The newspapers are overflowing with speculation about the wellsprings of ISIS. But they are not shedding much light on the affair because their analysis of events is secular. ISIS is not.
In column after column, pundits venture that the recent attacks in Paris were retribution for the drone assassination of “Jihadi John.” This sets up an equation, easy to understand: tit for tat, or maybe, 20 tits for every tat, actions whose degree of success can be measured by a mere body count. But the theory doesn’t answer a question it raises: what does ISIS foresee as the Western response? Tit for tat can be a lose-lose game.
Commentators who are more cerebral say that the whole scenario is owed to undemocracy and strained standards of living, to a vague, clouded and stormy environment that needs the sunlight of another Arab Spring. While from a materialist point of view, this approach is certainly more layered and nuanced—though it has already failed–unlike the revenge thesis, it is nearly impossible to envision. We do not know how to create the circumstances that would bring it into being.
Deciphering what’s going on is made more difficult by the theological parameters of the problem, which because they are set forth in the pages of obscure Muslim texts are practically unmentioned in the West, though parallels can be drawn in our own history.
The “reason” for the Paris attacks may not have been revenge, nor any shortage of career opportunities in Syria, Libya, Yemen or Iraq. Instead, the carnage may have been intended to bring “Rome” to Dabiq, a materially unimportant Iraqi village where scenarios of the End Times are to reach their conclusion. When ISIS, in its statement claiming credit for the Paris bloodshed, hailed the shootings in “Gaul,” it was making reference in keeping with the vocabulary of Muslim apocalyptic writings called the hadith. The hadith, in all its versions may be apocryphal, but in thought and action, ISIS is the guerrilla army of Muslim End-Times.
Its leader, the self-styled calif Ibrahim Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, may not care, or even notice, whether Raqqa’s taps are wet or dry. He may have ordered the Paris attacks because he read that they would hasten the arrival of Rome to Dabiq, and that once the West arrives in Dabiq’s environs, fate will proceed according to the prophecies. His motives may have had nothing to do with the secular world or with anything measureable. God bespeaks qualitative events, not tallies.
We Americans have seen an example of this kind of thinking in the 1993 incident involving David Koresh and his “Davidians” at their Mt. Carmel redount in Waco. When agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided his turf, Koresh and his faithful fired upon them, killing four. They did so not because they wanted to protect their store of firearms, their Bibles or any material possession from seizure but because, according to their interpretation of the Bible, the “army of Babylon” was destined to attack and it was their role to defend the faith. That the army of Babylon was the ATF, and that Rome is the United States are matters of scriptural interpretation.
Western civilization is probably lucky that it is dealing with an al-Baghdadi and not a Koresh. The ISIS leadership discusses its plans and may set them collectively because Muhammad is deemed to have been Allah’s last prophet. Koresh claimed that mantle for himself. He was therefore able to tell his flock on March 1 that he and it should surrender and then, the following day, announce that God had told him to wait. As an incarnation of the Word, Koresh didn’t need to cite scriptures to justify his commands. Al-Baghdadi doesn’t have such liberty.
If the materialist evaluation of people is correct, sooner or later—it now looks like later!—Muslims in North Africa and the Middle East will turn against their theological firebrands in conscious pursuit of the god of modern convenience, just as, in many ways, Europe did after the deflation of Christianity by the bitter experiences of the World War I and II. But people are rational, if at all, only over the long run: 150 years after the abolition of slavery, many white Americans still regard black people as subhuman, even when that brand of thinking contradicts their self-interests!
As scholar William McCants explains in his recent book, The ISIS Apocalypse, Al Qaeda under bin Laden presumed a different interpretation of prophecies from the Sunni hadith. He thought that the End Times would be brought about by a series of sequential actions. First, the “far enemy,” i.e., what ISIS calls “Rome,” had to be provoked into invading the Muslim Middle East. That, bin Laden and his co-thinkers believed, would unite all Muslims under the banner of their faith and reveal the “near enemies,” dictators and apostate lackeys, as deserving overthrow. Once the near enemies were gone, Al Qaeda would unify its multi-national but Muslim base, establish its caliphate and prepare for the battle of Dabiq. The impatient ISIS has collapsed these stages, and no doubt, al-Baghdadi cites chapter and verse to justify his view.
McCants’ work shows nearly a nostalgia for the years of Al Qaeda’s hegemony, apparently because it elaborated a strategy with a material aim: military victory. But from a purely theological standpoint, the outcome of any final battle is a matter of indifference, since God’s plan cannot be questioned. In the eyes of believers, God is not a politician or celebrity; he is great not because he is popular but because he is supreme. In looking back on the debacle that befell them, the handful of Davidian survivors cannot explain why they lived and their loved ones died. But they are convinced that Mt.Carmel’s fate was God’s will and was therefore just. They even show a certain envy for their dead.
Scriptural debate, no doubt ongoing among Muslim End-Timers, is beyond the linguistic reach and maybe the intellectual reach of the western press, whose operators Marx would have deemed “vulgar materialists.” Though Muslim theological debates are “ideological” in the derisory sense that Marx used the term, they are not beside the point. Even if debating theology is irrational, believers must cite the holy writs to justify what they’ve concluded by instinctual or idiosyncratic means, however inscrutable those may be. They must rationalize what they believe, and when they do not have the magic words at the ready, stasis—doubt and delay—set in. Even David Koresh had to claim the authority of ancient texts. Before he could successfully cast himself as the Word made flesh, he had to point to biblical passages saying that such a transformation was possible in our times.
Today the West thinks it is awaiting material changes–treaties and coalitions, superdrones–that will lead to the defeat of ISIS. Yet almost all of Koresh’s followers stayed inside Mt. Carmel though they knew they were badly outgunned. They believed that at the last minute God would save them from peril, if not on earth, then in Paradise: obeying his wishes was all that mattered. In the secular world, religious devotion and theological debate is pointless and incomprehensible. But without it, Dabiq may become Mt. Carmel writ large.