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One of the major distinctions pundits made between Al Qaeda and ISIS until recently is that the latter was not as fixated on the “far enemy” (the West) as the former. That seems born out by the evidence of their behavior, focusing on conquests in the Levant and Iraq, as well as ideological arguments (e.g., What ISIS Really Wants). The New York Times now seems to be making the case that that was all wrong, How ISIS Built the Machinery of Terror Under Europe’s Gaze:

For much of 2012 and 2013, the jihadist group that eventually became the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, was putting down roots in Syria. Even as the group began aggressively recruiting foreigners, especially Europeans, policy makers in the United States and Europe continued to see it as a lower-profile branch of Al Qaeda that was mostly interested in gaining and governing territory.

“All of the signals were there,” said Michael S. Smith II, a counterterrorism analyst whose firm, Kronos Advisory, began briefing the United States government in 2013 on ISIS’ aspirations to strike Europe. “For anyone paying attention, these signals became deafening by mid-2014.”

In June of 2015 The New York Times wrote about the decapitation:

… Mr. Cazeneuve emphasized that while Mr. Salhi was known to have links to Salafists, he was not believed to have links with terrorist groups.

There was no indication that Mr. Salhi was aligned with the Islamic State….

Basically the media became a telegraph service for craven politicians who didn’t want to face the crisis. I observed that The New York Times recently referred to Molenbeek as a “fifth column.” That sort of language is something that politicians and the media try to avoid, both for prudential and ideological reasons. When these “isolated” attacks occurred a few years ago the conservative press ridiculed the characterizations of the politicians and the media. It turns out that they were right, and The New York Times is admitting it. This should give us even more pause in accepting the “analysis” of the established outlets. When the evidence is confronting them this starkly they’ve had to fess up that they weren’t scratching below the surface, and perhaps even had become a cat’s-paw in the toolkit of the political class. Though I will credit The New York Times that there has been a change of direction internally when you allow Muslim communities in the West to be characterized as a possible “fifth column.” Unfortunately in Molenbeek’s case that seems operationally correct, and the evidence was too strong to obfuscate for reasons of political and ideological expedience.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS 
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51OZQR9XHsL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Aeon Magazine has published a 11,000 word essay by Scott Atran, ISIS is a revolution. Atran is one of my favorite thinkers, and his book In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, is one of the more influential in shaping my understanding of cultural phenomena (warning, the prose is dense, but worth it!). Over the last ten years Atran has focused on the phenomenon of radical Islamic terrorism, using his anthropological and evolutionary scholarly toolkits to decompose the problem. More recently he’s been doing “field work” on the front-lines of the battle against ISIS in Iraq. Literally the front lines!

The piece in Aeon is a necessary corrective to two vulgar and populist reactions to the rise of radical groups like ISIS. First, there is the materialist viewpoint, which holds that a lack of economic opportunities is the dominant causal factor driving the violence. The first order issue to address is the reality that many regions of the world (e.g., non-Muslim Sub-Saharan Africa) have larger portions of the population which are underemployed or unemployed than the Islamic world, and yet do they not serve as sources of violent politically or religiously motivated terrorism. In fact, the best ethnographic work indicates that a disproportionate number of the young men involved in violent religious and political terrorism are not from the bottom of society, but closer to the top. In particular those striving and moving up the socioeconomic ladder in cultures undergoing modernization. The rural peasantry and the established upper classes are relatively immune to radicalization, but those whose roots are in the country but attempting to situate themselves in the middle class or higher are subject to more social dislocation, despite lack of material want. Most of the 9/11 bombers were Saudi, a nation which has a cradle-to-grave system of benefits for citizens, and which has been shielded and enriched by an alliance with the United States. Certainly marginalization, social and economic, are necessary conditions for recruiting from the Islamic Diaspora in Europe, but even here they are not sufficient conditions. The Roma are more socially and economically deprived than Europe’s Muslims, but do not engage in organized terrorism of any sort.

A second extreme position is that Islamic terrorism is a natural necessary consequence of the character of the Koran. The problem with this viewpoint is that though most of those who participate in Islamic terrorism may identify as Muslims, on closer inspection they often lack even the patina of fluency in their own religion. This may be especially true of those who grew up in secular Diaspora environments, but the vast majority of the world’s Muslims have little to no familiarity with the details of the Koran or the Hadith (the latter of which is in any case more relevant for day to day practice). There’s a reason that they make recourse to the ulema as a de facto clerical caste. Additionally, Islamic terrorism in the Middle East is to a great extent the heir of radical nationalist terrorists of the 1970s, many of whom were Marxist, or were from Christian Arab backgrounds (in particular the PFLP). Even suicide bombing, a major calling card of Islamic terrorists today, was pioneered by the Left nationalist Tamil Tigers. But just as economic and social marginalization fuel disaffection among Europe’s Muslims, many elements of Islamic religious theory and practice are easily co-opted into justifying violent movements. Islam after all is a pacific religion historically only after it has dominion. Even if one rejects the proposition that Islam is the reason for violent terrorism by Muslims, one does not therefore accept that it is no part of the overall dynamic.

Finally, there is also the idea that Islamic terrorism is nihilistic. Certainly it can seem nihilistic…from our perspective. That is why it is essential to look at things from the perspective of others, and also periodically engage in Epoché and detach from individual subjectivity. Many conservative Muslims decry the Western lifestyle as without meaning, soulless and empty. Though there is some truth to this, most of us who live the Western lifestyle know that there is a fair amount of meaning, dignity, and value in our quotidian days. Some conservative Muslims who arrive in the West are surprised to observe that the sight of women walking about in shorts does not induce an orgy of mass rape. But that is because they simply do not consider any viewpoint not conditioned on their own prior assumptions. Similarly, we in the West need to consider the viewpoints of our antagonists, without it implying in any way that we accept the positions of our antagonists as necessarily meritorious.

51SrA4DFsEL Two works from the mid-2000s give us a window into Islamic terrorism as it was then, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism by Robert Pape, and Understanding Terror Networks by Marc Sageman. Pape utilized standard social science methods (e.g., regression) to show there was strong relationship between suicide bombing in the service of political ends in contexts where foreign powers with an asymmetrical advantage had historically intervened. In other words, Pape’s work suggests that rational choice frameworks are useful even for acts as individually irrational as suicide bombings. Second, Sagemen’s survey of the ethnography of the violent Salafi international punctures the perceptions of those who might suggest that global capitalism will ultimately abolish political violence in a bath of chemically flavored french fries. Many of the recruits in Salafi terror networks are from well off families like Osama bin Laden. 51QHx-ZmCHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ (1) Or, they are well educated like Ayman al-Zawahiri. There is the recurring thread of the over-representation of applied STEM backgrounds, in particular engineers. And, converts and those from relatively globalist/cosmopolitan backgrounds are also over-represented in terms of orders of magnitude in comparison to the worldwide Islamic population. In other words, it is those most familiar with the fruits of global capitalism who have turned away from its allure.

Atran’s research, like Sageman’s, has focused on detailed statistical ethnographies of those who are recruited into Islamic terrorism. What it shows that peer networks are essential to explaining how become recruited in these activities, and in particular kinship ties, both fictive and real. Humans are social creatures, and much of our cognition operates through a social sieve. Our beliefs and preferences are strongly shaped by a tendency to conform to our “in-group.” This is so strong that even if it is clearly irrational humans may still engage in behaviors to maintain conformity to group norms. The Xhosa cattle killing is a clear example of this principle of adherence to majority norms despite grave consequences, but so was the continued adherence of most Germans to the Nazi regime after defeat became inevitable, or Chinese enactment of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, which probably retarded the rise of that nation to prominence for a generation.

k10543Group solidarity around a compelling meta-narrative is the important “big picture” element of Islamic terrorism which is critical toward understanding its motivations, and which can be missed by descriptive ethnographies or econometric analyses. Palestinian nationalist terrorism of the 1970s, or Tamil Tiger suicide bombing of the 1980s, were fundamentally derivative or subordinate to a broader family of ideologies, post-colonial nationalism with a Leftist inflection (ETA and the IRA also fall into this category, even if situated in the West). In contrast, Islamic terrorism has the potential to become superordinate, and swallow up individual movements and grievances into a meta-narrative. E.g., the core actors in ISIS to this day seem to be a shadow of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist officers. It is neat to presume these individuals are using Islamic ideology in an instrumental sense, as Saddam himself clearly did. But the Islamic meta-narrative is powerful, and has historical precedent. It is plausible that though the trigger for the precipitation of an Islamic movement in Iraq was the defenestration of the officer core of a notionally secular national regime, the ultimate crystallization and end state of the movement may be toward a sincere and genuine Islamic nationalism. One might make the analogy here to what has occurred in Pakistan. The founder of the state, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a religiously non-observant Shia Muslim (who had Hindus in his recent ancestry, and whose family was of the marginal Ismaili sect) who seems to have envisaged a secular state, albeit demographically dominated by Muslims. Today Pakistan is riven by Shia-Sunni sectarian conflicts, and adheres to a strong Islamic self-identification. Jinnah’s proximate motives in creating Pakistan could be understood in light of the nationalist sentiments of India’s Muslim ruling class, and their dispossession in the 19th century, and impending marginalization in a united India. But ultimately he set in motion a series of events which would hinge Pakistan to a de facto Sunni Islamic international, and allow it to be an incubator for violent religious radicalism which it can barely control. Pakistan was swallowed by a broader evolving meta-narrative.

518rHTN9d-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ What Atran highlights in his piece is that young men across the Islamic world are being inspired by a powerful ideal which transcends the material. That is, they are not being driven by dreams of material wealth and affluence. Nor are they driven by simple hatred of the West, or unthinking nihilism. As Shadi Hamid has noted it is an act of political cant to assert that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam. For the broad masses this sort of assertion will suffice. I recall, for example, a conversation with a friend of mine in 2002 who was a gay man who repeated to me the standard narrative that Islam is actually a religion of peace. As a straight male with a “Muslim name” I could probably get some peace out of Islam, but as it is constructed today in majority terms it is rather strange for a gay man to assert this, as there is little tolerance for gay orientation in the Muslim world (though that is changing). But this is human social conformity and social cognition kicking in again. For people interested in reality one has to move beyond the artifice of social cognition, and dig deeper. Islam is a meta-narrative which arose as a cultural adaptation 1,500 years ago. First it bound factious Arab tribes together. Second, it bound Arabs and non-Arabs together in a common meta-ethnic identity, and allowed for a period of Islamic cultural hegemony at the center of Eurasia.

communismstory1_1413028f The reality is that we’ve seen this before, and relatively recently. Atran, and others, have made the analogy between anarchism around 1900 and Islamic terrorism today. To outsiders both movements were frightening and nihilistic, but in hindsight anarchist violence arose as a side effect of the transition toward a liberal democratic order. Atran critically observes that the wave of anarchist violence abated when Marxist-Leninism emerged to capture a nation-empire, that of Russia. International communism in its Soviet dominated period proactively smothered anarchism (e.g., during the Spanish Civil War), and perhaps more importantly deprived it of oxygen, as idealistic youths who would have been attracted to anarchist terrorism as outlets for their rebellious energies were co-opted by the dream of a universal Communist commonwealth of states. And so with the transition from the age of al Qaeda to the age of ISIS.

At this point then we may have to stop talking about “Islamic terrorism,” and refer to the Islamic international, if the analogy with anarchism and communism hold. Atran also points to the example of the French Revolution, which began the process of organized political terror in the name of an ideal, and ultimately gave rise in a genealogical sense to most modern political movements which persisted into the 20th century (fascism being the arguable exception, though it was in many ways a reaction to the ideologies spawned by Revolution).



On the individual level what is appealing about the Islamic state is that it has a heroic narrative ready for those who wish to embrace it. From the perspective of most of the world, including the Muslim world, this is perverse, considering the barbarities committed by the Islamic State. But again, we must not fall into the trap of assuming that our enemies lack humanity; rather their assumptions are inverted and different. There are millions of Germans whose grandfathers were proud members of the SS, despite the fact that some of its killing units engaged in wholesale genocide, and specifically acts of murder against women and children. They thought they were heroes for their fatherland, doing dark deeds to forge a better world. Or as one SS commander stated boldly as he lifted up a child he was about to murder, “You must die so we may live.”

The liberal democratic “end of history” is not heroic or anti-heroic. It is banal, and heroism plays out only in the context of a job well done in the banality of existence and persistence. Being a good parent, friend, and a consummate professional. But not everyone is a parent, and not everyone has a rich network of friends, or a fulfilling profession. Ideologies like communism, and religious-political movements like Islamism, are egalitarian in offering up the possibilities of heroism for everyone by becoming part of a grand revolutionary story. Though John F. Kennedy’s administration has a glow and sheen today which would have been unfathomable to those who lived through it, his words about why America sought to go to the moon are remembered because they capture the essence of a heroic spirit. The reality of course is that we sought to go to the moon because America wanted to defeat the Soviet Union in the space race. But he asserted that the American nation sought to go to the moon because it was hard. And ultimately getting to the moon first brought America glory and renown. And that is what many young men crave, but few can attain in a stable liberal democratic consumer society.

51SKjCKQBrL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Islamic State has co-opted a meta-narrative which exists within Islamic history, and offers up a heroic vision to individuals who identify as Muslim across the world. Prior to its meteoric rise many people dismissed the Islamic State, or what was then simply al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, including president Barack Obama (and myself). After its conquest of Mosul there were many who asserted that the material structural parameters of the domains which the Islamic State ruled would make its period of rule ephemeral by necessity. In short, the Islamic State was poor and under-resourced. There was no way it could sustain itself more than six months.

Obviously those prognostications were wrong, and they were wrong because of an excessive fixation on material parameters of success or failure. In the generality Atran points out that there’s a fair amount of social science and historical scholarship which suggests that motivated minorities can capture and transform whole societies. The world religions are key examples. Most humans are conformist, so when faced with a powerful bloc which operates as a unit they often simply fall into line. This arguably occurred in Germany in the 1930s, in Russia in the 1920s, and in France in the 1790s. The transition to Protestantism in the Netherlands and England occurred despite initial apathy or resistance from the peasant majority (yet sometimes majorities remain steadfast; the Hohenzollerns did not transform their Lutheran domains to the Reformed faith, while later Saxon rulers who were Catholic were a minority in their own kingdom).

But, I am somewhat more sanguine than Atran about the impact of the Islamic State on the world in comparison to revolutionary France or Soviet Russia. He makes much of the fact that the French nation repelled massive invasions in the 1790s, and ultimately transformed the whole continent. But as documented in Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization the French victories probably had less to do with élan imparted to the armies of the Revolution than the reality that the new political arrangement in France allowed for total mobilization of the society. In short, the armies of the French were larger, though Napoleon’s genius did seem to allow for a initial strategic bonus. The final loss of Napoleon’s empire was due to the fact that other European powers began to follow France’s lead and mobilize their whole society toward war. Similarly, the Bolsheviks in 1917 captured a very powerful state, as did the Nazis in the 1930s. Modern conflict is by necessity an economic battle, and the weight of matériel will usually adjudicate as to who the ultimate victor will be. Atran notes that during World War II German soldiers were on a per individual basis more effective than the troops of the Soviets or the Western allies, but ultimately the military-industrial might of the United States and the sheer numbers of the Soviet forces overwhelmed the Nazi regime.

OIC_map The gross domestic product of the nations which constitute the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is about 7 trillion American dollars. The aggregate GDP of the European Union is 19 trillion dollars. The United States of America is 16 trillion dollars. China is 9 trillion dollars. In 1790 France was in the running for the number #1 economic power in Europe. In 1913 the Russian Empire was in the running for being the #1 economic power in Europe. Though France in 1790 was far more heterogeneous than it is today, and the Soviet Union was very heterogeneous, arguably they were far more cohesive polities than anything that one might congeal out of the OIC.

41murHaheEL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_ In the Aeon essay Scott Atran argues that the millenarian forces which ISIS is harnessing are here to stay. I agree with him. There are structural demographic and sociological forces which make Islamic movements, of which ISIS is the most extreme manifestation, nearly inevitable for the next generation or so. But, there are also structural demographic and economic forces which suggest that it will not be as nearly an existential threat to the liberal democratic political order as the movements of the 20th century. The West, Russia, China, and India, are all not particularly congenial to a long term alliance with Islamic powers. Electric cars and the shale oil revolution both threaten a major point of leverage that the Islamic international in the form of Saudi Arabia have over the rest of the world. Of course some might wonder at the Islamic demographic bomb. If current trends hold by 2050 30% of the world’s population will be Muslim. And as I noted above motivated minorities can capture whole cultures. But 30% of the world’s population at that time will also be Christian, with a larger proportion in areas where religious zeal remains strong. And, the orientation of Chinese culture is such that conversion to Islam is often seen as tantamount to leaving one’s Han identity in totality (one particular issue is that pork is central to Chinese cuisine, but it is taboo for Muslims). As documented by Philip Jenkins in God’s Continent and Eric Kaufmann in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Europe’s Christian identified population should be far larger than its Muslim identified population as far as 2100, even in pessimistic analyses (Pew suggests that 10% of the European Union’s population will be Muslim in 2050).

That is the optimistic angle on what awaits us. It’s not going to be as bad as Soviet communism or German fascism. I lived through the specter of the former, and many people alive still remember the latter. But the likelihood is that the core Islamic world, from Morocco to Pakistan, will be riven with conflict and tumult, and that will draw in Diaspora populations, and those from the demographically important margins (e.g., Indonesia). This conflict will spread back out to non-Muslim nations with Muslim minorities. As Atran notes all one needs are a small motivated number of young men to allow for their to be critical mass for violence. Some level of violence directed toward majority non-Muslim populations in nations with large Muslim minorities may be inevitable. For non-Muslims the fact that the vast majority of Muslims decry violence, both due to sincerity and self-interest, will be somewhat besides the point, as the violent minority are going to take center stage in national concerns. In the Muslim world the violence will be orders of magnitude worse, just as the fascist and communist regimes of the 20th century inflicted most of their terror upon the populations whom they ruled. In an almost Newtonian fashion I expect that non-Muslim societies under attack from Islamic international will exhibit a more self-conscious cultural identity than before in reaction.

Over the long run the flames will die down as a cycle of inter-cultural conflict abates. The future beyond 2050 is difficult to predict. Technology will have changed a great deal, and technology effects change on culture. What it means to be human will shift. Perhaps humanity will again focus on space travel, channeling some of its heroic energies outward, though this will always be a small demographic slice due to the constraints of physics. The vast majority might turn inward, and disappear in a vacuous virtual reality realm. Far better than projecting violence outward. But, I do think it points us to the reality that Islamic violence is a horrible answer to a real question. What should we do? And why should we do it?

• Category: Foreign Policy, Ideology • Tags: ISIS, Middle East 
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The full documentary from which this clip is extracted is at the Frontline website. I wasn’t really excited about watching this, but I made myself do it. The topic is very disturbing. Most of the film is about the modern day “underground railroad” out of ISIS territory of Yezidi women and children escaping slavery. The scene above is of what looks like a three year old girl who was captured by ISIS along with her mother and one year old brother describing beheadings, which she obviously witnessed. Apparently in disputes with her brother she threatens to cut his head off. The mother of the children tells of her time in one of the slave houses filled with women, and attempting to intervene when one of their ISIS guards started raping a nine year old. Apparently the guard declared that “this was allowed” by his religion. The narrator did not elaborate that the dominant accepted Hadith tradition is that the Prophet Muhammed consumated the marriage to his favorite wife Aisha when she was nine years old.*

Later on in the documentary there is a scene with teenage foreign fighters kicking back and just shooting the shit. The general implication is that they were all raised in Europe. They’re basically horsing around and joking like young men are wont to do. First, they amusedly describe mass killings of Yezidi men. Then later they start making lurid humorous references to Yezidi slave girls.

The truly disturbing aspect is that the body language and the overall mien are so startlingly familiar, but the topics are depraved. I think this goes to the heart of the fact that though we like to dismiss ISIS fighters as sociopaths, they really aren’t. Rather they are motivated by existential and ideological factors. An analogy to Nazi-dominated Germany is probably warranted. Most Germans did not start out as Nazis, but during the early conquest years most seem to have conformed to the new dispensation. There are documented instances, for example, of nurses who were known to toss Jewish children out of the upper stories of hospitals as a way to kill them quickly and free bed up beds for non-Jews, who after World War II went right back to their old profession.

The-Black-Book-of-Communism ISIS seems nihilistic because its aims and means are so alien to the norms of modern civilization, broadly construed. But the same could have been said of the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, or the the Nazi dominion in World War II. And, unlike these two groups international Commmunism for decades managed to appeal to Western intellectuals who believed in its ultimate goals, even if they blanched at the methods of Lenin and then Stalin. They had a dream, and what’s a hundred million broken eggs to make that beautiful omelette?

* No matter if this is true or not, the problem for us in the year 2015 is that many ISIS fighters take this hadith at face value to justify the rape of nine-year-old girls.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS 
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Many people have read Graeme Wood’s cover story in The Atlantic, What ISIS Really Wants, by now. I have, and I recommend you do so as well. You’ll learn a lot. And there’s much within it that I can assent to without hesitation. It overlaps in key ways with my post from last August, The Islamic State Is Right About Some Things. It does not trade in trite but satisfying demonology (politically correct liberal, or jingoistic conservative) or vulgar Marxist analysis. Rather than fitting ISIS into a fashionable Western ideology or filtering it through an emotional reaction, Wood attempts to sketch the movement out as a phenomenon informed by its own self conception. Before you can grapple with this new beast of our age, you have to take ISIS seriously in regards to the sincerity of its beliefs, and attempt to understand them. Wood does just this. Because of the dangers of going to ISIS territory he interviews those living in Western countries sympathetic to the movement, as well as engaging with scholars who specialize in topics which might shed light upon it. In particular, I think Wood conveys the “camelpunk” aspect of ISIS, a violent version of what you can see across the Gulf monarchies. Like 9780195169263steampunk camelpunk is a mash-up of mores, aesthetics, and technologies, across disparate eras. Anyone who reads science fiction won’t be entirely surprised by the juxtapositions of social media and slavery. Many less creative and historically conscious people live under the delusion that the world that is is the only world that could have been, or that it is the only world that will ever be. ISIS’ vision and reality offer up a window into a startlingly different, and radically objectionable, alternative world.

religionexplained As a descriptive matter the piece in The Atlantic is a tour de force. But there is one aspect where I think it is misleading. Wood seems to imply that ISIS is profoundly anti-modern and neo-medieval. This is certainly their own self image, and superficially their fixations on conquest and slaving seem more fit for the 7th century than the 21st. But like fascism, another ostensibly anti-modern movement, it does not strike me that ISIS actually can be understood except as a reaction against modernity, engaging, assimilating, and co-opting. In a similar vein the attempts of the Amish and some Hasidic Jews to stop time and battle back modern innovation is a deep acknowledgment of the seductive power of modernity. Elements of the program of ISIS may seem medieval and traditional, but as a whole it is a radical movement, which is tearing a fabric in the organic development of modern Islamic tradition across its meany streams, which issue out of the evolution of the thousand year old madhhabs.

But that’s a secondary issue. The main point where I believe Wood’s a exhibits a weakness is in privileging reflection über alles. By this, I mean that as a whole humans are prone to accepting the primary causal role of reflective cognition, of beliefs avowed and rationales offered. We are confident in our conscious self control, despite a robust body of cognitive psychology which implies that much of our cognition is not under the control or constraint of rational faculties. This problem is particularly extreme among intellectuals, the very class which also attempts to understand human phenomena. Through the simple process of introspection and extrapolation intellectuals tend to reduce human action to the outcome of ratiocination, inference from eternal axioms. This is wholly inadequate to a phenomenon as complex as religion. Lutheranism is reduced to theses, Islam to Koran and the Hadith, and Judaism to the Torah. And so forth. Long time readers will know my shtick at this point. Let me highlight the particular sentence which encapsulates the disagreement I have with Wood:

The ideological purity of the Islamic State has one compensating virtue: it allows us to predict some of the group’s actions

3551889 In mathematics truths entail necessary inferences. This is generally not the case with truths in a religious sense. A simple set of distinct beliefs can imply a shockingly wide range of inferences through clever rationalizations, totally unpersuasive to outgroups, and totally persuasive to ingroups. To get a sense of what I’m talking about, observe that denominations still descend from the Millerites. That the Jews responded to their national dispossession in antiquity by blaming themselves, and not the god who had clearly abandoned them. Or consider that in Matthew 24:34 Jesus seems to make a prophecy which was falsified. Of course a little Googling will show that many “literalist” Christians have a ready explanation of what “generation” actually means. Religion is not infinitely pliable, but its adroit flexibility can be marvelous to behold. I recall years ago making the case to an Orthodox acquaintance that Jewish custom of matrilineal descent is clearly a Roman era innovation, as the sons of Joseph by an Egyptian woman were recognized as legitimate. She responded without hesitation that her rabbis had explained that in the “oral law” it was recalled that Joseph’s wife was actually adopted, and her biological mother was a Hebrew. My own supposition is that this tradition is a fiction quickly conceived to give an ancient patina to a novel practice in Roman antiquity. But, it illustrates the ease with which even the most punctilious of religious traditions in terms of text can turn the plain reading of the scripture on its head through interpretation or supplementary traditions and glosses. And that is just the clever elites. The self serving lack of ideological clarity is clear among the foot soldiers. Here’s a story from December in The New York Times of how a young boy joined, and left, ISIS:

Soon, though, he said, “I noticed things I saw that were different from Islam.”

Back home he saw the group inflict severe punishments on men who were caught smoking cigarettes, yet in the camp, he said, he saw fighters smoking. He said he saw men having sex with other men behind the tents in the desert night. And, he said, he was increasingly put off by “the way they are killing innocent people.”

41V-vYSuQrL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The men having sex with men no doubt have a rationalization for their behavior. The details aren’t relevant, the point is that this sort of deviation from expectation is pretty common. If it is so among the foot soldiers, the same sort of hypocrisy and lack of consistency can apply to the elite. Wood argues that ISIS is hobbled strategically by its own millenarian ideology. That its very premises ensure its refutation. True. For now. It may come to pass that there is a parting of the ways at some point within the organization, and almost certainly the suicidal faction is less likely to outlast the pragmatist wing. ISIS is composed of individuals, who exhibit variation in belief and interpretation, even if on the whole they seem rather unhinged.

So where does that leave us? In terms of policy prescriptions I’m not far from Graeme Wood. But, I’m far more open to the possibility that ISIS will mutate, evolve, and adapt. Its ideology is not set in stone, but simply the blueprint for the current era. Like all religions Islam evolves and changes with the times, in unpredictable ways, because it is the aggregate of human actions. If you think we have a good science which would allow to us to predict the future of human actions, I’ve got a bridge to sell you….

• Category: Ideology • Tags: ISIS, Islam 
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524202 The Ben Affleck vs. Bill Maher and Sam Harris debate about Islam is all over the interwebs, and seems like something of a Rorschach test. On my Twitter some people seem awfully impressed by Ben, while others (including me) think that it’s a pretty good illustration of the shallowness of contemporary Left liberalism when it comes to religion. One response is that “you can’t generalize about 1.5 billion people.” No, I don’t mean Catholics, I mean Muslims. When it comes to Christianity, or white males, Left liberals seem comfortable generalizing about a pattern of patriarchy or oppression, no matter that some white Christian males were at the forefront of movements such as abolitionism. Words like “problematic” or “complex” and “nuanced” don’t come up when people begin to hold forth upon the “white male Christian patriarchy.” It’s a vast monolith. Imagine if someone stated there was a problem with child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, and the response was that “you can’t generalize, most Catholic priests are not child abusers!” True. But enough are that it’s a problem. Affleck’s immediate response is that Maher and 0226056767 Harris’ assertions were “Gross and Racist.” This emotive explosion is really at the heart of it, criticism of Islam triggered a disgust and aversion response, not a rational reaction. Not that we should expect Ben Affleck to engage in deep analysis, just as Maher and Harris are not deep thinkers on religion either. One strange thing I note about Ben Affleck’s angry reaction is that he challenged Maher and Harris on their lack of deep scholarly credentials in Islam. Now, if a Muslim had demanded this it would kind of make sense, but I don’t understand why a secular liberal would talk as if only the ulema could speak authoritatively about Islam. This is somewhat similar to the Yale Humanist association objecting to Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaking about Islam, and demanding that someone with academic credentials be invited as well. Shall we impose the same criterion when it comes to Christianity? Only pastors and priests need apply?

No_god_but_God_(Reza_Aslan_book)_US_cover Over at The Washington Post‘s Wonkblog there is a post up, Ben Affleck and Bill Maher are both wrong about Islamic fundamentalism. First, this idea that there is a “moderate Islam” and a “fundamentalist Islam” is only useful to some extent. A genuinely textured argument needs to introduce more multitudes, from the philosphically esoteric Ismaili sect, which in its most numerous Nizari form tends toward what one might call a liberal form of modern Islam, to various traditionalist Sunnis who reject the Salafi/Deobani views but still express very conservative perspectives. The assassin of Salman Tarseer was from the Barelvi download (1) movement, which is the “moderate” traditionalist alternative to the various Salafi and Deobandi “conservative” currents which have been roiling Pakistan over the past few generations. I put the quotes because the Salafi and Deobandi movements are reformist, and to a great extent the products of the past few hundred years and strongly shaped by a modernist viewpoint, even if their modus operandi strikes us as reactionary. The fact is that traditional Islam has accepted as a majority consensus that apostasy from Islam should result in the death penalty. But there was also a lot of latitude in this area, and in pre-modern times political entities were not totalitarian. These sorts of edicts may not have been enforced much at all (analogy, Theodosius’ banning of public paganism in the late 4th century probably was not enforced across much of the Empire, though it did allow for interventions in some cases, such as the destruction of the Serapeum). Additionally, the reality is that for particular classes and individuals there was a wide tolerance toward free thought. The great physician al-Razi clearly would be considered a free thinker, while the poet al-Ma’arri was a caustic atheist (no surprise that ISIS beheaded one of his statues).

The modern age is arguably one of more conformity due to the ease of communication & travel, and the homogenizing power of the force of the state and mass media. In any case, Wonkblog assertions:

Overall, the picture that emerges of fundamentalism among the world’s Muslims is considerably more complicated than either Affleck or Maher seem to realize. There’s no doubt that, particularly among some Middle Eastern Muslims, support for intolerant practices runs high. It’s quite easy to criticize these practices when a repressive regime is inflicting them upon an unwilling population. But things get much more difficult when such practices reflect the will of the people, as they seem to do in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Egypt.

On the other hand, majorities of Muslims in many countries — particularly Western countries — find these practices abhorrent. Maher tries to speak in broad brushstrokes of a “global Islam,” but Pew’s data show that such a thing doesn’t really exist.

2120250 How to be polite about it? This is stupid. First, repressive regimes fall back on Islamic populism when they are weak. The Baathist autocracies were Arab nationalist and secular. What they are doing when putting Islam front and center is pandering to public sentiment, which is becoming more and more conservative over the generations. And things don’t get more difficult when barbarism reflects the will of the people. When the people are tyrannical their will is irrelevant. That’s presumably why you have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is not surprising that the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam endorsed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference did not vouchsafe that one could change religions. Second, numbers are of the essence. Western Muslims are important to Western people, because they live among us, but they are numerically trivial. Wonkblog provides the fraction of selected Muslim nations (or Muslims in selected nations) where proportions agree that apostates from Islam should be executed (which is truly the historical traditionalist view, even if there are details of implementation which make it difficult, and there are some dissenting views which are becoming louder). Pew also helpfully provides the number of Muslims in each nation estimated for 2010.

Nation % death penalty for apostates Muslim Population Muslim Population death penalty for apostates
Kazakhstan 0 8887000 0
Albania 1 2601000 26010
Turkey 2 74660000 1493200
Kosovo 2 2104000 42080
Bosnia 2 1564000 31280
Kyrgyzstan 5 4927000 246350
Tajikistan 6 7006000 420360
Russia 6 16379000 982740
Indonesia 13 204847000 26630110
Lebanon 13 2542000 330460
Tunisia 16 10937521 1750003
Thailand 21 3952000 829920
Bangladesh 36 148607000 53498520
Iraq 38 31108000 11821040
Malaysia 53 17139000 9083670
Jordan 58 6397000 3710260
Palestine 59 4298000 2535820
Egypt 64 80024000 51215360
Pakistan 64 178097000 113982080
Afghanistan 78 29047000 22656660
835123521 301285923

200px-IbnWarraqwhyIAmNotMuslim The nations surveyed represent about half of the world’s Muslims (>800 million of ~1.5 billion). These data indicate that 36 percent of the these Muslims favor the death penalty for apostates. Much of the balance in terms of population is going to be in Africa and other Middle Eastern nations (e.g., Iran) and India. I don’t know how things will shake out, though Nigerian Muslims are not particularly liberal, and I am curious if Indian Muslims would be any more liberal than Bangladeshi Muslims. In any case, we are faced with a glass half empty and half full situation. The majority of Muslims certainly do reject the death penalty for apostates today. But the minority who accept it as normative represent hundreds of millions of individuals. I tend to see the half empty aspect because I really don’t care what peaceful Muslims who focus on their mystical inner life do. They’re free to practice their superstition in the privacy of their homes, or in public spaces which they own, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. The problem is that the hundreds of millions who have what I might say are “problematic” viewpoints, if I was a pretentious liberal who enjoyed equivocating, would quite likely break my leg. This is not an academic concern, I agree with Shadi Hamid that democracy and liberalism have not made their peace in much of the Arab world. To some extent the masses will always be suspicious of liberalism, because they are a dull and uncreative sort. The American populace supports banning flag burning, and often curtailment of various kinds of speech. Elites, whether on the Left or Right step in to block these sentiments through the courts. Elites in Muslim nations need to grow some balls in this area, though the pattern of assassination of those who speak against the barbarians in their midst from Tunisia to Pakistan illustrates how deadly serious these issues are.

Finally, U.N. Report Details ISIS Abuse of Women and Children:

According to witnesses cited in the report, Islamic State fighters dumped more than 60 Turkmen and Yazidi children in an orphanage in Mosul after they had witnessed the killing of their parents by the fighters. “It appears some of the older children may have been physically and sexually assaulted,” the report notes. “Later, ISIL fighters returned to the orphanage and made the children pose with ISIL flags so they could take photos of them.

In a barbaric pre-modern age the children would have been killed. So perhaps ISIS is not quite as 7th century as they like to proclaim. But the intersection of modernity, taking the photos, and barbarity on display here is reminiscent of Rwanda more than anything else. But this is more worrisome to me:

The report said the Yazidi girl who was abducted by Islamic State fighters when they attacked her village on Aug. 3 was raped several times by different men before she was sold in a market.

“Women and girls are brought with price tags for the buyers to choose and negotiate the sale,” the report said. “The buyers were said to be mostly youth from the local communities. Apparently ISIL was ‘selling’ these Yazidi women to the youth as a means of inducing them to join their ranks.”

51ys5CPEhdL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria do have rational self-interested reasons to align with ISIS, at least temporarily. The barbaric behavior meted out to Shia and non-Muslims is generally not something they have to worry about themselves, and some have even collaborated for material gains. Though there are impositions on their personal freedom, from the perspective of a Sunni Arab the erstwhile Maliki regime and that of Assad’s may not have been better bets. But no one forces you go to a slave market and buy slaves. Civilization seems to rest lightly upon the shoulders of some. That is gross. You may not want to generalize about the religion of 1.5 billion, but if I was a Christian or Yezidi in the Fertile Crescent and I saw Sunni Arabs I know what I would do. Run. Don’t ask if they are moderate or fundamentalist. Just run.

Addendum: It is here that my friend Omar Ali may ask if I am perhaps giving succor to the average Fox-News-watching imbecile . In other words, being frank and honest about the warts and all of international Islam might cause problems for Western Muslims. I don’t have suggestions for my Middle Eastern friends, but for South Asians there’s an easy recourse: bow down before the idols of your ancestors. Arabs, Turks, and Persians think you’re black Hindus anyway, so why not go whole-hog? (so to speak) You’re just replacing a thousand little idols for one black stone you otherwise worship. A simple name change will suffice. Of course the idiots will think you’re Muslim anyway, but eat a ham sandwich and prove them wrong.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Islam, Religion 
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U.N. Report Details ISIS Abuse of Women and Children
According to witnesses cited in the report, Islamic State fighters dumped more than 60 Turkmen and Yazidi children in an orphanage in Mosul after they had witnessed the killing of their parents by the fighters. “It appears some of the older children may have been physically and sexually assaulted,” the report notes. “Later, ISIL fighters returned to the orphanage and made the children pose with ISIL flags so they could take photos of them.

In a barbaric pre-modern age the children would have been killed. So perhaps ISIS is not quite as 7th century as they like to proclaim. But the intersection of modernity, taking the photos, and barbarity on display here reminiscent of Rwanda more than anything else. But this is more worrisome to me:

The report said the Yazidi girl who was abducted by Islamic State fighters when they attacked her village on Aug. 3 was raped several times by different men before she was sold in a market.

“Women and girls are brought with price tags for the buyers to choose and negotiate the sale,” the report said. “The buyers were said to be mostly youth from the local communities. Apparently ISIL was ‘selling’ these Yazidi women to the youth as a means of inducing them to join their ranks.”

Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria do have rational self-interested reasons to align with ISIS, at least temporarily. The barbaric behavior meted out to Shia and non-Muslims is generally not something they have to worry about. Though there are impositions on their personal freedom, from the perspective of a Sunni Arab the erstwhile Maliki regime and that of Assad’s may not have been better bets. But not one forces you go to a slave market and buy slaves.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS 
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"Chop-chop square" in Riyadh

“Chop-chop square” in Riyadh

Like Joe Young, the Mormon missionary who becomes involved in the porn industry in the late 90s film Orgazmo, our involvement in the Mid-East is probably going to result in the violation of our purity (yes, that’s only in our self-conception as a nation; we’re mostly definitely only born-again virgins, not the real deal). It’s hard to read anything about the Free Syrian Army which portrays it as anything but hapless, disorganized, if often well meaning and milquetoast (well, when they’re not allying with the Nusra Front and being nasty to Alawites and Christians who support the regime which has been nasty to them). And of course this edition of the coalition of the willing involves our stalwart Western-leaning allies, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Yes, Bahrain, the sectarian regime dominated by a religious minority which suppresses the majority with foreign forces. Qatar, the Islamists’ number one ally in the Muslim world. The UAE, which is home to the dystopian techno-oligarchy that is Dubai, a glittering vision of the apotheosis of slavery coexistent with post-modernity. And of course there is Saudi Arabia, the only nation in the world which regularly decapitates individuals for capital crimes. Well, except of course the Islamic State if you count that as a state!

I won’t belabor the point. Let’s remember that the Saudi monarchy is quite notably medieval in its practices and institutional arrangement (it abolished slavery in the 1962). Our enemies, Iran, and the Syrian regime, are actually much closer to modernity as we’d understand it using the Saudis as the extreme case. As it is we have to ignore this because the Saudis are our bastards, neo-feudal creeps though they may be. And we’re trusting them to help train the Free Syrian Army? Of the 19 9/11 hijackers 15 were Saudi (a further two were from the UAE, our ally). This is not going to end well. We can’t admit that we’re helping the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Yes, he’s a murdering bastard, but he’s not our bastard.

The Islamic State is a nasty piece of work. Unlike Saddam Hussein’s late lamented dictatorship it also has the ability and ambitions to spread its tentacles of nastiness across the region right now. I won’t shed any tears over the pounding Raqqa is receiving from American cruise missiles. But let’s be clear that almost certainly this is going to benefit our Iranian enemies, as well as Hezbollah. Additionally, the Saudis and their Gulf allies will probably attempt to reshape the Sunni insurgency in their own image, which is not one which we in the West would term “moderate,” let alone free. Let’s go into this with eyes open, and acknowledge that it’s a choice between a bad option, and a worse option.

Shorter: America is on the side of the less evil guys. Go America! Also see this cri du coeur, The Barbarians Within Our Gates.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Islamic State, Saudi Arabia 
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Yezidi Peacock Angel

Yezidi Peacock Angel

I’ve talked about the Yezidis many times over the years. The main reason is that I find the obscure marginal sects of the Middle East interesting. This is a part of the world where religious pluralism existed under very precise and strict conditions, and these groups deviated from those conditions and lived to tell the tale. The Muslim rulers, and more specifically in historical memory the Ottomans, tolerated a specific set of enumerated dhimmi, generally traditional Christian and Jewish groups. Though subject to persecution and oppression, in principle these groups had rights to exist within the Islamic framework. Heretics and pagans on the other hand were not tolerated. For example, I have read the account from the 17th century of an Ottoman official who was making a progress from Baghdad to Istanbul, which turns out to be an excellent piece of ethnography. His entourage stopped in an isolated mountain valley in what is today Kurdistan. The local population were not Muslims, and when the official inquired as to their religion they told of how they worshiped the sun. Whatever the details of their origin this group obviously would be classed as pagans, and so the official was faced with what to do with these people. The choices were conversion to Islam or death, the implementation of which would have been difficult at that moment. As a solution the local Jacobite Orthodox Christian bishop agreed to accept them as his own, with nominal baptism. Presumably these people eventually became Christians in fact as well as name. But it goes to show that in the pre-modern world of the Middle East religious diversity persisted in the isolated places.

Groups such as the Druze offend Sunni Muslims because they are clearly derived from Islam itself, and Islam is the capstone religion in its own conception. Alawites seem to have emerged from the same milieu as the Druze, but they have retained a tenuous Muslim identity, which has accelerated under the Assad family. The Sunni Muslim stance toward these groups is that they are viewed as illegitimate heresies, not protected religions. The extent of Salafi* influence in one’s orientation also conditions how Sunnis view Shia (and there is variation within the Shia group, the Ismailis in particular viewed as heretical because their practice and theology differs more in obvious ways from Sunni orthodoxy; the Zaydi Shia are at the opposite extreme, being very similar to Sunni norms).

All this leads up to why the Islamic State, and Muslims generally to a lesser extent, tend to be extremely harsh in their attitude toward the Yezidi sect. The details of the Yezidi belief system are somewhat obscure, like that of the Druze, but they are clearly not Muslim. The media reports that the Yezidi are an ancient religion, with some relationship to Zoroastrianism. Many Kurds will also agree with this statement, assuming that something like Yezidism was the primal faith of their ethnic group. This may or may not be true. The origins of the Yezidi may actually be more like the Druze, if somewhat more ancient and obscure. Part of the lack of clarity I think goes back to the fact that there is some opaqueness overall in the first century or so of Islam. The social-religious world of the Middle East was a product of those years, but it is very different from them. For example Zoroastrianism and Zoroastrian-influenced syncretistic Muslim sects were powerful anti-establishment forces across the Iranian cultural zone down to the 9th century. Quite a few extremist Shia sects (ghulat) seem to have made the transition to post-Islam, often imbibing Zoroastrianism of a Mazdakite flavor. Such a transition though was usually a cultural death sentence. Survival depended upon attaching oneself to a Shia identity, however tenuous (the Alawite strategy), or, fleeing to a geographically isolated region (in some cases these sectarians fled to the Byzantine Empire, and converted to Orthodox Christianity rather than revert to normative Islam!). Flight from the world is what the Druze and Yezidi have done in their fastness.

Yezidi children killed by ISIS in Syria

Yezidi children killed by ISIS in Syria

The current capture of Sinjar has been a humanitarian catastrophe for the Yezidi because it has been one of their traditional redoubts. The kidnapping of women, and the summary beheading or crucifixion of men, can be comprehensible in light of the Salafi Muslim vision of groups such as the Yezidi, which literally should not exist. Their obliteration would bring balance back into the Salafi world. While Christians and Jews may persist with the barest of sufferance, the existence of the Yezidi is an abomination to Salafi Muslims. What is occurring is a ethnic cleansing and genocide in straightforward terms. In fact Salafi Muslims would probably agree with the appellation cleansing, because the Yezidi to them are an offence to Being itself. Their existence is a matter of ritual purity in a metaphysical sense. I am wary of ever making analogies to Nazi Germany and the way it viewed the Jews, but this one clearly is a close fit. There is no path toward accommodation of Yezidi existence for the Islamic State, it is now down to an animal battle of survival for them, as they flee into the mountains as they have done so many times in the past.

nationsbook The relationship of Kurdish Muslims to the Yezidi has often been fraught, but there has been a modus vivendi of late. The Yezidi looked to the Peshmerga to protect them, though in this case the Peshmerga failed. The Kurdish reaction overall seems to confirm much of the argument in Azar Gat’s Nations. It is not civic virtue which is drawing out their outrage, or adherence to the state, but ethnic-national honor as a whole, irrespective of boundary. Their identity as Kurds is motivating them to fight the Islamic State first and foremost (whether the Yezidi are Kurds is under debate, but they are of the same general group of Iranian speaking mountain people). See in The New York Times, Iraq Agrees to Help Kurds Battle Sunni Extremists:

On Monday, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant Kurdish separatist group in Turkey that for decades has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state, in a statement called for its fighters to go to Sinjar, one of three Iraqi towns where the Kurds were pushed out on Sunday.

“The treacherous ISIS attacks have been humiliating for the Kurds,” the statement said. “Until the Kurds develop a strong resistance, they will not be able to take back their honor.”

The soldiers of the Islamic State certainly seem to behave in a manner which we find ghoulish. But ghoulish behavior is not a monopoly of religious fundamentalists; Assad’s Syrian regime has sent militias to rape and murder children in front of their parents to sow fear into the opposition. The moderate Free Syrian Army has also committed war crimes. But the Islamic State is fighting for principles, a vision, with atrocity as the end and not the means. For the Assad regime atrocity is a tool to instill terror. For the Free Syrian Army atrocity is a reflex against the brutality of the Assad regime. An eye for an eye. In contrast, the vision of the Islamic State necessitates atrocity as the ends of their existence. In theory Yezidis could be given the option to convert to Islam, but the current pattern of killings indicates that pure elimination seems just as likely an end. From my perspective, and most people’s, it is an evil vision. But it is giving its fighters something to fight for. This vision has prompted four upper middle class Indian men to join them, to the shock of the Indian security establishment. The article waxes on about the privileged background of these men, but transnational jihadists have long had a more “up market” demographic. The Islamic State is fundamentally an abstraction, and so appeals to those who deal in abstractions. It is utopian in its fundamentals, just as the Khmer Rouge was utopian. They are attempting to go back to the “year zero” of Islam.

But even error sometimes speaks truth. The Islamic State is right that the Sykes-Pico Agreement is a shambles and ended. The delusion of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Iraq and Syria has collapsed. What replaces it we do not know. Currently the American government continues to support policies which strengthen the unitary Iraqi state. The major weak point in this strategy is that even the superficial appearance of a unitary Iraqi state seems out of reach. That game is lost. We don’t want to admit it, but it is over. We don’t know what gambits with follow, but the local actors will be ultimate deciders.

Roman_Eagle_by_Wittman80What can be done? The Iraq invasion and occupation has made Americans wary of direct intervention. And rightly so. Unless we wish to take upon the mantle of a New Rome, sending our sons (and now daughters) to impose order and justice, and implicitly the American Way, in foreign lands we are better off not getting deeply involved. On the other hand there is no point in pretending that we are neutral in the clash between antinomian barbarians and ethno-religious autocrats. The latter are imperfect, but they have a vision of life which we recognize as life.** We must stand in some way with imperfect humans when they are battling against organic automata, motivated by an ideology which bears false witness to any traditional social order. People can disagree on the details, but there is a moderate position between total detachment and taking upon the burdens of the world upon one’s shoulders.

I do think that the rise of the Islamic State, and the past 10 years of chaos and violence, suggest that this is the end of the persistence of ethno-religious sects such as the Yezidi across most of the Fertile Crescent. The Jacobites Christians, Assyrians, and Yezidi, lack powerful patrons and protectors. Though most Sunni and Shia would not countenance genocide, they are focused more on the exigencies of their own internecine conflicts. Many minorities already have large Diaspora populations Europe. Tens of thousands of Yezidi live in Germany, and tens of thousands of Assyrians live in Sweden. The most practical short-term solution would be to extend refugee status selectively to ethno-religious minorities to prevent them from being eliminated by genocide. Certainly the dominant Muslim groups of the Fertile Crescent are dying in large numbers in the conflicts, but at the end of the day when peace comes the Syrian and Iraqi state(s) are going to be their making, their dominion. They will have something to build up from. In the long term it seems implausible that the Sunni majority can be excluded from the leading role in governance in Syria. When majoritarianism does come I doubt it will look keenly upon the rights of the minorities after the litany of horrors afflicted upon the Sunni populace by the Assad regime and its Alawite militias.

Of course a final irony is that the migration of the ancient Middle Eastern minorities to the West will likely result in their diminishing over the generations. The corporatist straight-jacket of the Middle Eastern milieu was constricting, but it allowed for a communal identity to maintain itself. In the individualist West these small communities are unlikely to be able to self-segregate in large enough ghettos where their cultural norms are dominant. This means that identity will become a choice, and over time intermarriage will likely result in a decrease in numbers. Though the Yezidi are rightly objects of sympathy, their cultural norms are quite retrograde in many ways. These folkways were adaptive in the circumstances of Kurdistan, a persecuted minority which had to maintain a high level of group cohesion. But in the West they are often impediments to full flourishing, and produce inter-generational conflicts.

Dancing-in-the-Glory-of-Monsters-Stearns-Jason-9781586489298 Finally, currently the world is paying attention to the dire humanitarian situation in northern Iraq because that is where the media spotlight is. And rightly so. But let us remember that these sorts of events have an old pedigree. Consider the Assyrian Genocide of the early 20th century. Many thousands died then, and many thousands are dying now. And what about the three-year-old children shot in front of their parents by the militia loyal to the Assad regime? The events in Gaza are quite raw and fresh, but read Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War in Africa, and you gain perspective as to what atrocity truly is. It reminds me of the apocryphal quote attributed to Stalin, the “Death of one man is a tragedy. Death of a million is a statistic.” Right now infants are dying of thirst in northern Iraq. Horrible. But the Central African Republic still teeters on the edge of genocide. I am not saying that because we cannot do all things we should not do anything, but we should keep in mind that for all the positive trends in the world there is a vale of tears we must confront. The soldiers of the Islamic State fight under the banner of demons, but their enemies are no angels.

Assyrian demon Pazuzu

Assyrian demon Pazuzu

But not all distinctions can be erased. When enumerating the horrors meted out by the Assad regime, or noting the ubiquity of rape in the Congo, I can not help but think that these are the products of human venality. The thugs who murder children for Assad, or the soldiers who rape women in the Congo, may have their ad hoc justifications for what they do. But they do what they do not in a spirit of purpose, but on the orders of their paymasters or in a fit of amorality coming to the fore. Atrocity, even on a grand scale, can still be the marshaling of individual human weakness. The power of the Islamic State derives in part from the fact that it inverts the moral order of the world. Some of its soldiers are clear psychopaths, as the most violent and brutal of international jihadis have been drawn to the Islamic State (as opposed to Al Qaeda, which is more pragmatic!). But a substantial number believe in its utopian vision of an Islamic society constructed upon narrow lines. A positive vision of a few evil goals, rather than a grand quantity of small evil pleasures. The Islamic State ushers in an evil new order, it does not unleash unbridled chaos. Though its self-conception that it is resurrecting the first decades of Islam is self-delusion in my opinion, it is still a vision which can entice some in the Islamic international.

I do not think that the Islamic State is here to stay. I believe it will be gone within the next five years, torn apart by its own contradictions and its rebellion against normal human conventions, traditions, and instincts. But that does not mean it is not going to cause misery for many on its way down. The irony is that the iconoclastic Islamic State may as well be worshiping the idols conjured in the most fervid of Christian evangelical apocalyptic literature, because they shall tear the land end to end and leave it in a thousand pieces, a material sacrifice to their god. They live under the illusion that they are building utopia, but they are coming to destroy an imperfect world and leave hell in its wake.

* The modern Salafis are just the latest in a particular extreme of Sunni belief, which goes back to individuals such as Ibn Taymiyyah.

** My distinction here has some similarities to the typology outlined in the Kirkpatrick Doctrine.

• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: ISIS, Islam, Yezidis 
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Razib Khan
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