The Battle against Barbarism

Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for


For the past few weeks, the world has watched on in horror as ISIS has intensified its barbarian campaign, killing thousands in unspeakably brutal ways and expelling many more. Eyewitness reports tell a gruesome story of summary executions, beheadings and crucifixions – Christians being nailed alive to crosses and left there to be bleed to death. The severed heads and mutilated bodies have been paraded outside conquered villages. Those Christians who have not already been butchered face a brutal choice: convert to Islam, leave, or die by the sword. Most have abandoned their ancestral lands, which in all likelihood ends the uninterrupted 1,700-year presence of Christian communities in northern Iraq.

Other religious minorities such as the Yazidi have also suffered persecution at the hands of ISIS and been rounded up on Mount Sinjar where many hundreds of women, children and elderly perished. As I write, Islamic State militants have encircled the twenty-thousand strong Shia community of Amerli, about 180 kilometres north of Baghdad, prompting fears that the next slaughter is about to wipe out another historic group in ancient Mesopotamia. Every day brings news of more grisly atrocities in a sheerly never-ending campaign of bloodthirsty butchery.

To many ISIS seems to have emerged either from nowhere or from the Sunni insurgency against the United States following the Iraq invasion. However, long-standing observers point out that today’s Sunni jihadists draw on a long history of radical Islamic extremism that goes back to the formative period of Islam. Nor is it true that ISIS militants are medieval. Rather, they espouse an ideology and a set of methods that are quintessentially modern in nature – a nihilist creed inspired by nineteenth-century positivism and a perverse obsession with science and technology that can be traced back to the millenarian strands in early modernity and the Enlightenment.

So who is behind ISIS? Where do its intellectual roots lie? What is its mission?

1. The violent birth of ISIS and the Islamic State

ISIS refers to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It is sometimes also called ISIL – the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. In July 2014 it rose to global prominence upon proclaiming the creation of a new caliphate and renaming itself the Islamic State (IS) in the process. I shall return to the question of the caliphate at present. Before that, a few points need to be made about the origins of ISIS.

ISIS is a Salafi jihadist force that grew out of a group founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who left Afghanistan for Iraq after the US war against the Taliban starting in October 2001. After 2003, he set up an Al-Qaeda cell there to fight the occupation. His group claimed responsibility for the destruction of the Askari mosque in Samara that provoked some of the worst episodes in Iraq’s civil war. Renamed the ‘Islamic State in Iraq’ after al-Zarqawi was assassinated by US special troops in 2006, its power declined as a result of the so-called surge when US and Iraqi forces aligned with Sunni tribe to fight the insurgency. So from the outset, the forces that gave rise to ISIS were engaged in a relentless campaign of sectarian cleansing aimed at apostates and the infidels who support them.

However, the uprising against Bashar al-Assad in Syria in late 2011 gave the Islamic State in Iraq a new lease of life. Led by Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, it launched a crusade against Alawites, Christians and other non-Sunni minorities across the Syrian territory. Under the cover of fighting the Syrian regime, the group’s current leader – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – announced in April 2013 a merger with Jabhat al-Nusra to form a new entity called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Thus was born ISIS. However, this ‘hostile takeover’ was rejected by the leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra, which saw most of its foreign jihadists defect to ISIS. Since then ISIS has claimed absolute pre-eminence over all Sunni factions in Syria and waged a ruthless war against dissenters. Finally, on the first day of the 2014 Ramadan, ISIS announced that al-Baghdadi had been elected by the Shura Council as caliph of all Muslims, and it changed its name to Islamic State.

At first it swept the northern part of Iraq and the vast border region with Syria, taking key strongholds such as Mosul and threatening to occupy or destroy ancient cities such as Aleppo. Large parts of the Iraqi army were in meltdown and fled the advancing IS troops, thought to number well in excess of 10,000. Its rapid advance intensified the reign of terror which it has unleashed upon all those who refuse to swear allegiance to the caliph. A key strength of IS has been its ability to impose order on rebel-held areas where marauding militia had previously terrorised the population.

Among the first to resist and fight back were the Peshmerga Kurds. The United States has now weighed into the raging conflict with airstrikes, while Iraq’s new Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi has vowed to wipe out IS. The conflict looks set to be protracted and could yet engulf the entire Near East, as it is to a considerable extent a proxy war in the wider conflict that opposes the Sunni crescent to the Shia arc.

2. ISIS – radicals among extremists

Part of the problem is that major Western powers such as the US and the UK have for decades sided unilaterally with Sunni powers – chief of all Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States but also Turkey. This has undermined any possibility of building up ties with Iran and other Shia powers, whose cooperation is indispensable in challenging and defeating the lethal ideology at the heart of the conquering caliphate that is IS.

This, coupled with the rise of Shia militia and the rise of an emboldened Shia arc, has left Sunnis – even where they are a majority – with a sense of paranoia, insecurity and a siege mentality. As Hassan Hassan, a Syrian commentator and columnist for The National, has pointed out, from the perspective of ISIS jihadists, “Sunnis’ traditional powerhouses, whether political or religious, are perceived as standing with the oppressors, completely discredited or silent” [1] – above all Saudi Arabia, but also the Gulf States and Turkey.

The other factor is the rise of ISIS and now IS is the politicisation of Salafism in wake of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. Salafists, not to be confounded with Wahhabis, were traditionally more isolationist and loyal to the political establishment in their countries. Their radicalisation has made them blindly obedient to their own rulers and defiant vis-à-vis established power structures. In this sense, they are now more like the Wahhabis who have exported their violent, iconoclastic creed to Afghanistan and Pakistan where Wahhabi-funded madrassas are marginalising the traditional, indigenous Sufi Islam. As Hassan concludes, ISIS “is a symptom – of a political vacuum, a sense of rejection among Sunnis, and an ideological shakeup within Salafism”. [2]

3. The wider roots of ISIS

The claim to embody the true caliphate is an indication that the roots of ISIS are neither just contemporary nor purely medieval but can be traced to the emergence of Islam itself. However, is it not the case that ISIS is generally associated with a medieval ideology which has declared a global jihad in a quest to recreate the imperial caliphate from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean? Is not the strategic objective of the ISIS leadership to overthrow the current House of Saud and to eject the infidels and their troops from Islam’s most holy sites, Mecca and Medina?

Moreover, a myriad of scholars from Tariq Ramadan via Olivier Roy to Gilles Kepel have argued that global jihadism derives largely from political Islamism and as such has got little or nothing to do with Muslim theology or the Islam of the Prophet. [3] In short, Islamic terrorism is commonly described as medieval (rather than modern) and characterised as political (rather than theological).

Both these claims, I contend, are misguided and questionable. The ideology of global jihad rests on a revivalist extremism that is indebted to two sources. First of all, the actions of ISIS reflect nineteenth-century positivism and nihilism, which position it as a revolutionary vanguard. Second, ISIS and IS reclaim the legacy of the Kharijites, a puritan sect which emerged shortly after the death of the Prophet Mohammed and practiced unrestrained warfare on all apostates. The puritanical tradition was extended by Ibn Taymiyyah in the late thirteenth century and by Muhammad Ibn ’Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism in the early eighteenth century.

As such, ISIS is both distinctly modern and has a theological basis which is nevertheless and paradoxically secular. What binds together the modern origin and the secular nature of Islamic terrorism is an exceptionalist theology – the blind belief that only a revolutionary vanguard Islam at war with all apostates and unbelievers is faithful to the message of Mohammed, directly revealed to the leaders of ISIS who descend from the prophet and the caliphs.

One reason why ISIS is not seen as modern is because its leaders appeal to the Kharijite tradition in early Islam – a certain blend of Puritanism and messianism. However, what ties together the modern and the classical appeal is that they both reject any form of mediation and are therefore profoundly secular. The mark of this secularism is that it is exceptionalist. Just like the revolutionary vanguard claimed to be unique, the Kharijites and their successors the Wahhabis both believed that they were the only true Muslims – exactly like ISIS today.

In the name of their purity, they waged jihad on both apostates and unbelievers. As the Muslim commentator Ziauddin Sardar remarks, the violent tradition in Islam is not a medieval phenomenon but “can be traced right back to the formative phase of Islam”. [4]

4. ISIS as a contemporary version of the Kharijites

The Kharijites held profoundly apocalyptic, puritan and messianic beliefs – that history had come to an end after the revelation made to the Last Prophet and that only a literalist reading of the Qur’an would lead to salvation. Proclaiming their own self-righteousness, the Kharijites embraced the doctrine of takfir and branded as unbelievers or kufr all those who did not share their puritan beliefs. Such a deviation could only be corrected by violent jihad.

Their model of holy war against apostates was that of hijrah, that is to say, the escape of the Prophet and his companions from Mecca. This was not merely a historical event but crystallised the essence of an exemplary Muslim life. The Kharijites held a doctrine of holy war as a permanent armed struggle to preserve the community from the corruption of misrule; jihad was directed at once against rival political and religious leaders and against the emerging practice of ijma and quiyas – interpreting the Qur’an and the hadith by way of communal consensus and analogy. For the Kharijites, communal discernment and analogy violate the absolute will and arbitrary power of God – exactly what ISIS declares today.

The Kharijites were a splinter group that refused arbitration and rejected the consensus of the mainstream community in the pursuit of a caliphate where state and mosque form a monolithic theocracy. With fanatic certainty, fundamentalists declare that they alone were chosen by God to redeem the world from corruption, evil and unbelief through violence and conflict. Their obsession with purity generated perverse acts of iconoclasm that destroyed images of God and replaced them with an idolatrous worship of literalist readings and pure, unadulterated violence. Accusing all other Muslims of being decadent and unfaithful to the true teachings of the Prophet, the Kharijites then and ISIS now practice unrestrained warfare on both unbelievers and apostates in a quest to restore Islam’s original purity. [5]

Hence the impossibility to negotiate with ISIS or the IS. Their members are committing demonic acts and must be stopped, if necessary by military means. Human beings are not satanic by nature or cultural conditioning, but the actions of some must be described as deeply demonic and satanic. Faced with such a nihilist threat, it’s not good appeal to abstract pacifism. Otherwise we risk being complicit with the very evil we claim to oppose.

Concluding reflections

As the conflicts in Iraq and Syria continue to dominate the international headlines, it is worth stepping back and taking a longer view. The forces trying to remove Bashar al-Assad in Syria and those seeking to take over Iraq and indeed Afghanistan on the borders with Russia are essentially the same as those fighting Israel – radical Islamists who look back to the tradition of the conquering caliphate. This is especially true of ISIS. Their sworn enemy is not primarily the liberal West or the imperial United States but instead rival factions within Islam as well as Catholic and Orthodox Christendom.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed leader of the Islamic State stretching from Iraq to Syria, has called on Muslims to rally his Pan-Islamic project whose aim is the conquest of Rome: “Rush O Muslims to your state. It is your state. Syria is not for Syrians and Iraq is not for Iraqis. The land is for the Muslims, all Muslims. This is my advice to you. If you hold to it you will conquer Rome and own the world, if Allah wills”.

Nor should this come as a surprise to anyone. For decades jihadists have waged war on Christian oriental communities across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), while other Islamic extremists are fighting Russian Orthodoxy in the Caucasus and throughout Central Asia. In novel and frightening ways, this pits the militant strands of Islam not only against the more traditional forms of Sufism, including the Alawites in Syria but also the remnants of oriental Christendom. This is a battle against barbarism that has nothing to do with the global war on terror and everything to do with defending civilisation against demonic forces.

[1] Hassan Hassan, ‘Isis: a portrait of the menace that is sweeping my homeland’, The Observer 17 August 2014.
[2] Ibid.
[3] See, inter alia, Gilles Kepel Jihad. Expansion et déclin de l’islamisme (Paris: Gallimard, 2000); Olivier Roy, Afghanistan. Islam et modernité politique (Paris: Ed. Seuil, 1985); Tariq Ramandan, Jihâd, violence, guerre et paix en Islam (Paris: Tawhid, 2002).
[4] Ziauddin Sardar, ‘The struggle for Islam’s soul’, The New Statesman, 18 July 2005, p. 12.
[5] Bernard Lewis, The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam, rev. ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2002); Jeffrey T. Kenney, Muslim Rebels: Kharijites and the Politics of Extremism in Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).