Maajid Nawaz on ISIS’s “holy war”

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.


  1. Phil_Torres
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    If readers are curious about what exactly the Islamic State believes, I’ve outlined their eschatological narrative here:

    Also, for reasons why we should expect lots more apocalyptic movements like the Islamic State in the future (seriously), see my Skeptic article here!!:

  2. Posted July 31, 2016 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    “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.”

    It sounds like we need to convene a consortium of Muslims united under secular liberalism. Include Muslims from as many backgrounds as possible. Task the consortium with coming up with a list of strategies. Get leaders and lay people. Scientists and artists. Seek to evoke perspectives from many vantage points to implement actions that approach the problem from all directions.

  3. Michael Sunshine
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I agree that Muslim reform has to come from Muslims. The problem is that this need for reform has been evident for years and I haven’t seen any large sustained movement emerge. All I have seen are a few authors writing books that get some media attention. It isn’t clear if these books, however popular with nonmuslims have had any impact with Muslims.

  4. Heather Hastie
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Nawaz’s analysis is, I think, excellent. That DAESH has adopted this theory is something I’m pretty sure he has put forward before, but current conditions make it both more effective and more obvious he’s right.

    The animus towards Muslims caused by increasing terrorist attacks increases the likelihood of young Muslims becoming disaffected and ultimately raducalized. And because of the “attack in place” instructions of DAESH they don’t necessarily even need to have any formal connection with the group to be a danger.

    Both the DAESH and Al Qaeda on-line magazines, ‘Dabiq’ and ‘Inspire’ respectively, contain detailed instructions for bomb-making and other information useful to Islamist jihadis.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      My thoughts exactly.

    • somer
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      +1 I agree with Nawaz stance and his analysis of ISIS though I think he overstates the ability of the West to successfully intervene for Syrians and also Assad actually assisted ISIS before the civil war in a number of ways hoping to weaken the Americans in Iraq and maybe to keep on the sweet side of them – but the Alouites had to play off many groups to stay in power and presumably sunnis being divided amongst themselves by flavours of religion suited Assad. His father did a big massacre of sunnis to put down a rebellion about 30 years ago.

  5. somer
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    I think the struggle also critically depends on giving regressive elements of the left push back in no uncertain terms because they give justification and oxygen encouraging conversion to/support of Islamism amongst muslims whether that is their intention or not. Such a reaction would not be about war or violent reaction against Muslims but about pushback to unacceptable dialogues becoming the dominant ones that squeeze out the centre and encouraging polarised views.
    Regressives would support Grand Muftis stance, others would support and expect moderate muslim views expressed in the article

  6. Randall Schenck
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    However long this cure or solution of resolving the objectives of ISIS takes, is the non Muslim world to sit back and do nothing about what has already occurred in Iraq and Syria? Is Europe to continue to take in those who escape or survive the slaughter in Syria?

    Even if Nawaz’s solution makes sense what is the time table to see this solution? I just don’t buy it. The forces in Iraq that are fighting ISIS and making gains must continue and with all the support we can give them. They must be eliminated from the country and then for once, take the necessary steps to keep the peace within your boarders. What the Muslim world really needs is to see ISIS fail, both militarily and socially. Seeing complete failure in Iraq may be the best hope for Muslim’s in Syria and other places.

    • Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      + 1

      • Posted July 31, 2016 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

        Well, the problem with the Iraqi attack on ISIS in Iraq is that it is being conducted on sectarian lines by mainly Shi’a forces with war crimes being committed by them. I have seen credible reports from a reliable source, bellingcat, that the US and UK air cover which supported the Iraqi takeover of Fallujah committed a war crime by indiscriminately bombing civilians and children as the ISIS militia,along with their families, fled Fallujah.

        Even if the predominantly Shi’a Iraqi government succeeds in ridding Iraq of ISIS, you will end up with a Sunni narrative of Shi’a oppression of Sunnis and the west’s anti-Sunni policy. For the west this would be disastrous and for Iraq this will only prolong the sectarian bloodbath.

        ISIS’s propaganda is based on the idea that the west is anti-Sunni. And they have a lot of evidence on their side; Obama’s rapprochement with Iran on the nuclear deal, de facto US and UK air support for Iran-backed military moves against ISIS in Iraq, the emerging US coalition with Russia in Syria and in favour of Assad (ordinary Syrian civilians can reasonably point out that in 2012 they called for Obama to guarantee a no-fly zone and now they point out that Kerry acquiesces in Assad’s and Russia’s targeting of Syrian hospitals).

        Western policy has reached a terrible stage n the propaganda front. Al-Qaeda in Syria can claim with some justification that in the last week it is doing more to protect Syrian lives than the US. The people of Aleppo can claim to be doing more to create a no-fly zone than the US, France and the UK by resorting to the WWII method of burning tyres in the streets to create the darkest conflagration in the skies thereby obscuring the targets of Assad and Russia.

        Yes, it is difficult to know what to do in the ME, but Obama’s policy of appeasement of Assad and Putin while taking out the odd ISIS leader is, to use the EU bureaucrats’ metaphor, kicking the can down the road: and no honeyed words from one of the best modern orators we’ll ever hear like Obama will change that.

        • Posted August 1, 2016 at 1:04 am | Permalink

          I agree with much in your comment. At the same time, however, I think it illustrates the problem with the Sunni public opinion. The Fallujah citizens are not happy with the Shia-dominated Iraqi government. They were also not happy with direct Western control: I remember that they were so unhappy with the US-dominated occupation that crowds of them lynched US humanitarian workers and paraded their bodies. These same citizens have apparently been unable to form any armed separatist force more decent than ISIS. At this point, I admit that I care about what these people want about as much as they care about what I want. Instead, the relevant question to me is, how can my desires be realized instead of theirs?

        • somer
          Posted August 1, 2016 at 5:23 am | Permalink

          but this is the problem: The west CAN NOT win in the middle east because it is SO SECTARIAN. Obama could have bombed Assad before the russians got involved – an article in ? the NY times i think maybe New Yorker said from advisors close to him that he didn’t because the chemical weapons were not out and he believed they’d be used on civilians. Now the russians are involved are we really going to face off with a nuclear superpower too much?? Moreover re helping the Kurds – the kurdish ethic lands straddle large parts of 4 countries including Turkey, Syria and Iran. Theres only so much help the US can give them too. The place is absolutely riddled with old hatreds and the religion itself is so sectarian. we MUST stop adhering to the Sunni (or shia) blame game and say whatever the west has done the muslims expect a return to overt imperialism using feudal government and attitudes to science. they CAN NEVER return to the past. The onus on us is to get them to realise that in the intellectual struggle, in internal security and stop pandering to Muslim bully victim mentality that the religion fosters.

          • somer
            Posted August 1, 2016 at 5:48 am | Permalink

            And why should we ever apologise for targetting ISIS? as long as its strategic and not wholesale bombing of civilians too – we don’t live in the world of impossible purity – if some people want to feel resentful sadly thats part of human nature but they have to be made to understand they are hoping for a delusion and their own sectarian violence will lead them to that if we don’t let them use that too as an excuse to blame the west.
            In the past real genocide as in extermination of alien peoples of other religions was considered something to be proud of – this is the mentality of ISIS and it is not sufficiently denounced in Islam itself. the West is not the only civilisation that had slaves – there 1-2 million held by (mainly Shia) Muslims on plantations in East Africa after the West banned the taking of slaves and after the civil war was fought in the US. The characteristic of Islamic slavery was sexual more than slave labour, although at times there were plantation slaves, and alway some galley slaves, most males were employed in trades or as administrators or soldiers. Some were castrated to serve as eunuchs, a process which could kill far more than lived to serve (Bernard Lewis). According to Hideya, slaves who had given birth could not be sold (them or their child) and had to be freed after the master’s death; subsequent children could be sold. However frequently, if not usually if the conqueror had decided to take slaves, all those in the community not deemed useful as slaves were killed on the spot. 60% of slaves in Islam female and taken as servants available for sex for ordinary men or slave concubines for the wealthy. Father of the master could also have sex with the slave. Muslim Women could not have male slaves (Hidaya).

            And being a dhimmi in Muslim empires was more often than not, very unpleasant unlike how two generations of the regressive argument have now portrayed it.

  7. Jenny Haniver
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Mark Danner, who writes for the New Yorker and is a prof. at UC Berkeley, has also written (and spoken) about “The Management of Savagery.” In fact, as I write this, I’m listening to a radio broadcast of excerpts from a talk he gave in Berkeley just a couple of months ago, which looks at this matter in light of the rise of Donald Trump. Couldn’t be more timely. According to him, Trump is essentially following Abu Bakr Naji’s playbook — and if he wins the election, he’ll give ISIS a fine present. Here’s a link to a talk (audio and transcript) that he gave at Bard College in 2015

    • Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      I think that most Trump followers do not give a damn about ISIS, as long as it remains in the Old World.

  8. GBJames
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 12:20 pm | Permalink


  9. rickflick
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    I’m curious if there isn’t a way to take down ISIS web sites, if news media could be persuaded not to report ISIS pronouncements and acts of terrorism, if the propaganda effect could be reduced, would that drain away there recruits? Maybe they would fade away.

    • nwalsh
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      Or we could just convince the lot of them that there is no fairy at the bottom of the garden.

  10. jeffery
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think their approach is anything novel; it’s been used by every guerilla movement in history. Provoke the powers that be with sporadic, bloody, hit-and-run attacks, then sit back and suck up the “converts” produced by the ever-more heavy handed responses by those powers that be which ALWAYS result in innocents dying, being jailed an tortured, humiliated, etc. This is particularly effective with the “culture of revenge” so prevalent in the Middle East and the relatively new phenomenon of the “suicide bomber” has made these attacks almost impossible to stop.

  11. Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Bombing and other military action has been successful against Nazism and Milosevic’s dictatorship. In both cases, waiting for the moderate forces within the German and Serbian society to prevail was apparently futile. To me, the problem with using military action against ISIS (or any other Islamic terror army) is that Western public opinion is quite OK with Muslim terrorists killing civilian Westerners on Western soil but is strongly against even few innocent Muslims and Western soldiers being killed in a West-led war. In fact, even when those killed are militant Islamists, that is, the intended target, endless discussions begin whether the killing has been legitimate.

    • Historian
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      Where in the world did you come up with the notion that “Western public opinion is quite OK with Muslim terrorists killing civilian Westerners on Western soil?”

      • Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        Because nothing is done about it, there is massive denial that Islam is the causative factor, and calls to control third-world Muslim immigration are still restricted to the far-right domain.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      Simple terrorism is a very difficult enemy to defeat. There is no front lines or even an army to attack. But ISIS is different and much more conventional. They have land, specific territory they hold. This means conventional tactics will work as they are in Iraq.

      Clausewitz gave us the common sense methods to defeat the enemy in conventional war. Destroy the enemies army and or the enemy’s will to fight. That worked in WWII. It also worked very well for Israel in 67.

      Certainly ISIS does a lot of terrorism as well but there is no reason that standard methods of war to defeat them will not work in Iraq and somewhat in Syria.

      • rickflick
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

        The good news is the losses to terrorism pale in comparison to losses in all-out wars. In world war 2 the allies poured nearly all there resources into defeating the enemy and did so after 4 years. It is probably impossible to defeat a determined terrorist effort, especially with suicide bombers. It might be necessary to tolerate it for decades to come. This would require a psychological adjustment realizing that there’s nothing more we can do beyond a certain level of security effort at airports and borders and such.
        Convincing Islam to dissolve or evolve into a Christian-like decadence is probably unlikely to be possible over the short term.

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted July 31, 2016 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

          I’m afraid it is the tolerating that gets us into trouble. We do have to be smarter about this for sure but there is no reason why this group cannot be defeated in the territory they claim to call theirs and it is probably important that this be done. Letting it stand only makes it much worse because millions of Muslims out there see these crazies get away with it. They become feared far more than they deserve because they more or less walked in and took over a lawless territory.

          I see no reason why the Iraqi army with lots of assistance from us and more of us involved cannot remove these people from Iraq. After that, start figuring out how to destroy them in Syria.

          It’s a little bit like Trump. The longer the idiot hangs around the more people begin to fear – by g*d, maybe he will get elected. I think he only gets elected in people’s imagination. The guy is way over his head and he gets by because the competition has been weak but he will unravel.

          • rickflick
            Posted July 31, 2016 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

            I agree with your take on it. Effort should still be made to suppress the Islamists, but I think its a little like fire-fighting in the West. You know forests will burn, you prepare for it and commit appropriate resources, but you know fires will be back again next season and you will have to do it all over again and some property and lives will be lost. We are now accustomed to living with forest fires.

  12. Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:10 am | Permalink


  13. rickflick
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    It may be political. He wants to work the problem from the inside where he can have the most influence on other Muslims.

  14. Posted August 1, 2016 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    I think the degree to which groups actually have goals and strategies should not be overestimated. Yes, ISIS publishes papers, makes declarations, etc., but various authors within it think differently. Even what the leader says, he might not do, or might soon abandon; and leaders in such groups tend to be short lived.

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