One of the most vital tools we have in understanding the Islamic State are the videos it uses to inspire potential recruits. A terrorist organization always reveals far more in messages to sympathetic listeners than to enemies. In understanding these narratives often lie the keys to defeating them.
Two weeks ago ISIL released the above video via its official media channel, al-Hayat Media Center, and it is “typical” of the organization’s favored propaganda, says Aaron Y. Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who uploaded it. It may be typical for those who follow these things closely, but it still tells us a lot about the group.
Aside from how slick the video looks—ISIL’s propaganda is known for its superior production value—the main focus of the video, and central to ISIL’s appeal, is the emphasis on the caliphate.
“This is our khilafah, in all its glory, remaining and expanding,” the narrator explicates in booming baritone. “It was established in the year 1435 Hijri [roughly last year, according to the Islamic lunar calendar], its leader from the tribe of Quraish [the tribe of the Prophet Mohammed], shaykh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and its territory is already greater than Britain, eight times the size of Belgium and 30 times the size of Qatar. It’s a state built on the prophetic methodology, striving to follow the Quran and Sunnah.”
It goes on to describe the glory of a state that strikes down false idols, manmade laws, racism, nationalism and corporate control. Of course, the reality is very different: ISIL is a state built on extortion and racketeering, where women are forcibly “married” (i.e., pimped out) to one man after another, where sexual slavery has been legalized, and which is having to deal with a growing number of defectors. And there have been plenty of complaints of discrimination and special treatment to certain groups.
But, in a sense, all this focus on what ISIL is doing misses the wood for the trees. The defining characteristic of ISIL is the khilafah itself, and yet there’s been very little attention paid to it. Most of the debate subconsciously accepts the caliphate and then moves on to the topic of how to defeat it. But how do you defeat a state based on an idea unless you challenge the idea itself? How can you defeat a state without taking away its spiritual territory as well as physical?
We can’t win the war of ideas and values until we spell it out more clearly: At its heart this is about whether people of any religion are best served by living under a secular democracy, or a theocracy.
The frame through which we see and debate ISIL is outdated because it’s the one we used for shadowy terror groups such as al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and other extremist movements (including the white-supremacist far-right). Understanding the caliphate isn’t just central to comprehending ISIL’s success and the reasons why it has been able to recruit so many people, but it is also central to formulating an effective defeat.
Last year, Dr. Mohammed Habasha, a religious scholar and a former member of the Syrian parliament, argued, “ISIL did not arrive from Mars; it is a natural product of our retrograde discourse. Talk about the caliphate has always provided a way to justify our defeats, failure, losses and inability to catch up with the rest of the world.”
The Middle East analyst Hassan Hassan wrote: “Now a caliphate has been declared, the debate begins.”
The Caliphate has been offered as the solution to Muslim problems for so long, it’s not surprising it has so many recruits. As I wrote for Quartz earlier this year, radical groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir used it as a rallying cry in Britain over two decades ago. Much of the video above sounds like how HuT envisioned its own utopia (except, they claim they strive for it by non-violent means).
But, if anything, a real debate on the khilafah ideal has been strikingly absent. “The idea of caliphate has real resonance among Muslims (even non-Islamists) so to attack that means to alienate large [numbers] of people,” writer and analyst Shadi Hamid tweeted. And therein lies the reason why so many Muslims shy away from the debate.
Nevertheless, the attraction of a caliphate remains a key driving force for Muslims migrating to ISIL’s lands, and why it features so prominently in recruitment videos. If the khilafah ideal remains unchallenged, then another militant group will take it up even if ISIL is defeated.
The ISIL khilafah has another important, defining characteristic: a clash of civilizations at Dabiq. As detailed in the second half of the video—ISIL militants believe that once the khilafah is established, their enemies will attack them on the ground. It is prophesied that the clash will take place in the Syrian town of Dabiq, and that ISIL will be ultimately victorious.
So ISIL members aren’t afraid of US troops on Syrian soil. They welcome them. The terrorist group is so eager to provoke us into sending troops into the area, and this is why president Obama is reluctant to do so (a pledge he reiterated in his Oval Office speech on Dec. 6).
But the US does have an important role to play apart from carrying out airstrikes to support the Kurds. It can let democracy bloom across the Middle East. It can do that not through military ventures but by ending support for dictatorships (in Egypt and Saudi Arabia), and helping Tunisia and Libya further their respective democratic projects. It can help by allowing Palestinians to live with dignity. Propping up dictatorships has hollowed out the democratic center across the Middle East over decades, leaving only Islamist groups as the main alternative to autocracy.
Nevertheless, the ISIL khilafah has to be confronted just like Hitler’s Third Reich was. That confrontation has to be ideological, by challenging the idea that Muslims (or any religious group, really) are best served by theocratic governance; and it has to be done militarily, because destroying their empire is the surest way to kill the dream. We didn’t end Nazism by worrying about provoking Hitler or accepting the Third Reich, we hunted down every last Nazi. ISIL’s own propaganda videos are the best illustration of why we need to deal with them differently, and with urgency.