If you’re anything like me, you wonder whatever became of the good old days when just cutting someone’s throat was enough? Westerners, who prefer their violence at arms length via drone and airstrikes, are outraged ― not to mention puzzled ― by the up-close-and-personal nature of some of the violence committed the Islamic State.
Muslims, as well ― all but a microfraction (as Fouad Pervez explained in a recent Focal Points post) ― share those feelings, but they’re angry at how the Islamic State uses its Bizarro world interpretation of Muslim to justify torture and killing better left to slasher movies and torture porn. At the Daily Beast, Dean Obeidallah writes:
I wish the media would give more coverage to ISIS’ crimes against Muslims. The publicity would hurt the group’s cause tremendously, and it could also make the case to my fellow Americas [sic] that this fight is not Islam versus the West. Rather, it’s everyone who doesn’t want to live under ISIS’ brutal dictatorship versus ISIS.
Meanwhile, a team at Politico magazine writes that while “these shocking actions have challenged average sensibilities and consciences, this violence has also led to assumptions about the motives for beheadings, and the group’s strategy as a whole, that are simply not true.” In fact, “The common misperception is that these beheadings are meant only to intimidate the West.”
To the contrary, the team members write:
… beheadings are a deliberate strategy—one successfully employed in 2004 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIL’s predecessor organization, with the beheading of American Nick Berg—to improve recruitment efforts and build military strength to fight its enemies in Iraq and Syria. … In a word, publicity: They increase the group’s profile as the biggest challenger to the supposed greatest enemy of Islam. This allows ISIL to draw from a significantly larger pool of recruits, many with strong anti-American sentiment, which ISIL desperately needs to fight local battles as the group tries to carve out a de facto state. Yes, the beheadings are meant to challenge and intimidate the Western public, but that is only a secondary benefit for ISIL, whose focus remains on defeating enemies in immediate proximity.
You can see the appeal: the Islamic State is like a gangbanger’s Pleasure Island, where torturing and killing are not only permitted, but encouraged. But, as I’ve previously noted, there’s a kind of planned obsolescence to this strategy. In other words, this death cult seems to have a death wish. Or as the Politico magazine team writes: “Ironically, the publicity ISIL is gaining from beheadings may have also planted the seeds of its own destruction.” Returning to the impression that the West has formed of the Islamic State:
Americans may be prone to thinking that ISIL, with its evil and barbaric ways, must operate under a different moral code. Members of an Islamic extremist group—the thinking goes—must be carrying out their radical interpretation of Islam. The dots practically connect themselves: ISIL’s interpretation of Islam must inform the group’s violent behavior, and these beheadings—an acceptable form of execution under Islamic sharia law—are a manifestation of that religious fervor.
But ― and it’s a big but:
There is only one problem with this thinking: Precious little evidence exists of religious motives guiding the strategic logic of ISIL’s violence.
For more than a decade, the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) has surveyed all known suicide attacks throughout the world since 1982 – incidents in Afghanistan, India, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Pakistan, Russia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Turkey, Uzbekistan and others. This research on suicide attacks, an important way to measure group motives and behavior, has led to a clear conclusion: The main motives and circumstances surrounding nearly all instances of suicide attacks are political in nature, even for religious militant groups like ISIL.
Meanwhile, as Obeidallah writes:
The leaders of ISIS are very aware that the killing of fellow Muslims—especially Sunnis—could hurt their cause in attracting support from the Sunni Muslim world. In fact, ISIS is so concerned about the possible backlash that the group’s leaders addressed this subject in the latest issue of its online magazine.
After this discussion, it should become clear why the Islamic State dealt with the clans of Shu’aytāt [an area of Syria] as a murtadd [infidel] resisting the Sharī’ah with arms. These clans were left armed after they agreed to submit to the rule of the Sharī’ah with the condition they hand over all heavy weaponry. They then betrayed their covenant by rebelling against the Islamic State. They ambushed Islamic State soldiers, and then tortured, amputated, and executed prisoners taken from the ambushes. All these crimes were carried out in opposition to the enforcement of the Sharī’ah.
Thereafter the Islamic State surrounded their villages and ordered them to hand over the perpetrators of the crimes against Islam and the Muslims. The majority of the clans refused to comply, and thus fell into the classification of tawā’if mumtani’ah, by shielding the traitors. They were then given a 24-hour notice allowing all individuals not involved in the transgression to evacuate their villages.
… Upon entering the Shu’aytāt villages, the soldiers of the Islamic State found men hateful of the Sharī’ah, drowning in fāhishah [“indecent acts,” such as homosexuality], alcoholism, and drugs, some of them married to more than four wives! They had hidden away much of the heavy weaponry that they were told to hand over in their initial covenant with the Islamic State. This same weaponry was used in their aggression, only to end up as ghanīmah [booty] for the Islamic State.
Here is the hadith (teaching of Muhammad) from which the author draws:
Al-Bukhārī and Muslim reported on the authority of Abū Qilābah who said that Anas Ibn Mālik (radiyallāhu ‘anh) said, “A group of people from ‘Ukal or ‘Uraynah (two tribes) came to Madīnah and then (two tribes) came to Madīnah and then got stomach sickness. So the Prophet (salallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) ordered them a she-camel that produced much milk and told them to drink from her urine and milk. They did so. When they got healthy, they killed the Prophet’s shepherd and led the camels away with them. The news then reached the Prophet in the early morning, so he sent after them. Prior to noon, they were captured and brought to him. He ordered their hands and their feet be cut off, their eyes be put out with hot iron, and they be thrown out on al-Harrah (an area covered with black stones near Madīnah), so they would ask for water to drink, but not be given any water, until they died.” Abū Qilābah said, “These people thieved, killed, disbelieved after their faith, and waged war against Allah and His Messenger.”
The author frankly states:
This hadīth shows the severity of the prophetic punishment against the treacherous, false claimants of Islam. The wicked deeds of Shu’aytāt were similar to those mentioned in the hadīth, except that the Shu’aytāt clans decided to arrogantly and collectively shield the perpetrators and thereby share the blame for treachery and murder.
Finally, a boy was murdered during the khilāfah of ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattāb. When ‘Umar heard of it, he said, ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattāb. When ‘Umar heard of it, he said, der him, I would kill them all” [Al-Bukhārī].
It’s just that easy to justify collective punishment. No need for concerns about modifying Muhammad’s teachings in a harsh age to a present with its somewhat more humanistic norms and mores.
Returning to how the Islamic State hurts it own cause, at Slate, Michael Saletan writes about beheading:
Morally, these are homicide videos. But politically, they’re suicide videos. They’re the means by which ISIS accelerates its own destruction. For months, ISIS rampaged through Iraq, seizing land, wealth, and weapons. No power capable of stopping the militia was willing to stand in its way. … The videos changed that. By issuing threats and ripping off the heads of Americans, Brits, and a Frenchman, ISIS thought it would scare us away. … But the videos didn’t dampen American, British, or French support for military action. They increased it.
While, the “videos can’t account for every shift in the polls,” Saletan explains:
Cutting off the heads of Americans, while telling the U.S. public to stay out, clearly backfired. A Pew survey taken Aug. 14–17, prior to the Foley video, asked Americans whether they were more concerned that U.S. military action against ISIS would go too far or that it wouldn’t go far enough. Fifty-one percent worried more about going too far; only 32 percent worried more about not going far enough. A month later, after the Foley and Sotloff videos, that entire 19-point margin had dissolved. The percentage of respondents who worried more that the United States wouldn’t go far enough had jumped 9 points, while the percentage who worried more that we would go too far had dropped 10 points.
Paralleling the Politico magazine article, Saletan concludes:
SIS isn’t a learning organization [which] would have figured out by now that its videos, despite their message to stay out, were having the opposite effect. … It’s a killing organization. And it can’t stop killing, even when what it’s killing is itself.
From his Daily Beast article, we’ll give Obeidallah the last word.
And those Muslims who gave their lives fighting against or refusing to give into ISIS in our common struggle should be recognized in the media for their bravery. It would be very powerful to see images in our media of the Muslims killed by ISIS, not just Westerners.
What could be more tragic than losing your life to a recruiting gimmick?