To Defeat ISIS We Must Decimate Their Theological Appeal

Posted on: 31st October 2014
Ed Husain
Former senior adviser
To Defeat ISIS We Must Decimate Their Theological Appeal

It is time to admit the inadmissible: the west is not yet equipped to dismantle ISIS. Our weaknesses are its strengths. Too many of us see the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham as a medieval cult that can be destroyed with air strikes; ISIS is a manifestation of an aggressive ideology that we do not wish to understand.

Without understanding it, we cannot defeat it. The west's increasing intellectual distance from most things religious hinders us from grasping the Isis worldview. The group is not only thoroughly modern but also fully futuristic. It is just that its vision of the future is different from the one that prevails in the west.

Western governments are hamstrung by relatively brief election cycles. Civil servants and military personnel are paralysed by annual appraisals and positioning for the next promotion, while businesses focus on annual returns. We are institutionally short-termist. ISIS talks openly about the return of Jesus, the beginning of end-time battles, the occupation of Rome and the "liberation" of Jerusalem. Its caliph is the precursor to the mythical Mahdi, a messianic saviour of the world. This kind of fervour has always resonated with the most zealous Muslims, Jews and Christians; for millennia, in times of upheaval, the more literalist believers have found comfort in expecting the world to end.

Where other Abrahamic religions take comfort in literalist belief, Salafism, also known as Wahhabism – a branch of Sunni Islam that spread around the globe with Saudi support and shares an intolerant ideology with ISIS – exhorts adherents to act, not just believe. Scriptural literalism is taken to a new level of extremism by Salafis.

Look at the images on Twitter of men dying on the battlefields of ISIS – they do so with their index finger held aloft. Why? They are emphasising tawheed, the oneness of God, as distinct from the Holy Trinity of Christians.

Such jihadis believe most Muslims no longer adhere to tawheed; it is on that basis that they – along with al-Qaeda and others – will detonate centuries-old Muslim shrines. They justify this literalism, and demarcation from mainstream Islam, through their particular reading of scripture.

"ISIS offers a caliphate and death. Our message must be of life."

To the violent Salafi, tawheed is political as well as credal. To rule by democracy is to violate God's sovereignty. Man-made law is the ultimate violation of pure tawheed and, to oppose this corruption of monotheism, extreme Salafis will walk the path of jihad. Their jihad is not to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or a secular government; it is to create "God's government" or a caliphate that holds up God's law by applying their form of Sharia. Fortunately, only about 3 per cent of the world's Muslims are Salafis. But their hardline theology, combined with popular political grievances against the west, Arab dictators, Israel and colonial history, mean their message can appeal to many more.

Killing Osama bin Laden did not stem terrorism. Death and destruction are attractive to ISIS. They lionise their dead and release photos of corpses with smiling faces. When we kill them, we fulfil their ultimate dream of martyrdom and return to God having sacrificed everything for tawheed and God's law.

The American-trained Iraqi army was no match for ISIS, and it is hard to believe our new proxy, the Kurds, can overcome it. We need to think beyond bombs. Our Saudi allies must break their 1753 covenant with the Wahhabi establishment and prevent future generations from embracing Salafism. Isis does not operate in a vacuum, and its numbers will swell unless the theology and grievances on which it stands are uprooted.

It was hard to imagine an organisation more extreme than al-Qaeda. Unless we decimate the theological and ideological appeal of ISIS, we will see the rise of an even more radicalised and violent force.

ISIS offers a caliphate and death. Our message needs to be of life, an Islam of the Muslim majority supported by 1,400 years of history. We must help Arab allies to reform, to create a regional Middle East union that transcends artificial borders, creates economic prosperity and reinstates Arab dignity. Terrorists cannot compete on this stage.

But we cannot continue to ignore the political and economic misery of Arabs who live in dictatorships. ISIS exploits their discontent and amplifies a messianic message of confronting the west.

Our political leaders have warned us that ISIS cannot be beaten back quickly. They must now focus on articulating a vision that is theologically more compelling to those susceptible to ISIS's war cries than that of violent Salafism.

This article was originally published in the Financial Times.