Hell on Earth: A Political Theory of Holy War
That extremist fringes in the West and Middle East are lurching toward a religious war is an inconvenient fact that many have been slow to wake to. It seems downright Medieval that the news cycle is dominated by Islamist jihad and the increasing desire among the Christian right in America for a crusade. But is holy war truly Medieval? Is it attached to any particular time period? Or is it a result of grievance and opportunity, which springs from a fetid petri dish of economic, political and social fragmentation?
In a time and place of decaying power structures, economic collapse and social upheaval, people look for strong leadership that promises certainty. The more that old institutions of power have decayed, the harder it is for a new leader to establish control. Thus, without structures on which to build power, violence becomes the most expedient way to forge control. In a time of collapse, the choices are often stark: chaos and stagnation, or control under the most ruthless authoritarians. To keep power, the despot needs legitimacy, a narrative of the rightness of his authority. Religious texts, with their hundreds of pages of contradictory edicts and philosophies, contain both calls to peace and calls to violence. Their appeal to divine, unquestionable authority, provides a leader with a powerful propaganda tool. It is incumbent upon the theocratic minions to convince the worshipful masses that the violent passages are the correct ones, and the leader who cobbles together a domain through bloodshed is doing holy work.
Religions are among the most broad, and diverse sources of identity. Christianity and Islam are the largest religions in the world, with 2.2 billion Christians and 1.6 billion Muslims. Large religions cut across national, racial and geographic boundaries. Thus, a political leader seeking to build a new tribe of followers, has a potentially extremely powerful tool in couching his propaganda in religion. This is why, for example, the highly canny dictator Vladimir Putin, seeks to fuse his political legitimacy with the Eastern Orthodox Church. The despot using holy war as a tool, needs to widen the appeal of religious violence as much as possible, to cobble together a tribe of believers in holy war, and to silence the pacifists within the religion.
ISIS’s magazine, Dabiq, [link contains extremely violent images] rails against “crusader armies” and “murtadd” apostates in equal measure. One of its feature articles is entitled “Islam is the Religion of the Sword, Not Pacifism.” It accuses Muslim missionaries in the West of committing heresy by trying to soften Islam’s image. It claims to excommunicate a large number of Muslims who denounce violence. The message is clear, ISIS’s ideology draws on the violent aspects of Islamic texts, and it claims that this is the only valid version of Islam.
Political leadership seeking to legitimize violence can use religion to rally people who share a religious identity into sharing an identity of violence. The next step is to intimidate, threaten, attack and murder the pacifists within the religion into silence. It is worth remembering that a Hindu nationalist assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for seeking peace with the Muslims. At his trial, the assassin claimed that, by seeking peace, Gandhi had,
“brought rack and ruin and destruction to millions of Hindus.”
Today, Hindu nationalists seek to rehabilitate the image of Gandhi’s murderer, as tensions continue between India and Pakistan over the future of Kashmir and other issues. Politicians on both sides of the conflict who seek to negotiate for peace are often torn down by extremists, making negotiation and peace nearly impossible. Thus, the vacuum created by the British Empire’s withdrawal from the subcontinent, and the religiously fueled partition and stalemate, become a permanent feature of Indian and Pakistani society, because religious violence is a powerful political identity.
As Israel bombed Gaza in July, 2014, Israeli peace protesters demonstrated against the bombing. A “gang” of other Israelis showed up to intimidate them, and the police abandoned them. The pro-bombing demonstrators attacked the peace protesters. Even as the peace protesters ran away, the attackers chased them, and seriously injured several. One peace protester said,
“…these are the same gangs, among them masked men who rioted in Jerusalem just a week and a half ago, attacking Arabs.”
Violence became a part of the Jewish identity of those attacking the pacifist Jews. Even though the vast majority of religious believers may believe steadfastly in peace, a small, determined minority, feeding on political chaos, can fuse violence with religion to create a new identity of religious violence. They seek war with the pacifists in their own religion as much as with the believers of the enemy group.
Once that identity of religious violence is forged, the tribe of religious fighters sets out to carve a new political paradigm. If it can overcome the forces arrayed against it, the holy warrior tribe morphs from rebellion to imperialism. If it is defeated, it will retreat back to rebellion. An excellent example of this is the Taliban, which began when Pakistani intelligence armed jihadists, supported by Saudi Arabia and the US, as a rebellion against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. After the Soviets withdrew, the Taliban conquered much of Afghanistan, establishing a mini theocratic state within the borders of Afghanistan. It was resisted by a coalition of Afghans, known as the Northern Alliance, until the US attacked following 9/11. The Taliban then regressed back to a rebellion, this time, against US forces.
Once the holy warriors have carved out their fiefdom, they need to imbue the very real estate itself with divine significance. This inspires their fighters to defend the ground relentlessly, and sets up the narrative that, if they lose any terrain, they will fight forever to reclaim it. The foremost example of geography which, for ages, people have fought and died for is, of course, Jerusalem. All three Abrahamic religions consider it a sacred place, and all have fought for it at one time or another. Kashmir has taken on religious significance in the India/Pakistan conflict. Thailand and Cambodia, fellow travelers of Theravada Buddhism, have, for decades, fought numerous skirmishes over control of the heights surrounding Preah Vihear temple on their mutual border. The Nazis, who wrapped their ideology in pseudo-religious messianic Christian iconography, propagandized relentlessly about ‘cleansing the Fatherland’ in their persecution of the Jews.
The title of Dabiq, ISIS’s propaganda magazine, comes from a prophecy that the ‘Crusaders’ of ‘Rome’ will return to the Levant and their forces will be burned at the small town of Dabiq in northwest Syria. This may explain why they burned the Jordanian pilot, possibly in or near Dabiq, as a symbol of what they plan to do to the entire ‘crusader’ army. Incidentally, ISIS holds this town, and some of the heaviest fighting it has engaged in was recently against the Kurds in Kobani, near Dabiq, just south of Turkey. According to Graeme Wood’s extensive analysis of ISIS’s goals, Turkey would do as a surrogate for Rome, since the Eastern Roman Empire under Constantinople, now Istanbul, survived the collapse of the Western Roman Empire by a thousand years. So ISIS may have been trying to break through the Kurds to attack Turkey. This may also explain why ISIS Twitter accounts recently threatened to come to Rome, (and Italians responded with travel advice). But ISIS’s propaganda makes it clear that it considers America the leader of the ‘Crusader-Zionist coalition.’ ISIS considers Dabiq prophetic territory, and considers Rome, the place, or the idea, as sacred to the infidel ‘crusaders.’
Once it gains control of territory, the holy warriors must extirpate the sins of the people under its control. For various ‘crimes,’ ISIS has chopped off limbs, crucified people, burned people alive, stoned people, and thrown people off buildings. This serves several purposes. First, it terrorizes its subjects and potential enemies. The horror of its power is designed to shock the senses into pudding, to bludgeon psychological resistance, and pave the way for its authority in the minds of subjects and rivals. Second, it demonstrates its purity of devotion to its brutal ideology. This serves to attract more holy warriors to the cause. Third, it seeks to goad foreign powers into attacking it. What seemingly sets ISIS apart from the Taliban, or the Catholic-backed Hutu militias who slaughtered the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, is that ISIS wants to be attacked by a major power.
ISIS seeks more than conquest and control of its domain. It seeks war with the ‘crusaders’ of ‘Rome.’ President George W. Bush sought war with Iraq after 9/11. He lied us into that war. The ineptitude of his strategy created the power vacuum on which ISIS thrives. Images of American brutality, such as at Abu Ghraib prison, created the rallying call for jihadists. Bush, a born-again evangelist Christian, referred to the War on Terror as a “crusade” at least three times, and did so after advisers and European leaders begged him to stop. Eventually, the Bush who everyone remembers saying that terrorists corrupted a religion of peace, took over.
It was in the toxic stew of Bush’s chaotic occupation of Iraq that a minor cleric named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi met low level jihadists at Camp Bucca, in US detention. They were eventually released, and began to form the nucleus of ISIS. In detention, and then as insurgents, they saw the failing neocon strategy sowing chaos, the vulnerability of American forces in incredibly hostile cultural terrain, and the rallying potential for jihad of the presence of American troops. And they exploited it. In the minds of the decision-makers of ISIS, apparently, nothing lends them legitimacy more than attacking American soldiers directly, in Arab land. Even if an American invasion cost them dearly, it would be worth it for the chance to carry the undisputed flag of global jihad, and to try to induce rapture by burning the ‘crusader’ armies at Dabiq.
The 12 years of sanctions, the US invasion and violently challenged occupation of Iraq; the Maliki government’s cronyism, insistence on Shia domination, and weak military; and the US withdrawal from Iraq, created one of the most perfect power vacuums in modern times. The US destroyed Iraq utterly, and could not rebuild it. All around its fringes, other powers began seeping in. Iran turned the Iraqi government into a virtual puppet, the Kurds began securing their own domain. As the Syrian civil war exploded, ISIS exploited a contiguous political vacuum stretching from northwest Syria to central Iraq.
The societal destruction of Iraq and much of Syria are key to the rise of ISIS. If we imagine a highly developed, mostly secular, democratic and prosperous society, it’s difficult to imagine how a totalitarian could take over. If someone aggressively rose through the ranks of, say, the bureaucracy of a national universal healthcare system, they could not then parlay that into becoming a fascist overlord. Devoutness is partly cultural, but partly economic. When people have little to hope for in the real world, they turn to the hope that religion promises in the hereafter. And when they are jobless, their lives are hopeless, they are hounded by despots or political chaos, and religion is used politically to validate violence, there is an allure in belonging to something that promises loot, glory, power and rewards in the next life. The more that political space is filled by rational institutions that require educated people to run them with analysis and clearheaded understanding of society and science, the more that people have jobs and some semblance of political enfranchisement, the more stable, just and peaceful society generally will be. The less that a society features these things, the more unstable, and unjust it is likely to become. The witch-burning Christianity of the Medieval Era didn’t mellow out with age. It was contained by a rising economic tide, which created secular institutions, which took over society. Destroying the secular institutions of a despot, even one as abhorrent as Saddam Hussein, opens a vacuum for chaos, and holy conquest and divine torment.
Someone may be born with a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. If he grows up in an abusive home, the likelihood that he will become an alcoholic increases. But if he grows up in a loving family, and has a successful career and a satisfying marriage, he is less likely to actually become an alcoholic. In the same way that context matters for individuals, it also matters for society and ideological, political and religious movements. In this way, the Christopher Hitchens and George Galloway debate of the last decade, or the more recent Sam Harris and Reza Aslan debate, is largely moot. Much of what each of them have argued has some truth to it. The Sykes-Picot partition of the Middle East, (or what Jeb Bush referred to as “the 1915 breakout,” which makes him go “Holy schnikes!”) nearly a century of meddling and supporting dictatorships, created the underdeveloped, repressive environments in which Islamism thrives. Similarly, Naziism grew out of the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty, and the Depression. Without Islamism, September 11th, 2001 might have been a normal Tuesday that no one would remember. But without great powers jockeying for influence in Afghanistan in the 1980s, there may not have been ascendant Islamism in the first place.
It is my pipe dream that the rise of ISIS will convince the American foreign policy establishment once and for all that inducing societal collapse is asking for epic blowback. When we say we wish to overthrow a dictator, we are saying that we wish for the worst possible kinds of people to take over afterwards.
Ultimately, holy war is an excuse to throw the rules of basic civility out the window. When Bush called for a crusade, but then backtracked, he meant it in the sense that he wanted to break all the rules. He wanted to spy on Americans, invade a country that had nothing to do with the attack, torture and indefinitely detain suspected combatants. When ISIS calls for jihad, they mean that they want to torture and murder thousands of people to exert control. They seek war, bloodshed and fire for its own sake. In both cases, human rights and international law are sacrificed at the altar of divine struggle.
This is why the Arab states must destroy ISIS with American air support. The Arabs, Turks and Kurds must fill this power vacuum and crush the Islamists clinically, and close this gaping wound that seeps religious extremism. The US can’t do it. The very presence of our soldiers would greatly exacerbate the situation.
“…they’re fighting for their God, and all I can say is the person who has God on their side is going to win this,”