ISIS: ‘What if there is nothing behind it?’

Throughout history, mass movements from the Nazis to Al-Qaeda owe much of their success to peoples’ anxiety in believing in the existence of a profound truth. The ISIS movement appears to have altered this tradition by emphasizing openness and advocating the effective lack of any real ideological substance. In a recent talk with students of the Politics, Languages and International Studies Department at the University of Bath, renowned historian specialising in Islamic studies, Faisal Devji, argued that the IS’ struggle largely takes place on the surface with the ideological core of the group constituting of empty ‘images of imminence’.

The terrorist organization ISIS, a self-proclaimed caliphate has been consistently expanding its influence across large areas of north western Iraq and northern Syria. ISIS has recently launched heavy attacks on the Syrian city of Kobane, forcing thousands of families to flee across the Turkish border. It’s leaders claim to have a direct link to Islamic religious law with the purpose of creating a holy Islamic state ruled by absolute Sharia law.

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Devji addressed discrepancies in the IS’ history, including the American invasion of Iraq in order to infiltrate and disband both Al-Qaeda and the original links to the rest of the global Al-Qaeda network. Devji argued that there had evolved an ideological shallowness in the post-Cold War world when enmity was no longer bound to territories. Nor could Al-Qaeda be associated with territories, claimed says Devji. The conception that ideological enemies can only arise ‘within the world’ rather than specific parts of the world is difficult to link to the innate hatred of the West that both Al-Qaeda and the IS demonstrate. The consistent course of action taken by the terrorist group was based on a ‘you do X so we do Y’ method, mirroring the actions of the West. The IS further clashes with the United States’ attempt to territorialize terrorism, growing out of this approach whilst Al-Qaeda has made conscious efforts to globalise conflict on a meta-territorial base. In light of the IS’ disassociation from Al-Qaeda and its return to positive geographical claims, it could be argued that this new aspect brings with it more ideological weight.

The same cannot be said with regards to the methods of terror used by the organisation. The IS is detached from their own actions; it resembles 20th century movements with their urge to achieve brutal openness, yet it lacks their search for an inner life. Without an ideological mastermind behind it, the movement attracts its followers by fan-logic, not the traditional way with the use of ideological schooling. Due to the media attention surrounding the IS, it is currently viewed as a sort of celebrity movement and its appeal lies with their open, animalistic brutality and absolute hatred of their enemies. While movements similar in nature have also carried out executions mirroring sacred ritual, the images and videos of the IS spreading across the globe resemble animal slaughter.

Devji called the IS’ religious determinism an ‘interpretation with historical imagination’ in his talk at the University of Bath. The caliphate, according to Devji, is the post-prophetic claim of the IS; it assumes the ending of the prophetic period and the arrival of the caliph, a successor to Muhammad, therefore making their leader Al-Baghdadi. His neo-traditionalist concept of a caliphate clashes with that of many other Muslims who see the state as an irreligious unit that has divided the world’s Muslim community. The pragmatic approach taken by Al-Baghdadi in setting up a state that simultaneously serves as a base for expansion seems to lack the sound ideological basis of religion.

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