The Islamic State has become part and parcel of global news cycles, but its goals remain little discussed. Instead, Westerners focus on determining whether or not IS should be understood as representing Islam or rather as an aberration of the faith.
Ever since the terror group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, conquered the city of Mosul and wide swathes of territory straddling both Syria and Iraq in the summer of last year, the West and its mainstream media have been near-obsessed with this clear and imminent danger to various countries and populations in the Middle East – all the way from Turkey down to Saudi Arabia. In spite of this really rather localized threat, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (aka Caliph Ibrahim) now even seems able to exert a certain influence on the 2016 US presidential elections, arguably as a result of the cunning use of the internet and social media by the group and the West’s ready response to IS propaganda videos and other materials disseminated online. According to a recent WSJ/NBC Poll, 27 percent of Republicans cite national security as their top priority, compared with only 8 percent in 2012.
In this way, the faraway reality on the ground in parts of Syria and Iraq appears to scare many conservative Americans (as well as undoubtedly many Europeans) out of their wits. On May 3, for instance, a blatant attempt to needle Muslim sensibilities and provoke some kind of Islamist reaction succeeded in its goal when two suspected Islamist gunmen attacked the Inaugural Muhammad Art Exhibit & Contest 2015 in Garland, a city northeast of Dallas, TX. The event even included a $10,000 prize for the best cartoon of Mohammed. The attackers wounded a security guard before they were shot dead themselves by other security guards. The two men, subsequently identified as Elton Simpson, 31, and Nadir Soofi, 34, from Phoenix, Arizona, were apparently trying to do the bidding of Islamophobes (or racists, if you will) like Pamela Geller and Geert Wilders present at the event. The mere fact that this event, organized by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), spent $10,000 on security, employing 40 guards, seems to indicate that pictorial representations of the Prophet of Islam were but a pretext for stirring up controversy and a violent reaction.
Such isolated and obviously deluded terrorist acts carried out in the name of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed all but reinforce the impression that Caliph Ibrahim and his IS constitute a viable risk to the West and its civilization. And compounding matters, the Islamic State cunningly participates in this game too: on May 5, AP reported that an “audio statement on the extremist group’s Al Bayan radio station said that ‘two soldiers of the caliphate’ carried out Sunday’s attack and promised the group would deliver more attacks in the future.”
Religious cleansing & genocide
The German writer and journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer, who actually did the unthinkable and spent 10 days in the Islamic State as the Caliph’s guest, declares matter-of-factly that the IS “is much stronger than we think. They have conquered an area which is bigger than Great Britain. Every day, hundreds of new enthusiastic fighters are arriving.” Whereas an Islamophobe like Wilders sees the IS as representative of Islam, Todenhöfer regards the Caliph’s version of the Muslim faith as incompatible with the tenets of the Koran, and antithetical to the commonly accepted interpretation of Islam.
The German writer literally says that the “IS has as much to do with Islam as rape has to do with love.” Todenhöfer describes the eerie sense of normality pervading daily life under the Caliph. He actually calls the IS a totalitarian regime bent on imposing its own version of Islam and applying what he calls a “strategy of religious cleansing,” clarifying that this constitutes “their official philosophy. They are talking about 500 million people who have to die.” Todenhöfer contends that the population of the Iraqi part of the Caliph’s lands is more or less resigned to IS rule, as a kind of lesser of two evils.
The Shiite-led Baghdad government has over the past decade applied a strict policy of discrimination, and has thus managed to alienate the Sunni Muslims living in the north of the country now under IS control. Christians and other minorities, such as the Yazidis, but also Shiite Muslims, are directly targeted by the IS. On May 1, for instance, the IS killed 300 Yazidi captives in the Tal Afar district near the city of Mosul. In fact, Todenhöfer states that the IS’s ultimate aim is a form of mass genocide: the IS wants to kill “all non-believers and apostates and enslave their women and children. All Shiites, Yazidi, Hindus, atheists and polytheists should be killed . . . Hundreds of millions of people are to be eliminated in the course of this religious cleansing. All moderate Muslims who promote democracy should be killed [as well]. Because, from the IS perspective, they promote human laws over the laws of God.” In their determination to cleanse the world of all signs of unbelief, the Caliph’s men have also turned their attention to the numerous monuments found in Iraq.
Before the Caliph’s forces invaded and captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city with about 2 million residents and capital of the Nineveh province, it was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious community going back as far as 6,000 BC. Following the IS’s entry into Iraq, the news agency AFP reported that “at least four shrines to Sunni Arab or Sufi figures have been demolished, while six Shiite mosques, or husseiniyahs, have also been destroyed, across militant-held parts of northern Nineveh province.”
On July 4, 2014, for instance, the IS destroyed and looted the graves of Prophet Yunus (corresponding to the Biblical Jonah) and Prophet Shayth (the Biblical Seth, revered in Islam and Christianity as Adam’s third son). Twenty days later, the attendant mosque was completely destroyed by means of explosives. The building had previously served as a Nestorian-Assyrian Church. An IS member at the time declared that “the mosque had become a place for apostasy, not prayer.” But in addition to Shia and saint-worshipping Sunni Muslims, only a decade ago, about 60,000 Christians were living in Mosul as well, but August 2014 marked the first time in 1,600 years that no Sunday Mass was held in Mosul. In stark contrast, now the city has a strictly Sunni Muslim population living under the strict rules imposed by the IS.
Punishing Shirk with gusto
At the same time, Mosul harbors nearly 1,800 of Iraq’s 12,000 registered archaeological sites. Late last February, the IS posted a video online showing how some of its men rampaged through the Mosul Museum with pickaxes and sledgehammers, toppling, defacing, and breaking ancient statues. The video also shows an IS member declaring that “we were ordered by our Prophet to take down idols and destroy them. These ruins that are behind me, they are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah.” Then, in the first week of the following month, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities of Iraq released a statement indicating that IS fighters had bulldozed the ancient Seleucid fortress city of Hatra, dating back to the 3rd (or 2nd) century BC and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
On 7 March, UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova said in a statement that “the destruction of Hatra marks a turning point in the appalling strategy of cultural cleansing under way in Iraq.” Bokova even called this “cultural cleansing” of Iraq a “war crime,” adding that “there is absolutely no political or religious justification for the destruction of humanity’s cultural heritage.”
Then, beginning in the middle of the same month and continuing into April, the IS destroyed the ancient city of Nimrud, 30 kilometers south of Mosul. On April 11, the group released a brief video on social media showing the destruction of what experts emphatically confirm is the Northwest Palace at Nimrud, built in the ninth century BC by the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II. IS fighters used sledgehammers, a bulldozer, and even explosives to destroy the remains of the ancient Assyrian city. One of the Caliph’s men addresses the camera in the short video saying that “whenever we take control of a piece of land, we remove the symbols of polytheism and spread monotheism in it.”
The chosen people
This orgy of destruction all but indicates that the IS version of Islam is very close, if not actually identical, to the so-called Wahhabi version of the faith practiced in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabi believers regard all other Muslims, whether they adhere to the Sunni or the Shia line of the faith, as Mushrik or perpetrators of the sin of Shirk, meaning idolatry or polytheism. As a result, Wahhabi Islam relies on a strictly puritanical understanding of monotheism (Tawhid) and rejects any form of intercession by saintly figures and/or other divinely inspired people or objects. Hence, the group’s wanton destruction of shrines, graves and traces of pre-Islamic cultures (corresponding to the era of Jahiliyyah when humanity was living in “ignorance of the Divine Law,” as worded by the Muslim Brotherhood’s legendary leader Sayyid Qutb).
Another striking aspect of the IS version of Islam appears to be the enthusiasm with which the Caliph’s followers practice their religion, execute unbelievers, and destroy what they regard detractions of their one god. The eye-witness Todenhöfer, for one, speaks of “an almost ecstatic enthusiasm that I have never encountered in any other warzone”. The Caliph’s project inspires his followers with a kind of zeal that is hard to grasp for outsiders. It seems that the IS fighters regard themselves as the chosen people, chosen by their god to complete the Prophet Muhammad’s work. Even though they reject any form of intercession as a matter of principle, IS members clearly regard Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the one tangible human link between true believers (i.e. themselves) and the next world (inhabited by Allah and his angels), the one link guiding them on their cherry-picking mission to find justification and legitimacy in the Koran and the Hadith (or records of the actions and literal words of the Prophet Mohammed).
While Abu Bakr does call upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to his caliphate, the IS version of Islam remains a narrow interpretative enterprise highly unlikely to appeal to wide swathes of believers. Caner Dagli, assistant professor in Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross, states convincingly that what distinguishes the IS view of Islam from other interpretations and explanations of the faith is its “exclusivism.” The Caliph and his IS fighters see themselves as the chosen people, as the only ones able to grasp and understand the true meaning of Islam – namely, that is their duty to destroy the House of War (Dar al-Harb) and convert the whole world to the House of Islam (Dar al-Islam, to use classical Islamic terminology), hence the outrageous threats to the US and Europe sometimes uttered by some zealous IS members.