The Islamic State is Not a Paper Tiger

It is gratifying that five Arab Middle Eastern countries have seen the enemy and acknowledge its danger. They now know what is this thing called the Islamic State (IS), formerly ISIS or ISIL, and have participated in or provided some kind of support for the U.S. launched air strikes on September 23, 2014 against the facilities of IS in Syria.

This collaboration marks widespread recognition that IS presents a serious menace to Middle East countries as well as to the homelands of the U.S. and other democratic Western countries. IS is a clear and present danger, both directly by its aggression and conquest of territory in the Middle East and indirectly from the many Americans and Europeans who have joined it.

The real nature of IS is that it is conducting a battle with those it considers its enemies, not only the West but also Muslim countries and even rival terrorist groups. IS’s cleverly produced magazine, Dabiq, has announced that the world is divided into two camps, the camp of Islam, the true faith, and the camp of the Jews, the Crusaders, and the rest of the nations led by the U.S. and Russia. IS, which has supplanted other Muslim entities as the voice of the true faith, is supposed to have come about to pave the way for the great battle, first against Saudi Arabia, then Iran, and then “Rome” (the Western world).

For the democratic West an immediate problem is who wields political power. By contrast with Western countries it is undeniably true that large majorities in Muslim countries believe that Islam does and should play a large role in the politics and life of their countries. The only Middle East country where a majority says that Islam has a small role in government is Jordan. For other Muslim countries, laws either strictly conform to the Koran, or as a minimum adhere to what are supposed to be the values and principles of Islam.

A dilemma faces Western democratic countries in the contemporary world.  How to explain what it is that makes Muslims more likely than adherents of other religions to accept and invoke their faith as the basis for political and social activity? Why is it that in some of the Muslim countries Islam is a more binding force and plays a stronger role than Western sentiments of nationalism?

The creation of the brutal Islamic State (IS) and the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria makes it imperative to understand the nature of that role. The question for the democratic West is whether the extremists of what used to be called ISIS or ISIL represent the true essence of Islam and are acting in accordance with the Islamic heritage.

A relevant immediate issue is the accuracy of the surprising statement of President Barack Obama, not known as a theological scholar, that ISIL is not “Islamic.” Yet by all indications ISIL or ISIS, now the Islamic State, illustrates a puritanical, austere, and the most violent form of Sunni Islam. That violence exceeds what has been witnessed in the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, notorious for its mass killings and violations of human rights. The even greater brutality of IS, shown in the beheading of innocent Westerners, and in committing mass murders, has horrified the world. Its imposition of Islamic austerity has included bans on public smoking, playing cards and dominoes, closing of music shops, and forcing women to wear face-covering veils.

Irrespective of the different interpretations of Islam, it is clear that most believers are deeply committed to their faith and want it to influence and perhaps control not only their personal lives and domestic issues but also their society and politics. Most hold that Islam is the one true faith, and many favor sharia, traditional Islamic law, to be made the official law of their country. A majority in most Muslim countries regards sharia law as the revealed word of God.

At the core of Islam is the concept of jihad, seen as a duty, which is interpreted differently for political reasons. On one hand, it is regarded as meaning an offensive war against unbelievers, in the name of Allah. Drawing on the heritage of the Prophet Muhammad it would entail a rejection of the modern world. Its crucial objective is the restoration of the Caliphate. On the other hand, and less explicit, is the definition of jihad as justifying defensive operations.

The current problem is the IS interpretation of jihad as an offensive tactic and its claim to be the inheritor of Islamic history. The self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al–Baghdadi, is emulating the Prophet Muhammad, who was at once the founder of a monotheistic religion based on revelations he said he had from God for twenty years and also a skilled politician who brought warring Arab tribes together. Muhammad is regarded as the messenger of God, a God who is unlike the Christian version. Thus, for Islam, God is one…who has not begotten, thus denying the Christian divinity of Jesus.

The crucial relevant fact for our time is that Muhammad was a warrior who also built a state in Medina between 622 and 632. His followers quickly expanded their territorial conquests and their empire and the Caliphate that reached from Spain to Central Asia. The new Islamic ruler, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a ruthless killer who claims to be descended from the Prophet, and also wears $5,000 Omega or Rolex watches, is modeling himself on that old history and is similarly interested in expansion, in glory and conquest of the Sunni countries, and even in conquering the world in the future. IS emphasizes the continuity with the historical Caliphate. In its magazine Dabiq, IS also explains that “Allah has blessed it with victory, consolidation and establishing the religion.”

The Caliph’s role includes both political and religious leadership equally. IS has organized a political structure and executive functions, but it also administers sharia courts and religious schools. Unlike the gradual historic separation of church and state in the Western world, IS prescribes that true Islam must exemplify the opposite. It argues that leadership in religious affairs is accompanied by political control over land and people that has been first accomplished.

By its immediate policy of consolidating its territorial gains, the Islamic State has postponed the clash with the West. It is therefore even more imperative that it must be defeated. The West should pre-empt this ISIS strategy and react against it before it possesses an even more formidable arsenal of weapons and attracts a larger number of jihadist fighters from the West and other countries. Now that the West knows of stormy weather ahead it must not be irresponsible.