The two ISISs


I read this often, in social media updates and in tweets from blue-tick media mavens, that an overwhelming majority of ISIS violence is on Muslims (in this case 90%) , and so, by an extension, what are you non-Muslims getting your chaddis in a bunch for? The dissonance, in the above statement, stems from the overloading of the word ISIS in popular discourse, used as it is to refer to both a group in the Syria-Iraq region and also to radical Islamic fundamentalism in general, where the kill count of the former, or more precisely per-centage of Muslim on Muslim violence, is used to make a point about the latter.

But before we get into all that, let’s first talk about ISIS, the organization. It is intellectually lazy to call ISIS a radical Muslim group, especially when someone is purporting to have a serious discussion. Of course it is that only, but that’s not what defines them. The ISIS, more precisely, is a radical Sunni Muslim organization that espouses Salafism, a philosophy of intense Islamic fundamentalism. Salafists emphasize a return to the roots of Islam, to the rule of the rightly-guided Caliphs (the first four leaders of the Islam faith, after the death of Prophet Mohammed), in a very literal way. Which is why they seek to establish their vision of medieval utopia in the lands they control. They are kind of like auditors, in that they are extremely literal in their interpretation of standard operating procedure and standards. For instance, they take Islam’s strictures against idol worship to extreme levels. They are violently against music, even music that is Islamic and religious, and sometimes against even their own places of worship, as is evidenced in the recent attack at Medina.

This however should not be spun, as it is done, that they are against Islam. Of course they aren’t. They are against practices in Islam they believe are un-Islamic, practices that the rest of the world, including a majority of Muslims, think are perfectly Islamic. This naturally puts them against many Muslims. Shias and Sufis are particularly hated, and so are homosexuals and liberal Muslims of all sorts. Even many Sunnis, who might consider themselves to be orthodox enough, but do not meet the standards set by Salafists, lie squarely in their crosshairs. And as the ISIS has shown, time and time again, the distance between “against” and “I will kill you using methods that would be considered extreme in a Saw film” is a very short straight line for them.

One of the fundamental tenets of Salafism is that the rulers of the Islamic world, post the reign of the rightly-guided Caliphs, have allowed Muslims to deviate away from the original moral ideals of Islam, and, if that was not bad enough, have allied with enemies of Islam, like the West and the Jewish state of Israel, to  cling onto power. This is why for more than a century, Salafist preachers have found themselves in jail, and on death row, in Sunni Islamic countries like Syria and Egypt. Salafists have always been anti-establishment, where the establishment is defined as a Muslim Sunni Arab government, their message of returning to a hypothetical state of medieval purity attractive for Arab Sunni Muslims, disgusted by the corruption of their governments, and their failure to solve the overwhelming Arab problem of the last hundred years. Palestine. This is a point often missed in many word-riots in the media, the fundamentally Arab identity of ISIS, and this is why any beyond-perfunctory understanding of who they are killing and why they are killing them requires you to understand Arab & Middle Eastern politics.

In the 1920s, the House of Saud scouted the sands for hardy nomadic tribesmen, proselytized them with a local strain of Salafism called Wahabism, named after a certain Muhammed al-Wahab, and converted them into a militia called the Ikhwan, which they then used to assert their hegemony over an area, where the discovery of oil, had opened up many wars. But soon the House of Saud found themselves in conflict with the Ikhwan, because the Ikhwan felt that the Sauds were, and you may want to be sitting down when you read this, not Islamic enough, because they had done things like bring in modern automation, and had sent their princes to the land of non-believers, namely England, for study and fun. Over the years, the conflict became more marked, leading to the Ikhwan revolt, which was put down savagely by the House of Saud. In 1979, another group of Wahabi fanatics, calling themselves al-Ikhwan as a shout-out to the original Ikhwan, seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, leading to an armed conflict with the House of Saud once again.

The reason I give this brief history is to establish, that the most orthodox of Arab rulers, the House of Saud, has had persistent problems with Salafis (in the case of Saudi Arabia, the word Wahabi is used), a problem they have sought to solve by throwing money at Wahabis, by financing their proselytizing activities in other lands, under the assumption that if they are engaged elsewhere, they won’t come creating trouble in their backyard. So yes, the Saudi ruling class have killed a lot of ISIS-like people over the ages, probably more than anyone else, but does make them tolerant or less of an enabler or honestly, significantly better, than the ISIS?

I am going to go with no.

Now to specifically ISIS. ISIS rose as a result of the US invasion of Iraq, that overthrew a secular (by the standards of the area) Sunni leader Saddam Hussein. The Shia majority of the country welcomed the US invasion, stoking Sunni fears of a loss of hegemony. Sectarian violence broke out, and combined with the rebellion in Syria, led to large territories with minimal control, and ISIS rose to fill in the gap.

It is thus only natural that most of ISIS’s conflict would be with other Muslims, whether it be Shia groups or Sunnis who fought for the Iraqi army or Syrian army against them.  The region has never been known for ethnic and religious diversity, and for good reason too, but the kind of savagery heaped on the Yazidis, specially Yazidi women, should be enough to convince anyone with an open mind that for the ISIS, all their enemies are not created equal. That Muslims, mostly Shias and Sunnis who fought for the other side, form a large majority of ISIS’s victims is simply because they are the vast majority in the regions in which they operate.

Which brings me to the fundamental confusion. ISIS the group is different from ISIS, the global Jihad brand.  ISIS, the group, with its very successful social media campaign, an irony given their Luddite roots,  has caught the attention of many Islamic groups all over the world, with very different political compulsions and goals. and thus created ISIS, the brand.

In Kashmir, the raising of ISIS flags is the adoption of the supremacist brand of Islam, rather than a deep acceptance of Salafi principles. A Kashmiri militant’s enemy is the Indian government and the Kashmiri Pandit, he has no history with the troops of Bashar-al-Assad, nor does he want the fall of the House of Saud. The same way, the ISIS leader, sitting in Mosul, won’t be able to point out Kashmir on a map, and wouldnt even care for the struggles of non-Arab Muslims of any denomination, unless for strategic brand-building reasons. And yet both are being referred to as ISIS in the eight o clock news, which is where the confusion originates.

Similarly, when a bunch of rich Dhaka boys, bored with their life of privilege, take a crash course online in Salafi philosophy, take some pictures and send them off to the ISIS social media people, they end up appropriating Arab headgear and their names, but are unable to lose their Bangali identity. That is why they go around the restaurant butchering guests, they ask “Are you Bangali?”. In their fundamentalism-addled brain, the Salafi philosophy has been cross-producted with their Bangali identity, leading them to equate “non-Bengali” with “non-Islamic”. Were their victims 90% Muslims? I am guessing, given their criterion of releasing people who could reside the Quaran, possibly not. What about the Paris bombings? What about the Florida night-club shootings? What was the religious distribution of the victims there? One can go on, but the point, I believe has been made.

The crisis we find ourselves today is less from ISIS the organization, which is largely contained in a small area and will not expand, but ISIS the brand. Islamic groups, and damaged individuals,  across the world, who adopt the brand do to serve their own political interests or to provide a religious justification for their homicidal agendas. Just as we can do without targetting an entire religion for the activities of a few, as Donald Trump and Islamophobes of different hues say we do, so too can do without the semantic sleight of hand of trivializing the threat of ISIS, by conflating the organization in Syria-Iraq by the name of ISIS with the global brand of radical Islamic fundamentalism which goes by the same name.

20 thoughts on “The two ISISs

  1. Good one. Ideas travel faster than military might. Unfortunately true.

  2. Thanks, wonderful explanation as usual. Its a pity that you do not blog as regularly as before. Some of your best write-ups have been on this blog and they are dearly missed.

    1. Now that he has completed writing 2 books on hand, believe he will write more often here 🙂 #Hope

  3. Wow! This is brilliant analysis and writing.

  4. Thought provoking…

    PS: “reside the Quaran”….. “recite the Quaran/Quran”

  5. Sourabh Mahajan July 8, 2016 — 4:41 am

    The irony does laugh in our face.
    “90% Muslims are victims” is thrown around by the übermensch in the social media, usually for garnering moderate Muslim credits and validation and perfectly supporting an ill case of victimhood is way more damaging, that it trivializes the genuine fear of the masses who are not Muslim, or Muslims who don’t fit their narrow definition of Islam. They might convince a confused teenager to become a “good” Muslim, but us infidels are no more good to them than cattle, and Arnabda even cattle does not face the brutality and humiliation Kashmiri pundits, Yazidis and the tolerant strands of Islam face. Killed by a gunshot is a whole different thing than brutally raped, beaten and then buried alive, as in case of Yazidi women.

    And here they come, frothing at the mouth liberals apologising for these barbarians (and they are a disgrace even to the barbarians) with such statements, of course sugar coated with “this is not Islam” “kasab-poor family-misguided” “most of the victims are Muslims”, the last one subtly saying that as long as more Muslims die at their hands, others must take a backseat and relax as they watch their relatives and community butchered with no sympathy from the liberals.
    This intellectuals don’t realise that when these come home, they will be amongst the first to be roasted chicken, as Jihadis have a thing for expensive, high nose hotels, like the one in Dhaka or the Marriott in Islamabad.
    And do visit Imran sheikh named guy on Quora. An Indian Sufi turned Salafist preaching other Muslims to leave Sufism and join the purest of the pure. The country that bred these kind of vermin is doomed to eternity.

  6. Sourabh Mahajan July 8, 2016 — 4:52 am

    A great one. Good ‘ol greatbong classic.

  7. Jitendra Vagh July 8, 2016 — 6:09 am

    Excellent analysis GB….

    A typo – “reside the Quaran”…

  8. This was great Arnab, I shared your blog post on Twitter.

  9. Great analysis Sir. Why cant liberals see this . The biases of RW and liberals and the filter they use to see everything make both useless.

  10. malavikapatil July 9, 2016 — 3:04 am

    What ISIS is doing is nothing different from what Mughals, Tuglak and earlier Sultanate did.
    Trying to blame every thing on Wahabism or ISIS ism is a cop out. It would have been illumination if anyone could explain how Whabism, Salafism contradict Koran and Sharia.

    Where do these Wahabis get inspiration from is carefully avoided by the author. It is the same Koran, Sharia and Sunnah.

    1. Sourabh Mahajan July 9, 2016 — 5:24 am

      The task of searching for contradiction for Wahabbism or Salafism in Koran is actually a futile effort. Remember that Muhammed al-Wahabb was chased by arabs themselves, that he took Koranic verses too literally and seriously.
      Religion, especially Abrahamic ones are inherently more structured and militaristic than their pagan or Dharmic counterparts, the anomaly being Jesus, and then too Christians committed butchery in his name. But point that I want to make is we Hindus too can find a vague forgotten reference to sati practice, a dead practice revived by the British, then again made obsolete by reformers themselves. We don’t toss our widows into Jauhar or sati, because being medieval and ancient, it is irrelevant and doesn’t fit into the modern ethics of our society. But if some crazy loon in attempt to revive ram rajya does try to immolate someone, he will be imprisoned and punished by the law, and not even the most right wing crazies will bat an eyelid.
      This is of course a poor analogy, but religions have weird laws and regulations because they are not constituted by logic, but faith and fairy tales. Wahabbis are crazier than the rest of the Muslims, reason being they skip the logic part of the Shariah laws and follow a very militaristic and literal interpretation of Islam ( and as I pointed above, its way more structured and defining than its predecessors) and hence tailor made for implosion.

      1. malavikapatil July 9, 2016 — 2:42 pm

        Wrong analogy as you yourself mentioned. I can say anything abut Hinduism and not worry about having my head lopped off. ex MF Hussain. Contrast that with Danish cartoons, that too in a Kaffir country. Don’t bring in Jauhar, here those Hindu women chose death than be sex slaves of some depraved cretin. Seeing the fate of Yazdis, I don;t blame them.

        Can any one ‘moderate’ or otherwise Muslim pick and choose verses and not have his head lopped off? And the head chopper will think he is guaranteed Jannat with its 72+. Because Most Muslims are triumphalist s and because their Prophet was successful they he is right and he should be emulated. So, Salafism is closer to the Book, so they are TRUE Muslims. Blind faith in the truth claims of a book is the problem. Calling Wahabis, Salafis crazies will help deflect the issue of ideology from where these people take inspiration.

        So, liberals instead of making excuses for Islamic theology must question its truth claims. Its concept of heaven and how faithful think they get there. When the brainwashed start thinking critically about Koranic version of Heaven and Hell. The world will be a better place.

  11. When people say stuff like Muslims reject ISIS or Al-Qaeda,but most of Muslims align with their basic grievances.The specificity of grievances differ from ordinary Muslims(where Israel is bigger enemy than say Iran) .It is when they get into details of theology in current context that grievances differ&ordinary Muslims wonder why ISIS is not attacking Israel(because IS considers Shias worse than Jews not to mention Israel is armed to the teeth with a million in reserve army,so can be attacked only after accruing enough capability).Another point is Islam theology says prophet(and his message) is the last prophet&Quran is perfect to the T(though it is collected from oral tradition).Hinduism have no such claim and highly elastic.Besides Hinduism(Indic culture minus iconoclastic Xtianity/Islam) is more a school of philosophies that needs to be meditated upon and not specific do-dont instruction on day-to-day thingies like which hand to wipe your ass with etc.The smriti/shruti distinction saves the day for Hindu culture.No comparison.Those who say shit like India will become Hindu Pakistan perhaps live in a gated communities or

  12. Sourabh Mahajan July 11, 2016 — 4:43 pm

    I don’t know how did you get this notion, or may be I understood it wrong, but I chuckled when I read liberal, because my friends find me “right” everytime.
    However, I still stand by I said, just I’ll rephrase it for elucidation.

    Abrahamic religions, due to their constitution, the nature of doctrine, AND the prophets themselves, because it is very probable they might have added a flavour to whatever they wirelessly received over the air are more structured with a well defined hierarchy, rules and regulations and a undertone of violence within them. They became powerful when the concept of nation-state/civilization was vague and religion was the only identity which people clang to. And due to sectarian tendencies within these religions, opposing tribes often adopted different religions or sects to identify themselves.
    The “TRUE Islam” you said? Sorry to break it to you. It doesn’t exist. Because people have fought bloody wars defining and defending their Islam. Does following Koran, or hadiths, or logically deducing Koran or.literally, does it need change or modifications, is it ultimate truth? Etc. were many reasons why Muslims have fought amongst each other for centuries, each one claims their version of Islam is supreme and more true.

    So here we are. Wahabbis/ Salafis are crazy. Yes they are. Because they would make perfect warriors in 700 AD, and are still stuck in 700AD. I bet if I teleported a Sufi saint to 700AD he would be termed as crazy and hacked, where he claims his version of Islam superior. See?
    Islam and by extension Abrahamics by their very nature are static, “engraven in stone slabs”. Discussing whereever Islam is more violent than other religions, ir more barbaric etc. is futile, because even if proved so, nothing substantial will come out of it. Islam literally means submission, and has an superiority complex over others, hence better convincing Pope to become atheist, but trying to reform Islam. What can be done, is to isolate Islam and Islamism from common law and social order. No shariah where a secular government rules. No special treatment on the basis of minority. No victim mentality. No association of problems of Muslims all around the world with Islam ( eg. Palestine issue). It is actually effective, as you can see a lack of extremists in Central Asian countries and even Iran to an extent (Hezbollah doesn’t count).
    The Jauhar example I mentioned was not equating it to other practices in other religions, but because apart from the usual caste system thing, I could not find any practice in Hinduism to better explain when things are taken out of context. Not wrong analogy, but an stickman argument you can say. About that whole “head lopped off” thing, yes we don’t have such people here. But remember Christians had such thing before, where heresy and criticism of Christianity was dealt with execution and torture. It doesn’t exist now, even in the Bible belt of USA. Not because Christianity suddenly became mature and open, but the followers matured. That’s what is needed in Islamic world.

  13. Wonderfully written Arnab! This and the previous one together answered so many things which I was wondering myself. I agreed so much with you that I have shared the 2 links over whatsapp within my circles.

  14. Great analysis GB as always. Pls write more often…request from an old fan of your blog.

  15. So shutting down or restricting social media propaganda will reduce problems to some extent? Why is everyone not working in that angle ,I wonder.

  16. amazing analysis. But dada too many spelling mistakes! Ki holo?

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