by Andrew Salzmann
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or the Levant (Lost in Translation), is re-enacting the early history of Islam in order to establish its legitimacy with the peoples of the Middle East. This may be a powerful tactic, and U.S. policy makers must tune their ears to what the legitimating symbolism used by ISIS says.
In a series of essays entitled Theopolitical Imagination, William Cavanaugh reminds us of the critical role which the imagination plays in constructing political power. “How,” he asks, “does a provincial farm boy became persuaded that he must travel as a solider to another part of the world?” By a narrative about the state, which, despite its armies and offices can only marshal these resources by inspiring “disciplined acts of the imagination,” by training people to imagine themselves as “deeply, mystically, united to a wider national community.” While the West secularized the political imagination centuries ago, evocative religious themes still forge the imaginative political bond for many in the Middle East—and not just the jihadis who do respond to the call to travel as soldiers to other parts of the world. The use of mythic narrative can resonate powerfully with the wider public which values that narrative; by reenacting such a narrative, the actors can gain legitimacy. As Roland Barthes writes, because myth “aims at causing an immediate impression,” it does not matter if one is “later allowed to see through the myth”; the first impression created by the confluence of symbols can be powerful enough to have its effect.
Some Basic Comparisons
I would like to list a few basic resonances between the early history of Islam and the rise of ISIS by which ISIS establishes claims to legitimacy in Islamic societies.
Surprising success with small numbers. The Prophet Muhammad established his military dominance with a small group of companions, a trope which has indicated divine favor in the Near East for millennia. Annemarie Schimmel, in her And Muhammad Is His Messenger, notes that the battle of Badr, in which the Muslims defeated a far stronger Meccan army, “was perhaps the most important miracle for the young community, a miracle that helped them find their identity,” so much so that “the very name Badr became the cipher for the undeniable proof of Muhammad’s God-given role as leader.” While the exclusion of Sunnis from full participation in the Iraqi government by Nouri al-Maliki, and the alienation of Sunni soldiers in the Iraqi armed forces which that caused, enabled ISIS and its allies to seize control of large amounts of Iraqi territory with little effective resistance from national security forces, nonetheless the repeated refrain that a small band of warriors rapidly bested a larger force resonates closely enough with the story of the Prophet that it easily lends a sense of legitimacy.
Triumphant Return of the Exile. The prophetic revelations of Muhammad were not well received by the people of his hometown, Mecca, and his first disciples faced such tension that he sent a group of them to Abyssinia; eventually, escalating difficulties drove the Prophet Muhammad and his followers to seek refuge in Medina, an event (the hijra) which marks “year one” in the Islamic calendar. Eight years later, Muhammad and his followers returned to Mecca triumphant, effectively ensuring their dominance in Arabia. The choice of Abu Bakr “al-Baghdadi” as a nom de guerre by ISIS leader Dr. Ibrahim does more than associating him with the historical home of the Abbasid Caliphate; it sets up a military conquest of the city which he is “from” as a re-enactment of the Prophet’s actions. Charles Allen’s history of the Wahhabi movement, God’s Terrorists, narrates how the Wahhabis’ own “re-enactment of the Prophet’s famous migration” helped to win support for their cause.
The House of Islam. Prior to this triumphant return to Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad established Medina as a dar ul-Islam, from which subsequent raids and campaigns were launched—including the campaigns against Mecca. Although dar ul-Islam can simply refer to a Muslim-majority country, in Wahhabi ideology, the establishment of a truly worthy dar ul-Islam was viewed as necessary for the expansion of the realm. Jihadists who view other Islamic countries or governments as illegitimate can stake the success of their campaign in part on the establishment of a dar ul-Islam from which to launch expansionary campaigns. This belief is one explanation for Osama bin Laden’s own settlement in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. Reports not only of the silencing of church bells—objects of particular disdain in the ahadith which constitute the texts of sharia law—in Mosul, but of Christians being driven from the city suggest that ISIS is attempted to establish a haven of only the purest practice of Islam (Church Bells Fall Silent in Mosul as Iraq’s Christians Flee).
Cleansing of Idols. When the Prophet Muhammad did take Mecca—peacefully, as the people of Mecca realized they were outmatched and therefore surrendered—he ordered the Ka’aba divested of its 360 idols; all Muslims were directed to continue the pre-Islamic hajj pilgrimages to the Ka’aba, now the center of, and restricted to, Muslim worship. While ISIS is joined by established states, such Saudi Arabia, in destroying popular shrines or historic places (even ones connected with Muhammad’s life) in the name of fighting idolatry, the destruction of both popular Islamic shrines and pre-Islamic history in the areas which ISIS controls would represent a new intensity of cleansing from “idolatry” which brings to mind the actions which followed (and furthered) the Prophet’s Muhammad’s own consolidation of power—the more so to the extent that they extract outrage. The curators of the archeological remains at Ninevah, now within ISIS territory, have expressed their deep concern over the fate of these artifacts. (ISIS Is About to Destroy Biblical History in Iraq). The traditional tomb of the prophet Jonah was famously destroyed. (Shocking Moment ISIS Militants Take Sledgehammers to Mosul Tomb of Prophet Jonah). There is more recent concern about the future of biblical remains (ISIS Is About to Destroy Biblical History in Iraq).