What History Teaches Us about the Islamic State

The death cult's 13th-century origin story sheds grim light on mounting strikes in Syria.

By Crawford Kilian 2 Dec 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

image atom
ISIS: do we fight the bastards, or outlive them? Photo via Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons licensed.

It's easy but inaccurate to blame the Americans' wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for the rise of "Islamism" -- a violent, dogmatic and fundamentalist version of Islam that thrives in social chaos, and which has now produced the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and Daesh.

If only it were that simple. Syrian historian and journalist Sami Moubayed argues that the 21st century is paying for the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in the 13th century -- as well as for a couple of recent centuries of exploitation of the Arab peoples that also induced social chaos.

In the early 1200s, Europe was a dull, smelly backwater and Islam was a high civilization stretching from Moorish Spain to much of India and central Asia. The caliphate ruled from Baghdad over Muslims, Christians, Jews, and other sects. Science, engineering, architecture, poetry and trade all prospered.

Then the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258 -- a blow from which it has never really recovered. Islam had certainly faced formidable enemies before, and had suffered setbacks, but the Mongols forced millions of Muslims to wonder what they had done to deserve this catastrophe.

Moubayed traces modern Islamism back to the fall of Baghdad. Ibn Taymiyya, a theologian born in 1263, grew up in Damascus on horror stories about the suffering in Baghdad. He argued that the Mongols were simply divine punishment for Muslims' "moral corruption and social decay.... A rebirth could only be achieved," he wrote, "if Muslims returned to the earliest interpretations of the Holy Qu'ran, and the life and practice of the Salaf (first Muslims)."

That would require "a holy jihad to create an Islamic state, ruled by a caliph, according to the basic guidance of the Holy Qu'ran."

Like Islamists for centuries thereafter, Ibn Taymiyya spent years in prison for criticizing the status quo and those who ruled over it. He died in 1328, two years before the Mongols reached Damascus and destroyed it also.

That wasn't the last of Islam's troubles. Ibn Taymiyya's ideas survived as a consistent rebuke to the status quo. In the mid-18th century his fundamentalism inspired a partnership that has survived to this day: Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Saud co-founded Wahhabism, the Muslim fundamentalism that rules Saudi Arabia today. The Saudis' current Grand Mufti is a descendant of al-Wahhab and King Salman is a descendant of ibn Saud.

Violence, oil, and fundamentalism

The partnership even survived defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1818. After the First World War the House of Saud rose again and launched a campaign quite as violent as the Islamic State's. At its end, Saudi Arabia ruled most of the peninsula. Abdul Aziz ibn Saud as king established his dynasty on violence, the ocean of oil under his country, and the teachings of al-Wahhab and Ibn Taymiyya.

"Contemporary jihadis," Moubayed writes, "are the intellectual product of a school of thought found in the Arabian Desert back in 1744.... Without Wahhabism, there would be no Saudi Arabia, no Islamic State in al-Raqqa today, and no talk of al-Qaida or ISIS."

The rest of the Muslim world rejected fundamentalism. Kemal Ataturk built a strong, secular Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. One of his first acts was to dissolve the caliphate that the Ottomans had claimed for themselves.

Other Muslim countries, whether Arab, Persian or South Asian, pinned their hopes on a similar secularism, whether run by a king, a parliamentary democracy or a military junta.

Secular governments had to face not just hostile Western governments but Islamists who still wanted to operate on seventh-century terms. For a long time, secular governments dealt with such internal critics by jailing them. They held power by selling oil and buying weapons -- from the West or the Soviets, who could be played off against one another.

From violence to counterviolence

In Syria, Hafez al-Assad took power in a coup but soon found himself under attack by the Armed Vanguards, an Islamist terrorist group. After years of its violence, Assad turned to counterviolence. Moubayed describes his predicament so well that we feel some sympathy for Assad's destruction of the Islamist quarters of the city of Hama. His soldiers slaughtered 20,000 -- but if they hadn't, an aging Ronald Reagan would have had to deal with an earlier version of the Islamic State ruling all Syria.

Instead, Reagan supported a new generation of Islamists willing to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan -- including young Osama bin Laden. The rest, as they say, is history.

The last real Islamist success before 9/11 was the establishment of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Thereafter, Islamists were the barking loonies of Muslim politics, until American intervention in Afghanistan and then Iraq utterly ruined Arab secularism. Perhaps the Americans' single greatest stupidity (after the invasion itself) was their firing of all Iraqi Baathist officials and the disbanding without pensions of the Iraqi army.

A bizarre dystopia

Large numbers of those officials and soldiers, well educated and very competent, are now running the Islamic State: picking up the garbage, staffing the hospitals, and training the suicide bombers. The West gave the Islamic State, free, the complete infrastructure of a functioning nation.

Moubayed's interviews with members of that nation (now as big as England, with a population of six million) create a vivid portrait of a bizarre dystopia. Caliph Ibrahim (as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi prefers to be known) communicates with his officials by mobile phones, WhatsApp and Skype. He's a heavy Google user and very interested in his western reviews.

The old police forces have been replaced with the Saudi-style religious cops of the "Verification Bureau," who do everything from enforcing mosque attendance to flogging bakers who overcharge for bread (sold at the same penny a loaf as in Bashar al-Assad's Damascus). They also erase games like Angry Birds from people's smartphones (without flogging). The al-Khansaa Brigade, composed of women, ensures that veils are in place and women's bags don't contain cosmetics.

Public executions and decapitations keep the locals in line as well as outraging the rest of the world. Moubayed calls beheading "just the latest of jihadi 'trends' -- psychological warfare at its finest."

"Good teachers," he also writes, "are prized in ISIS territory -- even more so than strong foreign fighters.... ISIS values training in the sciences in order to prepare future soldiers to handle artillery, the maintenance of vehicles and perhaps to use more sophisticated weaponry. All teachers, however, undergo extensive training in Shariah law and Qur'anic studies before they are allowed to interact with students."

Collaborating with the infidels

The Islamic State and its ally Jabhat al-Nusra even collaborate with the Assad government on major examinations, shipping students' tests to the Ministry of Education for grading. It also indirectly sells electric power and even oil to Damascus, and it does not block ISIS from the internet. One reason for this co-operation: ISIS could damage the major Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates upstream from Raqqa.

Moubayed estimates ISIS earns a million dollars a day from black market oil sales at 20 per cent of what it's worth on the world market. And while it may blow up ancient ruins like Palmyra, it also smuggles archaeological treasures out of the country, making scores of millions of dollars. Kidnapping for ransom brought in as much as $45 million in 2014. Foreign supporters in Qatar and Saudi Arabia do serious fundraising.

The Islamic State is a master of social media, using Twitter and Instagram and producing professional-quality videos of beheadings and other executions. Especially notable is its slick online magazine Dabiq.

It's not aimed at you; it's aimed at young English-speaking Muslims in the West, and it's an effective recruiting tool. The Syrian government tolerates it and the Islamic State's YouTube videos because it wants to monitor those who visit them -- just as the Islamic State monitors what the foreign media say about it.

Moubayed makes it clear that the Islamic State has emerged from an almost Darwinian process as generation after generation of fundamentalists resisted their secular governments and were suppressed. Each succeeding generation had to be tougher, smarter, and more dedicated than the last, and a defeated Islamic State could be replaced by an even fiercer movement.

Bombing won't work

A radical variant of Islam that's survived persecution since the 14th century is not going to be bombed out of existence, any more than the Nazis' Blitz defeated Britain. Even exterminating 20,000 Islamists in Hama bought Hafez al-Assad only a few decades of peace.

It's hard to see what the secular nations can do about this. The vast majority of Muslims are clearly appalled by the Islamists (note that Syria's refugees do not seek shelter in Saudi Arabia). They can see how ISIS is manipulating us, encouraging anti-Muslim fear and loathing. If we reject ordinary Muslim refugees, they will find nowhere to run; eventually their choices will be the caliph or the deep blue Aegean.

Treating the Islamic State like North Korea would be problematic. Alienated young people would still try to reach it, or carry out terrorist attacks in its name. Money would still filter in and out, along with oil and weapons. Even the internet would likely still be accessible.

Invasion won't work either

Could a grand alliance of all secular nations, from the U.S. and Canada to Russia and China, overwhelm the Islamic State? Unlikely, as each would demand very different post-ISIS regimes (and borders) across the Middle East.

But we should know by now that ever since Genghis Khan, a military victory over Islam only stores up trouble for centuries to come. We are paying now for the stupidity of the Sykes-Picot agreement a century ago, with its arbitrary borders around artificial states like Syria and Iraq and Jordan (not to mention the very hazy borders around Israel).

A violent extirpation of the Islamic State would only ensure future nightmares. Anything less would keep it sputtering away for decades, like the colonial wars in Indochina and Northern Ireland.

Our best hope may be for a cooling of ISIS's expansionism and its willingness (to paraphrase Joseph Stalin) to settle for "Islamism in one state." That might lead to a negotiated settlement (or at least a cold war), under which ISIS could rule as it pleased over its patch of land in return for leaving its neighbours (and us) alone.

Like Cuba, ISIS would suffer economically under many embargoes, and would still attract admirers. But the rest of us could get on with thrashing out climate change, which will produce enough refugees without ISIS adding to them. Like the equally noxious Saudis, ISIS may settle for comfortable survival amidst the unbelievers.

We might also recall an old British political proverb: "While there is death, there is hope." Al-Baghdadi won't live forever, and when he goes ISIS may fall apart from internal disputes. As my mother used to say, "You just have to outlive the bastards." And she outlived a lot of them.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Get The Tyee in your inbox


The Barometer

If and when the time comes to give up your license, how do you plan to get around?

Take this week's poll