Though recent history has seen the emergence of many terrorist organizations, there has never been a group like the Islamic State. The now-infamous organization is feared for its ruthless expansionism, shocking brutality, and apparent willingness to pay any cost to achieve its goals. Experts Dr. Bernard Haykel and Dr. William McCants shed light on the nature of the militant group by detailing its past trajectory and ideological motives. In the process, the scholars explain Isis’s place in the complex dynamics of the Muslim world and answer difficult and important questions: is the Islamic State a truly religious organization? Why does it act without concern for the opinions of the Muslim population it wants to govern? Readers of this illuminating lecture will walk away with a deeper understanding of the terrorist group as well as the measures necessary to destroy it.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Well, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to our 26th Faith Angle Forum. This morning’s discussion could not be, as you well know, more topical. It’s in the news every day, and we have two of the leading experts in the world on the subject of the Islamic State and ISIS, and we’re delighted that they could join us.
Going first will be Professor Bernard Haykel, who, as you know, is at Princeton University. And some of you have read his work, you’ve seen him quoted. Everyone I’ve talked to has said he is the leading authority on this subject in the country.
And so, Professor Haykel, we’re delighted you’re here.
His colleague, Will McCants, I found out when I invited him, did his doctorate at Princeton under Professor Haykel. They’ve assured me they both will not say the same thing this morning, that they’re going to take a different slice of this.
And so, Professor Haykel, thank you, sir, for joining us, and we look forward to hearing from you.
BERNARD HAYKEL: Thank you. Thank you very much. It’s a real pleasure and honor to be here today. Thank you, Michael.
Will actually did take a course with me, and I will happily claim him as my student, but he actually was not my advisee, but it would have been an honor to have had him. He is truly exceptional.
So I am going to talk to you today about the Islamic State, and this is a very complex and dynamic phenomenon and movement, very difficult to capture simply by focusing on religion and theology or on just politics and economics and sociology.
You know, in the social sciences, there’s a holy trinity, especially in the Western social sciences, there’s a holy trinity that tries to explain all social phenomena through the lens of one of three analytical categories: race, class, and gender. Religion is always a very problematic category because, you know, we don’t really know what’s in people’s heads and how they’re motivated by what’s in their head, so it’s this outlier analytically. And I often see many colleagues who want to push very hard against the idea that ISIS is a religious movement or that Islam has anything to do with the Islamic State, and you will have gotten some of this from the controversy that arose around the article that our friend here produced ‑‑ indeed Graeme Wood, yes, in The Atlantic ‑‑ about whether this movement is or is not Islamic.
Now, someone like President Obama, who is a politician, has every right to make a determination that it’s not in the interest of the United States to call ISIS an Islamic movement or to associate it in any way with the religion of Islam, which, after all, is a 1,400-year-old tradition, it’s a very rich civilization, it’s a complex phenomenon, and the fear that it would somehow be reduced to the Islamic State, or ISIS, is a legitimate one.
Now, having said that, though, if you look at the production, the cultural production, the intellectual production, the legal and theological production of ISIS, which is plentiful on the Web, there is no question that this is a movement that is drawing on a very particular strain or trend within the Islamic intellectual history, legal history, theological history. It has particular obsessions with certain theological concepts, and, of course, it’s presenting itself as an heir to the “true” version, it presents itself as an heir to the “true” version, of Islam, which is a kind of projection backwards onto what true Islam was, by people who are living with us today, by moderns.
And as a scholar, unlike President Obama, my job is really to flesh out what this movement is about. How is it that they draw on the Islamic intellectual heritage? Why are they selective in their citations? Why do they choose one scholar and not another, one tradition and not another, one interpretation and not another?
And by looking at it that way, in a scholarly way, there’s no question that this is a religious phenomenon that would not have existed without politics and history and sociological developments, but it is a religious phenomenon, it’s a religious phenomenon that sees itself as one, as a religious movement, and its draw and its attraction is principally because of its religion, because of its ideology of religion.
So having said that, what is the theology? What is this movement about?
So we know a lot about it because of what it produces, and most of what it produces is on the Web. It’s freely available. They’re not shy about expressing themselves, and they’re quite prolific. And whilst many of the followers or most of the followers are not learned scholars, they do have seriously learned people in the movement who are very knowledgeable of the Islamic tradition and who are themselves jurists and theologians.
This movement traces its origins to something called Salafism, otherwise known as Wahhabism in the West, and this is a strict constructionist, originalist, interpretation of the texts of ‑‑ the core texts of Islam. It’s a Sunni movement, it’s not a Shiite movement, and so it’s within the broader majority of Muslims. It has throughout history been minoritarian numerically but intellectually very powerful, just like Antonin Scalia is in the minority as an originalist but is extremely powerful intellectually and influential. Okay?
And they’re not necessarily all violent. In fact, most Salafis are non-violent, they’re political quietists, when it comes to politics, but they have a muscular and robust vision of their religion, and they target other Muslims principally. They think of themselves as reformists, they want to see Islam reformed, and they see the reform as necessary because of an accumulation of historical practices and beliefs by other Muslims who have deviated from the true message of the faith. They have a word for this, which is “bid’a,” or “reprehensible innovation.” “Bid’a” is an Arabic word. So they label things they don’t like as reprehensible innovations and they claim that other Muslims have appropriated or acquired or believed, whether wittingly or unwittingly, these innovations, and in so doing, have corrupted the true message of the faith. It’s kind of similar to the way many Muslims regard Christians and Jews as having had an original true message but over time has been corrupted for a variety of reasons so that what Christians and Jews today believe is not the true message that they had originally received.
So the Salafis make the same sort of intellectual move but towards other Muslims, and their ire is directed principally at other Muslims and in particular at Shiites, who are 15 percent of world Muslims. They have some serious differences with them that are theological, and theological differences in Islam are unbridgeable, unlike legal differences, where you can have a legitimate difference of opinion. On matters of core theology, you cannot have a legitimate difference of opinion. So once you do have a difference of opinion on theology, you then have to exclude the other person from the community of faith, and that’s how Salafis regard Shias, or the Shiites, as having theologically a set of principles that are not Islamic and that therefore exclude them from the faith of Islam.
The other target of attack of the Salafis are the Sufis. These are the so-called mystics of Islam. They also dislike them because of some of their beliefs, and most particularly the aspect of Sufism that veers into what is called antinomianism, abandoning the law, thinking that your own personal relationship with God as a mystic or with a leading mystic, as an adept, is more important than punctilious adherence to the law. And so they also vilify Sufis and they typically vilify these antinomian aspects of Sufism like visiting graves of saints, asking of dead saints for intercession with God. And the Salafis are willing to engage, have been willing to engage, in violence against both Shias and Sufis.
In modern times they have also developed a particular dislike ‑‑ Salafis have developed a particular dislike for what I label “traditionalist Muslims,” people who adhere to a more traditional understanding of the faith, in particular to the four established schools of Sunni law and the traditional theological creeds, such as Asharism. I don’t want to get into the weeds here because I might lose you, but I would like to underscore here that this is a group that is out to constantly engage in border defense of what they consider to be the community of believers against this perpetual attack from “outsiders”, outsiders being Muslim outsiders principally, who have corrupted the faith and who are trying to further corrupt the faith, ultimately with the aim of destroying Islam.
So Salafis see themselves as reformers who are actually trying to save Islam from destruction. Right. So this in a nutshell is what Salafism is about. There are some principles that they also adhere to. For instance, they believe in a particular doctrine of showing loyalty to fellow believers and hatred to unbelievers. So this is a doctrine of activism where you deliberately show enmity towards the enemies. And it’s on the basis of such doctrines that Salafism has become politicized in the modern world, politicized in a way that we would recognize as political, and this is largely under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is not a Salafi movement but a reformist movement that started in Egypt against British imperialism that had a political agenda, not a theological agenda, but an agenda that was rooted in empowering Muslims politically by capturing the state. The coming together of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology of wanting to capture the state, engaging directly in politics, sometimes through direct action, with the theological Puritanism of the Salafis, these two movements came together in the ’70s and then into the ’80s and ’90s. Al Qaeda is a good representation of the confluence of these two intellectual, theological, and political streams, and ISIS is a branch that has split off from Al Qaeda. I’ll get into that a bit, but I want also Will to give you some more specifics on this.
So now let me come back to the Salafis who are engaged in direct action. We call them Jihadi-Salafis. They’re people who argue that jihad, or armed struggle, is really the one principle that has been forgotten by traditional Muslims and that you have to put front and center this doctrine of violent armed struggle because it is what made Islam great in the past and it is the only thing that will make Islam great again.
This, of course, underlines an issue that obsesses Salafi-Jihadis, and that is, how do you regain power? How do Muslims, who were once the dominant group in the world, and for at least three or four centuries after the rise of Islam, how do they reverse the decline that is so obvious in let’s say the last three or four hundred years, but more specifically since 1800 and the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt?
This reversal of the fate of Muslims from a humiliated, disempowered faith community to one that goes back to controlling and dominating the world, which is after all what God promised them in the Quran, how do you do that? And the Salafi-Jihadi answer is you need to bring the doctrine of violence back, you need to make it central to the faith.
Now, there are differences about, “How do you engage in violence?” between different Jihadi groups. Some say you must only target the state, the unbelieving state, that is led by an apostate who claims to be a Muslim, let’s say for example the Saudi royal family. Others say, no, you must actually attack the superpower that is promoting and keeping these states in power, these local nominally Muslim apostate states in power, i.e., the superpower being the United States. This is the famous idea of attacking the far enemy versus the near enemy, which is one of the hallmarks of Al Qaeda’s ideology, the idea being that if you attack the United States like they did on 9/11, this would provoke a reaction that would ultimately radicalize Muslims, and the radicalization of Muslims would topple the local apostate regimes and bring about the revolution.
Another strain of the Jihadis ‑‑ and this is the one that ISIS belongs to ‑‑ says, no, just attacking America or attacking the apostate regime is not enough; what you really need to do is to foment a civil war between Sunnis and Shias, in particular, in the crucible that Iraq represents today. If you foment a civil war between Shias and Sunnis, then you can actually radicalize the Muslim Sunnis into ultimately rallying to the cause of the Islamic State, which is ISIS.
So there has been some debate lately about the specifically Islamic aspects of ISIS, following on from Graeme’s article. There was an article in Der
Spiegel, for example, that relates to an obsession I see of wanting to prove that ISIS is not Islamic, it has nothing to do with Islam. The Der Spiegel article makes the case that ISIS is really Baathist, that is the former secular nationalist fascist ideology of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and that it’s really these former Baathist officers who are in charge of the Islamic State, and it really is therefore a Baathist project, not an Islamic project. They want to evacuate the religion from the movement. Der Spiegel’s article made big headlines. This article flies in the face of a ton of documentary evidence that tells us that the Islamic State in Iraq was an Al Qaeda project from at least 2004.
So what happened after the September 11th attacks is that the United States took on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and defeated it. In so doing, Al Qaeda lost its principal territorial base, its haven, in which it could organize, train, recruit, et cetera. One of Al Qaeda’s core commanders, a man called Sayf al-Adl, sent Zarqawi, who had a very complicated relationship with Al Qaeda’s central leadership ‑‑ this is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is a Jordanian thug and a brute, who was in Afghanistan, in Herat — in the west of the country ‑‑ and he was sent through Iran to go to Iraq to establish a new base for Al Qaeda. This new base for Al Qaeda in Iraq after the American invasion would be called the Islamic State. This is in 2004. He then would create this Islamic State in Iraq, and there this Islamic State would become a stepping stone to the eventual creation of a caliphate, but the establishment of the caliphate for Al Qaeda was something that would be put off into the distant future.
The caliphate is the unitary imperial Islamic State that existed in the early Islamic period until about 1258, when the Mongols destroyed Baghdad and ended the rule of the last Abbasid caliph. A caliph is the successor of the prophet, the leader of the Muslim community, then in Baghdad. So this is what starts the Islamic State in Iraq. Zarqawi was killed by American-Jordanian intelligence efforts and through an air strike in 2006. The Islamic State had a very bad time because of military and political defeat from 2006 till about 2012, and then it resurrected itself, and what we see now is the the resurrected Islamic State, which we will tell you a lot more about.
So this is the specific trajectory of the Islamic State, but without the American invasion, without the chaos, that was then sowed in Iraq, without the disenfranchisement of the Sunnis of Iraq, which is what the Americans brought with their invasion, without the then collapse of the Syrian State and the civil war in Syria, without all these happening, we would not have an Islamic State. The ideology alone is not enough to create a movement like this. You need a context, you need the political context, you need those sets of events, and in particular this deep sense of disenfranchisement that Sunni Arabs feel in order for the Islamic State to find the recruits, to have the space, to be able to fill vacuums where states have been crushed or have disappeared, as in large areas of Syria, and large areas of Iraq.
“We often tend to separate religion and politics in our mind and put spirituality over here and power struggle over here. And I think that for the Islamic State, but also in early Islamic history, those two things aren’t necessarily antithetical. You can have religious aspirations that will also bring you great political power.”
In other words, ideology is important, religion is important, but politics and what happens on the ground is also important, context is important.
Now, let me turn from this ‑‑ I only want to talk for 2 or 3 more minutes and then hand off ‑‑ let me give you the example of something about the Islamic State that is truly phenomenal and unprecedented.
You know, the Islamic State, as all Jihadi groups, is also about fashioning a culture, it’s about fashioning a new kind of Muslim, it’s about recreating a sense of what it is to be a Muslim, and it’s an imagined and produced sense of that person that draws on a historical texts, on images, sometimes it comes from films like Kingdom of Heaven, sometimes it is actually from the Quran, so it’s a mishmash of influences and inputs that is producing this jihadi culture.
One of the most interesting people in this cultural production of ISIS is a woman, a Syrian woman, called Ahlam Al-Nasr, that’s her alias. The alias means “Dreams of Victory,” that’s her name inside the movement, “Dreams of Victory.” She is called the “Poetess of the Islamic State.” She produces a phenomenal amount of poetry. She has already put out her first collection of poems. She seems to be a young person in her twenties. Her mother is a professor, was a professor, in Saudi Arabia, although Syrian, of Islamic studies. Her maternal grandfather is a major Islamic scholar in Damascus.
This young woman decided to leave Kuwait, where she was in exile from Syria, and join the Islamic State in Raqqah, which is the city in eastern Syria that is the de facto capital of the Islamic State. So she emigrates to Raqqah whereupon she marries immediately to an Austrian Muslim, a man called Abu Usama al-Gharib ‑‑ I’ll give you all those names later ‑‑ and who is very close to the leadership of ISIS, and she, upon arriving in Raqqah, describes arriving there, describes what happens, writes poems about it, she learns how to take apart guns and put them back together, she learns how to shoot, but she also is producing treatises on Islamic law and theology, one of which is a defense of the immolation of the Jordanian pilot.
You probably know, that the Islamic State burned alive a Jordanian fighter pilot who crashed in Syria, and they burned him alive, they did a remarkably sophisticated video production of this event, I mean using multiple camera angles. The production quality of their videography and their propaganda is truly exceptional. It’s much, much better than anything Al Qaeda ever produced. And in this treatise on the defense of immolation, she takes on ‑‑ this is a woman ‑‑ she takes on the top leadership of ideologues of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, she makes a detailed legal-theological argument for why it is permissible to have burnt him, and the argument is an interesting one. I’ll get into the weeds for just a second if you’ll forgive me.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: We can handle it.
BERNARD HAYKEL: So burning people alive is not the majority view of Islamic law. It’s considered a punishment that belongs to God alone, that only God burns, human beings should not burn other human beings in punishment. This is the majority view. This is pretty much the consensus of Islamic law. There is, however, as in all legal traditions, a minority opinion, and this woman latches onto every single instance when the Prophet Muhammad or some of his Companions used fire to punish, and she claims there are these exceptional situations when you can do this—use fire–and these are the precedents for it.
But more to the point, one of the principles of Islamic law is like in Western war law or just war law, is the idea of reciprocity, or more accurately the doctrine of proportionality. Here in the Islamic tradition, it’s called reciprocity. In other words, it’s not quite like the Western legal tradition, which is that you can basically do to your enemy what he does to you, although most Muslim jurists would draw the line on fire, they would say that’s not sanctioned by Islam ‑‑ we don’t do that. Like we won’t kill ‑‑ in Islam — we don’t kill women and children in war.
Here, though, ISIS says, look, this pilot is a guy who is burning through his airplane and missiles, he’s burning Muslim women and children, destroying homes and so on, so the principle of reciprocity applies. That’s ISIS’s argument number one. Argument two, ISIS claims have all these examples of the Prophet and the Companions using fire. That’s argument two. Argument number three is that we have a caliph now, we have a supreme leader of the Muslim community, and he is like the early caliphs of Islam, he is a fuehrer-like figure, he can determine law, he can make law, just like the Prophet made law, although he doesn’t share with the prophet the characteristic of infallibility ‑‑ he’s not infallible like the prophet, but he can make law, and he has a custom, he can establish a legal custom, and he can make a determination that burning someone alive is appropriate and legal.
So Ahlam al-Nasr has a vision of the State centered around the caliph that is extremely powerful, and so she makes this case for immolation while also condemning those who disagree with the Islamic State rendering them ‑‑ calling them names, such as “hysterical narcissists” she calls them, and so on.
So here you have an example of someone who is a woman who is engaged in propaganda and the production of ideology (by the way, the Islamic State has created a morality police made up of women) who is producing knowledge, engaging in polemics, and arguing for a kind of new Muslim person in a new Muslim state.
Let me end on an unrelated point as to whether the Islamic State and Jihadism and Islamism in general are a threat to the West or not. So I’m of the view that this phenomenon is not a threat. Jihadis do not represent an existential threat to Western civilization; they represent a threat first and foremost to other Muslims. What represents a threat to Western civilization is someone like Putin, who has nuclear weapons, not the Islamic State. The Islamic State and all Jihadists can commit terror attacks. This is something we’ve known from before the Islamic State and we will probably still have to live with it after the Islamic State is defeated.
So to think about them as an existential threat is to give them too much importance and really not to see them for what they are, which is this kind of cult that is a symptom of a deep political injustice, a malaise in the Arab world in particular, a disenfranchisement of the Sunnis, a legacy of 40, 50, 60 years or more of misrule, misgovernance, and brutalization of populations by authoritarian regimes. This is what bad governance for a very long period of time over people produces—chaos and madness. So even if we were to get rid of the jihadis, it would not address the core structural problems that lead to this phenomenon.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Thank you.
And as you all have the bio, Will McCants, who is a Fellow at The Brookings Institution at their Center for Middle East Policy. And Will, his first book is called Founding Gods, Inventing Nations: Conquest and Culture Myths from Antiquity to Islam.
Who’s the publisher of that book?
WILLIAM MCCANTS: Princeton.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Princeton University Press.
WILLIAM MCCANTS: Keep it in the family.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Keep it in the family, yes.
Will McCants, take it from here, and then we’ll get everybody into the discussion. I’ve already got five people on the list, so if you want to get in, folks, let me know.
WILLIAM MCCANTS: All right. Thank you for having me. If we make it off the record, does that mean it’s going to be more exciting for the audience and they’ll be really calling for some juicy bits?
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: We would like to have it on the record.
WILLIAM MCCANTS: It’s going to be on the record, it’s fine.
So I’m just wrapping up a book on ISIS, and one of the questions I’ve been wrestling with is why the Islamic State is so brutal. It engages in mass executions of enemy soldiers but also civilians. There are numerous instances even before its gains in Iraq of the Islamic State dumping civilians into mass graves. They harshly implement Islamic law, at times implementing laws that Saudi Arabia doesn’t even implement, which is the gold standard for ultraconservative Salafis.
So I was trying to understand, doing a history of the Islamic State since its founding in 2006, why it’s so brutal because I don’t think the answer is obvious, and it’s also a puzzle because I think it strikes many outsiders that being this brutal is counterproductive to establishing a state. If you brutalize the people that you want to govern over, they are going to rebel against you, so why do something that on its face seems so counterproductive?
I don’t think we can explain the Islamic State’s brutality just as a function of war. There are a number of ultraconservative Sunni rebel groups that are fighting in Syria and Iraq. They don’t behave the same way the Islamic State does. The Islamic State is particularly notable for its brutality. So it’s not merely a function of war.
I don’t think, by the same logic, that it’s merely a function of religion. There are again many ultraconservative Sunni rebel groups that are fighting in Syria and Iraq that are not as brutal as the Islamic State, so it is not purely a question of theology or jurisprudence.
From its founding, the Islamic State has rejected the conventional wisdom that you need to win over the hearts and minds of people to conduct a successful insurgency, and that you need to win over the people in order to maintain whatever sort of government you need to establish. From the Islamic State’s founding in 2006 and before that, when it was Al Qaeda in Iraq, it rejected this basic premise, and I think it goes against the conventional wisdom in the United States about how you conduct a successful insurgency. It certainly goes against the conventional wisdom of how you conduct a successful counterinsurgency, but I think most people don’t know that it also goes against conventional Jihadist wisdom, and that’s what I want to focus this talk on: the debate within Al Qaeda when the Islamic State was part of Al Qaeda over whether you need to win over mass public opinion in order to successfully prosecute an insurgency and establish and maintain a state.
Let’s go back a little bit to the late 1990s, the early 2000s, when the young Jordanian thug, as Bernard rightly called him, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, travels to Afghanistan because he wants to set up his own shop. There is an interesting story of this fellow, Saif al-Adel, that Bernard mentioned, who is in Kandahar, and he hears that Zarqawi has shown up, and because Saif al-Adel is a former special forces colonel in the Egyptian military, he has learned to be pretty cagey, so he has Zarqawi followed, and it turns out that Zarqawi is a pretty extreme person, as we all know today. In sussing him out, Saif al-Adel discovered that he was at odds with the other Jihadists, particularly on the question of the Shia and who is a legitimate target for an insurgency. Zarqawi was far, far to the right of Al Qaeda. We’re used to thinking of Al Qaeda as the big bad, but when it comes to waging a war in Muslim majority countries, al-Qaeda’s leaders appear quite moderate in comparison to someone like Zarqawi.
So there is this discussion between Zarqawi on one hand and Bin Laden and Zawahiri on the other hand, and they decide that they are not going to join forces at that time because Zarqawi is too extreme, but Bin Laden and Zawahiri give Zarqawi a little bit of seed money to set up his own camp. So that’s the beginning of the relationship between them. And as Bernard said, when the Taliban regime in Afghanistan collapses in the face of U.S. air power working with the Northern Alliance, Zarqawi flees to Iran and later makes his way to Iraq, when it looks like that’s where the United States is going to go next, so he begins to pre-position a number of cells in Baghdad and in surrounding areas.
So the war kicks off in 2003. Zarqawi is trying his best to foment a civil war. They’re carrying out attacks on the United Nations you’ll remember, they carry out attacks on a Shia holy site in Najaf. Zarqawi writes a letter in 2004 to Al Qaeda’s leadership proposing a merger, but in this letter he lays out his plan for how he is going to prosecute the insurgency in Iraq, and he asks Al Qaeda’s leaders, “Do you agree with this? And if you agree with this, I will be your liegeman, I will sign up under your banner, but here is how I’m going to do this,” and one of the things he talks about in particular is his desire to go after the Shia, particularly Shia civilians, his thinking being if he can provoke the Shia into an overreaction where they begin to kill Iraq’s minority Sunni population, the Sunnis will have to turn to Zarqawi’s group for protection. So he is provoking, seeking to provoke, a civil war.
Bin Laden and Zawahiri are a little bit nervous because again this is a major difference between them. Bin Laden and Zawahiri, you will see throughout the presentation, their thinking is always, “How do we build and sustain Muslim popular support for our project?” That is key for them. “How do we win over mass public support?” For Zarqawi, it’s quite the opposite: he is going for the support of a very small section of society. And so Bin Laden and Zawahiri deliberate on whether to take him on board or not.
Informing them, or informing their decision, is the fact that they have just tried to wage an unsuccessful insurgency in Saudi Arabia where they try to go against the United States, but they end up fighting against Saudi security forces. It’s a PR disaster for them, and their organization collapses in Saudi Arabia. So they are looking to get into the new hot thing in Jihadism, which is the Iraq war. Zarqawi is presenting an opportunity. They ignore their better judgment and they sign him up as a new Al Qaeda affiliate, so Al Qaeda in Iraq is born.
Al Qaeda’s leaders quickly have buyer’s remorse, and there is this famous letter that Zawahiri writes to Zarqawi in 2005, and he is urging him to rein in some of his more excessive practices, but in particular on this question of the Shia. He is saying, okay, you can go after government officials, that’s fine, but killing normal Shia civilians is going to make life hard for us because they’re going to come after us and it’s also a public relations disaster. Public relations is always uppermost in Zawahiri’s mind.
In the same vein, he argues that the beheading videos have to stop. These things, while technically you can execute a prisoner if you must, don’t broadcast them. Again, these are public relations disasters for us. Stop broadcasting the beheading videos.
And then finally on the question of establishing an Islamic State, Al Qaeda very much wanted to see an Islamic State established in Iraq, but Al Qaeda’s leaders, Bin Laden and Zawahiri urged Zarqawi not to declare a state until two things happen: one, that the Americans leave; and, two, that they have won over the vast majority of the public, the Sunni public, to their project. Again, Al Qaeda’s leaders are always focused on building popular support for their cause of establishing an Islamic State. So these are the instructions: stop going after Shia civilians, stop the beheading videos, build popular support before declaring a state, wait for the Americans to go.
Al Qaeda in Iraq does none of that. It continues with the beheadings, it continues going after the Shia, and most importantly, it ignores the advice for winning over popular support before declaring a state. They go ahead and they declare a state in 2006 despite owning next to no territory, and then they proceed to brutalize the population in trying to implement their control.
Now, one of the things that they do in order to suppress the Sunni population and to bring them under control is they begin to implement the hudud laws. The hudud are the fixed laws that are prescribed in Islamic scripture, most in the Quran but some in the Hadith, the words and practices attributed to Muhammad. These are the laws that you’re familiar with that Saudi Arabia implements. The Islamic State tries to implement those for two reasons: one, as a way to establish their ultraconservative bona fides, “we are putting in place these laws, some of which go beyond Saudi practice”; but, two, as a way to control the population and terrify them. The problem is that the laws are religiously out of step with many Sunni Iraqis who don’t want to see them implemented; and, two, they terrify the Sunni population, who begin to turn to their tribal leaders for protection, and this is the background to the growing Sunni awakening in Anbar Province and the rebellion against Al Qaeda.
By 2008, Al Qaeda in Iraq, by then the Islamic State, has utterly failed. If you were going to measure the performance of a terrorist group by the bounty put on the head of its chief executive, the bounty I think on Abu Masri’s head, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who was the actual head of the Islamic State, the bounty on his head in 2007 was I think $5 million; by early 2009, it’s gone all the way down to $100,000, marking the decline in the fortunes of the organization.
They had become not just a failed state, they were never really a state to begin with at that time, but also a failed terrorist organization. And they had become an object lesson to analysts on the outside of what not to do, ratifying the conventional wisdom that you need to win over popular support to establish a state. If you brutalize your population, that’s going to turn them against you.
And, interestingly, those are the exact same lessons that Al Qaeda’s leaders took from the failure of the first Islamic State. We know this because of secret correspondence that has subsequently come to light through various means, but if you look at the way Bin Laden assesses what happened in Iraq, it lines up almost perfectly with how Western analysts were thinking about the Islamic State’s failure in 2008 and 2009. Bin Laden says the Islamic State should have worked more with others, particularly the Sunni tribes. It should not have been killing Muslim civilians of any kind, but especially not Sunni civilians, whose support they needed. It needed to be more lenient in applying Islamic law, it had been too harsh, and it needed to tend to the economic well-being of the people whom they proposed to govern. This is the advice Bin Laden begins to give to the other Al Qaeda affiliates who, inspired by the Islamic State, were trying to set up their own states just after the Islamic states collapsed.
So in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula makes an attempt to establish an Islamic state, and it tries to follow some of Bin Laden’s advice. One area that it does not follow is in implementing the hudud laws, and it later comes to regret that it had been too harsh in its implementation of these laws and not lenient enough.
When Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or Al Qaeda in North Africa tries to establish its own state in northern Mali ‑‑ you’ll remember the invasion there in 2011. The head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula writes the leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and says, “Hey, here is what we learned. You need to be a lot more lenient in applying these laws. Really try to win over the people.” The head of AQIM instructs his commanders to do it, but it’s too late, they’ve already been pretty brutal and they’ve squandered what little popular support they had. Again, we see this around the same period of time, the Shabab, which was at that time a secret affiliate of Al Qaeda, tried to do the same thing but they are too harsh in implementing the hudud laws. They also don’t look after the economy well enough. And you have a fascinating series of letters from Bin Laden where he is telling them be more lenient in applying the laws, and to look after the people’s economic well-being. If you did not know the name attached to the letter, you would swear it was a USAID employee. He tells them what kinds of trees to plant, what sort of taxes to impose. He has a very laissez-faire attitude towards businessmen. Nevertheless, none of the Al Qaeda affiliates quite follows the advice, although some of them try harder than others.
You would think, and with good reason, that looking at this body of experience, the Jihadists would tend to side with Bin Laden on these things. “You know, all of these states have tried and failed. Maybe Bin Laden has it right, maybe we do need to be more lenient in imposing these laws. Maybe we do need to look to popular support.”
The problem is that they can never really answer the question satisfactorily. Why? Because being global Jihadists, they are always provoking an outside intervention, and so this always disrupts the experiment. Even if they are more locally focused, like the Shabab, the fact that they have global Jihadist rhetoric invites foreign intervention, so the experiment is always short-circuited, and each of these groups that I mentioned talk about outside intervention as the main reason why they collapsed, with good reason. Outside intervention was the main reason why they collapsed, but it never quite settles the hearts-and-minds debate. Could we have made a real go of it if we had hewed more to Bin Laden’s vision or more to the Islamic State vision? It’s unclear.
The Syrian Civil War provides a new opportunity to test the theory again, and it’s an interesting experiment because what you have are two groups that are part of Al Qaeda but go their own ways. You have Nusra, which was a branch of the Islamic State that set up shop in Syria, but it begins prosecuting an insurgency the way Bin Laden and then Zawahiri wanted it prosecuted. They are working with other rebel groups, even sometimes the Free Syrian Army. They are very careful, especially after the first few months, not to kill Muslim civilians. And in the areas that they control, they are very leniently applying Islamic law, so they’re not breaking anybody’s fingers for smoking or what have you.
The Islamic State goes the opposite direction, especially after it finally breaks with Al Qaeda over the question of who controls the territory of Syria. The Islamic State does not want to work with other groups that don’t sign on for its state-building project, so it’s unwilling to just embed itself in the insurgency. It wants to establish a state. It is far more ruthless in killing anyone who defies its writ or criticizes it, and it is very harsh about applying Islamic law in the areas that it controls.
So why be brutal? You can look at their own explanations and then you could look at some of the success that they’ve had to try and understand why a group would continue to be brutal in this way. One reason is that, according to the Islamic State’s thinking, this kind of brutality has the political effect of deterring one’s enemies. Now, they may be delusional on this point, but in one of their chief strategy documents, a book called The Management of Savagery, which is one of the main books on how to conduct an insurgency that they circulate in Islamic State camps, in that book there is an extended discussion of the value of brutality in war especially as a deterrent to one’s enemies, and if one’s enemies are being ruthless against you, you have no choice but to be ruthless against them or they will never back down. It is very much against the “hearts-and-minds” approach. The secret to winning, this author argues and the Islamic State believes, the secret to winning is to be more brutal than the other guy.
Another reason to be brutal is because it scares the hell out of potential opponents, especially people on the ground. You will remember that when the Islamic State with just 1,000 fighters rolled into Mosul with some of its local tribal allies that the Iraqi army and the local police forces fled, tens of thousands of them fled. Why? Because they were terrified. They had been watching videos of what the Islamic State had done in Fallujah and other cities they controlled to military personnel and to the police. These videos circulated by hand and also online. We have media reports that for many of the people who fled, they cited this as the reason that they left. They weren’t going to stand and fight against that kind of enemy.
The other thing that you might guess at is that this kind of brutality can be very efficient in the short term. You can quickly subdue a population, and if your goal is to establish your own state, not overthrow an existing state, this can be a very politically effective tool in the short term. In the long term, of course, it breeds resentment, but in the short term, it can be quite useful.
Harshly implementing Islamic law can also be useful. It’s a signaling device to show other ultraconservatives that you mean business, so it’s helpful for recruitment, and it is also a way to subdue the population who are terrified of being the object of these punishments.
You also have the side bonus of attracting recruits who like this kind of stuff. There is a reason, there are many reasons, why they film the videos that they do. If you look at the burning of the Jordanian pilot, it was intended as a deterrent, but it also has the effect of exciting young men and women who think that kind of violence is cool and they want to be a part of it. So you are selecting then the kind of recruit that you want to have to prosecute the sort of war that you want to prosecute.
Now, there is a problem here that Bernard alluded to, and the problem is that to prosecute this kind of war as a religious organization that claims to adhere to scripture, you have a problem because some of those scriptures cut against the kind of war you want to prosecute. So you have lots of statements about the conduct of war and statecraft from Muhammad, who waged his own insurgency campaign and set up his own government. It is one reason why he’s turned to as a model. So you have a number of statements from him: not to go after noncombatants, particularly the elderly, women, and children; not to destroy private property; not to burn apostates.
You have a number of rules then in place that would hamper the kind of insurgency the Islamic State wants to wage. So what do you do if you’ve made the strategic decision that this is the way to win, but religiously you are bound by some of the scriptures that you claim to adhere to, what do you do? Well, you find other parts of the Islamic tradition that will support the kind of insurgency you want to wage. You can draw on a verse in the Quran that talks about reciprocity when your enemy will not stop attacking you, as Bernard said. You can find minority opinions in Islamic law that might ratify what you want to do, but the point is they want to maintain maximum flexibility for maximum violence because this is what they’ve decided is the most effective way to mount an insurgent campaign.
But isn’t it obvious to outsiders that this kind of insurgent campaign and this way of governing will not work in the long term? This is something I wrestled with when I was writing the book, because it goes against my own conventional wisdom about how to conduct this kind of insurgency.
I think one thing to bear in mind before you answer the question for yourselves is, number one, for Jihadists remember this question never gets resolved because there is always outside intervention because global Jihadists invite it due to their rhetoric, so the question is never solved. Even after this current conflict, the question will not be solved, even after the Islamic State’s government is defeated, which it will be. But the question won’t be answered because it was an outside invasion that did it and not necessarily a popular revolt on its own.
There are also historical examples that one could point to where this kind of campaign works. If you go to the Middle Ages and you look at the experience of the Mongols in the Middle East, this is exactly the kind of campaign they waged, far worse. If you look a little bit closer to the modern period ‑‑ and this is something that Bernard could speak to much better than I could ‑‑ but if you look at the three attempts of the Saudi State to establish itself, they waged a very similar kind of campaign, and it was politically quite successful. The reason why the first two states did not take but the last one does is because the last guy who tried it realized that if he stopped pissing off his powerful neighbors, he might have a shot at maintaining the state.
And then more recently, if you look at the example of the Taliban, they used the same sort of methods to set up a state. They lost their state because they provoked outside intervention and not a rebellion, that’s the reason why they were ultimately overthrown.
So my worry then is, looking at the contemporary experience of the Islamic State, my worry is that the Jihadists will look at its political success and they will take the lesson that it is better to have your enemies and the population fear you than it is to be loved, and I think we’re going to see in the next few years much more brutality in the waging of Jihadist insurgencies across the Middle East.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Well, on that happy note ‑‑
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: ‑‑ I’ve got a list here, but I’ll take moderator’s prerogative and ask a question. When I read Graeme Wood’s piece in The Atlantic and then after hearing you gentlemen, I so much wish ‑‑ and I imagine others of you would, too ‑‑ for one of you to do a ‑‑ just do a graph, all the splits within the world of Islam and Muslims that hate other Muslims, the ones that are not pure enough, they ought to be killed because they’re not pure enough. Is there such a graph, who’s up, who’s down, who hates who? Is that in your new book?
WILLIAM MCCANTS: No. Maybe it should be if that will make it sell.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Well, you know, when I was reading Graeme’s piece, I kept getting all the different names of what each group was mad at the other group and who felt like was not really pure Islam, and I so much wanted for The Atlantic to put a graph at the end and say ‑‑ and then after hearing both of you, I feel even more urgent. And so I think talk to ‑‑ who’s your publisher for this new book?
WILLIAM MCCANTS: Palgrave.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Palgrave, yes. Well, we must get ahold of them and tell them. What’s the title?
WILLIAM MCCANTS: It’s super scary, so prepare yourselves. It’s called The ISIS Apocalypse.
MICHELLE COTTLE, National Journal: When is it out?
WILLIAM MCCANTS: September.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: September. So, ladies and gentlemen, we’ll look for that.
Okay, Nina Easton is up first, and then Will, and Robert Draper. Nina Easton.
NINA EASTON, Fortune Magazine and Fox News: First, thank you both so much. Thank you Graeme; that was a fabulous piece. That’s such an incredible explanation of the situation. I wonder if you could talk more about treatment of women because it seems like we’ve gone from generic Salafist repression of women to what seems to be institutionalized rape, which is the kidnapping and selling “brides”? Is there an attempt to offer a theological justification for this?
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Who wants to go first?
BERNARD HAYKEL: So the rape has to do with slavery, the institution of slavery. They don’t enslave Muslim women, they enslave non-Muslims, and it’s principally the Yazidis that they’ve enslaved, and Christians who would either not ‑‑ who did not flee or did not accept to be subjugated citizens, so they would consider them enemies, enemy combatants, and then they can enslave them. So you enslave women and children, you can rape the women, or you can sell them, and we have examples of this. And this practice is again something that the Islamic State is highlighting in order to show that it is in continuity with early Islamic State practice because that’s what the early Muslims did.
Muslim women ‑‑ Sunni Muslim women are not raped, there is no sale of them, there is no trading of them, or any of that sort of thing. We have some of them coming from the West and from the Middle East to marry Jihadis, but they’re marrying them and then, you know, if the fighter that they married dies, they get remarried, but it’s not forced. And they have a whole propaganda machine for attracting women, Muslim women, to the State.
They have a very unusual legal principle that they’ve developed. You see, Muslim women are not supposed to leave the house without what is called a mahram in Arabic ‑‑ that’s M-A-H-R-A-M ‑‑ this is a male guardian, it could be the father, the brother, or son. They argue that Muslim women, since they are living with families that are not properly fully Muslim, can in fact leave their families alone without a guardian and come to the Islamic State. This is a real break with Islamic law and tradition.
And they are appealing to a kind of Muslim ‑‑ it’s very Protestant actually, it’s this kind of emphasis on the individual. The individual is at the core of this movement, the autonomy of the individual, the decision of the individual to make decisions despite, and even against one’s own family, which flies in the face of Arab and Muslim tradition. So there is something quite different about this phenomenon, it’s a cult-like phenomenon, but it is one that emphasizes individual autonomy including that of women, of Muslim women.
I don’t know whether I have answered your question.
NINA EASTON: It encourages them to break that family tie.
BERNARD HAYKEL: Yeah. Inasmuch as your family is telling you, you shouldn’t go to emigrate, so they’re not real Muslims, they’re not proper Muslims, but, you know, there is a lot of false propaganda or disinformation about ISIS. I mean, some of what is said about them is true. I mean, they do engage in the practice of slavery, but the idea that they’re somehow systematically raping Muslims is not true.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Will?
WILLIAM MCCANTS: I would just add to that a number of the female recruits that have joined the Islamic State are actually the ones who are put in charge of the enslaved Yazidi women, and there are a number of reports of what are essentially brothels for the fighters in Raqqah, that these women foreigners stand guard over while the men go inside. What’s striking about the female recruits to the Islamic State, despite being portrayed in the media as sort of hapless victims of the men who are luring them there, if you read their tweets, the things they’re writing to their friends back home, they are every bit as motivated and blood thirsty as the men.
NINA EASTON: What are their lives like when they get there? Do they have to have coverage? Do they follow the same prescriptions they do in, say, Saudi Arabia?
WILLIAM MCCANTS: That’s exactly right. And there are also bands of female morality police that rove around cities like Raqqah looking for other women who are breaking their laws. They’re the ones that dole out the punishment to the other women.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Will Saletan. Will, bring the mike up.
WILLIAM SALETAN: Okay. Well, first of all, I would love to hear ‑‑ I would like to first of all give you guys a few more minutes to expand on the role of women in ISIS because, I mean, I think it’s intuitively understandable to a lot of people how this movement attracts a lot of violent young men or young men who want to have some passionate cause and come from all over the world. And I don’t know exactly how many women are coming in, but there are enough of them that there is sort of a puzzle as to what is attracting the women. Is there something about morality policing, polemics, that draws these women? Is there a particular kind of woman who is drawn?
But the other question I had is about the internet because you were describing some of the unusual circumstances that led to the formation of IS in this particular location at this particular time, but, Will, you were also describing this interesting debate between Bin Laden and Zarqawi about how to build the State. And I would like to think, and I think many people would like to think, that there are reasons why Bin Laden is eternally correct in this debate, that governing in this brutal way and practicing this kind of violence is counterproductive and will destroy any enterprise to build the State. But has the internet changed that calculation in terms of a global Jihadist movement to the extent that you can now draw so many recruits through this kind of violence that you develop an oversupply? I mean, we constantly hear stories now about, you know, 50 men at a time showing up at recruitment camps, at any one recruitment camp, coming from all over the world. And is it a net payoff for the brutal regime over such a period of time that they will decide this is an effective way to rule?
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Will?
WILLIAM MCCANTS: Okay. First on the internet question. That’s a facet I hadn’t thought of, but it is the case that the Islamic State has had an outsized advantage over its rebel competitors because of its ability to recruit online, and if you believe U.S. intelligence estimates, something like two-thirds of its fighting force are foreign fighters, and the thing to know about foreign fighters is they are more zealous than the locals and they have obviously, by the fact that they’re foreign, no ties to the local population. So if you want to brutalize that population as part of your game plan, zealous foreigners who don’t care about that population are particularly useful. So, yeah, there could be a connection and it could be possible that they could sustain the momentum because of their ability to draw recruits online by circulating that kind of propaganda.
On the question of why women go, it’s as hard to answer as the question of why men go. I mean, they share many of the same motives, wanting to be part of something larger than themselves. Many of them are drawn there by the belief that the end times are coming and that they are going to fight in fulfillment of prophecy. Many of them are going for a sense of adventure. A number of them go with their friends, so there is a peer dynamic that is at work as well. A number of them will also point to feeling like marginal citizens, particularly inside of Europe.
All of these explanations, they are not mutually exclusive, and it’s difficult to tease apart because you don’t know what someone is just telling themselves as opposed to the real deep reason that they go that they are not even aware of. But many of the women, when they talk about their reasons for going, those are the reasons they list. Also the desire to marry a fighter, which will bring them status, especially, as Bernard said, if the fighter dies. To be the wife of a martyr brings you great status in that community and it also brings with it a regular pension, as it were.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Bernard, do you want to add anything to that?
BERNARD HAYKEL: Yes, I do. You know, doing God’s work is really a powerful motivator for people. I mean, a lot of Westerners find it difficult to understand that concept, it has to be economic deprivation or social marginalization or any of those things that motivates. Statistically, the sample of Westerners who have gone is so small and they’re so diverse that it’s very difficult to make a generalization about what it is that lures them. You know, some are poor, some are not, some are well integrated, some are not, you know, and so on. The one thing that seems to unite them all is this powerful attraction to the idea that the caliphate has been established, that this utopia is in the making and that you are fulfilling God’s will. That’s a really powerful thing, you know, attractor, for some people in and of itself. You know, none of the other, socioeconomic explanations or sociological explanations, can capture that desire.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Okay. Robert Draper is next.
ROBERT DRAPER, New York Times Magazine: Sure. I’m tempted to ask a question and then hide under the table.
ROBERT DRAPER: The question would be: Were Bin Laden and Saddam on to something?
Bernard, you mentioned that the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the chaos that ensued, the corresponding disenfranchisement of the Sunnis gave rise to the creation of the Islamic State.
And, Will, you had said, you made clear, that relatively speaking, Bin Laden was a moderate who worried that the Sunni public would reject the Zarqawi model. And this is the kind of discussion that was unthinkable perhaps a decade ago.
But I wonder if there are any signs, for one thing, that Bin Laden was right in the sense that there is a kind of amassing discontent among the Sunni population against what IS has been up to, and if that could then give rise to authoritarian figures like Saddam and Gaddafi, who presumably would provide more economic stability of the kind that Bin Laden was urging Shabab to give to the Somalis, or if that kind of model, the authoritarian model, is no longer conceivable.
And I’m thinking about this also in terms of interviews that I’ve done when I did a book on the Bush White House, and I interviewed a number of advisors to President Bush who had told him that leading up to Iraq that it was in fact Saddam who had fomented sectarian tensions and that the conclusion that they were urging the President to consider was that with the absence of Saddam, such tensions would melt away.
We obviously know that didn’t work out too well. But I’m wondering if there is in fact any kind of public yearning for that kind of model or if that’s no longer conceivable.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Okay. Who wants to go first on that one, gentlemen?
WILLIAM MCCANTS: All right. So the question is about whether some sort of local strongman could arise and capture this popular discontent.
ROBERT DRAPER: Leading into that, if Bin Laden actually was right in terms of a kind of welling discontent.
WILLIAM MCCANTS: Yeah, and I think Bin Laden will be eternally right on that particular point, that these kind of tactics breed discontent. I think where the Islamic State would differ is over the question of: Does it matter? Can those people who are upset, can they mount a revolt when we control all of the guns, if we’ve got a constant flow of fighters, a constant flow of money? They’re wagering that they will be right, but it is certainly conceivable that some sort of local strongman could capture that discontent. It’s just that in Iraq and in the Syria Sunni hinterland in the east of the country, the Islamic State has been pretty good at eliminating or marginalizing its rivals, and potential rivals, ex-Baathists, who might be good at waging a campaign against them, it has been very active in co-opting them and bringing them into the fold.
And it doesn’t matter, it seems to me, for the Islamic State’s leadership, whether these guys are sincere or not ‑‑ my suspicion is many of them are sincere actually ‑‑ but it doesn’t matter ultimately as long as they are willing to prosecute the plan and to put in place an Islamic State, they are useful.
“Doing God’s work is really a powerful motivator for people. I mean, a lot of Westerners find it difficult to understand that concept. It has to be economic deprivation or social marginalization or any of those things that motivates. Statistically, the sample of Westerners who have gone is so small and they’re so diverse that it’s very difficult to make a generalization about what it is that lures them…The one thing that seems to unite them all is this powerful attraction to the idea that the caliphate has been established, that this utopia is in the making and that you are fulfilling God’s will. None of the other socioeconomic explanations or sociological explanations can capture that desire.”
So I think between marginalizing or killing potential strongmen or bringing them into the fold, I think the Islamic State is, if not guaranteeing, at least stacking the deck in their favor and making sure that that sort of strongman is not going to arise in the Sunni community.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Anything to add?
BERNARD HAYKEL: Well, you know, if you look at the population in Saudi Arabia, they see chaos enveloping the region, from Libya to Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and they very much are in favor of the authoritarian model that you’re talking about. So I think, and even in Syria a lot of people, even though they hate ISIS, they think if we can have a strongman, it’s better than chaos. I think most people would choose authoritarianism over chaos, and the Islamic State to some extent is that, too.
You know, I heard about a truck driver in Saudi Arabia who is from Raqqah who does the route from Raqqah to Riyadh, and he went back home and he said, you know, the Islamic State, they’re terrible, they force you to dress a certain way and to pray five times and not to smoke and so on, but, you know, they don’t rape your women, they don’t steal you. So if you’re a Sunni from Raqqah and they don’t have anything against you, they’re better than the alternative.
And I think a lot of Sunnis around the region, they would never want to be ruled by ISIS, and they think ISIS is a bit weird and extreme, but they’re not the only bad guys out there. I mean, Assad is a really bad guy, the Shia militias in Iraq are bad, the Shia government in Iraq is bad, Iran is bad, you know. So ISIS is bad, but it’s at least fighting the good fight but we don’t want them ruling us. I think a lot of people have that view in the Arab world.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Graeme Wood, do you have a question or comment on this?
GRAEME WOOD, The Atlantic: Yeah. So the propaganda magazine ‑‑ Dabiq, all the talk about Dabiq as this city in Syria where there is going to be a kind of millennial showdown, I wrote about this and some supporters of ISIS wrote to me and said, “Yeah, that’s right. We’re very interested in this,” but they said, “You do know that Mecca and Medina have to fall before Dabiq happens.” So I’m curious whether you think that ISIS is looking in the near term at Saudi Arabia as a target and how that fits into especially the apocalyptic elements, if that’s part of the necessary game plan, and if it is part of it, why don’t we hear more about it?
WILLIAM MCCANTS: This is one of the areas where I think the Islamic State’s leadership, their religious beliefs, comes up against their desire to establish a state and preserve it, and it’s not clear to me which part of that calculation is going to win out, because if they go into Saudi Arabia, they could provoke a massive Saudi backlash against them, which could put their state in jeopardy, but that hasn’t seemed to stop them before. I mean, they are an expansionist power. They portray themselves as always on the march.
And as you say, Mecca and Medina are in the crosshairs, and if they are ‑‑ you can make an argument that they would go after it for apocalyptic reasons because they believe that they are fulfilling prophecy, that they are going to meet the Muslim savior or the Mahdi, who is supposed to appear in Mecca, but you could also make an argument that they would do it just to electrify the Jihadist community, which would celebrate if such an event were to happen.
My feeling has been that they are going to try, that they are at least going to send a convoy in. They’re not going to get very far, but I think it could be pretty destabilizing to Saudi politics because we know from the past that, say, the invasion of Kuwait was quite destabilizing for the Saudis, as was the takeover in 1979 of the great mosque in Mecca, and an invasion of the Islamic State, even if it’s short-lived, kind of combines the political problem of an invasion with the apocalyptic stuff of the 1979 mosque takeover and sort of strikes at the heart of the legitimacy of the Saudi state at a time when Saudi politics is really being up-ended. But the true expert on all things Saudi is that guy.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: So let’s hear from him.
BERNARD HAYKEL: You know, the Saudis just arrested 93 ISIS followers.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: When was it?
BERNARD HAYKEL: Just 2 or 3 days ago. So, you know, I’ve heard various statistics, but something like 35 percent of the fighters of ISIS are Saudi, and you have a lot of videos of these Saudis in ISIS’s propaganda burning their passports and that sort of thing.
You know, but taking on Saudi Arabia frontally like with a convoy would be suicide. I can’t see them, you know, doing more in Saudi Arabia than what Al Qaeda already has tried, which is, you know, a series of suicide bombing attacks, which would lead to fights with interior ministry security forces. And based on past experience with Al Qaeda, if ISIS were to take on the Saudi State through terror tactics, that would strengthen the Saudi State.
I mean, states love to have groups to crush. They’re very powerful, states are very powerful, and the Saudi State is a particularly powerful state when it comes to this sort of thing. So I think it would actually help the Saudis if they were to try a terror campaign inside the Kingdom, and an attack by, you know, kind of traditional military means would get them nowhere.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Okay. Just before we take a break, we’ll hear from Emma Green.
EMMA GREEN, TheAtlantic.com: So to follow up on the cover story question, Graeme’s cover story, there is a great quote in The Atlantic cover story that I want to recall here and then ask you about, Professor Haykel. So this is part paraphrase, part quote. “So Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as Bernard Haykel says, embarrassed and politically correct with a cotton candy view of their own religion that neglects what their religion has historically and legally required. Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an interfaith Christian nonsense tradition.”
I love that quote, mostly because it’s a great quote, but to me it’s provocative in two ways.
The first is that it is a real challenge to the Western notion of pluralism, which is that different faiths, whether they be different Abrahamic traditions, but any faith that at its core has an end times theology to it can actually live in peacefulness or live in reconciliation with another faith or even find commonality.
And the second is that it’s a challenge to in certain ways the robustness of people who are living in the Western world who have an interpretation of their faith that perhaps (inaudible) secular humanist values that champion peace or living in harmony with others or humanitarian values over what might be a violent or apocalyptic core of their own faith, and this is for Christians, this is for Jews, this is for Muslims.
So I would love for you to comment on that to the extent that you think the Islamic State has implications for how we do religion in the West and particularly pluralistic religion in the West.
BERNARD HAYKEL: You know, there’s another quote I think in the piece where I say there is no such thing as Islam, capital I, there are Islams; right? So there are a number of interpretations of the tradition. The Islamic State’s interpretation is one that is very literal and that again projects backward onto what they think early Islam was like. And Muslims, looking at the Islamic State, have not hereticized this group, I mean they have not claimed that they’re not Muslims.
Now, some say, well, you know, it’s not in the Islamic Sunni tradition to actually engage in excommunication of others, but I don’t know what it would take to actually declare someone beyond the pale of their religion because these people are really out there in terms of their practices. So they’re definitely a group that is within the tradition but with a very selective reading of the tradition. And the people who argue, you know, sloganistically that Islam is a religion of peace or Christianity is a religion of X or Judaism is a religion of Y, what does that mean? That’s not just inelegant, it’s also a very sloppy use of language, you know. There is no such thing as a religion of something, you know. Christianity was a violent religion at times, extremely violent, in fact, much more violent than what we’re seeing with the Islamists today. If you think of the 30 Years War, you know, something like 30 percent of Germany’s population was killed, tens of millions of people.
So again I think that the problem for most Westerners, and certainly secular Westerners, is that for them to capture and imagine the violence of religion, of religious belief, with the exception of groups like Koresh, David Koresh, and so on, you kind of have to go back 4 or 5 centuries in European history to see it, to understand it. It sort of faded from our consciousness. And so there is a kind of inability to understand how people can be motivated by these beliefs, by these ideas, and that they can have real political effects.
So I’m not sure I answered your question, but I think that we have to imagine that what’s going on in the Arab and Muslim world is something like the Reformation, and I can get into that maybe after the break, for us to really capture what’s happening.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Okay. And after the break, Tom will be up first.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Actually, the first question goes to me, which was asked during the break. Do you gentlemen, do you get called in for briefings, private briefings, from either the administration or on Capitol Hill for this kind of background information? Do you? And if not, why not?
BERNARD HAYKEL: Yeah, so I was against the American invasion of Iraq. So, no, the Bush administration, the previous Bush administration did not ask ‑‑
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Want to hear from you.
BERNARD HAYKEL: Yeah, no, at all. And the present administration ‑‑ I mean, I’m not part of the D.C. circuit. I think Will is. I’m very selective.
BERNARD HAYKEL: And I just was at the State Department and spoke to the guy who is responsible for countering ISIS’s propaganda. How should I put this politely? It was not a very inspiring meeting. So ‑‑
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: That was a polite way to put it.
BERNARD HAYKEL: Yeah. So, no, I tend not to deal with D.C. I deal with American Army officers, by the way. I do, do that. So I’m running a 3-day course in June, military officers who are going to have to fight these guys sooner or later, they want to know. So for them I will do anything, and I am.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Good. Okay. And, Will?
WILLIAM MCCANTS: I do, yeah, it’s part of my job description. So I usually talk to folks in the Executive Branch and the military, but I don’t often get invitations from the Hill for briefings. I think it’s happened once for a private briefing.
ROBERT DRAPER: What about during the Bush administration?
WILLIAM MCCANTS: Yeah, no, I remember talking to some people at State during the Bush administration. Yeah.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: I’ll make a prediction that after this transcript goes out across the Web, these guys will be invited in for all kinds of briefings from any administration. That’s my prediction.
Okay, Tom, you’re up first.
TOM GJELTEN, NPR: Yeah. Thank you. I guess my question is primarily for Bernard, although, Will, I would be happy to hear from you as well, and it’s kind of a 30,000 foot question. I’m sure you’ve seen the open letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called caliph, that the Islamic clerics put out. To me, it was a very persuasive argument against the ISIS claim that it is Islamic. One of the points, for example, that was made is that there is nothing in Islamic tradition that allows for the designation of a caliph by a small group, that the caliph has to be designated by consensus of the whole Islamic community.
So that was pretty persuasive. What you laid out is also persuasive. And I guess I’m a little wondering where this leads us. I mean, you can make an argument that ISIS is not Islamic. You can make an argument that ISIS is Islamic. You know, it’s an academic argument, I guess, but I’m assuming that you’re not criticizing the analysis of the clerics that say it’s not Islamic, it’s not as though you’re posing yourself to be on the opposite side, but I’m just a little confused about what is at stake here in this debate about whether ISIS is Islamic or not.
BERNARD HAYKEL: Well, it’s not an academic argument, it’s actually a political argument as to whether it’s Islamic or not. Academics actually are not on the whole exercised about this because you can draw lines from their ideas back to certain individuals in Islamic history. You can say it’s an idiosyncratic Islamic interpretation of the law and of theology, but there is no question that they are within the tradition of Islam, legal, textual, and so on.
So it’s really a political argument as to whether they are or they’re not Islamic because people don’t want to associate them with Islam, rightfully so. I mean, they give Islam a very bad name. And the clerics that you’re talking about did not say that they were not Islamic, they said that they were in error as to how they interpreted Islam. There’s a ‑‑
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Remind us what those clerics argued in that letter.
BERNARD HAYKEL: Well, it’s a long piece, and I don’t remember all the details, but basically it was a refutation of ISIS’s interpretation of Islam.
TOM GJELTEN: I think there were 25 specific points that they made, pulled out 25 things that ISIS does ‑‑
BERNARD HAYKEL: Right. Right.
TOM GJELTEN: ‑‑ and for each one, they documented text in the Quran to sort of show that there was ‑‑
BERNARD HAYKEL: Right. So let me go to the point that you made, though, about how a caliph is chosen. So Islamic public law, which is the law of state, is a fairly underdeveloped aspect of the Islamic legal tradition. It’s not like we have a clear set of guidelines about how caliphs are chosen. Firstly, it would be impossible to gauge the opinion of all Muslims, over a billion of them, as to who their leader ought to be. Right?
So the Islamic public legal tradition talks about, quote, “the people who loose and bind,” “ahl al-hall wal-‘aqd.” I will give you the transliteration later. Those people are basically regarded as an elite of the Muslims, typically scholars and military commanders. There is no number or set number about how many they ought to be, it could be a small group, it could be a large group, it could be a group from one area, it could be a group from any area, you know, or members from any area.
So, you know, this aspect of the law is, as I said, underdeveloped, and to say that the Islamic State is not right in choosing a caliph because they didn’t follow some set procedure, well, there is no set procedure. Right? And inasmuch as claiming that there is such a set procedure, these 25 clerics are just wrong. Right? And the Islamic State knows about this ambiguity and takes full advantage of it.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Do you want to add to that, Will? You don’t have to, but ‑‑
WILLIAM MCCANTS: Just briefly. You know, the question of whether it’s Islamic or not I think ultimately is for Muslims to decide for themselves. What we can do as outsiders is look at their theology, look at the way that they approach scripture, and see where they diverge or where they’re similar to Islamic precedent in the past. They have an awful lot in common with the kind of Islam that’s found in Saudi Arabia, an awful lot. They differ on some key political points, but on a number of matters, theological and jurisprudential, they’re very much in line.
And the other thing I would add is that the Islamic State relishes these kind of discussions, and they love it. As Graeme I think knows better than anyone else, talking to Islamic State danboys and girls, they’re very familiar with the medieval Islamic tradition, oftentimes more familiar with that tradition than their detractors.
So they relish the opportunity to have these debates and to burnish their Islamic bona fides by demonstrating where they are faithful to tradition and modern Muslims have diverged from it.
BERNARD HAYKEL: Can I add one more point?
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Yeah, and Graeme wants to add a point.
BERNARD HAYKEL: Yeah, I’m sorry, just one more point. So the Islamic State, Al Qaeda but especially the Islamic State, are particularly fond of one tradition of the prophet Muhammad, one thing Muhammad is alleged to have said. He is alleged to have said the following: Islam started as a stranger and it will again become a stranger, blessed are the strangers, or blessings upon the strangers. So they believe ‑‑ so the idea of strangers is a very important one. In fact, one of their media outlet arms is called “The Strangers,” and a number of them take on the name “The Stranger.” So the husband of “Dreams of Victory,” the poetess of the Islamic State, her husband is called “The Father of Usama, The Stranger,” that’s his name.
So the idea of the stranger is that the real Muslims were a small minority at the beginning of Islam, they were persecuted, and over time the real Muslims are again a minority. ISIS is that community, that minority community, of true believers, and all the people around them who claim to be Muslims are not really Muslims. And, in fact, the more vilified they are, the more attacked they are, the more confirmation they get that they are truly the strangers, they are truly the true Muslims. All right? So there is built into their ideology the idea that the more attacked, the more virtuous and true they are to their path. It’s a very powerful idea because, you know, it becomes very difficult for other Muslims to take them on because they only vindicate them by attacking them.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Do you want to quickly add to this, Graeme?
GRAEME WOOD: Yeah. I was going to suggest, but I think there’s a misconception about whether they enjoy having this kind of criticism or whether they enjoy being called un-Islamic. It seems to me like they really like it a lot. It reminds me of the kind of reaction that I would see on certain prominent Democrats’ faces when Barack Obama was called Kenyan; it seemed they thought it would discredit everything that was said subsequently because it was so easily disproven. And when this letter came out, the speed with which Islamic State supporters online would send evidence to the contrary showed that they thought, yes, by any effort of research, anyone could see that they in fact were Islamic and that those clerics had discredited themselves as hypocrites. So I think they really enjoy that particular kind of pushback.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Thank you for that. Ryan Lizza, and then Rabbi Sacks.
RYAN LIZZA, The New Yorker: You said during the break something interesting about going to the State Department and advising them on propaganda. Could you just tell us a little bit about that experience and maybe assess overall what you think the Obama administration’s response is to ISIS?
And then, Will, the same thing for you. Just broadly.
BERNARD HAYKEL: Okay. This is going to be off the record. Okay?
Off the record
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: And, Will, off the record also?
WILLIAM MCCANTS: Yeah, on the record. So I’m totally biased in answering this question because I helped set up the infrastructure at the State Department to do the online counter ‑‑
WILLIAM MCCANTS: So I’m very self-interested in my answer.
BERNARD HAYKEL: I’m sorry, Will. I didn’t ‑‑
WILLIAM MCCANTS: No, no, it’s okay.
You have to understand the context in which this initiative was set up. When the Bush administration left, the feeling was in the government that the United States should never respond to any Al Qaeda propaganda, the idea being that to respond will only draw attention to it. And a number of us felt like that was probably true if you’re talking about the President responding or Secretary Clinton, but we also felt like it wasn’t quite right to say that Jihadist recruiters should be online saying whatever kind of lie they wanted about the United States, and the United States should put its head in the sand and never respond to any of the amazing conspiracy theories that were going around.
And everybody completely understood the phenomenon that Bernard is talking about of the United States being a bad messenger, but no one else was doing it on the U.S.’s behalf either. And one of the goals, one of the main goals of the program, was to drive down public sympathy for Al Qaeda. And when I left the State Department in 2011, that was the primary goal of the organization, was to drive down any residual public sympathy for Al Qaeda mainly by just exposing its hypocrisies.
And one of the things that the U.S. government had a lot of success with actually in messaging was about Muslim casualties, people who had been killed by Al Qaeda. It was a very effective message, we know it was effective because we had instance after instance of Jihadists publicly but also privately complaining that the U.S. was highlighting this in forums where they were recruiting.
I think the challenge after 2011, so after I left ‑‑
WILLIAM MCCANTS: ‑‑ the challenge was that you had a new enemy that had captivated everyone’s attention, and that was the Islamic State, and I think the people at the State Department were still thinking about the Islamic State in the same way they had thought of Al Qaeda. Right? Al Qaeda is seeking to win over Muslim hearts and minds, so you need to drive down public sympathy for them to counter it. The Islamic State, though, is a different kind of enemy: it doesn’t care about winning over hearts and minds.
And so if you look at some of the missteps in the program, you can see that really those missteps occurred because they had this old frame of reference of trying to disabuse people about the Islamic State’s intentions and expose its true nature, which is how the line of effort was described. Well, the Islamic State was exposing its own true nature for the whole world to see. So if you look at the piece of propaganda that really caught attention in the Western press and received so much criticism, you will see that perhaps in an earlier era where it aimed at Al Qaeda, it might have had a different effect, but for the Islamic State, it was celebrated.
And then this was the video that was put out, “Welcome to ISIS Land” I think was the name of the video, but it basically just showed ISIS atrocities in a very tongue-in-cheek way to say that, “Hey, isn’t this place just great? Look, you can come here and you can be killed.” The Islamic State loved this stuff because it was pictures of all their greatest hits: shooting people and dumping them in mass graves, beheading people, they thought this was fantastic. But I think the U.S. misstep came because of a misunderstanding of how this group thinks about public opinion versus their predecessors.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Rabbi Sacks, you’re up next, and then Michelle Boorstein.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS, New York University/Yeshiva University: I wonder if I could ask two questions. Is that possible?
Number one, question one: Why do you think the West has failed to read ISIS, and failed to read, as it were, Al Qaeda and the differences between them?
One thing that struck me very much since 9/11 is that the West has not done what America did after Pearl Harbor when it asked Ruth Benedict, understanding that it was going to have to fight a war against an enemy it didn’t understand, and said to an anthropologist, “Explain the Japanese to us,” and she, of course, explained the difference between a shame culture and a guilt culture. It seems to me that in the West we have consistently failed to immerse ourselves in the mindset of that world out of which Al Qaeda and ISIS emerged in different ways and hence the question of, “Were you consulted by the State Department?” Are we continuing to misread? That’s question one.
And question two is: What is the endgame as far as this wider constituency comes. What is the nature of the apocalypse? How far do ISIS’s or in general that inflamed world out of which Al Qaeda and ISIS came, to what extent is it indeed global rule?
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Good. Bernard, you’re first.
BERNARD HAYKEL: Okay. You know, in terms of misunderstanding these groups, I really don’t have a good answer for that. I think it has to do with the culture in the United States after the end of the Cold War and the kind of hubris and the idea that you could shock and awe your enemy, you didn’t have to really understand them. I think there was that. There was also the fact that a lot of the leaders of U.S. policy were still cold warriors, and they were thinking about the world in terms that the Arab world was not too dissimilar from Poland or Czechoslovakia or Hungary, that if you only showed them the fruits of democracy and liberalism, you could graft this onto this region.
So, you know, this is a very difficult and hard and complicated part of the world, very complex part of the world, and, just to understand the difference between a Shiite and a Sunnite is hard, and it’s all these weird words and these strange people, and, so I think it requires just too much of an effort. I don’t know enough about the Japanese example to tell you whether ‑‑ how many Americans understood the Japanese and how important that was to defeating them ultimately. So I think the hurdle of understanding is just too high here for most people.
The second issue is in terms of the endgame. You know, a number of things are happening in the Arab and Islamic world. One is this aspect of the Reformation that I discussed earlier, which is that you have many of the features of the Reformation that are present in the Arab Muslim world. You have mass literacy, you have print capitalism and the free availability, virtually free availability, of information, you have a decline, even destruction, of traditional structures of authority. Virtually any Sunni can nail his or her theses to any mosque door today. Okay, so you have that phenomenon happening.
On top of that, you have globalization, authoritarianism, American intervention, you have 60 percent of the world’s oil supply ‑‑ 60 percent of the world’s conventional oil reserves are there, 30 percent of the world’s oil supply comes from there. You know, there is overwhelming outside intervention in the region. So, you know, that creates for a perfect storm of conflict, of instability. Disenfranchisement of the Sunnis also, of course, contributes to all of that.
So in terms of the endgame, my sense is that we will see a lot more death and destruction of Muslims, you know, killing between Muslims before people are eventually disabused of the idea that somehow religion is the answer, which is the slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood, that religion somehow is the panacea to the ailments of the Arab and Islamic worlds, and for that kind of lesson to be internalized will probably take quite some time. I mean, the Reformation took 100 years at least. So we’re living through some of that and we’re witnesses and participants in that process, and it’s very difficult to know how it will end except to say that it will be a lot worse before it gets better.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Will.
WILLIAM MCCANTS: Yeah. So on reading the enemies’ texts and so forth, my experience with the government has been that the intelligence community is very aware of these texts, it’s their job to read them, it’s their job to brief their principals and the President on these things. So the knowledge is out there, and I haven’t been blown away by the analyses, but it’s not wrong either. It’s sufficient to grasp the complexities.
But I’ve noticed two things. One is that the people making the real decisions, whether it was in the Bush administration or the Obama administration, it’s just literally a handful of people, and even if they have very knowledgeable folks, say, on the NSC at the director level, often those people are not in the meetings or not really shaping the decisions. And I know this just from talking to friends in those positions who are deeply knowledgeable about Iraqi or Syrian politics and about Al Qaeda and what have you, so there’s a disconnect at that level.
And it’s also the case that there are so many different competing analyses in the intelligence community with its 16 or so agencies, and the politics that goes into which of those analyses rise to the level of the President’s attention is really complicated. But I know for a fact from one of my friends inside the CIA whose job it was to track the rise of Al Qaeda over the years and to give the assessment, he argued right after the Arab Spring that this was going to be a huge boon to Jihadists. A number of the things we’re talking about today he saw a long time ago.
So it is striking to me to read, I think it’s today in one of your papers, either New York Times or Washington Post, it was striking to me today to read former Acting Director Morell talk about in his new book that the CIA never saw any of this coming. That’s not true. He, as head, acting head, of the CIA may not have seen it coming, but it doesn’t mean his analysts weren’t seeing it. I mean, for those of you who don’t interact with the Executive Branch much, I don’t know the makeup of the room necessarily, but it is vast and foreigners that come to this country are often just blown away by the size of our bureaucracy.
That’s an inside baseball answer to a question, but I think it gets to some of the reason why a lot of these analyses kind of languish and don’t rise to the attention of the leadership.
On the question of the apocalyptic stuff, I think one thing to keep in mind ‑‑ and this goes to Bernard’s point ‑‑ one thing to keep in mind is that early Islamic prophecies of the end times were written in early Islamic history during a period of civil wars in the community, and so each side in these civil wars would invent a prophecy about their victory and the other guy’s inevitable defeat and they would put it in the mouth of the prophet, and many of the cities that they talk about where these prophecies would be fulfilled were germane to their contemporary conflicts. Damascus, Jerusalem, Kufa and so forth. It just so happens because of all of the astounding violence in the Middle East right now in exactly those places, it invites this kind of apocalyptic framework, which is one big reason why the Islamic State has been so successful in using it as a recruiting pitch.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: That’s very helpful. Michelle Boorstein, you’re up next.
MICHELLE BOORSTEIN, Washington Post: A little bit following what Will was saying, so I don’t know if you feel like this is a little out of your expertise, but I was also interested in the impact of all this on global Islam in general. And you’re saying all this discussion within ISIS and Al Qaeda, what’s appropriate? what’s really Islamic? what’s not? et cetera. How do you think ‑‑ do you feel like you can say anything about what you’ve observed about how all this might influence, you know, large populations of Muslims? You’re talking about the Reformation.
Do think that this is at the end of ‑‑ Professor Haykel, you were saying, is this a threat or not? A lot of times people are just focused on like danger and threat. But generally, do you think these conversations are trickling down in ways that are important for the development of Islam more generally?
BERNARD HAYKEL: I mean, I do. I mean, I think of the Islamic State or Al Qaeda as a symptom of these bigger trends and developments within the Islamic world, and Sunni Islamic world in particular. The Shiites don’t have the same problems because they have a much more robust religious hierarchy that has coherence and that has not faced the ruptures that the Sunni religious authorities have had to face and their institutions have had to face.
So, you know, a lot of Sunni Muslims are looking at the Al Qaeda and the ISIS phenomenon and wondering what’s going to happen. I mean, if ISIS is victorious militarily, which is unlikely, then its message will have greater resonance and salience within the Sunni world. You will see more recruits. If they begin to look like losers, and by “losers” I mean militarily, you know, are defeated, their luster or the sheen will wear off very, very quickly, and they will be regarded as another group of extremist heretics that emerged, like many others have in Islamic history (like the Kharijites) and that they will be forgotten as the Kharijites were.
But I think the broader developments and the broader dynamics of the Sunni world, namely, you know, where does authority lie? What is the role of Islamic law? To what extent should Islamic law be the guiding framework for state authority and rule? What is Islamic law? Who determines what Islamic law is? Those are big questions that Islamists have brought to the fore for over a century now, and those remain unresolved questions.
I personally think ‑‑ and I’ve written about this ‑‑ that Islamic law, as a political project ‑‑ which is what Islamism is really about ‑‑ is both a failed project and will fail in any country it imposes itself simply because Islamic law was never created for that purpose. Islamic law is not suited for empowering Muslims politically in the modern world, and nor was the state the principal instrument for the implementation of Islamic law. Much of Islamic law developed actually outside the state, in the community, and to use the state as an instrument for the implementation of a uniform law, which is a European idea, it’s something that we get in the modern world from the French and the Germans. And Islamists have looked to the Germans and the French and they said, “We want that, too.” But their law is not adapted for that purpose.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: You said you’ve written about this? Where did you write about this?
BERNARD HAYKEL: It’s a lecture that I gave at the Yale Law School, which I will be happy to share with you. It’s been published. It’s called, I think, “The Political Failure of Islamic Law.”
MICHELLE BOORSTEIN: Can I follow up very, very quickly? So do you think what we see with discussions among Muslim groups in the United States is kind of irrelevant because it’s a small community? I focus on American religion, so I’m interested in like, how does all this conversation, especially since 9/11, there has just been so much more thinking and talking among Muslims about their faith and et cetera, et cetera, but it could be that we have such a small community here that it’s we’re thinking long game here talking about the rest of the world.
BERNARD HAYKEL: Yeah, look, the action is largely in the Arab world in terms of the role of religion, the role religion should have in politics. I think that diaspora communities of Muslims in the West, or even in the non-Arabic-speaking regions of the world, are really not central to the dynamic that I just described.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Okay. Ana Marie Cox.
ANA MARIE COX, GQ Magazine and The Guardian: Yes. Thank you so much. This has been amazing, so I appreciate it. So I’ve got a point of information and then a couple questions. One is I really appreciated the discussion about why women are attracted to the Islamic State, and I just wanted to point out something we were talking about last night, that of all places BuzzFeed has had a lot of really good stuff on this. They have a reporter there, Ellie Hall, who has followed the recruitment of young women in the West via Twitter and Instagram, and in a weird way, it actually sort of ‑‑ to me, what explains it is something that one of you mentioned about how the Islamic State is a weirdly a cult of individualism in a way, and that is what they seem to be appealing to, at least in Western, young Western, women, is that they feel like they’re expressing, weirdly, ironically, expressing their individualism by joining a cult.
And that actually sort of leads me to my next question, which is that it seems to me that a lot of extremist movements and cults kind of eventually fail because somehow the hypocrisy and corruption of their leaders becomes exposed, like in a way that’s why Al Qaeda ‑‑ you were talking about driving down Al Qaeda’s popularity because a certain amount of kind of hypocrisy and a kind of corruption was shown to be they’re saying this and they’re doing that. And then you said yourself the reason this doesn’t seem to be working with the Islamic State is they’re saying this and they’re doing this, there is no daylight between what they’re saying and what they’re doing.
So I guess my question is, why is that, that there is this weird incorruptibility there almost? And, indeed, to a Western mind, or my Western mind, it’s that purity that does not compute, the fact that people would be so ‑‑ I mean, in America, I think that there is sort of an assumption that eventually you become corrupt, if you get enough power, if you get enough money, if you get enough guns, you will work to maintain that position, and maintaining one’s position usually requires some form of compromise, some form of hypocrisy. This doesn’t seem to have happened in the Islamic State, and maybe that’s because, sort of as you were saying, well, that they’ve had no perfect experiment, they have had no ability to get to that place. So I wonder, you know, is there a theoretical possibility that if they did somehow consolidate enough power, then they would start to fail?
And then my next question I guess is for Bernard, which you had your criticisms of the way the Obama administration had been dealing with the Islamic State online, and I wonder if you do have a proscription, I mean, if you do have something that you would advise them to do. Like I heard you talk about what they’re doing and your dissatisfaction with that, but maybe I missed it, but I didn’t hear maybe what you thought their actions should be beyond military proxy intervention.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Okay. Thank you.
BERNARD HAYKEL: I think Will should go first.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Will should go first.
WILLIAM MCCANTS: On the question of the incorruptibility of the group, I am sure, as you are, that there is plenty of corruption at the top. I compare it to the early days of the Islamic State and complaints by people who used to be in the Islamic State who later left and then aired the dirty laundry. We’re only now just starting to see that from the second incarnation of the Islamic State, but the more that that comes to light, the more that it will highlight the discrepancy between the pure motives they profess to have and then some of the dirty dealings they actually have to engage in, in order to maintain power.
But on the question of whether they need to sell their violence against Muslims as being very precise and regrettable and, you know, that we really have your best interests at heart, they don’t have that baggage. I mean, that was Al Qaeda’s baggage, and it was easy to burst that bubble by just showing how many Muslims they had killed. The Islamic State does not have that particular weakness, but it’s certainly the case that the internal politicking in the Islamic State has been very corrupt and also, you know, very similar to the kind of stuff you will watch every weekend on Game of Thrones. I mean, there are just fascinating alliances and cloak and dagger.
I think part of the difficulty in wrestling with the question is that we often tend to separate religion and politics in our mind and put spirituality over here and power struggle over here. And I think that for the Islamic State, but also in early Islamic history, those two things aren’t necessarily antithetical. You can have religious aspirations that will also bring you great political power.
And there is a fascinating series of internal documents from the Baathist State of Saddam talking to his group, his inner circle, in the early 1990s talking about the Islamic religion. And he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Baathist, so a socialist secularist, but he admired Islamic law and its social utility and its ability to bring people to heel. And this was just before he launched his own faith campaign where he instituted a number of these laws. And I think the same way about the Islamic State and these questions of, you know, are these guys really pious or are they just power hungry? For me, it’s very hard to tease those two things apart because they’re not necessarily separate things.
On the question of, will they fail over time if left to their own devices? My feeling is no, just having seen other states that were set up in a similar fashion. Were they allowed to go on their own, they wouldn’t fail because of their brutality. The key vulnerability and the reason why we will never know again is because the Jihadists keep provoking outsiders, and so the experiment is always interrupted. But I have a strong feeling that the Taliban, for instance, would still be with us today and may again be with us had it not been for the fact that they were housing Bin Laden and launched 9/11.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: A quick follow-up on that?
ANA MARIE COX: Just a quick follow-up on that. And is that because there is something about Islam that makes it more ‑‑ like there is something about the religion of Islam that makes it easier to integrate into politics in a way that like ‑‑ you know, I think for American minds or Western minds, politics and religion, we have a tradition of them being separate, but they’re also separate because again politics demands corruptibility in a way, demands compromise, you have to be able to give a little bit, and this is not true in Islam? Is that ‑‑ am I ‑‑ I don’t know if I articulated that.
WILLIAM MCCANTS: No, no, I got it. I think in the Middle Ages, where the classical legal tradition develops, as Bernard says, there is a growing distinction between religion and politics, and religious jurisprudence is being articulated outside of the state. The state has different imperatives, sometimes overlapping with religion, sometimes not. So it’s not the case that you don’t find it, but in early Islam, they are very much intertwined because the prophet’s religious project was also a political project, which is why he had to institute a number of laws that strike us as very political or mundane in nature, because he was setting up a state.
And so for groups, Muslim groups, that are in tribal societies seeking to establish states on a religious basis, the prophet’s example not only provides them with religious cover but it also provides them a textbook in how to do it.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: EJ Dionne?
EJ DIONNE, Washington Post: I think, first of all, congratulations, Mike, happy anniversary. Fifteen years of enlightening provocation and both of you, thank you for being in that tradition.
I was originally going to ask just two practical questions, but inspired by Emma and Tom, I can’t resist taking up the “cotton candy” issue.
Just for practical questions, Will said even after the Islamic State’s government is defeated, which it will be, putting the big news in a parenthetical like that sort of raises all kinds of questions. How will it be defeated? When? By whom? I would love you to address that.
The other practical question is: Will the rise or has the rise of the Islamic State ‑‑ and Bernard alluded to this a little bit ‑‑ had any impact on Saudi Arabia’s attitude toward Salafism and all this, and will it have some effect?
The question on your quotation, what this all brought to mind to me, which may be an imperfect metaphor, is the struggle within the Lutheran Church under the Nazis between the German Christians and the confessing church, and one can say, I think one should say, that German Christians were a perverse, destructive minority, and also deeply sinful. Nonetheless, they were in some sense religious, but they were also hauling kind of modern ideas, and, you know, again perverse modern ideas, into their formulation.
So is the right question to ask about the Islamic State, are they at some level Islamic? And obviously they draw on a tradition, so they are in some sense Islamic, but are in fact a minority heretical, largely marginal view that, you know, so that it’s almost the same thing as they’re not Islamic, which is to say they’re heretical Islam, a minority, and is that sort of the answer to the riddle raised by your “cotton candy” quotation? But it may be either of you on my practical questions will tell us how it’s all going to come down.
WILLIAM MCCANTS: Well, one, I would just point to the previous precedent of all the other Jihadist statelets that have made this attempt and failed badly, and those that failed usually cited two things for their defeat: one was the overwhelming airpower of the Western governments arrayed against them; and the second was those governments working with the local tribes and turning them against the Jihadists. So those are the two key ingredients for destroying organizations like this.
So we’ve got the airpower component, but what we lack in this case are the tribes who are willing to work with their central governments. Because the United States is not on the ground in large numbers anymore in Iraq, the tribes have to look to Baghdad, and Baghdad has not been very good about incorporating them into the system, and as a matter of fact, they kicked a lot of them out of the system after the first Sunni tribal awakening, and Baghdad is very wary of giving them a lot of weapons that could be turned against them in the future.
And the United States so far, as far as I know, has made the decision that it’s Baghdad’s call whether the tribes are going to be armed or not, and until the Sunni tribes are armed, you won’t have a durable solution against the Islamic State. I would just assume over time that either that compromise will be made, or the worst case scenario that the Shia militias in Iraq will be hyper-empowered. That will lead to long-term consequences, very negative, that could see the rise again of an Islamic State or a similar kind of organization.
The other part of the problem, of course, is that there is no group so far on the ground inside of Syria that’s willing to go after the Islamic State. The Kurds kind of, but the Kurds can’t go very far out of their territorial homelands, and until there is a reliable group on the ground that’s willing to go against the Islamic State, its going to continue to have that base. But, again, I just assume over time that one way or another either side in that conflict is going to get the upper hand and then they are going to come after the Islamic State, but it’s going to be the afterthought.
EJ DIONNE: What about Syria? In other words, they’ve got two areas of operation.
WILLIAM MCCANTS: Right. Yeah. No, the second one is what I was talking about, is Syria, and we don’t have anybody we can work with yet on the ground. Working with the Assad government wouldn’t really work because he’s the guy that allowed the Islamic State to flourish to begin with, and he sees the Islamic State as a political tool they can use against their enemies.
I think the Islamic State collapses in the long term because it’s hard to stand up against this kind of airpower and it’s made enough enemies on the ground. But a sustainable solution is going to have to involve the Sunni tribes in that hinterland between Syria and Iraq, and so far I think that’s going to be several years in the making, that’s not going to be near term.
“To think about [IS] as an existential threat is to give them too much importance and really not to see them for what they are, which is this kind of cult that is a symptom of a deep political injustice…This is what bad governance for a very long period of time over people produces—chaos and madness. So even if we were to get rid of the jihadis, it would not address the core structural problems that lead to this phenomenon.”
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: On this point quickly, Will, on this point?
WILLIAM SALETAN, Slate: Will, are you saying that the Islamic State will be defeated, but there is a very good chance, if not a probability, that it will be back?
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Say it again? Will, what did you ‑‑
WILLIAM SALETAN: No, it just sounded like from his analysis that he was saying it would be defeated, but the dynamics he described entailed that it would be back, perhaps as quickly as it came back the second time after the first.
WILLIAM MCCANTS: That’s exactly right. It hangs on as a terrorist organization, it’s extremely resilient. It went up against the most powerful military on Earth and made it through to what we have today. It will lose its government, but it’s going to wait around, and unless the political conditions change on the ground, it will make another comeback.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Somewhere in there, there was a question for you also.
BERNARD HAYKEL: Yeah.
WILLIAM SALETAN: Both that question and anything on the subject just out of curiosity.
BERNARD HAYKEL: Right. So the “cotton candy,” by the way, reference was to do with primarily Christian interfaith groups.
The question of the Saudis, the Saudis have a real issue with the Islamic State because, as Will pointed out, there is a lot of commonality in terms of the theology and the doctrines, with some exceptions, and important ones. One is the caliphate. Saudis are not interested in the caliphate and never declared a caliphate and so on, and so that makes it an easier target for them because they can then attack this group as being beyond the pale, which they are, by the way, which gets to the question you were asking. They are definitely a minority in terms of their interpretation and in terms of their view of Islam. Whether we’re talking about the Islamic State or about the Salafis of Saudi Arabia, they don’t represent the mainstream, the historical mainstream, of Islam.
In the modern period, however, a lot of people who are themselves not self-declared or self-proclaimed Salafis are people who have taken on a lot of attitudes and approaches to textual authority that are very Salafi. So in other words, you can be Salafi without really considering yourself a Salafi just because you think that literalism, direct interface with texts of revelation, is the way to understand Islam, rather than go through, let’s say, the traditional hierarchies of authority that have existed from pre-modern times. So there is a kind of Salafization of Islam without it being called that, that’s widespread in the Sunni world, and the Saudis have contributed to that phenomenon, although they are not entirely responsible for it.
I think what the Saudis will try to do, and what they have done, is to hereticize, that is to call the Islamic State and Al Qaeda deviants, people who are in error. To what extent that is believed by the Saudi population is open to question. We don’t have polling, but it seems clear that there is a very large constituency in Saudi Arabia but also elsewhere that is intrigued by ISIS, in fact, maybe even attracted to it, although not wanting it to rule over them. All right? So there is that important distinction. They’re fighting the good fight, but let them stay in Iraq, not come here.
Okay. And that tells you that basically, as I said earlier, that a lot of Sunnis, when looking at the political landscape and religious landscape of the Middle East, think that there are a lot of other bad guys out there, it’s not just ISIS that’s bad.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Bernard, do you have a comment about the endgame that Will was asking, where you see this going?
BERNARD HAYKEL: Yeah. I mean, I think that they will sooner or later be defeated militarily, certainly. Also, you know, to burn this red hot in terms of religious passion is unsustainable over time. I mean, the population will not tolerate this sort of zealotry over the long term.
But in terms of I think ‑‑ is it Ana Marie? You had asked the question in terms of what I would recommend to the Obama administration to do. So I’m a realist and a relative isolationist. I think that the United States ought to draw red lines as to what is really crucially important for its interests in this region. I have my own view of what those red lines are; I will be happy to share them with you.
I think the large oil fields of southern Iraq and the Gulf and northern Iraq are crucial. If ISIS were to approach those oil fields, we should send troops to defeat them on the ground, not just from the air, because global economic stability and our way of life depends on the steady and reliable supply of that oil to the world, to the rest of the world, so that’s a red line.
The Saudi monarchy is a red line.
Israel is a red line; a threat to its existence would entail us having to also go in.
The Kurds are also a red line, and we’ve proven this recently. In fact, we wouldn’t have gotten involved I think in the air campaign if it hadn’t been for the Kurds being threatened.
Turkey is another red line.
But short of that, you know, what happens in the western desert of Iraq and the eastern desert of Syria, or for that matter, the rest of Syria, even Lebanon, if that entire region were to turn into “Mad Max Land,” if you’ve seen the movie, I don’t think that’s really America’s concern, or for that matter, it is anything that America can do anything about. I mean, we’ve proven to be disastrous at building or rebuilding states and societies that are already destroyed because of the legacy of authoritarianism. The army, the military, it’s too blunt an instrument to rebuild these societies, and we should just leave them alone to manage. You know, if it’s a war between Sunnis and Shias, well, so be it. I don’t think we should butt in.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Quickly on this point, Nina, and then Michelle Cottle is up, but you’ve got to pull the microphone over, please.
NINA EASTON: Take this as an aside, but I was in Saudi Arabia a year and a half ago and spent some time, and I was struck that there was this real resistance on the part of ministers to even call ‑‑ have any historical connection to Wahhabism or Salafi, they wouldn’t even use those terms.
BERNARD HAYKEL: Yeah. “Wahhabism” is a term of abuse, you know, it’s a pejorative term, so they don’t use it of themselves, and they just call themselves Muslims. So, it is just like a Catholic wouldn’t call himself a papist; right? So asking a Wahhabi to call himself a Wahhabi is just that, they wouldn’t use that term.
NINA EASTON: Thank you.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Okay. Michelle Cottle?
MICHELLE COTTLE: Okay. So drawing any kind of cross-religion parallels as fraught as we saw when the President blundered into this at the Prayer Breakfast and invoked the Crusades and the Inquisition and then got jumped on, but, one, when a politician does something like that, do you just smack yourself on the forehead and go, “Oh, my god, what are they doing? Just making this worse,” but then speaking to the Reformation issue that has been brought up a lot, I mean, to what degree do you think there are instructive parallels within that, at least from a scholarly point of view, to draw any insights?
BERNARD HAYKEL: Yeah. I mean, I think that President Obama and the U.S. government, and actually all non-Muslims, have no standing in deciding what is or is not Islamic or should not get involved in this debate between Muslims. I mean, as a scholar of Islam, someone who studies Islam, I write for a constituency of other scholars. I’m not writing for Muslims; I’m writing for people who study Islam. So my role is quite different, and I belong to a community that has existed in the West for some 2, 3 centuries now. If Muslims were to read me, that’s their business, but I’m not telling them what Islam is or isn’t, and nor should the President.
In terms of the Reformation, if there are any lessons to be drawn, I mean, they’re terrifying really. If we’re embarking or are actually already in something like the Reformation in the Muslim world, then, you know, hold on because we’re in for a really wild ride with lots of violence.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: So could you tease that out a little bit more, what you mean by the wild ride?
BERNARD HAYKEL: Oh, well, I mean, you know, it’s violence. Basically it’s groups in the name of God, killing each other to establish their rule ‑‑ you know, Calvin was a really nasty guy. Okay? I mean, read up about him — and there’s a huge, a big statue of him in Geneva today– but people forget actually what the city he led was like under him.
MICHELLE COTTLE: Yeah, my sense is that because we’re talking about so long ago, people don’t think about this at all, and I’m just wondering, it sounds like you think that there is a certain disturbing insight to be ‑‑
BERNARD HAYKEL: Yeah, and there are definitely parallels, although they’re not identical. I mean, there is no perfect kind of, you know, match-up between the two because we live in a much more complicated world than back then and much more globalized world and so on, but there are really striking parallels, and they’re terrifying actually.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Okay.
EJ DIONNE: I think we should have our Calvinist host to defend Calvin.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Over drinks tonight. Over drinks tonight.
Will, and then our last question will be from Rabbi Sacks before we break for lunch.
WILLIAM SALETAN: Yeah, just building on Bernard’s point, you know, I think when we ‑‑ the term “Reformation” I think for many conjures up a liberal reformation of religion, but reformations don’t have to go that way, and you can have different kinds of reformations. And the basic parallel between the Protestant Reformation and what we’re seeing today is a dismissal of Medieval scholarly authority and seeking to go back to the texts.
Now, going back to scripture can be quite liberating, and you can find liberal passages that will support a liberal reformation, but it can also go in an extremely ultraconservative direction, which is what has happened in the Sunni world, and I think it helps the ultraconservative reformation that a number of their chief patrons happen to be sitting on a lot of oil.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Rabbi Sacks, so you get the last question before we break for lunch.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: Yeah, I suppose when we talk about the Reformation, we’re confusing what happened at the very end with what happened between here and there. So can I just ask, at the very end, voices who have been through this century plus of bloodshed and brutality and said there must be another way and we owe our modern world to them, to Milton and to Hobbes and to Locke and to Spinoza, who out of the Reformation formed the modern as an antidote to the violence that had unleashed. Have you found such voices in Islam?
BERNARD HAYKEL: So there are individuals that are pointed to as possible figures of that kind, you know, Rachid Ghannouchi, for instance, the leader of the Islamic movement, or Muslim Brotherhood of Tunisia, as one such individual.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Say the name again?
BERNARD HAYKEL: Ghannouchi, Rachid Ghannouchi. I’ll spell that for you later. Others talk about Tariq Ramadan in Europe and so on. I frankly don’t see such individuals, no one certainly of the stature of Spinoza, emerging as yet, and when they do emerge, when there are people like that that do emerge, they are often either killed or exiled to Europe or to the West. They don’t have a long shelf life or survival rate in the Islamic world. The people arrayed against such people are extremely violent and they have no problems using that violence, and we see it on a daily basis. In Bangladesh now, this writer was killed and there are people who are being killed like that all over the Islamic world.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Do you want to add to that, Will?
WILLIAM MCCANTS: Yeah, just a quick point, and that is the reformation, so to speak, in Islam has been going on for two centuries, but it happens that the earlier instances of it occur in places where the European powers colonized the Middle East, and so these intellectuals had much more freedom.
So if you look at some of the early glimmerings of the reformation, say, in India, all of those liberalizing religious voices were pushed to the side and quieted once the British left India.
And you can think what you like about colonialism, I think a lot of bad things about it, but one of its features, though, was protecting these kind of voices because the colonialists had a self-interest in it ‑‑ right? ‑‑ they wanted to see a number of things reformed. Because of the fact that a number of these more liberal reformers were speaking and writing under occupation and often working with the colonial governments, their project was tarred and feathered with the colonial project, and so today conservative religious critics associate liberal reformers with the imperial project. Even if they themselves are great critics of Western power in the Middle East, South, Southeast Asia, it is still a slam against your reforming opponent, your liberal reforming opponent, if they say anything at all that looks like it might be an endorsement of Western culture or Western politics.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Ladies and gentlemen, join me in thanking both of our presenters.
Full Session Video
Listen to Audio
Haykel and McCants Presentaiton (Download)