The Islamic State Conundrum

The theatrical brutality of the Islamic State has found an audience among Muslims embittered by the West’s longstanding violence against their people, including President George W. Bush’s catastrophic war in Iraq, a dilemma that ex-CIA official Graham E. Fuller examines.

By Graham E. Fuller

The West remains transfixed with ISIS (Islamic State, Da’ish) and the debate about its character goes on. In one sense this discussion is totally understandable, given the movement’s seeming sudden appearance on the public screen not much more than a year ago (although its roots were long since there), combined with its theatrical brutality, and extreme views and actions that make it impossible to ignore.

Over time, this debate seems to center around three key issues:

Journalist James Foley shortly before he was executed by an Islamic State operative.

Journalist James Foley shortly before he was executed by an Islamic State operative.

–Is ISIS driven essentially by theological and religious motivations? Or pragmatic political considerations?

–Is ISIS essentially a medieval movement in character, or a “modern” movement?

–Is the movement durable? Or is it a transient, radical, ultra-reactionary spasm in the tortured evolution of Iraq, a country still coming to terms with the U.S. destruction of the country’s political and social infrastructure? And in Syria feeding off the tragic breakdown of order under Assad’s gross and brutal mishandling of early Arab Spring rioting, that invited in the subsequent wars by proxy of external players?

The classic response to many such deep-rooted questions is “all of the above.” This isn’t a cop-out answer, it simply reflects the complexity of the phenomenon we see.

ISIS is undeniably religious in that it draws on solid basis of Quranic scripture and the Hadith (the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad.) It knows its theology and texts, but it is indeed highly selective in what texts it stresses,one might call it exegetical cherry-picking, something well-known in all religious traditions when scripture is invoked to political ends.

But ISIS is also undeniably political in that it has a clear political (not just moral) agenda, and a political strategy (though often improvised to meet circumstances); indeed the founding of a state (caliphate) is the supreme political act only made possible by the collapse of Iraq.

But which comes first, theology or politics? Chicken or egg?

In my experience in looking at ideology in the world over the years, I increasingly lean towards the sense that the political, indeed the psychological, impulse often precedes and shapes the ideological. If an ideological seed is to sprout, the receptive political/psychological soil must first exist (even if not always fully consciously).

Not just anyone suddenly exposed to violent ideology becomes radicalized or violent; they are radicalized only when an ideological explanation for their existing distress suddenly makes sense, rings true; the explanatory power comes as a revelation: “of course, that’s the reason why all this is happening to us.” And ideology suggests a path towards alleviating such hardship. In the absence of particular deep grievance then ideology does not find fertile soil.

Marxist communism made sense to young Americans during the Great Depression, but not today (at least not yet). Hitler’s Nazi ravings would not have found resonance if Germany had not been the object of destructive political and economic revanchism by victorious and vindictive Allied Powers after World War I. The Russian Revolution and Lenin’s charisma might have gone nowhere were it not for the desperate conditions in Tsarist Russia late in World War I. Examples abound.

The proximate cause for ISIS’ dramatic appearance on the scene and its sudden success obviously could not have taken place without the destruction of Iraq’s political, social and economic order and the American occupation. Assorted other grievances of Muslims living in the West as well as in the Middle East equally played into ISIS’ message.

ISIS’ political, cultural and ideological message draws on deeply resonant (but selective) Islamic themes, the symbolism of caliphate, literal adoption of selective early Islamic practices, but not resonant enough to make most Muslims really want to sign up. Most inhabitants of the Islamic State did not choose to do so in any case, ISIS chose them by conquering the turf where they live. The ISIS message becomes a harder sell when more moderate interpretations of political Islam (like the Muslim Brotherhood) offer a viable and contemporary Islamic alternative.

Is ISIS medieval in conception? Or modern? Both. Its theological precepts stem indeed from the earliest periods of Islam, often taken quite literally, hence its insistent claim to “authenticity.” But ISIS is quite modern in its use of media, technology, PR, its playing to the international gallery, strategic global view, and its exploitation of existing international rivalries at work in the region.

The Taliban, for instance, also promoting a quite reactionary and retrogressive view of Islam, were clueless in terms of developing a PR story aimed at an international and modern audience of tech-savvy westernized Muslim youth.

So we need a holistic explanation of the ISIS phenomenon that embraces both the religious as well as the political explanations, and an awareness of its “medieval” as well as “modern” character.

Its survivability? I’ve gone on record in stating that I don’t think the ISIS model has much of a future. I don’t think it can really run a state for a long time without massive repressive techniques and permanent war. Its “solutions” to Muslim ills are not really solutions, a fact that will become ever more apparent to those inside and outside its boundaries.

Sadly, in the interim it is causing shocking cultural damage and brutalizing and killing a lot of people (mostly Muslims) in acts designed to shock with their “authenticity.” But the number of deaths from ISIS itself pale next to the ongoing deaths and devastation resulting from over a decade of western-imposed war.

Why do these arguments matter? I do not believe that the West itself can discredit ISIS on theological grounds; western motives are utterly suspect. Muslims, however, can undertake this mission. Regrettably some Muslim clerics who denounce ISIS lack real credibility themselves since they are perceived as “hired” clerics working for existing autocratic regimes.

But gradually the word is getting out that ISIS is not the future most Muslims aspire to at all. Ultimately Muslim forces themselves need to take on ISIS, although few regional regimes possess much real credibility either. The western role in this pushback needs to be circumspect and limited.

But above all, a restoration of political and social order in Iraq and Syria is the indispensable prerequisite to rolling ISIS itself back. Solutions to crises in both those states must assume highest priority.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan. (Amazon, Kindle)

5 comments for “The Islamic State Conundrum

  1. September 16, 2015 at 03:57

    This article completely misses the point and it starts already with the three introductory questions, who’s formulation seem to deliberately lead away from the essence of Islamic terrorism.

    The first question:

    “Is ISIS driven essentially by theological and religious motivations? Or pragmatic political considerations?”

    IS is driven by testosterone, by social tensions, lack of opportunities for young men because of overpopulation and resulting unemployment, by media propaganda, depicting a perfect clean world where affluence and a luxurious life can be easily achieved, by alienation in an artificial technical world which many don’t understand and which has led us far away from our primal needs.

    Theological and religious motivations (what is the difference between the two?) are just a tool to enhance and smoothen the flow of terrorism applicants and sugarcoat the personal motivations of the participants. Pragmatic political considerations are of course guiding the organizers, sponsors, enablers of the terror groups (USA, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, some other Gulf monarchies and NATO members).

    The second question:

    “Is ISIS essentially a medieval movement in character — or a “modern” movement?”
    Humans have biologically not changed much since medieval times, society has changed, technology has advanced. IS members, like their forbearers in medieval times (Vikings, Huns, Mongols, later marauding mercenary armies) are driven by biological urges, but they use modern technology.

    The third question:

    “Is the movement durable?”

    IS was just one of many terror groups who were invented and funded by one of the already mentioned agitators and meddlers in the Middle East (see the list above). In an evolutionary process IS by natural selection turned out to be the most effective group. It has developed its own dynamic but is still depending on the mentioned sponsors and enablers. Without the steady flow of supplies and apprentices from Turkey, without the trade of oil and antiquities via Turkey, without the amplification of their propaganda via Western media and internet companies, IS would be finished in a few month.

    If the USA would start a bombing campaign in earnest, IS would be finished in a few weeks. Where should they hide in these barren lands?

    The author doesn’t forget to use a classical propaganda trick: “…. in Syria feeding off the tragic breakdown of order under Assad’s gross and brutal mishandling of early Arab Spring rioting.” How does Mr. Fuller know? Was he there? Or did he just read Western propaganda and accept it as truth?

    Did he consider the high death toll of Syrian police in the early days of the riots? (much higher that the casualties of the demonstrators). Does he know that Syrian policemen didn’t wear weapons and when they finally were equipped with weapons as the unrest progressed they had to account for every bullet they fired.

    The remaining text of the article is a compendium of commonplaces, some right, some wrong, but all detached from the reality of IS. It is not worth the effort to take this text apart sentence by sentence.

    To sum it up: This is typical smokescreen journalism and unworthy to be published on this website.

  2. r.k.barkhi
    September 8, 2015 at 00:04

    i found that to be a curiously flaccid report especially from an ex cia person. as the cia is the worlds largest and deadliest terror organisation in history (well over 6 million casualties,uncountable wounded and property destruction) this writer sounds rather oblivious to that and the fact that cia involvement in that region,like in all of the other places the u.s. suddenly began “police actions” or wars , was intrinsic to all of that areas recent invasions and regime changes. do cia workers not have a sense of their organizations true history and purpose (as a tool that “reorganizes” the world for the sole benefit of banksters and other corporate criminals)? dont tell me they are as brainwashed as the average american? at least he didnt mention the 9/11 “terrorists” because then he would have had to remind us that they were illegally given visas by none other than the cia office in Jedda, Saudi Arabia,wouldnt he ? well,wouldnt he?

  3. Evangelista
    September 4, 2015 at 21:43

    ““Hitler’s Nazi ravings would not have found resonance
    if Germany had not been the object of destructive political and economic
    revanchism by victorious and vindictive Allied Powers after World War I.”
    do[es] not stand close scrutiny.”

    This statement is true, but provides no clues to what was responsible for German intellectual resonance to Hitler’s, and other leaders in the government Hitler led’s virulent anti-Semitism. Germany did change from the most Jewish-tolerant European culture to a leader and lightning-rod for European anti-Jewish (the German Camps were filled with European, not only German, inmates) rage.

    The cause is important today, because the rage is coming back around again. And is going to erupt again.

    The cause was economic, not political or sentimental: When the Reichs Mark was inflation-collapsed to “worthless” the “worthless” was in comparison to other currencies, whose values gained additional enhancement for their desirabilities in Germany, for their relative solidities. Fergusson’s “When Money Dies” covers this obliquely, and also, also obliquely, the effect of German assets being forced onto markets by the inflation, at what were, in foreign currencies, below bankruptcy mark-downs. Buyers having foreign exchange available to purchase with were able to buy at Reichs Mark exchange prices that made their purchases less than a cent on a dollar. Especially vulnerable were German pensioners and rentiers, who depended on income sources that lagged significantly behind inflation. Extremely large numbers in the German rentier-class were forced to sell and so lost their German assets to foreign buyers, or buyers ith access to foreign-exchange. These buyers who became the new rentier/owning class in Germany after restabilization were associated, in fact, in many cases, as well as in the minds of the impoverished in Germany, with “International Jews”. The double-quotes around “International Jews” designate that the term designates an opportunistic investor class many of whom are Jewish, and many of whom are not all Jewish, who took advantages, and were seen to have manipulated to attain their advantages, and who were associated to, even if not with, Jews. It was these “Jews”, “International Jews”, or “World Jews”, who Hitler and Co. targeted, whose targeting found resonance.

    “International Jews” being international, wealthy and not even necessarily Jewish, they were difficult to target otherwise than with rhetoric. Regular Jews,ethnically or religiously Jewish, or both, were easy to catch, and so became the targets in Germany, and paid for the depredations of the rich manipulator-advantage-takers who could only be relieved of their ‘investments’.

    The reason this is important history to rehearse is that the 2008-2009 economic implosion was also, though more sophisiticatedly manipulated and produced similar results, vast transfer of wealth from a previously stabile middle and upper-middle class. The mechanisms are, though more sophisticated, also today recognized manipulations and violations of ethics and laws. The product is, today, again, rising anger against “international manipulators” and “hedge-fund operators” and, yes, “Jewish investors”, who, still, are not all Jewish, and are also largely separate from everyday easy-to-catch Jews, who are going to again become the available-targets, with Muslims and other targetables if a reprise of the 1930’s Nazi scenario continues to evolve into bloom.

    If the reprise is inevitable or not I am unable to guess. If no actions are taken to direct response to correcting the violations that permitted the manipulations, and to correct the situations produced by the manipulations, the reprise is, or is going to become, inevitable.

  4. Mortimer
    September 3, 2015 at 15:03

    I remember the exhilaration, in my youth, of striking the match to ignite my first cherry bomb.

    Can you?

    9/11 was that feeling for they who set off the explosive for creation of their “New Middle East” agenda… .

    Can you remember your initial mind after news of the WTC “attack”?

    My first thoughts and words to a co-worker were, “This means War — whoever did this has started a war… .”
    “but who would be so foolish as to attack US? !!!”

    That was my mindset, on that day, 6 AM, in California as we participated in the news.

    September 3, 2015 at 09:41

    Posted for Peter Loeb:


    An incisive analysis is in George L. Mosse’s THE CRISIS OF GERMAN

    Perceptive analyses of the Zionist response, nearly an adoption of
    much of the Volkish philosophy is available in 51 DOCUMENTS: ZIONIST
    COLLABORATION WITH THE NAZIS. See esp.Vladimir Jabotinsky p. 7
    and in regard to others in the world Jabotinsky’s “The Iron Wall” p. 32.

    Norman Finkelstein has summarized the case in IMAGE AND
    that it is incorrect to claim that the Holocaust (that is the European Holocaust)
    is in any way “unique.

    Furthermore, the basis of Holocaust ideology and Volkish philsophy and
    practice is not entirely in Christian history but as much if not more in the
    “Old Testament”.

    For a careful analysis of the violence, extermination the Old Testament

    Note that Jabontinsky’s analysis in the “Iron Wall” denotes Zionism as
    colonization while similtaneously upholding its so-called “right” of conquest.

    It is preccisely such so-called “rights” for Zion to conquer and rule Palestine that
    many of us categorically deny. Prior’s analysis is fully comprehensible for a
    non-theologian but includes a broader grasp of Scripture than this writer.

    Such statements as: “Hitler’s Nazi ravings would not have found resonance
    if Germany had not been the object of destructive political and economic
    revanchism by victorious and vindictive Allied Powers after World War I.”
    do not stand close scrutiny.(See in particular, G.L. Mosse, op cit)

    In other respects,Graham Fuller’s analysis provides us with much additional
    and appreciated material.

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA USA

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