IS/ISIS and the dark side of modernity

By Simon Barrow
December 1, 2014

Karen Armstrong, whose new book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence invites far more subtle understanding of the relationship between faith and fratricide globally, has written a characteristically thoughtful piece on IS/ISIS for The New Statesman magazine: 'Wahhabism to ISIS: how Saudi Arabia exported the main source of global terrorism'.

Here's a brief excerpt dealing with, respectively, the religious connect and non-connect of this toxic movement, and its relationship to the dark side of modernity: a product of ideologies other than purely 'religious' ones.

"Like the Ikhwan, IS represents a rebellion against the official Wahhabism of modern Saudi Arabia. Its swords, covered faces and cut-throat executions all recall the original Brotherhood. But it is unlikely that the IS hordes consist entirely of diehard jihadists. A substantial number are probably secularists who resent the status quo in Iraq: Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s regime and former soldiers of his disbanded army. This would explain IS’s strong performance against professional military forces. In all likelihood, few of the young recruits are motivated either by Wahhabism or by more traditional Muslim ideals. In 2008, MI5’s behavioural science unit noted that, "far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could... be regarded as religious novices."

A significant proportion of those convicted of terrorism offences since the 9/11 attacks have been non-observant, or are self-taught, or, like the gunman in the recent attack on the Canadian parliament, are converts to Islam. They may claim to be acting in the name of Islam, but when an untalented beginner tells us that he is playing a Beethoven sonata, we hear only cacophony. Two wannabe jihadists who set out from Birmingham for Syria last May had ordered Islam for Dummies from Amazon.

"It would be a mistake to see IS as a throwback; it is, as the British philosopher John Gray has argued, a thoroughly modern movement that has become an efficient, self-financing business with assets estimated at $2 billion. Its looting, theft of gold bullion from banks, kidnapping, siphoning of oil in the conquered territories and extortion have made it the wealthiest jihadist group in the world. There is nothing random or irrational about IS violence. The execution videos are carefully and strategically planned to inspire terror, deter dissent and sow chaos in the greater population.

"Mass killing is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. During the French Revolution, which led to the emergence of the first secular state in Europe, the Jacobins publicly beheaded about 17,000 men, women and children. In the First World War, the Young Turks slaughtered over a million Armenians, including women, children and the elderly, to create a pure Turkic nation. The Soviet Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge and the Red Guard all used systematic terrorism to purge humanity of corruption. Similarly, IS uses violence to achieve a single, limited and clearly defined objective that would be impossible without such slaughter. As such, it is another expression of the dark side of modernity."

Karen Armstrong, who is also a leading figure in the Charter for Compassion (http://charterforcompassion.org) is a leading commentator on religious affairs. She spent seven years as a Catholic nun in the 1960s, but then left her teaching order in 1969 to read English at St Anne's College, Oxford. In 1982, she became a full-time writer and broadcaster. She is author of over 15 books.

* Read the whole article here: http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2014/11/wahhabism-isis-how-sau...

* More on IS/ISIS from Ekklesia here: http://ekklesia.co.uk/isis

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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