Understanding the past in order to move forward: the ISIS situation

Religion and politics clash and meld together in the recent developments of the ISIS regime in Iraq and Syria. Martin Chulov illuminates some of the historical religious motives behind political moves made by the terrorist group in his September 3rd article in the Guardian (UK). Chulov describes the gruesome but glossy video productions and tech-savvy techniques of ISIS as strategic tools being used by the group to incite fear, spread propaganda, and provoke emotional reactions from both sympathizers and enemies. Part of the reasoning for wanting to elicit such a reaction, Chulov reports, is an adherence to a 1400-year-old prediction of a pre-apocalyptic military showdown between Muslims and Christians at a place called Murj Dabek, in Syria. By executing Western nationals and packaging violence in polished Hollywood-style film, it is argued that the group is trying to draw predominantly Christian nations (Western superpowers) into the battle in order to fulfill the scriptural prophecy, as well as draw in supporters from the Arab world and the West. Chulov’s article is a great example showcasing how humans use myth and narrative to influence their decisions and shape their realities, and how that can be used to fuel significant political movements.

ISIS has been steadily gaining power over the past eighteen months, and their recent move into Syria coupled with their ruthless and gruesome tactics has the global community troubled. At first glance, it seems difficult to believe that a group so radical could attract such a relatively large following, even given historical incentives for the Arab world wanting to create their own Islamic nation state (Caliphate- read about that here). But Chulov shows how ISIS leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi is strategically utilizing both the historical existence of a Caliphate (Islamic state) and scriptural promises of battle against Christians (who have contributed much to the suffering of Muslims throughout past history- read more here) to drive allegiance to his cause. Whether or not Baghdadi truly believes that he will incite an apocalyptic showdown, it seems that revenge upon the peoples who dismantled Islamic states, killed thousands in the crusades, and continually sought to imperialistically control Arab political and economic affairs is enough to drive his campaign against Western and Western-sympathizing governments. Baghdadi’s use of scriptural references galvanizes a cause in the hearts of his supporters that goes beyond political boundaries to encompass existential directives. This is certainly a level of commitment and justification that must be considered when determining how to alleviate the situation in the Middle East. But just because ISIS’ worldview includes religious elements in their political aspirations does not make their viewpoints inherently less political; this is not strictly a ‘religious issue’ or a ‘political issue’. When considering how ISIS is approaching the dream of a new Caliphate, we can look to Michael Freeden’s work on politics as ideology, as discussed in our RELS 349 class. Freeden outlines how ideology is simply the way that we talk about politics and the language we use to express our thoughts and opinions on political matters. In using religious language to motivate political actions, we find ourselves at a crossroads of two spheres we seem so uncomfortable to overlap in the West. It is sometimes difficult to tell whether ISIS is a political religion, or rather a religious movement with political aspects. However, it seems clear that ISIS poses a threat to anyone that does not subscribe completely to their specific set of beliefs, including other Muslims. Certainly we cannot boil this down to Muslim vs. Christian issue, or a democracy vs. theocracy issue. Chulov’s article clearly shows that we must consider all complex elements of the conflict in determining a course of action, including those elements we attempt to keep separate in our own society, as we strive toward a peaceful solution.

TM, RELS 349

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