WASHINGTON – The NYT published a front page story on how American policy-makers are trying to understand ISIL, (Or ISIS, IS for Islamic State), in order to devise a strategy that will lead to its defeat. (In Battle to Defang ISIS, US Targets Its Psychology, December 29, 2014), The article is about the content of conversations obtained by the NYT. The main topic of these exchanges among senior military leaders is: “Why is ISIS so popular?” It would appear that military leaders really want to understand the root of ISIL’s appeal, so that they can combat the organization more effectively. This is not necessarily an idle or stupid question. But it is not as important as General Michael Nagata, the top US commander of American Special Operations forces in the Middle East, and the man asking the question, may think.
A winning dream
At the cost of appearing superficial, here are the wo reasons why ISIL is popular. The main one is that this movement (now trying to become a state) has resurrected –with some success– the concept of a militant, strong, pious Islam. This fantasy, as strange as this may sound, is selling well in parts of the Arab world that are confused and disconcerted after decades of corrupt and incompetent rule by distant despots.
The second reason is that, for the moment at least, ISIL is winning. And it is winning in large part because a distracted and incompetent American leadership did absolutely nothing as ISIL, from its bases in Syria, proceeded to invade and occupy 1/3 of Iraq, while the US-trained Iraqi Army melted away –without firing a shot.
Therefore, in large part thanks to these stunning military successes, we have now the convergence between the magic vision of an ancient and glorious Islam coming once again to life and the reassurance that its leaders must be right –because they are winning.
In all this let’s be clear about one basic fact. This ideology justified through religious distortions is totally and completely irrational. This is a fairy tale, a dream. There is not one shred of fact based argument. ISIL does not have a political program. It is based on the political equivalent of a religious revelation that has to be carried out and implemented by true believers. None of this makes sense to rational people. But it does not matter. ISIL does not appeal to reason. It appeals to emotions. And, by the way, this is certainly not the only example of irrational ideas that appeal to large masses who then act to realize “the dream” causing all sorts of troubles.
The 9/11 hijackers
On a different but related level we have the 9/11 hijackers who plunged the airplanes into the Twin Towers. Were they motivated by something that we can call a real world political objective? Did they really think that by destroying a couple of buildings and killing a few thousand Americans they would have also killed America? 9/11 was a shock and a tragedy. No doubt about it. But it did not accomplish anything of lasting value for the Islamic cause. And yet the 9/11 hijackers did it anyway. They killed themselves believing that their death would help the cause. An irrational belief that did not lead to anything except for some destruction and the killing of innocent people.
And farther afield, did Hitler’s megalomaniac fantasy of the “1000 Years Reich” in which the Arians would rule over inferior races make any rational sense? No, it did not. But it appealed to the emotions of a large segment of a defeated, disoriented and depressed Germany. The blend of nationalism, anti-Semitism and anti-Communism all presented in a splendidly arranged choreography of mass events was enough to motivate millions, especially young people yearning to believe in something truly big.
Communism as salvation
And before Nazim there was Communism. Although sold as “scientific”, the vision of a harmonious socialist society that would follow a glorious proletarian revolution was a complete fantasy that could never work as advertised. And yet this dream captured millions across the world, even though its appeal was totally irrational. Communism was a dream of salvation disguised as a political project.
Winning is important
True enough, the fact that because of persistence, luck (and the stupidity of the White Russian generals) the Bolsheviks won the civil war and seized power in Russia mattered a great deal. This first victory of Socialism was the modern equivalent of a divine sign.
Among the believers it was obvious that the Communists won because they were on the right side of history. They were in fact fast forwarding a preordained historic revolution.
Again, all this is utter nonsense. And yet this very (and most destructive) nonsense for decades motivated communist militants, from Spain to China, and from Vietnam to Bolivia. Communism was the modern religion of human redemption through struggle. Again, its appeal was emotional. This was not a political plan. This was a catharsis, a millenarian vision. It was about the re-humanization of the oppressed and lost individual.
The dream of a modern Caliphate
Now, let’s fast forward to ISIL. Its leaders want to create a modern Caliphate. And, as far as this fantasy goes, they have accomplished something. They do control territory. This is like the Bolsheviks controlling a large chunk of Russia. Again, these military and political victories do matter, because they are reinforcing the credibility of this fantasy.
Therefore, I am not at all surprised that confused young people in the Arab world or in Canada, the UK or America may find this novelty that blends pious principles and just war extremely appealing. Going to Syria or Iraq in order to join the cause sounds really exhilarating. Much better than going to a bad school in Manchester and getting a low paying job. Joining ISIL is about glory, triumph and contributing to the manifestation of the true faith.
Nothing to understand
So, what is there to “understand” about any of this? ISIL, just as the Bolsheviks or the Nazis, do not belong to the rational world of politics and programs. This is a millenarian ideology, an ideology of salvation whose main feature is the glorification of gruesome, medieval violence as a perfectly legitimate means through which the believers can and will advance their righteous cause.
As it was impossible to have a “conversation” with a Marxist true believer, it is impossible to engage anybody who believes in this dream of true Islam in any meaningful “dialogue”, let alone convince them that they are “wrong”.
So, how can General Nagata fight this dream? Very simple. Hit ISIL hard, with anything he has. Destroy them. As I noted at the beginning, through its stupid inaction America allowed this aberration to gain ground. By gaining ground it gained legitimacy, You want to diminish ISIL’s appeal? Defeat its troops. Show them retreating. Show them surrendering. Show them powerless.
Right now this fantasy of the Caliphate has huge appeal mostly because would-be militants can see that there is success. ISIL is winning. And therefore it is assumed that its foundations must be good. But I am sure that, as soon as they will start losing, the magic appeal will wither, very fast.
At a different level, the only way to inoculate young people around the world and in Arab countries in particular against this ideological poison is not in trying to prove through rational arguments that creating a new Caliphate is a bad idea. The only way is to create better and really viable alternatives.
America did not buy Marxism
It is not an accident that, with few exceptions, America was not penetrated by Marxism. It was immune because the American values founded on individual freedom and freedom of enterprise did not allow the Marxist myth of victimization of the working people to attach itself. Simply stated, very few Americans believed in the whole Marxist cosmology of blood sucking capitalists and oppressed working masses who will have to revolt in order to establish a just society.
Most Americans were reasonably convinced that their society allowed basic freedoms, including the opportunity to move up in the world through personal effort and perseverance.
Create an alternative
Which is to say that crazy ideologies like the beliefs espoused by ISIL will be defeated only by the genuine appeal of real world viable alternatives. This is the challenge.
In the short-term ISIL must be destroyed militarily. And this is not going to be easy if the US insists on using only a modicum of military strength in this fight. Most certainly, every day the ISIL flag flies it is a day of victory for its leaders. A rapid succession of stunning military defeats would do a lot to diminish the appeal of this crazy idea.
But in the long-term it is up to mainstream Muslim culture to come up with something real, modern and appealing. Until now, unfortunately, Arab societies have only produced kleptocratic despots. If this is the only viable alternative to fundamentalism, do not be so surprised when young people sign up with ISIL.