Alireza Doostdar: How Not to Understand ISIS (RELS 348)

With ample mainstream media presence and with a strong output of social media content/propaganda, it is no surprise that the radical Islamist group ISIS (ISIL, IS, Da’ish) is on the minds of many of those in the western world. Calgary in particular, where I am located, has seen a number of young men who were radicalized in the city, appear in propaganda videos for ISIS (see here, here and here). In light of this, Calgarians and Canadians on the whole are growing increasingly concerned about this group that at once seemed to be far away, but is gradually creeping closer to home. More specifically, people are beginning to question the foundations of ISIS in order to better understand why it came about, why it is so violent and what can be done to stop it.

Alireza Doostdar states in his article “How Not to Understand ISIS,” the group is based on “… a combination of cosmological doctrines, eschatological beliefs and civilizational notions – usually thought to be rooted in Salafi Islam”.  Doostdar’s piece discuss the misconceptions around Islam (specifically Salafi Islam), the phenomena of ISIS and the relation between the two. He contends that what is known about the group comes primarily from their own propaganda. Thus, their coverage in the mainstream media is informed by and reflective of a “homogenous view” that inadvertently serves the group’s initial purpose. However, as Doostdar and many other academics who have studied the region have noted, ISIS and its followers did not form in a vacuum and miraculously appear into a peaceful, prosperous Iraq and Syria. “ISIS emerged from the fires of war, occupation, killing, torture and disenfranchisement”. This sentiment is oddly (maybe conveniently) omitted when discussing what caused this new terror in the Middle East to come to being.

Doostdar makes many interesting points when arguing for a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the Middle East’s most prominent current day problems. He points to the fact that a large number of ISIS recruits were local Iraqis, imprisoned for opposing the authoritarian rule of Nuri Al-Maliki. He also suggests that there is a wide array of ideological motivations that might lead people to join ISIS that are ignored. Doostdar cites Michael Muhammad Knite, a journalist and novelist who contemplated fighting Jihad in the 1990s Chechen war on the basis of ‘fight for freedom, wherever there’s trouble’ – something he learned from the GI. Joe theme song.

If one willing to step away from the pervasive air of Islamophobia in our media, and by extension our public thought (or if one simply does not accept it to begin with) Doostdar’s points become extremely hard to refute. The reliance on the zealous belief in Salafist Islam as the sole motivator for ISIS’ creation and actions, seems to me, a lazy and lacking explanation. The idea that those people who comprise ISIS are all blood-thirsty adherents to Salafist Islam most definitely falls into an area of orientalist narratives that serve to create an ‘us’ against ‘them’ mentality. Even Doodstar points this out: Is beheading really any worse than being blown to bits by a drone? Is it not so much a matter of what violent means, but whom is using them? Make no mistake, I personally find the actions of ISIS grotesque and unacceptable. However, oversimplification of the issues+ that have led to the rise and growth of ISIS are a disservice to our intellect and free PR for ISIS recruiters.

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