The challenge posed by the Islamic State can be broken down into a number of discrete areas. First, there is the effort to understand the nature of the group itself: its ideology, its organization and its likely future prospects. Second, there are questions about its relationship and impacts upon other groups, from the very similar (al-Qaeda) to the essentially different (the Muslim Brotherhood). Third, there are important analytical questions about the relative significance of ideology, institutions and strategic competition. It is useful to be precise about which of the arguments that consume the public sphere, such as how “Islamic” the organization is, really matter. The same is true of whether the analytical categories such as the “moderate/radical” divide or the distinction between Salafi-jihadists and mainstream Islamists still offer useful leverage.
While its novelty and long-term significance may well be overstated, the Islamic State has indisputably reshaped the region’s strategic and intellectual agenda. Its rapid capture of territory through large swathes of Iraq and Syria and declaration of a new caliphate provoked a military response from the United States and have become the principle focus of a broad international coalition. It poses an intriguing ideational challenge to the norms of state sovereignty that underlie international society. Its penchant for broadcasting barbaric spectacles such as decapitations and burning alive of its hostages galvanized the attention of a horrified world. The Islamic State has built a seemingly robust proto-state in the territories it controls, and has seemingly established affiliates, with varying degrees of success, in areas such as Egypt’s Sinai and Libya. Its ability to attract foreign fighters and seeming appeal to certain radical trends has incited a new round of alarm over domestic radicalization and terrorist threats. All of those effects are exacerbated by the frenzied media coverage of these developments in both the West and the Arab world.
How novel is the Islamic State, really, and how significant will its emergence ultimately seem? A great deal of the popular analysis of the group has focused on its distinctive ideology, along with lurid accounts of its indoctrination methods, internal organization and claims to Islamic authenticity. Much of this analysis seems to proceed in an analytical vacuum, with little attempt to compare the details of the Islamic State to the experience of other insurgencies. It has become common to present the Islamic State as something unique in world history, an exceptionally ideological actor with unprecedented state-building capabilities and an uncanny ability to inspire new followers and recruits from around the world.
Yet, the Islamic State is hardly the first insurgency to seize territory and seek to govern it through the exploitation of local resources and the attraction of external support. In his contribution to the symposium, Quinn Mecham makes a compelling case that, ideology aside, the Islamic State has established a relatively high degree of stateness already. It is less obvious what to make of this, however. Controlling territory and behaving like a proto-state are, after all, entirely conventional insurgency behaviors. As Megan Stewart has found, since 1945 roughly one-third of all insurgencies have provided health care and education, and “once an insurgency acquired territory, nearly 49 percent would ensure that the civilian population received education or medical care.” Instead, we need to focus on what kind of insurgent governance this is, and how robust it is likely to prove. Zachariah Mampilly observes that ideology tends to matter less in determining the extent and nature of rebel governance than the conditions on the ground and especially the relationship between the rebels and the society over which it holds sway. On those grounds, things look less promising for the Islamic State. Ideology creates a “distinctive governance problem” for jihadist groups, argue Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Amichai Magen, that they “will struggle mightily to address in the longer term.” Reports of the growing use of intimidation to control restive local populations should be taken with several grains of salt, as strategic communications campaigns ramp up. Still, such reports seem like a leading indicator of declining legitimacy and consent, raising the costs of internal control and the likelihood of internal challenges.
Nor are the other key features of the Islamic State especially distinctive. Many non-state violent actors have deployed extreme, public violence for strategic purposes, whether to intimidate local populations and foreign enemies or to maintain the morale of its members. The indoctrination of members into an esoteric code of beliefs is a mainstay of insurgencies, from the Marxist-Leninist movements of the Cold War to Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers to the personalistic cults in many African rebellions. Perhaps the most novel element of the Islamic State is its ability to attract foreign fighters to its cause. However, as David Malet has shown in exquisite detail, even this has precedent in past insurgencies and could prove to be as great a weakness as an advantage as travel to its territories becomes more difficult and local populations grow resentful of foreigners.
This does not mean that the Islamic State is not formidable. Many of those earlier, similar insurgencies lasted for decades. But it is useful to recognize the Islamic State as far less unique than usually portrayed, with many of the same strengths and weaknesses of comparable territorially-rooted insurgencies. From this perspective, the Islamic State may be likely to crumble far more quickly than conventional wisdom suggests. As life in its territory grows harsher and lines of division emerge between foreign fighters and local populations, the Islamic State will likely have to expand the share of resources devoted to forcefully maintaining local control. The initial appeal of the Islamic State rested to a considerable degree on its momentum and carefully cultivated aura of invincibility, which seemed to confirm its divine provenance in the eyes of potential fighters. Now that it is mired in a hurting stalemate, losing ground in Iraq while grimly holding on in Syria, such appeals to invincibility are less persuasive. Its extreme savagery has increasingly alienated mass publics, whom do not seem to share the conviction of Western analysts that it represents anything to do with genuine Islam. This brutality does have the benefit of simultaneously mobilizing the most radical potential recruits into action, however, as can be seen in the rising numbers of reported foreign fighters flowing to Syria and Iraq. Whether the pool of admirers shrinks faster than extremists are mobilized or replenished will be a crucial measure of the success of the Islamic State’s strategy.
The collapse of the Islamic State would be something to welcome, of course. But this should not be equated with either the disintegration of the underlying organization or with the disappearance of broader jihadist ideas and ideologies. The organization may persist longer than its state, going underground following the defeat of the state as its predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq did following setbacks in the late 2000s. Its members, and the foreign fighters which fuel it, might simply transfer their allegiance to one of the many available jihadist groups fighting in Syria’s grinding, fragmented and multipolar civil war, leading to little real change in that conflict. The same is true for shattered states like Libya’s or Yemen’s. Failed states, intense sectarian conflicts and repressive regimes are fertile ground for the growth of jihadist movements, and all those ingredients seem likely to be bountiful in the coming years. Variants of jihadist insurgency will almost certainly continue to fight in these arenas regardless of the fate of the Islamic State.
It is in the realm of confronting jihadist ideology that trends are the least promising. The currently favored strategy, which combines autocratic repression with the official promotion of “moderate” Islam and the conflation of very different movements under the banner of “terrorism,” is likely to make problems worse. Radicalization is driven less by Islamist ideas than by failures of both governance and popular uprisings and the elimination of nonviolent alternatives. The Islamic State gained traction, recall, in a distinctive regional political environment shaped especially by extensive public regional mobilization in support of a sectarian Syrian jihad and the July 3, 2013 military coup in Egypt that brought down the elected government of President Mohamed Morsi. The coup and subsequent regional wave of intense repression of the Muslim Brotherhood ended an extended period of the open political participation by mainstream Islamist movements, discrediting the idea of such democratic inclusion for the foreseeable future and marginalizing the advocates of mainstream political strategies. The regional environment after the failure and perversion of the Arab uprisings is deeply hostile to any public role for non-violent Islamists and highly conducive to radical movements of all flavors.
It is a potentially fatal flaw in the emerging strategy that the Arab world’s autocratic resurgence and proxy wars are constantly replenishing exactly the pool of potential extremists which the counter-IS strategy hopes to drain. The Islamic State’s appeal beyond Syria and Iraq should be understood within the political context of the advantage of the chaos and poor decisions that followed the Arab uprisings. The failures of attempted transitions toward democratic governance, along with the region-wide repression of mainstream Islamists and secular activists, have been a strategic gift to al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other extremist trends. The failure of almost all of the Arab uprisings, with the sole and partial exception of Tunisia, has badly undermined the idea of the possibility of peaceful political change. The horrors of collapsed states and civil war in Libya, Yemen and Syria hang over all political life. None of the underlying drivers of those protests have been resolved and many – from personal insecurity to economic misery – have deteriorated. Focusing on Islam to the exclusion of these vital issues of governance, democracy and economic opportunity will guarantee failure. Encouraging or tolerating repression in the name of counter-terrorism will only fuel the grim cycle of repression, protest and radicalization. Put bluntly, the anti-Islamist campaign being waged by Egypt and the Gulf states that combines fierce repression with the promotion of “moderate” Islam is likely to badly fail: The Islamic messages will have no resonance with intended audiences, while abusive autocracy will continue to drive alienation and rejection of an illegitimate order.
The indiscriminate crackdown on Islamists of all stripes, as many of the essays in this collection point out, is likely to change enduring features of their organizations, ideologies and strategies. The crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its repression across the region has radically debilitated its organizational structure and discredited its ideology. That some of its members are now turning to, welcoming or inciting violence is hardly surprising given the political context; hopefully, some enterprising PhD student is currently doing a rigorous study of violence following military coups that might help determine whether Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has been involved in more, less or about the same as is typical. What is clear, though, is that whatever firewall the Brotherhood once offered against violent extremism has now mostly crumbled, with the ideological underpinnings discredited and the organizational structure disintegrated. Khalil al-Anani notes that the rise of the Islamic State “coupled with the crackdown against the Brotherhood has created divisions and rifts within the Brotherhood, triggering intensive debates between the leadership and youth.” Mokhtar Awad and Nathan Brown point out the mutually reinforcing nature of state repression and this disaggregated extremist turn in Egypt. This plays out differently in diverse national contexts of course. In the Gulf, as Kristin Smith Diwan demonstrates, the regional crackdown is closing down long-standing channels for public engagement and political influence for mainstream Brotherhood movements, which already face challenges from Salafi movements in attracting youth. In Syria, as Raphaël Lefèvre observes, the Brotherhood has floundered as other more radical insurgency factions have taken the lead. Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood has divided acrimoniously, while Yemen’s Islah movement has struggled to maintain what Stacey Philbrick Yadav calls its version of “Islamist Republicanism.” Few Islamist movements are likely to remain unchanged by the events of the last few years.
Current trends in public rhetoric do the anti-IS struggle no favors. The public conflation of groups such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood in today’s political rhetoric contributes to the blurring of once clear lines and likely facilitates recruitment into new violent extremist movements. In some cases, such as the anti-Islamist campaigns in the Gulf and post-coup Egypt, the conflation of distinct groups serves the strategic interests of regimes. In others, it represents genuine analytical confusion. As Anani points out, the equation of the Islamic State with other Islamist trends serves the interests of both hostile regimes and of the Islamic State. In either case, the potential risks are enormous – from the radicalization of previously mainstream groups to the triggering of unnecessary clashes of civilizations. The push to name the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization is an analytical step backward, one which the British government at least has reportedly declined to take. The Muslim Brotherhood, for all the many issues to be raised with its ideology and discourse, typically served as a competitor with and a firewall against recruitment into violent jihadist groups. Its tight organizational structure maintained discipline and ideological focus among its members. The Brotherhood, like most successful organizations, jealously guarded its place within Islamist politics against potential competitors such as al-Qaeda. Today, following Egypt’s military coup, that organization lies in tatters, with much of its leadership in prison and its strategy of democratic political participation discredited. As a result, as Awad and Brown observe, “a substantial reorientation of the Brotherhood may be underway, which could lead back to ideas its leaders had attempted to root out for decades.” This does not weaken jihadist movements such as the Islamic State, but rather strengthens them by removing a traditional mainstream alternative to jihadism.
The analysis here focuses heavily on institutions and political strategy. What about Islam itself? Ideology, identity, discourse and rhetoric do matter enormously in politics. High profile recent arguments over the authenticity of the Islamic claims of the Islamic State have not been especially edifying, however. Of course the Islamic State presents itself as Islamic and draws on an elaborate edifice of Islamic references to buttress its case, attract supporters and wage political war on its rivals. Some Muslims agree with all or part of its self-presentation, as Joas Wagemakers notes. But the more important reality is that the overwhelming majority of Muslims find the idea that the Islamic State or al-Qaeda represent their faith to be offensive and absurd. There is little evidence that Muslims view the Islamic State’s claim to represent a new caliphate as anything other than a bad joke. The response of Muslims themselves to claims about their religion should matter far more than textual exegesis. Ultimately, as Peter Mandaville might suggest, Islam is what Muslims make of it.
Muslims might someday be driven into a world in which the Islamic State represents their faith, but that is not today’s world. That has also been a core strategic problem for groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, which generally understand that most Muslims don’t agree with its ideas, strategy, tactics or vision. Its acts of savagery sought in part to overcome the reality of their own marginality by inviting retaliation and polarization that remove the option of co-existence and moderation. Terrorism has aimed to drive a self-fulfilling prophecy of existential conflict from which Muslims, as much as non-Muslims, can not escape. As I noted in a recent appearance before the House Armed Services Committee, preventing a spiral toward a clash of civilizations should be a basic lodestar for an effective response to the Islamic State – and that means seeking to quarantine its ideology and expose its marginality, not artificially inflating its claims, while working to address the underlying political and institutional problems really driving people towards extremism.
The essays collected in “Islamism in the IS Age” cover a wide range of arguments and perspectives. They do not all agree with my own analysis presented here. Taken together, they offer a rich and incisive collection of analytical perspectives on the current state of Islamist politics and movements. Read all the essays here.