ISIS embraces an ideology which is apocalyptic in many ways. First, it has adopted Islamic doctrine and has then twisted it into a nihilistic, life-denying version of its former self. Second, it has chosen to wage war on nearly every group on earth, including most moderate, rational Muslims.
The Obama Administration, and by extension the United States, has been brought face to face with a monster that is, at least in part, of its own making. The dismantling of the Iraqi government and the Bush Administration policy of de-Baathification during the last decade served to create many "unknowns,” some of which have returned and have coalesced into a vicious foe. Furthermore, tacit US support of the various rebel movements in Syria has given ISIS a base from which to operate.
Now the challenge is clear: The United States must do something about this group of savage and nearly inhuman ideologues who have created enemies in nearly every nation on Earth. The question is: how?
I. What is ISIS?
ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) which is often referred to as ISIL (The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) by president Obama and other members of his administration is a militant organization which has as its stated goal the establishment of a caliphate in the middle east. The term "caliphate” stems from the Arabic term "khilafa” which translates into English as "succession.”
The position of the "caliph,” the leader of the caliphate, is actually a main source of controversy between the two largest sects of Islam, Sunni and Shi’a (their split dating back to the period of succession after Muhammad and the "four caliphs” or "Rashidun" Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali ) Sunnis believing in the necessity of popular election of the caliph and Shi’a Muslims affirming the sole position of Allah in the designation of a leader from an Imam.
isismap2The best example that one could use to demonstrate the type of state which ISIS wishes to establish would be the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923). In fact, much of the territory that the militant organization has claimed as its own consists of former Ottoman possessions (Syria, Egypt, Iraq, the Balkans, and North Africa). Even this example, however, differs greatly from the absurd levels that ISIS has stooped to politically and organizationally. One of the main elements of Ottoman success in ruling a population in which a minority were Turks and in which a huge portion of the population was not Muslim consisted in a financially brilliant system of tolerance.
Non-Muslims living within Muslim states were traditionally given the designation of "dhimmah” (singular "dhimmi”). In states like the one controlled by the Sunni, Ottoman Turks, conquered peoples were not generally imposed with a "convert to Islam or die” ultimatum (although certain Ottoman conquests did result in the massacring of besieged populations). The fall of the last Christian stronghold in the east, Constantinople on April 6, 1453 provides a useful source for examination.
The Hagia Sophia, a massive and quite beautiful Christian basilica in the city of Constantinople, renamed "Istanbul” by the Turks, was famously re-built during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I became a mosque soon after the Muslim conquest of the city. This act can be seen as the embodiment of what ISIS intends to do in the territories which it has claimed. Furthermore it is obvious that the accounts of Turkish cruelty closely mirror reports of ISIS atrocities in Iraq and Syria.
A stark contrast between ISIS and the Ottomans is visible in the relative treatment of "dhimmah” populations, however. ISIS militants in both Syria and Iraq have made a point of demanding that all individuals convert to Islam immediately or die. This practice is strictly forbidden by Islamic law.
"Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture – [fight]until they give the jizyah willingly while they are humbled.” (At-Tawbah:29)
ISIS Salahaddin-Division-WC-10Notice in the passage above that pious Muslims are charged with fighting the unbelievers until they give the "jizyah” willingly. The jizya historically consisted of a tax levied on the non-Muslim populations of occupied territories. There have been some instances where members of ISIS have levied the jizya tax, but have made it so extravagantly high as to render the payment of such a fee ridiculously impossible. This goes against the literal letter of Islamic law as many groups are directly protected by the Quran. So-called "people of the book” (Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians) are not supposed to come to harm, that is, unless they are directly resisting the conquering Muslim force.
"And indeed, among the People of the Scripture are those who believe in Allah and what was revealed to you and what was revealed to them, [being]humbly submissive to Allah . They do not exchange the verses of Allah for a small price. Those will have their reward with their Lord. Indeed, Allah is swift in account.”
The Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina are sacred to all Muslims (deriving from the period of Mohammedian conquests), this is why all Muslims say their prayers facing Mecca, which houses the Ka’aba. Necessarily, any "holy” Islamic caliphate would need to possess both of them to gain true legitimacy. Furthermore the city of Jerusalem is a must. This would bring agents of ISIS into conflict with the state of Israel.
In light of this it is prudent to ask: does ISIS have an apocalyptic death wish? The answer may come as a surprise; no it does not. The ideology which the group embraces and utilizes for its propagandistic value, however, is most definitely apocalyptic in the sense that members of the group will stop at nothing, including death, to accomplish their goals. This is the main means by which ISIS recruits individuals for suicide missions. The leaders of ISIS are no doubt extremely conservative Muslims, however they have elected to use any means necessary to gain legitimacy. Over time, however, the alienation of nearly every other group of humans on the planet will take its toll.
The recent beheading of Journalist James Foley, which was spread across the globe on the internet has brought outrage in the western world. Reports indicate that the executioner was also a radicalized Muslim from the United Kingdom, born and raised in the city of London.
ISIS even offered to swap the so-called "Lady Al Qaeda” for Foley. This woman, whose legal name is Aafia Siddiqui, is a mother of three children who holds a degree in neuroscience from MIT. She is by no means an individual to underestimate. She is currently serving an 86 year sentence in a Texas prison for plotting a "mass casualty attack” which allegedly involved the distribution of weaponized Ebola virus in various American cities via the use of "dirty bombs”. ISIS demanded either this exchange for Foley or a $132 Million ransom for his release. Inevitably negotiation with an ideologically rigid group like ISIS is an exercise in futility.
This fact is possibly more frightening than many others: The prospect of (very likely) thousands of individuals with roots in the west who have traveled to Syria over the last few years to fight in its ongoing civil war against Alawite (Shi’a) minority president Bashar Al-Assad returning to their home countries is quite unsettling. What can be done about these individuals? Beyond efforts to arrest these people as soon as they set foot on their home soil (as has been done in the UK) it seems like there is not much to do.
II. What is There to be Done?
ISIS_map_economistThe extremism of ISIS militants has acted to turn many against them. Draconian laws which many times extend even beyond the range of the most conservative stipulations in Sharia law have even turned a large portion of the Sunni population of Iraq towards helping the enemies of ISIS. Shi’a Muslims are, by default, the sworn enemies of the fundamentalist Sunni militants.
possibility of further attacks, this time within the United States, by so-called "sleeper cells” is always a concern. This has been made somewhat more so in recent days as pictures have arisen on social media (Twitter in particular) of what appear, or what have at least been billed as, ISIS agents in key US cities.
The truth is that ISIS will be an extremely difficult adversary. The organization itself has roots which go back for at least a decade through the means of other groups like Al Qaeda. There are a few actions which may help, some are acceptable, others are not, however all options must first be considered:
1) Providing heavy weapons and other increased support to the Kurds in the north of Iraq (this could inflame sectarian tensions between the Kurds and the government in Baghdad).
2) Sending more US military advisors to Iraq to aid the native security forces (which the Obama Administration has already begun doing).
3) Expanding the current US bombing campaign in Iraq and beginning a campaign of airstrikes within the borders of Syria while disregarding any protest from the Syrian government (this may also entail enlisting the help of Israeli forces).
isis-terrorists4) Sending actual US forces to either Iraq or Syria unilaterally (this option would leave a very bitter taste in the mouths of Americans).
5) Putting significant prices on the heads of any members of the ISIS organization immediately payable in cash (or gold).
6) Working with a coalition of countries around the world to achieve an agreement on the status of ISIS as an enemy to humanity and subsequently commencing multilateral military operations in both Iraq and Syria.
No progressive wants to see another drawn out occupation in the middle east. Continuing on the path established by the Bush administration would amount to a ridiculous waste of both human life and economic resources. This is precisely why the Obama Administration made a goal out of removing the vast majority of US troops from Iraq and leaving the country to protect itself (with the exception of a token American force of advisers and embassy staff).
It seems as if there are few peaceful options on the table, although there are options (such as drones and airstrikes) which would limit the exposure of American and/or UN member country forces to casualty and danger. President Obama has made extremely efficient use of the American drone program and it seems highly likely that the use of this type of combat force will only see an increasing role in US foreign policy in the years to come.
There are other options which have not been listed, however these are currently the most obvious and the ones which are under the heaviest amount of discussion. ISIS must be destroyed by one way or another. Obviously this organization poses a threat not only to the United States, but to countries around the world composing all racial, ethnic, and religious groups. Because of this it may not be too difficult to gather a coalition of willing nations to eradicate these savages. In the interests of peace and human decency something must be done, and fast.