ISIS Isn’t the Real Enemy. The “Game of Thrones” Medieval Mindset That Birthed It Is.

The Rise of ISIS, Islam’s Crisis of Modernity, the Dysfunction of the West, and the Dauntingly Urgent Task Ahead

Amir is the author of My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind – And Doubt Freed My Soul, recommended by Foreign Policy magazine among 25 books to read in 2013. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Bloomberg, CBC, and more. This piece builds on some of the themes discussed in his book.

Wake Up, World

Beheadings. Sectarian cleansing. Forced conversions.

In my nearly ten years of observing and writing on current affairs, I have never, ever witnessed anything like the grave, horrifying danger ISIS poses to the Middle East, the West, and perhaps even the world.

To learn more on them, see this Medium profile of the group.

Militarily, the situation is not encouraging.

13 years after 9/11, America is in a deep hole of debt, exacerbated by waging a multi-trillion dollar “War on Terror.”

Its political will, and NATO’s, are broken, and its foreign policy is in disarray under the leadership of a President who has proven to be hesitant in taking proper decisive action, backed by an overarching strategy for the region.

Violent jihadism, with its clearly stated — and now feasible — expansionist goals, has in a short period become shockingly more powerful than ever, spilling abominable increasing volumes of blood, with the majority of it being the blood of Muslims.

Iraq’s army is futile, Jordan is weak, and the rivalries among the only capable regional powers - Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and UAE - mean further chaos, instead of a badly needed united military front.

Far worse though, is the ideological situation.

It is extremely disturbing, and more prevalent than most realize, or would like to admit.

The ugly truth is, even if ISIS is militarily defeated in the short-term, the mindset that helped birth it has become far-too-common. Encouraged by the current political dynamics, it will continue unabated in birthing future similar groups to fill the gaps.

And we actually ought to expect many of them to graduate out of the thousands of “Islamic State” children in Syria and Iraq currently being indoctrinated to join the “holy war.” (See minute 33:38 in the VICE documentary below, and prepare to be horrified).

Simply put, the circumstances have unleashed an underlying culture war in the Middle East that makes the culture wars of America look like a picnic, and has made millions of Arabs and Muslims who believe in progress and modernity utterly disgusted.

How the hell did we get here? Especially after the optimistic, earlier euphoric scenes of the “Arab Spring”? And what can we do about it?

These are questions that have been weighing heavily on me.

Many have offered answers in the form of excellent brief articles like this one by The Guardian’s Brian Whitaker, but to discuss the matter elaborately, we first need to understand the enemy we’re dealing with.

The Birth of ISIS

Say hello to ISIS aka the self-declared “Islamic State.”

And say hello to this VICE documentary about them and their exploits. (Warning: graphic scenes)

Like countless of people around the world, I’ve watched the rise of ISIS with particular horror, and amidst the madness, read with great frustration the lacking and often single-faceted views of many Western and Muslim analysts about the travesty of this unfolding situation.

Fact is, the causes for the emergence of this horrendous, vicious monstrosity are numerous and varied, and here are six clearly articulated ones which cover the biggest “fathers” that birthed this abomination, as more holistically articulated by Ziad Majed.

The Six “Fathers” of ISIS

“ISIS is the offspring of more than one father, and the product of more than one longstanding and widespread sickness.”

1. “ISIS is first the child of despotism in the most heinous form that has plagued the region.”

2. “ISIS is second the progeny of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, both the way in which it was initially conducted and the catastrophic mismanagement that followed.”

3. “ISIS is third the son of Iranian aggressive regional policies that have worsened in recent years.”

4. “ISIS is fourth the child of some of the Salafist networks in the Gulf (in Saudi Arabia and other states).”

5. “ISIS is fifth the offspring of a profound crisis, deeply rooted in the thinking of some Islamist groups seeking to escape from their terrible failure to confront the challenges of the present toward a delusional model ostensibly taken from the seventh century, believing that they have found within its imaginary folds the answer to all contemporary or future questions.” <- Read this one again.

6. “ISIS is sixth the progeny of violence or of an environment that has been subjected to striking brutality.

For a more thorough background, read Ziad’s entire piece here.

Moreover, notice something about the list above.

With the exception of reason #2, all other factors are local and traceable to the region and its state of affairs – affairs that have yes, been influenced by the legacy of European colonialism, the dynamics of the Cold War, but lately much more so by the behaviors of local authoritarian actors.

In Other Words, Yes, the United States Is Responsible for a Lot, But…

While numerous notable American right-wing hawks continue to tarnish all Muslims with the same broad brush as well as disingenuously absolve the United States under Bush of its significant role in this major mess, many Western and Muslim analysts have rightly pointed out and criticized the role of US foreign policy over the past decade.

This is a good thing.

On the other hand, others like Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, have rightly criticized President Obama for not militarily intervening in Syria earlier, because had he done so, we wouldn’t be dealing with the ongoing crisis at this much larger scale.

That too, is a good thing.

Such criticisms are needed and important. Nevertheless, in making them, too many writers and commentators, including on the progressive Western left who are hellbent on holding the American right-wing mainly responsible, often minimize the role of regional politics and Islam’s or “Islam’s” prominence, (depending on your perspective), in these matters.

That, is certainly not a good thing.

Watch former Islamist extremist turned Muslim reform advocate Maajid Naawaz tell it like it is here in this spot-on CNN interview:

Which brings us to the next important point.

Islam’s Crisis of Modernity

Say hello to typical, horrified Muslim reactions in response to ISIS.

“Islam is a religion of peace!”

“Islam has nothing to do with the so-called ‘Islamic State!’”

“Islam condemns terrorism!”

Trouble is…

None of these sound bites are going to cut it anymore.

A decade ago they might have sufficed, but not anymore today.

No longer in parts of the Arab Muslim world after the “Arab Spring” will they work, certainly not in the West, and certainly not after the rise of the “Islamic State.”

Yes, mainstream and well-established Islamic theology does indeed condemn terrorism.

It does unequivocally condemn the deliberate targeting and killing of civilians, especially women and children. But that’s not the point.

The point is that claiming what ISIS espouses has “absolutely nothing to do with Islam,” as too many insistently claim, is neither exactly accurate nor helpful.

We must understand that groups like ISIS didn’t emerge out of an ideological or sociopolitical vacuum. We must understand that it is the worst and most extreme manifestation we’ve seen so far emerging out of the region’s circumstances, and that it should have been expected.

While their terrorism and slaughter of women and children are obviously in no way Islamic, the same can’t be said for their desire to build an “Islamic State” that enforces Sharia to affirm “justice.”

The latter project is actually quite resonant, and hence finds sympathy and support among too many Muslims, (even if the methods aren’t).

This, despite the contentious battle of ideas raging within Islam, among the religion’s diverse adherents today, in regards to what constitutes the good life and a just state.

In a nutshell, along with authoritarian military strongmen and autocrats, the passionately disagreed upon role of Islam in public life is the other main obstacle to creating a stable, and functional political order, including in countries like Libya and Egypt where efforts were derailed after the initial stage of the “Arab Spring.”

Basically, it’s very charged territory. And without a victory in this domain of ideas and consciousness, we’ll have a serious growing problem.

That’s what’s at stake.

That’s the real deeper issue at hand.

When the Good Guys in Game of Thrones Enforce Beheadings

Ned Stark about to behead a deserter from the Night Watch, in episode 1 of Game of Thrones.

Anybody with a modern humanist moral worldview will consider public lashings and beheadings to be appalling and extreme punishments.

However, they are not extreme or appalling for too many Muslims around the world who vehemently reject and condemn terrorism.

Rather, they’re a normalized, proper form of applied justice, that many in fact yearn for and wish to see practiced more widely in society.

Not because the individuals who accept such practices are terrible, evil people. (On the contrary, often many are kind, loving, decent folks).

Not because they aren’t educated. (On the contrary, often many are brilliant professional doctors, engineers and so on).

But rather because their moral worldview is inspired by a more medieval, and hence, from their perspective “pure” expression of Islam - uncorrupted by “Westoxification” or modernity. It is an expression that inspires them to honor God’s commandments as originally stated in the sacred texts.

Ned Stark about to behead a deserter from the Night Watch, in episode 1 of Game of Thrones.

In other words, many of these individuals are like the “good” characters in Game of Thrones who practice norms of justice that include public beheadings and crucifixions. Their medieval-like moral worldview runs on idealized 7th century software that happens to run alongside 21st century hardware they’re capable of wielding.

Take the example of Saudi Arabia, in one image.

(For more on the evolving dynamics in the Kingdom, read Ed Husain’s Op-Ed in The New York Times, entitled Saudis Must Stop Exporting Extremism: ISIS Atrocities Started With Saudi Support for Salafi Hate).

Or take the example of folks like Mo Ansar.

In this clip from a BBC documentary, he is confronted by former Islamist extremist, turned secular liberal reformer Maajid Nawaz.

Watch, listen closely, and see how Mo Ansar wavers and evades when pressed for clear, unequivocal answers on the cutting of hands as a punishment for thievery.

Here you have an educated and decent British man, who is still influenced by past baggage that’s resistant to change and modernization because it’s religiously enshrined, understood ahistorically, and hence frozen in time.

Not exactly encouraging.

Why This Is Relevant

In order to truly defeat ISIS and preempt its future cousins, we must defeat the archaic mindset that birthed it and makes its atrocities possible, even “honorable.”

We need to understand that ISIS isn’t an expression of Islam per se as much as it is an expression of Islam through a medieval, anti-modern worldview, influenced and encouraged by the political dynamics and regional rivalries of today.

The provocative British author, Kenan Malik, words it best in his book, The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics:


Cultures Can, and Do Change… Through the Agency of Thinking People

After all, it wasn’t Christianity that really changed, instead, it was Christians themselves who did over the centuries.

Heck, for perspective, France only abolished the death penalty by beheading as recently as 1981.

The guillotine continued to be used long after the Revolution and remained France’s standard method of judicial execution until the abolition of capital punishment with the backing of President François Mitterrand in 1981. The last person guillotined in France was Hamida Djandoubi, on 10 September 1977.

Moreover, the chart below, produced by The Institute for Cultural Evolution, also sheds important light on the evolutionary and developmental stages that worldviews go through.

To see this in action, let’s go back further in time, to Europe.

In 1690…

Two years after the overthrow of King James II, England’s last Roman Catholic monarch, the English Parliament, driven by Protestant ideology, enacted a series of measures aimed at punishing and repressing the Catholic Irish people.

Portrait of King James II by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1684

The measures required the following, among other compulsions:

All Catholic bishops, and religious clergy ( friars, etc), had to leave the country or face death. Any bishops coming from foreign countries were to be killed. All remaining Catholic priests were to sign an oath that was abominable to their conscience, or be killedOrdinary Catholics could not have schools, could not teach in schools, and could not be the guardian of a child. They could not travel abroad to attend schools. They could not own a horse worth more than five pounds… Catholics could not live within five miles of incorporated towns.

The reason?

King William III, a Protestant Christian, had just become the new boss in town, and with that change, came some very oppressive policies against the “deviant” Catholic Irish.

William III by Sir Godfrey Kneller

And here’s the crucial back story.

None of those events can be understood properly without going back to the Protestant Reformation – the seismic earthquake within Western Christianity that started it all, and included ludicrous doctrinal matters of heated debate like the indulgences, the merits of the saints, and the Pope’s authority over purgatory.

Les Grandes Misères de la guerre (The Great Miseries of War) by Jacques Callot, 1632

It unleashed wanton death and destruction, and monstrosities such as the Thirty Years’ War, in which European states – Catholic and Protestant – battled it out ferociously, with some sides even receiving support from the Ottoman Empire, the great Muslim power of the time.

Basically, it was hell.

Sounds familiar?

324 years later, in 2014…

We’re witnessing eerily similar events.

ISIS parade.

And to you, my reader, I say, do not underestimate the serious damage a transnational group with 7th century morality, deep-seated hatred, and 21st century weaponry can do.

Today it’s Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Tomorrow it could very well become Jordan, Lebanon, and maybe even north eastern Saudi Arabia.

The task ahead of us is dauntingly urgent.

There will be no victory or progress without encouraging a much more robust honest debate among Muslims about the role of Islam in public life, as well as encouraging a humanist modernization of the moral worldview of Islam’s more “medieval-minded” adherents.

The region will never truly move forward, without the creation of a healthy homegrown modernity and functional political program that delivers. (Conspiracy theories that hinder mature politics will never do).

All of this by default also means doing away with the despotic tyrants ruling with an iron-fist in the region, and discouraging the foreign powers that back them from doing so.

Europe did it, albeit after centuries of wars and millions of corpses.

Turkey and Tunisia, to a great but now contested extent, underwent it, albeit forcibly, due to the efforts of earlier, modernizing secular authoritarians.

The United Arab Emirates — certainly no democracy — has done a great job merging the best of its traditional norms and heritage with the best of modernity in a short period, even as it leaves much to be desired.

There are plenty of examples to learn positive aspects from, and let’s remember that today, even though jihadists are aided by the Internet, so are we, and Muslims are increasingly exposed to the world and diverse media unlike ever before.

Furthermore, we also need to understand that the so-called “Arab Spring” didn’t necessarily fail.

If revolutions are to be judged within a 3–4 year span, then the Arab Uprisings certainly did fail.

With the exception of Tunisia which is making great progress, the protest movements of other “Arab Spring,” countries are now further from attaining “bread, freedom, social justice, and human dignity,” but that doesn’t mean they never will. The causes that triggered those outbursts of protests are still everpresent and unresolved, so expect future waves of dissent.

Fact is, revolutions are often long cultural and sociopolitical processes, and in that regard, the Arab Uprisings have blown up the lids wide open, and helped unleash a tidal wave of previously repressed, charged explosive discourse on the Arab world’s two most contentious underlying cultural ailments: 1) patriarchal authoritarianism, and 2) Islam’s crisis of modernity and its violently contested role in public life.

It was bound to happen sooner or later, but I must admit, I didn’t anticipate that it could get this ugly, at this scale, this fast.

There has never been a more opportune or urgent time to push the conversational boundaries of these subjects.

Amir is the author of My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind – And Doubt Freed My Soul, recommended by Foreign Policy magazine among 25 books to read in 2013. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Bloomberg, CBC, and many more. This piece builds on some of the key themes discussed in his book. Watch the video trailer and learn more here.

Image courtesy oft the Wall Street Journal.

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Dreamer. Alien refugee turned new Canadian. Author ft in @NYTimes, @TheAtlantic @WSJ, @CBC and @BBC. More than anything, an artist who happens to love to teach.

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