A long essay by Scott Atran comparing ISIS to past revolutions to find out what is new, and what likely can and cannot be done against it. . . .
World-altering revolutions are born in danger and death, brotherhood and joy. This one must be stopped
Excerpts follow —
What the United Nations community regards as senseless acts of horrific violence are to ISIS’s acolytes part of an exalted campaign of purification through sacrificial killing and self-immolation: Know that Paradise lies under the shade of swords, says a hadith, or saying of the Prophet; this one comes from the Sahih al-Bukhari, a collection of the Prophet’s sayings considered second only to the Qu’ran in authenticity and is now a motto of ISIS fighters.
This is the purposeful plan of violence that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-anointed Caliph, outlined in his call for ‘volcanoes of jihad’: to create a globe-spanning jihadi archipelago that will eventually unite to destroy the present world and create a new-old world of universal justice and peace under the Prophet’s banner. A key tactic in this strategy is to inspire sympathisers abroad to violence: do what you can, with whatever you have, wherever you are, whenever possible.
To understand the revolution, my research team has conducted dozens of structured interviews and behavioural experiments with youth in Paris, London and Barcelona, as well as with captured ISIS fighters in Iraq and members of Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria). We also focused on youth from distressed neighbourhoods previously associated with violence or jihadi support – for example, the Paris suburbs of Clichy-sous-Bois and Épinay-sur-Seine, the Moroccan neighbourhoods of Sidi Moumen in Casablanca and Jamaa Mezuak in Tetuán.
While many in the West dismiss radical Islam as simply nihilistic, our work suggests something far more menacing: a profoundly alluring mission to change and save the world. . . .
ISIS is not succeeding because of the strength of its ideas. Instead, it exploits an increasingly networked world to sell its violent and apocalyptic ideology to a microscopic minority—people who are able to discover each other from a distance and organize collective action in ways that were virtually impossible before the rise of the Internet.
That reach, and the group’s disciplined approach to social-media incitement and online recruitment, allow ISIS to hunt among hundreds of millions of people and find a precious few thousand who are receptive to its message. It can identify and mobilize minute percentages on the margins of society; because society is massive, these numbers can sound impressive, out of context. ISIS is accomplishing some of its objectives in the ideas war, but that is not the same as winning on the merits. As Will McCants writes in The ISIS Apocalypse, “Reducing the mass appeal of ISIS is pointless, given that it doesn’t have mass appeal.” Instead, the focus should be on disrupting the process ISIS uses to mobilize its minority.
The ideology of ISIS will eventually meet its end like that of the Nazis did. Ideas are all well and good, but wars are won in the material world. Like the Nazis and the Soviet Communists, ISIS does not exist in an ideological vacuum. The ISIS insurgency emerged from and continues to be empowered by the wildly dysfunctional politics of Iraq and Syria, and the related machinations of regional and global powers.
And like Nazism and Soviet communism, ISIS’s brand of jihadism will not be vanquished by ideas alone. ISIS will continue to pose an ideological threat for as long as it holds territory and exists as a cohesive entity. The most decisive defeat of its ideas will almost certainly coincide with its defeat on the battlefield.
Success depends on . . .
Treating the Islamic State as merely a form of terrorism or violent extremism masks the menace. All novel developments are ‘extremist’ compared with what was the norm before. What matters for history is whether these movements survive and thrive against the competition. For our singularly self-predatory species, success has depended on willingness to shed blood, including the sacrifice of one’s own, not merely for family and tribe, wealth or status, but for some greater cause. . . .
Just since the Second World War, revolutionary movements have on average emerged victorious with as little as 10 times less firepower and manpower than the state forces against them. . . .
As history and empirical studies show, what matters in revolutionary success is commitment to cause and comrades. Even in the face of initial failures and often devastating defeats, this can trump overwhelming material disadvantages. . . .
The chasm between values is compounded by alternate historical arcs. The West and the Arab and Muslim world have long lived mostly separate and parallel histories. . . .
All of the European political imports and even nationalism itself (except maybe for Turkey, Egypt and Iran, which are still more built around ethnicity and faith than national identity per se) have failed in the Middle East, and miserably so. People are longing for something in their history, in their traditions, with their heroes and their morals; and the Islamic State, however brutal and repugnant to us and even to most in the Arab-Muslim world, is speaking directly to that.
Yet the US and Western powers don’t seem to recognise that revival. The hackneyed solutions amount to a tired call to shore up the broken nation-state system imposed in the aftermath of the First World War by the European victors, Great Britain and France, and a reaffirmation of ‘moderate Islam’, which appeals to young people’s longings for adventure, glory, ideals and significance even less than does the eternal promise of shopping malls.
Still, the popular notion of a ‘clash of civilisations’ between Islam and the West is woefully misleading. Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse . . . .
At the East Asia summit in Singapore last April, some people insisted that the Caliphate was nothing more than a myth masking traditional power politics. Our research in Europe and North Africa shows this to be a dangerous misconception. The Caliphate has re‑emerged as a mobilising cause in the minds of many Muslims, and even has some appeal to Muslims who favour interfaith cooperation. . . .
There are striking historical parallels in the history of modern revolutions ever since the Jacobin faction of French revolutionaries, led by Maximilien Robespierre, introduced the political concept of ‘terror’ and decapitation by guillotine; this extreme measure for the defence of democracy was seen as a divine form of violence. . . .
The Great Powers considered anarchism to pose the largest threat to the internal political and economic order, and to international stability. In the face of repeated anarchist attacks randomly targeting Parisians in ‘bourgeois’ cafés, theatres and the like, French leaders and the popular press demanded that the French people ‘awaken’ and ‘unify’ to fight a scourge that threatened civilisation itself. . . .
What ultimately killed off the anarchist movement as a geopolitical force were the Bolshevists, who knew much better how to manage a shared political ambition through military and territorial management; they were also, on the whole, much more ruthless. In a series of recent interviews with Jabhat al-Nusra fighters from the Aleppo and Dara regions of Syria, it has become increasingly clear that ISIS is eating Al-Qaeda in much the same way that the Bolshevists co-opted and practically annihilated the anarchist movement. . . .
In fact, there is a deeper connection between the Nazi movement and the Islamic State, an association that I noted some time ago. George Orwell, in his review of Mein Kampf in 1940, descried the essence of the problem:
Hitler knows… that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene … and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice… Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.
The core strategy used by the Islamic State to attract supporters and unhinge opponents is hardly a mystery, although few people engaged in policy and decision-making seem to have taken note. Its manifesto for action, a required playbook for the Islamic State’s emirs (religious, political and military leaders), is The Management of Savagery/Chaos. It was written over a decade ago, under the pseudonym Abu Bakr Naji, for the Mesopotamian wing of Al-Qaeda that would become ISIS. Think of the recent massacres in Paris, Beirut or Bamako, and then consider some of the book’s axioms. . . .
1) Hit soft targets. . .
2) Strike when potential victims have their guard down to maximise fear in general populations and drain their economies. . .
3) Capture the rebelliousness of youth, their energy and idealism, and their readiness for self-sacrifice, while fools preach moderation and avoidance of risk. . .
4) Draw the West as deeply and actively as possible into the quagmire. . .
‘The Extinction of the Grayzone’, a 12-page editorial published in ISIS’s online magazine Dabiq in early 2015, describes the twilight area occupied by most Muslims between good and evil – in other words, between the Caliphate and the Infidel, which the ‘blessed operations of September 11’ brought into relief. The editorial quotes Osama bin Laden, for whom ISIS is the true heir: ‘The world today is divided. Bush spoke the truth when he said, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”’, with the actual ‘terrorist’ being the Western Crusaders. Now, ‘the time had come for another event to… bring division to the world and destroy the Grayzone.’
In reality, last month’s Paris attack was just the latest, ever more effective, instalment for fomenting chaos in Europe, just as recent attacks in Turkey and Beirut sought to instigate more savagery and chaos in the Middle East. . . . We might wish to celebrate diversity and tolerance in the grayzone, but the general trend in Europe and the majority of the US political establishment and population is to collude in erasing it. . . .
In areas under or adjacent to Islamic State control, the general populations likely do not support either the Islamic State or the Western (and now also Russian) forces arrayed against it. They are not zealots or samurai, and do not want to die as martyrs. ISIS knows this and entices its enemies to attack the population centres that it controls . . . .
If people are ready to sacrifice their lives, then it is not likely that offers of greater material advantages will stop them. . . . Instead, we must meet their psychological and aspirational needs. . . .
Even if good ideas find ways to emerge from youth and obtain institutional support for their development to application, they still need intellectual help to persuade the public to adopt them. But where are the intellectuals to do this? . . . When I ask: ‘What ideas come from your own people?’, I’m told in moments of candour, as I was most recently by a Muslim leadership council in Singapore, that: ‘We don’t have many new ideas and we can’t agree on those we have.’
And where among our own current or coming generation are the intellectuals who might influence the moral principles, motivations and actions of society towards a just and reasonable way through the morass? In academia, you’ll find few willing to engage with power. They thus render themselves irrelevant and morally irresponsible by leaving the field of power entirely to those they censure. Accordingly, politicians pay them little heed, and the public couldn’t care less, often with good reason. . . .
Responsible intellectual endeavour in the public sphere was once a vibrant part of our public life: not to promote ‘certain, clear, and strong’ action, as Martin Heidegger wrote in support of Hitler, but to generate just and reasonable possibilities and pathways for consideration. Now this sphere is largely abandoned to the Manichean preachings of blogging pundits, radio talk-show hosts, product-pushing podcasters, and television evangelicals. These people rarely do what responsible intellectuals ought to do. ‘The intellectual,’ explained France’s Raymond Aron 60 years ago, ‘must try never to forget the arguments of the adversary, or the uncertainty of the future, or the faults of one’s own side, or the underlying fraternity of ordinary men everywhere.’
Civilisations rise and fall on the vitality of their cultural ideals, not their material assets alone. History shows that most societies have sacred values for which their people would passionately fight, risking serious loss and even death rather than compromise. Our research suggests this is so for many who join ISIS, and for many Kurds who oppose them on the frontlines. But, so far, we find no comparable willingness among the majority of youth that we sample in Western democracies. With the defeat of fascism and communism, have their lives defaulted to the quest for comfort and safety? Is this enough to ensure the survival, much less triumph, of values we have come to take for granted, on which we believe our world is based? More than the threat from violent jihadis, this might be the key existential issue for open societies today.
The full article is at https://aeon.co/essays/all-revolutions-are-born-in-terror-can-this-one-be-stopped
Volcanic eruptions stirred by the firebrand of word hurled among the masses
In Mein Kampf (1925), Adolf Hitler declared that: ‘All great movements are popular movements, volcanic eruptions of human passions and emotional sentiments, stirred either by the cruel Goddess of Distress or by the firebrand of word hurled among the masses.’ But the word must be framed within the spectacular theatre of the sublime. When Charlie Chaplin and the French film-maker René Clair together viewed Leni Riefenstahl’s visual paean to National Socialism, Triumph of the Will (1935), at a showing at the New York Museum of Modern Art, Chaplin laughed but Clair was terror-stricken, fearing that, if it were shown more widely, all might be lost in the West.
‘O soldiers of the Islamic State, continue to harvest soldiers,’ Baghdadi fulminated in 2014, ‘erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere’ and ‘dismember [enemies] as groups and individuals’ to liberate mankind from the ‘satanic usury-based global system’ leached by ‘the Jews and crusaders’ – an appeal that resonates with many, and stirs at least some to atrocity.