won’t help, either. Nawaz’s solution makes a lot of sense, but it’s falling on deaf ears.