Properly understanding ISIS

Cultural contradictions of ISIS

An interesting piece from The Atlantic on understanding ISIS on their own clearly-stated terms.

“We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al‑Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it…Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it.”

Bin Laden also had no qualms about promoting his ideological interests while easily living in an increasingly secular world. ISIS

“In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately bringing about the apocalypse…Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.”

Perhaps in their ideological zeal, a form of which eclipses every other form of Islamic fundamentalism, their own historical and cultural contradictions have escaped their attention. They reject modernity and wish to restore a seventh-century world order; but apparently see no incongruity in employing modern weapons in hopes achieving their ends. When Muhammad lived[1], weapons largely consisted of sharp things, stones, and shields. Bringing down airliners with IEDs packed with PETN or RDX and triggered by electronic timers is an anachronism.

That’s the problem with anti-modernity campaigns, it’s hard to do without involving yourself in the modern.


  1. The historicity of Muhammad as an actual living figure is still debated. One of the problems with gathering evidence on this subject is that pre-Islamic Arabia is a "black box" with little historical record. It's worthwhile reading about the subject; but it's far from conclusive.