Is the Islamic State — ISIS or ISIL — different from other Islamist terror groups? If so, is the difference one of substance or simply degree? Or is there any real difference at all?
The question preoccupies the best intelligence professionals and academic students of the Arab Muslim world, but so far has produced more confusion than certainty about what we’re witnessing.
Maybe we’re too close. Maybe we’d gain perspective by going back in time — to 1993, say, and an article by a Harvard history professor, Samuel Huntington, in the magazine Foreign Affairs and later in a book titled The Clash of Civilizations.
Huntington saw a grim future and a different kind of war. While nation-states remain principal players in world affairs, he wrote, the great conflicts of the future will be between “different civilizations.”
“The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics,” he wrote. “The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”
Is that what we’re watching — a clash of civilizations between the Muslim Arab world and the mostly Christian West? Not being an intelligence expert or holding down a professorship in the subject, I can’t make that call as an absolute truth.
But to a layman it sure as hell looks like a collision of civilizations — specifically between the advocates of a malignant interpretation of Islam and a Christian West which, a millennium ago, produced the Crusades.
Listen, for example, to what Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, a spokesperson for ISIS, promises Christians in the future:
“We will conquer your Rome,” he threatened, “break your crosses and enslave your women. If we don’t reach that time, then our children will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves.” The guy’s a real phrase-maker, isn’t he?
What al-Adnani is predicting is an apocalyptic, end-times kind of battle rooted more in messianic religious belief than in history. He’s even named the place for the great battle — Dabig, in Syria. But is his threat credible? Or just chest-thumping to heat up the home folks? It’s chest-thumping, alright, and it has heated up lots of Muslim home boys. But it’s a losing hand for the Arab world for two reasons.
First, there’s no comparison between the military might of a technologically advanced, thermonuclear-armed West and a Muslim Arab world just now groping toward modernity.
Second, much of the Muslim Arab world is belatedly awakening to the internal threat ISIS extremism poses.
The latter reason underlies Obama’s reluctance — even as he criticizes “extremism” — to use the term “Islamic extremism.” To put “boots on the ground,” Obama knows he’ll need military support from Arab nations and is reluctant to seem critical of Islam.
Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, even Saudi Arabia have entered the fight against ISIS and Obama would prefer not to alienate them rhetorically.
The president’s position is understandable, maybe even necessary, by geopolitical reasoning. But it’s maddening, too — well-received perhaps by Arab listeners he hopes to influence, but resented by much of his American audience.
Much of liberal academia agrees with Obama’s kid-glove approach to Arab extremism as a long-term strategy. But not all of it.
For example, Graeme Wood, a Canadian scholar and Arabic speaker writing in the Atlantic, brands ISIS as “Islamic. Very Islamic.” The religion of Islam, he writes, is fundamental to ISIS as is its call for a new caliphate and a return to Sharia law and the lifestyle and culture of the seventh century.
“Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers,” he writes. “But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”
How do we deal with ISIS? No one seems to know for sure.
A common belief is that Islamist extremism stems from poverty and lack of fulfilment in the region. But its leaders have come primarily from the upper classes. Osama bin Laden was the son of a billionaire. His buddy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a physician. And Mohamed Atta, leader of the 9/11 attackers, was college-educated.
Without elite leadership, there’d likely be no ISIS.
But back to Huntington. His Class of Civilizations was highly controversial when published. Some saw it as justification for a new kind of post-war western imperialism. But then came 9/11, and fresh interest in Huntington’s ideas.
It’s premature to tell if he’s right. But it’s worth noting one other Huntington forecast, one that has hit the mark. Ukraine, he predicted, would be split between its Roman Christian West and Orthodox Christian East.
©2015, Religion News Service. Farmer is a columnist for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.