The Face of ISIS


On 29 June 2014, after a series of important conquests in the Syrian civil war, the organisation known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant declared itself to be the worldwide caliphate and named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi its caliph. On the same day, the Netherlands defeated Mexico two to one at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. It was this second event that made headlines in Dutch media. It was only one month later, in the midst of the komkommertijd, that ISIS gradually came to be reported about, when no important soccer matches fought it for attention.

In a brilliant analysis, Scott Atran argued this week that we are underestimating the revolutionary force of ISIS and that we do not acknowledge its idealism enough. Atran even dares to quote a reference to Hitler by George Orwell – thereby affirming Godwin’s law – who said that the writer of Mein Kampf had understood the people don’t only want comfort and safety; they also want struggle and self-sacrifice. ISIS, Atran argues, is giving its followers precisely that: a dream, purpose, the opportunity to create a new world order. In the words of Atran:

The violence of the Islamic State, like the revolutionary violence of many who came before, might be best characterised by what Edmund Burke called ‘the sublime’: a willingness, indeed need and passion, for the ‘delightful terror’ of a sense of power, destiny, giving over to the infinite, ineffable and unknown.

Before, I used to argue that ISIS had not so much to do with religion or Islam, but was basically caused by economic factors, and recruited their troops from the social and economic outcasts of the West. Theologian and politician Ruard Ganzevoort taught me that it is just as much a fallacy to consider religion the root of all evil as it is to consider religion as positive force of love. In his words: “Religion is ambivalent, just as life itself”. The argument of Atran adds to my change in perception on the phenomenon ISIS, that we should indeed look at the ideology and the religious motives at least as much as to the economic factors.

Some commentators already noticed that the rise of ISIS shows much similarities with the French revolution and the Dutch revolt. The whole foundation of the Dutch nation could be credited to the violent rise of religious extremists in a corner of the Habsburg Empire. This observation reminds us of Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence. In this famous essay from 1921, Benjamin explores the justification for violence. States are defined by the fact that they have a monopoly of violence. When revolution occurs, the violence of the revolutionaries is justified by the fact that they strive for a more just society. When the revolutionaries succeed, they overthrow the current regime and install their own monopoly on violence.

According to Benjamin, all regimes have been founded on an act of original violence, which could also be considered as a divine legitimation of power. To maintain this power, when they are confronted with revolutionary movements, regimes have a notorious short memory with respect to their own foundational violence, which is very often not even that far in the past.

Atran very convincingly argues that the ideology behind ISIS does in fact legitimise its violence from the deeply rooted conviction that they are fighting for a better world order. The discursive strategies which are used by the adversaries of ISIS attempt to mask ISIS’ discourse for their legitimacy. Altran has very sharply noted that delegitimatising the Islamic State by calling them Daesh, won’t have much effect.

The question which nobody has been really able to answer yet about ISIS is: who are they? In almost every analysis, ISIS is treated as the ultimate Other, and any attempt to understand the movement usually describes them as violent lunatics. What are the possibilities from meeting the revolutionaries face-to-face? Would they kill me? Is there any possibility, as Levinas would phrase it, to meet the people in Raqqa while “inviting” them in my presence, without judgement, but simply as long lost cousins? Revolutions will always be repeated and successful revolutionaries will always rewrite history. But division of people is precisely what revolutionaries have always wanted – between religions, between social classes – and I think we should not accept the position we have been assigned, namely as adversaries. What if we would go over and ask: can we join you in your dream for a better world? The only way to defeat ISIS is through the exploration of the conditions to meet each other.


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