The Islamic State (IS) was never a part of the legitimate resistance against Syrian President Bashar al Assad. There are possibly hundreds of opposition groups inside Syria. Several of these groups consider themselves to be the leader of the rebellion. These groups are not part of a larger monolithic whole; rather, they are divergent ethnic and religious groups that are often antagonistic and even violent towards one another.

The Islamic State has used the chaos created by the Syrian rebellion to try and fulfill an obscure Islamic prophecy. Back during the zenith of Osama bin Laden’s war with the West, some Islamists started focusing on any Islamic teachings, no matter how obscure, that promoted a jihadist visionAtomic Explosion that would be global in scope. Their goal was to legitimize their politicized version of Islam and to cement the legitimacy of jihad in the minds of Muslim moderates. This search led to scholarship regarding something called Yawm ad-Din, the Day of Judgement.

Eschatology is a part of theology concerned with the final events in history. Such a concept is often referred to as “end times” and it is definitely not limited to Islam. Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Baha’i, and new religious movements such as New Age religions also have eschatological theology and followers who believe in imminent apocalypticism

The Day of Judgement was first introduced to jihadi groups by the world’s foremost jihadist scholar, a Palestinian man named Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi. Maqdisi’s prominence and knowledge has attracted jihadi acolytes over the years including Abu Mus’ab al Zarqawi. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) called upon Maqdisi to find out if their jihad in Yemen would lead to an Islamic Caliphate. Maqdisi affirmed an exceptional destiny for the jihadists in Yemen, but added a caveat that the group in Yemen would have to go on to Syria to fulfill their destiny. Maqdisi explained that AQAP would help bring about Allah’s judgment by helping to usher in the end of the world. Maqdisi explained that jihadists in the AQAP would help mobilize popular support against the West and its apostate allies by launching attacks all over the globe. But first, the fighters in Yemen had to get to Syria.

Yemeni fighters poured into Syria, but the original al Qaeda and its affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq would play a part in popularizing Syria’s role in bringing about the Day of Judgement.

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi assumed control of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010. Baghdadi’s closest aide, Hajji Bakr, who has been described as the “prince of the shadows,” helped his leader consolidate power. He proclaimed Baghdadi as a legitimate caliph that was helping to usher in the apocalypse. Baghdadi’s followers believe there will only be four more caliphs after Baghdadi before the end of the world.

During this period, Bakr saw jihad in pragmatic terms. He wanted to attack government troops and police as a blueprint to open up power vacuums to deplete security and resistance to an Islamic State takeover. He also wanted to introduce a powerful religious motivation for uniting jihadists behind a single program—his program. The Day of Judgement prophecy became an influential tool for motivating jihadists to take over Iraq and Syria under Baghdadi’s control. IS fighters

When Syrians began peaceably protesting against their government in 2011, Assad’s administration released an unknown number of jihadists from prison with a calculation that these men would foster violence among the protesters and give the regime an excuse to violently suppress them. Taking advantage of the volatility, al Qaeda’s Ayman al Zawahiri encouraged Baghdadi to send members of his Islamic State of Iraq into Syria. He did, and this group morphed and eventually came to calling itself Jabhat al Nusra or Nusra Front.

Nusra expanded in Northern Syria, and it eventually splintered with the Islamic State of Iraq.

In 2013, Baghdadi announced that he was in control of Nusra and that he was merging it with the Islamic State of Iraq into one group, “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIL or ISIS). Some leaders within Nusra rejected this merger and reaffirmed an allegiance to al Qaeda. Others, particularly foreign fighters from Yemen, joined with Baghdadi.

The end times prophecy worked as a solidifying agent and as propaganda to bring jihadists groups under Baghdadi’s control.

The Qur’an does not go into much specificity about the Day of Judgement. Instead, Islamists have had to depend on hadith for descriptions and guidance. Various hadith explain that chaos and corruption will rule in Muslim lands, and Jesus (whom Muslims see as a Muslim and a Prophet) will return near the day of judgement to restore justice and to defeat the Antichrist called the Mahdi. After he defeats the Mahdi, Muslims believe that Jesus will assume leadership of the world and will live for another 40 years before dying of natural causes. The rule of Jesus will be the precursor to Muhammad returning for the final day of judgement.

The prophecy that the Islamic State has used is a version of this narration. It describes that the armies of “Rome” will gather on what are currently grasslands in Northern Syria. These armies will face off against the armies of Islam (Islamic State) and then be vanquished. IS will then be free to takeover Istanbul before a final showdown in Jerusalem. It is there in Jerusalem that Jesus will return to slaughter the Antichrist and his followers the Christians and Jews.

Most Islamic sects consider hadith to be essential supplements to, and clarifications of, the Qur’an. Sunni and Shi’a hadith collections differ drastically. Sunni hadith texts number around 10 thousand. Shi’ites refute six major Sunni collections, but Shi’a sects cannot agree with one another on which of their texts are actually authentic. Consequently, hadith texts within Shi’a traditions are more contested, and therefore an exact number for Shi’a hadith is difficult to claim.

Advertisements

Amid the unrelenting political turmoil of the Middle East, in which loyalties and alliances can shift with the winds (commonly referred to as the Arab Street), Islam is often the only common denominator. For the average citizen, life can be very very difficult; and, as a result, Islam is very attractive, because it offers some sort of hope for eternal peace. Islam also offers a unifying power for leaders, and it can be used as a justification for political or military campaigns. 

Islam’s following has grown from a handful of converts to one of the fastest growing religions in the world. Many politicians and strongmen in the Middle East have found that the best and most expedient way into the hearts and minds of their people is through their souls. Emphasizing religious ties can win leaders support and help them cement their power. In this way, religion can be utilized as a means of influencing the behavior of people.

Through religion, military campaigns can be transformed from territorial plunders to a holy war fought in the name of “faith.” The idea that God will be on the side of good can also be used as a supremely powerful stabilizing force during battle.

However, just as Islam can unite populations, it can also divide them. The cultural divide that already existed in the Middle East turned religious and political when Islam split into two halves.

Subject-of-Islam

The conflict between Sunni and Shi’a is the most consequential in the Middle East, because it is so profound.

Shi’a Islam, whose followers constitute a mere 15 percent of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims, was relegated to second-class status in the Arab world long ago. But in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran, he sought to export the ideology of his country’s Islamic revolution to Muslims everywhere, even to Sunni Muslims. This unlikely goal sought to counter centuries of blood-spattered encounters, prompted by deeply felt doctrinal differences. More importantly, this goal was designed to increase Iran’s influence outside of its borders.

Westerners are insensitive to the doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shi’a, viewing them as minor details rather than matters of cosmological importance.

The Sunni-Shi’a split dates back to the seventh-century dispute over who was meant to be the Prophet Muhammad’s rightful successor. Today’s Shi’a are descended from those who believed that Muhammad had chosen his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as his heir. This was a minority view in the days following the prophet’s death, and one of his lieutenants, Abu-Bakr, was made caliph and successor to Muhammad instead. The schism became permanent after the Battle of Karbala in 680, when Ali’s son Hussein was killed by the caliph’s soldiers.

Institutionalizing this divide left the Shi’a at a grave disadvantage, because the Shi’a did not have the same resources as the Sunnis.

Religion can provide individuals and organizations with agency. It is regularly argued that God’s justice is something that comes down to earth, if one knows how to read it. Those who purport to have this knowledge often gain incredible influence as they can become a center of authority.

With Islam being the dominant cultural force in the Middle East, it is a tool that is often used by revolutionaries who seek to challenge the status quo.

Osama Bin Laden, the architect behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was probably born in 1957, and he was number 17 of 57 children to a father who made a fortune in the Saudi Arabia construction industry. A young bin Laden got his penchant for radical Islamist ideology at his university, King Abdul-Aziz University, in Jeddah.

Bin Laden was influenced by the Sunni reformist movements of Deobandi and Salafi. The followers he gathered were bolstered by a genuine belief that he was reformulating the global order. In 1989, these followers became known as al Qaeda (translated as “The Base”) a multinational and stateless army who believe that the killing of civilians is religiously sanctioned, because of their goal to remake the world in their image.

Bin Laden’s religious rhetoric was designed to persuade Muslim contemporaries that he was a figure who ought to be thought of in biblical terms. He championed a complete break from all foreign influences inside Muslim countries as well as the creation of a new world-wide Islamic caliphate. To achieve these goals, bin Laden funneled money, arms and fighters from around the Arab world into regions where conflict and an increasing lawlessness enabled his growing organization to expand its control over territory. 

With each terrorist act, bin Laden became more influential. This is a man who already had money, but craved the ability to coerce whole populations into subjugation.

With bin Laden now dead, the al Qaeda network has thus far failed in its attempts to overthrow the governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and Syria. Perhaps most importantly, it has seen the majority of its monetary assets frozen. Al Qaeda routinely makes public appeals for money. This tells analysts that al Qaeda’s ability to dominate the direction of insurgencies within Asia and the Middle East is waning. But does this mean the network is currently weak? In a word, no. The al Qaeda network is perhaps more dangerous than it has ever been.

Because the appeal of its religiosity remains strong, new fighters are still joining al Qaeda’s ranks. But more significantly, al Qaeda’s financial and logistical problems have forced the network to strengthen its alliances with other groups such as the various Taliban franchises in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban, Balochi and Punjabi extremists, Saudi dissidents, Iraqi and Syrian insurgents, and unaffiliated groups who profit from drug smuggling. This dependence on alliances has caused the network to become as close operationally with outside groups as it has ever been. With these new ties, al Qaeda has also been able to bond ideologically and religiously with other groups like never before. This adds a whole new dimension to the insurgencies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria.

Al Qaeda has used the unifying force of religion to its advantage.

Groups unaffiliated with bin Laden, but touting the al Qaeda name, spring up daily. Like the name Taliban before it, al Qaeda is in danger of becoming a generic term for insurgents groups, and this could make al Qaeda more dangerous than it is now. As it currently stands, al Qaeda is focused on keeping the United States bogged down in conflicts with Muslim fighters. However, if al Qaeda as we know it today looses control of its ideological brand, any new al Qaeda that emerges could use its religious totems to become a more dangerous force. This is because, as Economic theory of Competition explains, competitors encourage efficiency. Competition for the socio-religious clout that comes from being associated with al Qaeda could encourage more ruthless, shocking, and devastating destruction. On the other hand, al Qaeda’s strengthening alliances with other groups could cause the network to loose its strict focus on U.S. interests. If this were to happen, al Qaeda’s still considerable resources could be unleashed on populations in new and unexpected ways – all in the name of religion.

The terror attacks of Sept. 11 caused millions of internet users to search online for their concerns and issues involving religion. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project (www.pewinternet.org), 23% of users used internet sources to get information about Islam. No doubt, these people wanted to educate themselves on what they were hearing in the media. And since that tragic time in American history, people have continued to use the web as an enormous sacrosanct library. Not only searching for Islam, but a myriad of religions. In doing so, they travel from site to site like virtual pilgrims, they read articles which claim intellectual authority, and they interact with strangers as they swap guidance. In this way, the internet has become a medium for religious communication. However, there is a danger of obtaining inaccurate information on the web. In a world where anyone can post, credentials have become increasingly important.

It is necessary to understand that all religions change over time. They are never static. Religions evolve through reform, revival, and novel developments. Religious understandings change and new beliefs emerge. They both influence and are influenced by the teachings of other cultures. In the end, religion is a cultural product. How it is understood and how it evolves is dependent upon cultural attitudes and cultural arguments. Is Islam a violent religion?  Emphatically, no. But, individuals, groups, and networks are attempting to use Islam to justify attacks and murders against those that disagree with them. These men and women have aligned themselves with a violent interpretation of Islam in order to draw media attention, encourage recruitment, and coerce populations.

Amid the political turmoil of the Middle East, Islam is often the only common denominator able to unite populations.

People that live in the West have created stereotypes for terrorists. While profiling those who could become a terrorist can be beneficial and even save lives, creating iconic clichés can lead to misinformation and dangerous assumptions.

Rome Burning

Misinformation about terrorism has become popular, in part, because people crave a simple answer for the reasons why a heinous crime has been committed. The truth is that terrorism has been used by many groups and organizations throughout history as a tactic to influence populations. Terrorism has never been an isolated problem, and it has never been limited to a single religion or ideology.

Talal Asad, Robert Pape, Alan Krueger, and Mark Juergensmeyer are just some of the academics that have been theorizing about terrorism post 9-11. Their work and the work of others like them is incredibly important if we are going to correctly comprehend the motives and actions of terrorist groups. 

Terrorists have to commit themselves to a cause in order to be galvanized into action, and individuals associated with terrorism tend to experience a progressive radicalization.Terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda have a command structure of well educated operatives who often take a complicated worldview for their causes, and al-Qaeda is not the only group like this.

If one looks systematically across a number of terrorist organizations and at various incidents of terrorism, patterns begin to emerge. It can be argued that those who become involved in terrorist organizations are often from middle class backgrounds with a high amount of education relative to the society that they come from. The vast majority of Palestinian suicide bombers have been college students, for example.

Education can be an important mechanism for radicalization as it is an amplifier for the adoption of views, and for a confidence in the assuredness of those views. Furthermore, research has found that terrorist organizations typically send better educated individuals on the more important missions, because the better educated tend to have better odds at succeeding to carry out an attack. The most common occupation for a terrorist in an engineer. 

There are many instances where groups like the Taliban have recruited uneducated youths and indoctrinated them with an extreme ideology (religio-political) to incite and encourage them; however, data on failed terrorist attacks show that often terrorists are extremely educated people who are just as likely to cite nationalistic, economic, and civil inducements as they are to espouse religious ones.

Terrorists who do identify primarily as religious tend to coalesce their religious beliefs with existing socio-cultural views influenced by their economic status, national identity, and political reality. Religious terrorists may seek out extreme religious ideologies because they are in line with their pre-existing socio-cultural worldview. This would indicate that religious extremism is not a catalyst in creating a terrorist as much as it is an approbation.

As I have said in past posts, a better understanding of what role religious extremism may play (and may not play) in terrorist actions could save future lives. However, it is important to not sensationalize religion’s influence on acts of terrorism.

So, who believes in a cause so zealously that they are willing to give up their lives for it? Terrorism is a political tactic that is used to spread fear, but, more importantly, it is intended to inflict harm on a random group of people in order to reach and influence a much wider audience. Terrorism often targets a country’s foreign policy.

What countries do terrorists come from, and what countries do they target with their attacks?

Countries that have a suppression of civil liberties (such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen) tend to be a producer of terrorists. However, Islamic countries are no more likely to produce a terrorist than non-Islamic countries. By and large, the most common signifier for a terrorist producing country is chronic political instability and widespread suppression.

Terrorist organizations tend to target wealthier countries. Globalism has interconnected the international system like never before, and wealthier countries have more influence and power in the international system because of their ability for unilateral decision making. Terrorist attacks are commonly perpetrated by groups that wish to force states into a multilateral decision making process.

failed-female-suicide-bomber-speaks-out

The phenomenon of suicide bombings is one of the terrorist acts most reported by the media (even though those kinds of attacks only make up around 5% of terrorist attacks overall). These are people that are willing to kill themselves in order to kill other people. Experts have been studying Suicidology in an effort to prevent suicides for the last thirty years, but it is an incredibly difficult challenge. Are there better ways of identifying people who are radicalized or may have mental instability, and, if so, could policies be implemented that could reduce the frequency of suicide attacks?

One of the consistent factors in suicide bombings is that the bombing itself is an act of contesting authority.

We face risk every day going about our regular lives. We are at risk for getting in a car crash, falling down a flight of stairs, and getting assaulted by someone on the street. We adequately cope with that level of risk, and it is important that we keep the risk of a terrorist attack in perspective.

Terrorism can only effect us if we let it. We cannot let past terrorist acts rule our lives or direct our policymaking. We need to think about the ways that we can reduce acts of terrorism, and then we need to continue on with our lives.

The Coming Challenges

January 1, 2013

A leading yet underreported issue that I have tried to bring attention to with this blog is that social change on a global level has apparently weakened the nation-state. I realize that this is a major claim with countless consequences that will take scholars decades to understand, but scholars such as Mark Juergensmeyer have been alleging this reality for years.

One of the main consequences that I associate with the weakening of the traditional state is the likewise weakening of secular politics. This weakening has created a “political” vacuum, and, within this vacuum, religious politics have had a worldwide revival. I believe this is due in no small part to the fact that the internet is changing religion on a global scale.

The Internet

The remarkable growth in computer technology has allowed for the electronic mediation of religion across the globe. The ramifications of this religio-electronic globalization are still being debated, but internet studies indicate that very little in the real world isn’t reproduced online, and very little of what is online seems to have no offline foundation. This means that people do online pretty much the same as they do offline, but they work within a global space instead of their traditional local spaces. The internet has removed boundaries and made borders irrelevant.

Not only is religious information disseminated online, but the internet is commonly used for evangelism and proselytization, which are standard religious activities. The internet is therefore used as a tool for the expansion of religious knowledge and also as a tool for religious practice. The scholar Douglas E. Cowan has pointed out that the internet is also an excellent venue for religious antagonism and countermovement (Cowan 2004).

What does this all mean? The internet and other tools of globalization work as equalizers. They give everyone an equal access to information and an equal ability to make their voices heard. The nation-state no longer has the agency it once had in disseminating and controlling what information its masses consume. There are blatant exceptions to this of course, such as China. And in no way am I suggesting that access to the internet is universal. A digital divide exists (Norris 2001) where there are internet haves and internet have-nots. Africa’s population, for example, still has glaringly few internet users.

As I’ve said, religious actors are filling the political vacuum created by modernity. What I mean by a political vacuum is that the traditional nation-state’s power is splintering as hundreds of ethnicities and countless communities seek autonomy. As the nation-state loses its ability to influence these groups, other entities such as religious actors are filling the void with their new-found ability to influence using mediums such as the internet. To analyze the beliefs and actions of these actors is an examination in both comparative politics as well as comparative religion. Many non-state actors are responding in a religious way to a political situation, and they are using the internet and other forms of media to transmit their responses.

The nature of these lightening-fast communications, being culturally influential yet also prolific and often quickly forgotten, makes much of a religious actor’s internet exchanges useful for only a particular period of time. Furthermore, the nature of such communication creates the problem that there is so much information to sift through, that critical data is being overlooked and ultimately lost to scholars and analysts alike.

Students of both religious studies and political science will have to grapple with the new reality that modernity and globalization are creating. But one will not be able to study either of these disciplines without also employing the other. The nation-state has weakened to an unprecedented level. The implications for future conflicts and religious inspired terrorism are daunting.

I’ll attempt to cover some of these implications in future posts.

Why is religion an important component of international security analysis?

In order to answer this question, we need to inspect  what exactly we mean by “security analysis.” The topic of security has been one of the primary interests in the study of international relations for the past 60 years. The political connotations for security were colossal during this time as is evidenced by how the Cold War was shaped by the subject of security: Two superpowers and their allies contested spaces, communities, and ideologies, and these contested issues had ramifications for war and peace, a balance of power, an arms race, and arms control.

As the Cold War evolved, security on an international level became a dominant focus. The most accepted concept of international security during this time was called realist hegemony where security experts thought that the international level would be the most stable when a single nation, or hegemon, was in power. However, once the Cold War ended and the United States was left as the solitary superpower, it became evident that our concepts of international security were inadequate.

Events like September 11th showcased that a broader approach to security analysis was needed, because the traditional concepts ignored non-state actors and the issues that were important to them.  Understanding security no longer means understanding a state’s military strength against the military power of other states. While the state remains important in the contemporary world, a state is ultimately limited by its boundaries or the boundaries of its allies. Non-state actors, on the other hand, have no such limitations. The nature of the “enemy” has changed; consequently, the nature of international conflict is understood differently.

Policewomen in Pakistan

International security is now understood as a complex arrangement of political, economic, and social factors under which military power can accomplish only limited security objectives.

Religion is an important component of the social factors that affect international security. Religion can both prevent and provoke various forms of conflict, and religious factors are related to ethnic group identity, territory, politics, language, and economics. Religious factors are therefore an essential element for effective conflict management as well as an important component in security analysis.

Read the rest of this entry »

A schoolmate of mine from undergrad commented to me that she believes what I’m doing here on this site is as kind of public theology. She said “anytime that you are considering questions of community and culture, with a lens on religion, you are asking and answering God questions….therefore, theology.” This sort of misconception is common, because most people do not understand what a person in the field of Religious Studies does. Therefore, it is the fate of those in my field to dispel such perceptions one person at a time.

To me, a critical difference between a religious scholar (theologian) and a scholar of religion (secular academic) is an interest or disinterest in supernatural forces (God, angels, devils, etc…). Theologians care about the supernatural and wish to understand the intentions of a supernatural force (God) that they worship. However, secular scholars, such as myself, have no interest in understanding the supernatural. Secular scholars in the field of Religious Studies are instead interested in the natural (human) intentions and behavior: specifically of those who would be categorized as ‘religious believers.’ Read the rest of this entry »

With Iran continuing to dominate international news media, I thought it an important exercise to distinguish Iran from other Middle Eastern countries. 

Because of the representations of the Middle East that the U.S. is exposed to through various forms of mass media, Americans hold many stereotypes about the region: lavish sheiks, militant clerics, harems, cruel punishments, oil, and totalitarianism represent the Arab portion. The Israelis are viewed as being heroic, outnumbered, and tough. Yet, accurate representations of non-Arab countries like Iran often get lost due to the tendency of Americans to confuse and oversimplify cultural representations. 

Read the rest of this entry »

Not Theology

August 27, 2009

The terror attacks of September 11 caused millions of internet users to search online for their concerns and issues involving religion. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project (www.pewinternet.org), 23% of users used internet sources to get information about Islam. No doubt, these people wanted to educate themselves on what they were hearing in the media. And since that tragic time in American history, people have continued to use the web as an enormous sacrosanct library. Not only searching for Islam, but a myriad of religions. In doing so, they travel from site to site like virtual pilgrims, they read articles which claim intellectual authority, and they interact with strangers as they swap guidance. In this way, the internet has become a medium for religious communication. However, there is a danger of obtaining inaccurate information on the web. In a world where anyone can post, credentials have become increasingly important. 

Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: