For people in the West it is hard to understand why perfectly normal teen-agers or young adults who grew up in England, Germany or the US would leave such privileged lives and places to travel to what seems a repressive backwater filled with harshness and cruelty. They exchange comfortable lives for danger, combat and an uncertain future (people asked some of the same questions with regard to Waco). What could possibly be so attractive about ISIS?
One has to understand the power of eschatology, a compelling vision of the future. The eschatology of ISIS is grounded in the Qur’an and the Hadith, the normative sources of truth in popular Islam. In a sense, ISIS is almost like a “Back to the Bible” movement in Christianity. People are called to exchange modern values for a vision based on the original sources of Islam. The goal of ISIS is the re-establishment of the caliphate, the form of government that existed in the early centuries of Islam. The caliphate is somewhat like what scholars of the Bible call a theocracy, when a nation is ruled directly by God through a judge or a king (see the biblical books from Joshua through 2 Chronicles). The idea of the caliphate is similar to what modern-day Israel would be like if it consistently implemented and enforced the laws of Moses today.
In order to establish a caliphate, you need a trans-national entity (ISIS only declared a caliphate after expanding its territory out of Syria and into Iraq, thus evaporating the long-standing border between the two) that fully implements islamic law (Sharia). And the ruler of that entity must be an adult male of Qurayshi decent (the tribe of Muhammad) and a person who exhibits morality and integrity. The Turkish Empire declared itself a caliphate from the 14th through the 19th Centuries, but it never truly applied islamic law, so purists today don’t consider the Ottoman Empire a true caliphate. Followers of ISIS believe that they have a true caliph in the man who calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Why is Sharia (islamic law) so attractive to many Muslims? For one thing, it is guidance for a whole way of life. It offers clarity in how to live and how to behave, and such clarity is very attractive to some personalities. More than this, life under Sharia is portrayed as a secure existence. All citizens of the Islamic State get free housing, clothing, food and medical care. In other words, all the basic human needs (1 Tim 6:6-9) are taken care of, no questions asked. The health care include full vision and dental care at no cost. If a citizen of the Islamic State requires specialty care in Turkey or Europe, that is fully paid as well. Those who wish to are free to seek riches through business or employment, but basic needs are cared for regardless.
The goal of the Islamic State is to establish a spiritually pure community. One way to accomplish that is medieval-style punishments, which provide a strong motivation to toe the line. Included in the ISIS theocracy is execution or enslavement for unbelievers. Where things get really dicey is that for ISIS most Muslims are counted as unbelievers, hence the shocking cruelties toward captured people of nearly all backgrounds. Nevertheless, the sense of spiritual certainty is very attractive to some personality types (as witnessed at Waco), in spite of the abuse that often comes with it.
The core of ISIS’ attraction to many muslim youth is its vision of the “apocalypse.” According to ISIS, the Islamic State is written into God’s script for the end-time. According to the scenario, there will be 12 legitimate caliphs in the course of islamic history. Baghdadi is considered the 8th in this line. The goal is to establish a trans-national state (combining at least two currently accepted nations). For this two work geographically, two “failed states” (where central authority has broken down or disintegrated, as in Somalia) need to be located next to each other. Syria and Iraq now qualify.
For ISIS eschatology, the establishment of the Islamic State will draw out the opposition of “Rome” (in the 7th Century that was the Byzantine Empire). The armies of “Rome” (representing Europe and the USA today) will mass in northern Syria. There will be a great battle in the region of Dabiq (NW Syria, the islamic equivalent of the biblical Megiddo). In that battle the Islamic State will be victorious. The caliphate will expand, capturing Istanbul and Jerusalem. At that point the Antichrist (called Masih ad-Dajjal in Arabic, or “false [dajjal] Messiah”) will arise, probably in eastern Iran. His forces will destroy vast numbers of Islamic State fighters. Dajjal will corner the last 5000 ISIS fighters in Jerusalem. At that point Jesus, the true Messiah, will return to earth, kill Dajjal and lead the Islamic State to the final victory.
In this kind of scenario, defeats may only encourage people to join ISIS because they will be fulfillments of the prophecy. So military solutions for defeating ISIS as an ideology have their limitations. ISIS is a theology that thrives on defeat. Every setback is confirmation that the scenario is true and will be fully fulfilled at the end. In fact, ISIS soldiers were excited recently when they heard reports that American soldiers had been spotted in a battle. They fully expect a coalition of Americans and Europeans to attack them. That will be a sign to them that the battle of Dabiq is at hand. It would likely draw even more fighters to ISIS from around the world.
So defeating ISIS through traditional political or military strategies may not work. The scenario would only be undermined if ISIS was defeated by Turks, Jordanians and Iraqis. Al Qaeda never appealed to muslims generally the way ISIS has. It has always hidden in the shadows. The power of ISIS lies in its eschatological vision combined with the seizure of territory. The ISIS idea can only be defeated by an equally compelling islamic vision. I will explore what that vision might be like in the concluding blog(s) of this series.