Two recent articles ask whether the phenomenon that is the Islamic State or ISIS or IS or ISIL took the Western world by surprise and why. The first, by "Anonymous" in the New York Review of Books, argues that:
The problem, however, lies not in chronicling the successes of the movement, but in explaining how something so improbable became possible. The explanations so often given for its rise—the anger of Sunni communities, the logistical support provided by other states and groups, the movement’s social media campaigns, its leadership, its tactics, its governance, its revenue streams, and its ability to attract tens of thousands of foreign fighters—fall far short of a convincing theory of the movement’s success.The anonymous author then explains, in great detail, the reasons why nobody could predict the birth of something as horrible as the Islamic State, and why nobody can truly predict its next success or failure. The article concludes:
I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information. But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise.
A response to that article by Elias Groll in Foreign Policy partly agrees with "Anonymous," and then adds a different explanation for the large number of foreign fighters the Islamic State has been able to attract:
But other parts of the essay are marked by the author throwing up his (or her) hands at trying to understand how extreme violence and depravity can in fact be appealing to the group’s recruits. Foreign fighters from around the world have joined the group: Norway, Egypt, Tunisia, France, Yemen, and Canada. Whether in wealthy social democracies or poor dictatorships, the Islamic State has managed to find recruits, leading the author to question theories that “social exclusion, poverty, or inequality” drive people to join the group.
Here, the author seems to want not to understand why violent nihilism can be attractive, almost as if she or he were afraid what she or he might find. “I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information,” the author writes. “It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS.”
But social exclusion, poverty, and inequality exist in both Norway and Egypt, albeit in different numbers. According to champions of that theory of jihadi recruitment, the foreign fighter phenomenon transcends borders because those conditions do as well. Even if our understanding of foreign fighter recruiting is not complete, what we do know gives us some idea of how we arrived at this juncture in history.I spent several days last winter* reading the Twitter interactions of those who belong to ISIS or wish to belong to ISIS or admire ISIS. I also spent several additional days reading the quotes from the Koran or the hadiths or the sayings by various ancient theologians in Islam that the ISIS sympathizers especially liked. It's worth pointing out that all those quotes are very selective**, all supporting a violent approach to the infidels, all taking the idea of an end-times caliphate as immanent, as unavoidable and as showing its beginnings in the Islamic State.
That experience showed me a side to the "mystery" of ISIS that people whose roots are firmly intertwined with pragmatic international politics might miss: The role of the more literal or radical interpretation of the Salafist/Wahhabist doctrines in Islam.***
If I understood what I read correctly a belief in the end-times caliphate is as integral part of Islamic teachings as the belief in the final day of judgement is in Christianity. Even if I'm wrong about that, it's worth thinking about how a young Muslim in, say, Europe, with various frustrations in his own life****, might interpret the call to come and be one of the forefathers of that caliphate, to help build a real counterweight for the Western hegemony in this world, to make it possible for Muslims everywhere to once again hold their heads up high. And all that is the desire — nay, the command — of the divine power!
Those last sentences are gleaned from my readings. I saw a lot of references not to individuals being oppressed or treated with racism in, say, Germany or France, but to the treatment of Islam as a faith in the West (the banning of the veil in schools in France was often given as an example, but some also argue that Islam should be the ruling religion everywhere).
Indeed, for many of the foreign fighters who have joined ISIS the battle appears to be both against the infidel West and against any other sect in Islam except Wahhabism, though Shias are certainly viewed with as great a contempt as non-Muslims.
But all that might only apply to the relatively small contingency of ISIS fighters from Europe and North America. Many of those foreign fighters come from Saudi Arabia or Tunisia, and their motivations may or may not differ. The recent and earlier colonialist policies of the West in general and the US in particular are obviously relevant for the initial anger and frustration, and so is the everlasting Israel-Palestine conflict.
And the reasons why domestic fighters in Syria and Iraq have joined ISIS probably differ from those I have mentioned above. The Shia-Sunni hostilities are a much more important determinant for Iraqi members of ISIS, for example.
Still, the particular form ISIS has taken (an ultra-religious theocracy with extremely stringent rules) is a pretty clear reminder to all of us that religion is the flag the Middle Eastern rebellions have chosen and that we cannot ignore the Wahhabist version of Islam if we attempt to unravel the mystery that is ISIS. It's necessary to learn how a religious worldview looks, to spend some time among the fervent believers, to understand what motivates them, and also to understand which aspects of reality they completely repudiate or ignore.
* This was for writing my series on the Islamic State and women. I write about Western women who have joined ISIS here. (From one angle it's much easier to see why some not-so-religious Western Muslim men might join ISIS as fighters: Free housing, good income, access to as many women as one wishes (up to four wives, any number of slaves for sex), a Rambo-type hero status in the community, and a promise of a first class ticket to paradise if "martyred." To see why women join you must read my post.)
** This one, for example, never crops up.
**** Even in Europe the influence of Salafist/Wahhabist doctrines is growing. This is probably linked to the funding of mosques all over the world by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
**** These could be frustrations caused by poverty or racism or something more personal (such as the death of a parent which leads to increased religious searching and then to Salafism). The anecdotal data I collected on Western women who have joined ISIS does not suggest that they were especially poor, rather the opposite. Many, if not most, were middle class and fairly well educated.
On the other hand, several of the named terrorists associated with ISIS have had criminal records in the West. Those records may be a response to poverty or discrimination or they may indicate someone with a violent personality or both.
At the same time, recent immigrants to the industrialized West tend to be poorer than their new host country, on average. If you add to that the lack of integration in, say, France and the UK, and the general increasing geographic isolation of Muslim immigrants in many European countries you may be creating a situation where the messages from ISIS strike a chord.
Some have also suggested that the European-origin ISIS fighters have a higher percentage of recent converts than would be expected by the overall numbers of such converts. Perhaps recent converts tend to be more extremist in their beliefs.