President Obama, This Is the Islamic State

The great American philosopher Casey Stengel, dispirited by the failures of the New York Mets he was managing in 1962, uttered the immortal words, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”  He might have been complaining of the discordant voices coming from Washington, D.C. regarding the brutal Islamic State (IS).

First, on September 11, 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of the U.S. mission to defeat ISIL (sic).  For Kerry, the mission was not a war.  The word “war” was the wrong terminology and analogy.  The U.S. was engaging in a “very significant counter-terrorism operation.”  Then, on September 14, the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, informed us, “Just as we have been at war with al-Qaeda, in similar fashion we are at war with ISIL.”

What is the right terminology for the U.S. “mission”?  President Barack Obama has been sitting on the fence, and it doesn’t make much sense.  Without mentioning the word “war,” he said the U.S. was moving ahead with “our strategy to degrade and ultimate destroy this terrorist organization.”

Whatever their different versions of the correct terminology, all spokespersons for the U.S. administration refuse to recognize publicly that the terrorist organization, whether one calls it ISIS or ISIL, has metastasized into the Islamic State (IS).  Whether the group’s actions, including beheadings of innocent people and mass executions, exemplify or are far from the teachings of Islam is arguable, but its existence and its objectives are evident.

President Obama has been attempting to put together a broad coalition to deal with ISIL.  Secretary Kerry has been attempting to form a coalition, a "coalition of the unwilling,” of Sunni states to fight IS, but with uncertain success.  Saudi Arabia is apparently prepared to allow a base to be used for training the “moderate” Syrians opposed to the regime of President Assad: these fighters will, perhaps in perplexed fashion, be simultaneously fighting the Assad regime and IS.  Turkey, at least so far, will not allow the U.S. to use its air base at Incirlik to launch air strikes.  It is not clear whether Turkey will close its long border with Syria to stop the flow of personnel and weapons to IS.  Again, so far, the help that might have been expected from PYD, the Syrian Kurdish movement, and the Turkish Kurd PKK has not been forthcoming.

The conference of 30 countries that started in Paris on September 15, 2014 to discuss the global response to IS – to fight jihadists by all means necessary, including appropriate military assistance – may lead to a more successful outcome.  Certainly, President François Hollande, who opened the conference, is on the right track in regarding IS as a global threat that needs a global response.  Hollande is also conscious of the need to fight indoctrination of Western youths to prevent them from joining the jihadist movement.  Those associated with that movement, whether closely or distantly, should be punished.

That movement has gone from plane hijackings, car bombings, and suicide missions to beheadings and mass murders.  It is now dominated by IS, which, in the struggle among terrorist groups, has overcome others, including al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and Hamas, to be the paramount leader and the most feared of Sunni Islamist terrorists.  The IS ruler, formerly known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (now Caliph Ibrahim), is the absolute ruler of all Muslims on both political and religious matters. He claims inheritance of the historic mission of the caliphate.

One hopes that the coalition of 30 will appreciate the nature of IS, a self-proclaimed caliphate.  It is a state, from Iran to the border of Aleppo, now composed of 16 vilayets (provinces or administrative districts) in Iraq and Syria.  As the world’s wealthiest terrorist group, it possesses extensive financial resources and has a formidable fighting force.  It is above all a ruthless and evil regime, killing or wounding hundreds of people and instilling fear.  Unexpectedly, it has exhibited a surprising aptitude for sophisticated use of social media and the internet to broadcast its messages and for diverse public relations, including well-publicized information about the crimes it has committed.

Like extremist groups of the past – the French Jacobins in 1789, the Bolsheviks in 1917, the Maoists in 1947 – IS uses terror and inculcates fear as a step in what is supposed to be revolutionary turmoil toward the creation of a “pure” society of true believers.  Beheadings, slaughters, abuses against the civilian population, sexual violence, religious persecution, torture, and mutilation not only are thus justified but also create fear in Western countries and show that IS is capable of and willing to take strong action.  It wants and has succeeded in getting the attention of the world.

IS is a deliberate assault on Western civilization and values, and humane behavior and human rights.  Yet, either because of or despite its savagery or mayhem, it tries to appeal to disaffected youth, to capture the imagination of would-be warriors, and is engaged in a global outreach to recruit immigrants to its territory.  It uses classic Islamic texts, the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, and symbolism to explain the nature of the caliphate.

That symbolism by IS is illustrated by the name of a new sophisticated magazine called Dabiq, started in July 2014, which now has published two issues.  Dabiq explains the religious basis of and provides cogent religious arguments for the Islamic State, unlike the rival magazine Inspire of al-Qaeda, which focuses on terrorism against the West.  The relevance of “Dabiq” is that it is a small town near Aleppo, Syria, where the Prophet said a clash between Muslims and “Rome” (symbolizing the West) would occur in the future.  The second issue is called “The Flood,” the story of Noah and the Ark.  Naturally, IS is the Ark, and everyone who does not come in will be wiped out in the flood.

The issues of Dabiq are a very clever presentation, using Islamic literature from the major or most trusted collections.  The Islamic State is identified as the true caliphate, and the Caliph Ibrahim as a ruler with complete religious and political power.  Rule is based on religious principles.  The control of territory and government is the basis for establishment of religious authority.  Baghdadi is the rightful caliph because of his military victories.

In relation to specific issues, IS makes clear its differences with al-Qaeda.  It will do everything it can to strike down anyone who is an obstacle on its path to Palestine.  It is only a matter of time and patience before it reaches that place.

IS provides a clear warning for the West. IS will expand and recruit Muslims from abroad until the final fight with “Rome.”  It calls on Muslims in the West to take steps to encourage fellow Muslims to emigrate to IS – this is an obligation (Wajib Ayni).  

IS is presently more concerned with frightening Western systems than with undertaking the kind of attack cells that al-Qaeda favors.  IS must be strengthened before it expands.  But the threat of home-grown terrorists in Western countries committing attacks remains.

It is crucial for the West to take action to overcome IS.  When he formulates his strategy in dealing with IS, President Obama might consider the words, unfashionable at this time, of Winston Churchill, who in his early book of 1899 The River War, wrote, “[H]ow dreadful are the curses that Mohammedanism lays on its votaries.”

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