- - Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Much debate has raged recently concerning the motives, nature and aims of the Islamic State (IS) group, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Broadly, two viewpoints have emerged: The first sees the IS as a medieval phenomenon, very much like many other Islamist movements, only worse. According to this view, recent actions by the IS can be traced back to the Dark Ages. The second view considers the group to have much more in common with modern totalitarian ideologies and governments, such as Lenin’s Bolsheviks in Russia or Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, partly because the IS has proved itself adept at the use of modern techniques and technology in furtherance of its cause.

The truth of the matter is that IS is a product of both past (in its content) and present (in its techniques, e.g. its clever use of social media). Yet this past is not medieval times; those were dark periods for Christianity. By contrast, Islam was experiencing its golden era at that time by combining great advances in various fields of knowledge with tolerance toward ethnicities, religions and sects. Instead, the past that the IS has brought over to the present is an earlier one, that of Islam in its infancy. Many of the notorious practices in the IS repertoire were characteristic of that time, including: giving Christians and Jews the choice between converting to Islam, paying the jizya (a form of poll tax), or being killed; offering other people of other religious beliefs the choice between conversion to Islam or death only (the jizya was not applicable to adherents of those “unrecognized” religions); appropriation of a defeated enemy’s property and the enslavement of their families; rape of the womenfolk of that enemy; destruction of temples and shrines that were seen as heretical; the seizure of people and merchandise in frequent raids and their return to their families or owners in exchange for huge sums of money; and so on.

To be sure, many of those acts had been committed by non-Muslims too; the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is full of them. But the difference here is that today’s Jews and Christians do not practice them any longer. That is mainly because the rough edges of both Christianity and Judaism have been greatly softened by the likes of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment; Islam’s have not been.

What the bulk of Islamists, and even more so the IS, have done in contemporary times is decontextualize Islam; that is to say, they regard God and his words as absolute and, therefore, the very early form of Islam to be immune to changes in time and place. Consequently, this means that for them, what was true of Islam 14 centuries ago is true now, and what was true of the Arabian Peninsula is true of the whole world. It follows that what radicals such as the IS have been doing lately is considered by them to be permissible and even enjoined by God and his laws.

The reason that what was known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — which initially focused on building an Islamic state in that area — has now become simply the Islamic State (IS) is that its intended boundaries are now unlimited. This is compatible with the declared aim of the original conception of jihad in the early years of Islam: to convert the whole world to Islam and ensure the permanent supremacy of the word of Allah. For this reason, Western countries should not lull themselves into thinking that the ultimate goals of the IS are confined to Muslim countries; those are just the launching pad.

In response to such a likely threat to its national security, the U.S. must formulate a clear, coherent, multi-faceted strategy in order to defeat the IS once and for all. Over the past few weeks there have been positive, albeit belated, steps taken in that direction: Enlisting the support of Iraqi Kurds, encouraging the replacement of former Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian government with one that is potentially more inclusive and providing aerial support to America’s partners on the ground in Iraq have all been of significant help in containing and rolling back the IS group’s dangerous advances. However, it is not enough.

In order to decisively defeat the IS, the U.S. ought to do its utmost to enlist the help of Iraq’s Sunnis, whom it had disastrously let down years earlier following their crucial contribution to the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq. Furthermore, the U.S. should build an international coalition against the IS, including seeking the military assistance of NATO, as well as securing the political support of the United Nations, so that its efforts may be more effective and legitimate, something which may allay some of the U.S. public’s fears about U.S. engagement in another Middle Eastern war. Apart from using political and military means, the U.S. should also apply other methods to undermine the IS, such as disrupting its economic activities, funding and black marketeering, as well as combatting its skillful use of the social media.

Various Western governments have already expressed justifiable concern that their citizens who have fought for the IS may one day come back to wreak havoc in their own countries. This is certainly a real danger; the IS has already been involved in carrying out suicide bombings in areas of Iraq which have been beyond its reach, such as Baghdad. There is no reason to believe they may not do the same in Western countries, above all the U.S. Given the group’s appeal to Western, including American, recruits, it is imperative that the U.S. utilize all of its intelligence capabilities to monitor, disrupt and reverse the IS’ recruitment activities, with special emphasis on individuals who have shown signs of promoting jihad, whether verbally or in writing, and/or whose foreign travel itinerary suspiciously includes certain parts of the Middle East.

The IS has already shown itself to be more extremist than even al Qaeda. The conflict with it is a zero-sum situation, and the danger it poses to civilization is most lethal. The U.S. cannot afford to downplay it.

Born in Libya, Husam Dughman is a Muslim scholar, political scientist and activist residing in the United States. He is the author of the book “Tete-a-tete with Muhammad.” www.husamdughman.com.

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