05 December 2014

Why Do People Join ISIS?

There is a new UN Security Council report which claims that ISIS recruits its fighters from over 80 different countries from around the world.

You might have heard of the three thousands Europeans, the Kosovars, the Turks or the North Africans.

But have you heard of the ISIS fighter with a Chilean-Norwegian ancestry?

Or the Maldives Chapter of ISIS?

That's them marching in the capital with their black flag.

Okay, you may want to sit down for this one: did you know that a handful of young French Jews converted to Islam and then joined ISIS?

Or this: a Jewish teenager traveled to Syria with a group of 100 young women to become an ISIS comfort woman?

I know what you are thinking: signs of the Apocalypse.


But the question is: Why would young men and women from Canada, the UK, Australia, France and tens of other countries travel thousands of miles and jump through considerable hoops to join a merry band of idiot beheaders.

Or, how does a young man, working in a regular 9 to 5 job in London, decide one day to travel to Syria or Iraq to become Jihadi John and to start butchering innocent people on camera?

How about the hundreds of Turks, Chechnyans, Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Libyans, Egyptians, Saudis, Kuwaitis, Jordanians, Yemenis, Indonesians and Malaysians who joined ISIS?

This is a very popular question to which many, many, many experts provided answers. The majority of them centers around a misguided youth, former drug use and hanging out with the wrong crowd, and almost all of them have a "them weird and scary folks" subtext for Muslims.

I am sure there are many cases that are driven by the psychopathology of the individual (the young Jewish woman comes to mind) or religious delusion.

But I believe that ISIS' attraction is due to a very clever and radical answer it provided to a fundamental schism in Muslim identity. No other Jihadi organization has ever attempted what ISIS achieved.

To explain what that is, I have to make a large detour and cover the beginning of the identity issue, its mid-term radicalization and its sharpening after 9/11.

Hang in there, it is going to be a bumpy ride.

The Flightless Phoenixes Rising From the Ashes of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire was based on what is known as the Millet system. Millet is now translated as "nation" but at the time, it referred to people's religious affiliation and was used to identify specific religious communities.

In fact, if you are not familiar with the Ottoman history, you might be surprised to find out that no one under the Ottoman rule referred to themselves as Turks: that was a European denomination (as described in Edward Said's Orientalism).

Ottomans recognized only Muslims, Christians and Jews (People of the Book) and consequently what we identify today as Turks, Kurds, Arabs or some Albanians and Bosnians were grouped together as just Muslims.

When the Ottoman Empire came to an end in 1919, it had already lost most of its Balkan and Middle Eastern provinces. Each newly liberated entity tried to come up with a new national identity.

And that is not as easy as it sounds. There were 600 years that they could not use for nation building.

To overcome this problem, they used three techniques which have since become nearly universal, especially after the decolonization: Going way back in history to find a narrative to anchor their identity. Creating national mythologies about their superiority. And defining themselves ethnically to compensate for the cultural discontinuity in their more recent history.

Greeks were the first ones to come up with the magical formula, as they were one of the first to secede from the Empire and had a glorious pre-history into which they could dip. But it was not an easy ride for the neighboring Albanians and the people of former Yugoslavia.

And things were much worse for the group previously known as Muslims. How do you live as Muslims in non-Islamic States as something other than Muslims?
Salman Sayyid, who teaches at Leeds University and is the author of Recalling the Caliphate, compares it to Charles I's execution, which opened up so many profound questions about the roles of parliament and the crown. In the same way, he says, Muslim thinkers in the 1920s suddenly found they had to ask fundamental questions they had never confronted before: "Do Muslims need to live in an Islamic State? What should that state be like?"
Using the Greek formula would be difficult, because most new entities, created by the Sykes-Picot agreements, had no pre-history to dip into.

The only viable candidate was Egypt and, like Greece in the Balkans, they took the lead. Egyptians had an equally glorious pharaoh past. They combined it with ethnicity and came up with Pan-Arabism. The prefix enabled them to offer the shiny new Arab identity to other Arab countries like Syria, Iraq and later Libya (as in, United Arab Republic, and the Federation of Arab Republics).

Turks were even more confused. In one day, they moved from being the Sword of Islam who provided the Caliphs to the people who abolished that 1300 years old institution.

Where do you go with that identity-wise, especially if you never recognized yourself as Turks?

They had to use the same approach: Create a whole new identity through ancient history, mythology plus ethnicity. To achieve this they unearthed dubious creation mythologies like Ergenekon and reclaimed hitherto obscure Central Asian entities as their forefathers.

Given their current nationalistic fervor, you might be surprised to find out that it took a steady propaganda diet to convince Turks that they were, in fact, Turks. And that being a Turk was a good thing.

The problem with this formula is that, national identities in Europe emerged as a result of bourgeois classes spreading their wings against ancien regimes. In a fairly lengthy process, they pushed aside the aristocracy, the monarchy and the church. In their place, we saw the rise of business classes to a position of power through a system of limited representation and the formation of the ideological edifice of modernity, including secularism, rationalism and the scientific method.

There was no such classes and no such aspirations in the former Ottoman provinces. Without a bourgeois class, components of modernity like rationalism, secularism and nationalism are vacuous notions, especially when compared to a comprehensive and all-encompassing source of identity like Islam.

You see, unlike other religions that you might be familiar with, Islam is not a belief system based on abstract moral precepts. It's main structure is a series of practical guidelines that direct you in every aspect of your daily life. There are rules about what you eat or drink, how you enter a room, what you wear, how you conduct your business, how to talk to other people or even how you have sex. There is no separation of the social and the political. Or the public and the private. Every realm is governed by Islam with very specific and practice-oriented rules.

In that sense, Islam is quite similar to Judaism. The Judeo-Christian continuity is certainly relevant in terms of the Old and New Testaments but the deeper continuity remains regional: both Judaism and Islam are religions of what Karen Armstrong calls orthopraxy (i.e. purity of practice) governing the entire realm of human activities.

The modernist rulers of these new entities, from Ataturk to Nasser, who were mainly cognizant of the European transition from Christianity to modernity, did not understand the sway of orthopraxy. And how ineffective nationalism/modernity would be to fill the gap left by Islam. Especially in a setting where national identities stemmed from artificial narratives and dubious ethnic profiles.

Unsurprisingly, banishing Islam from the daily life and relying on their own pronouncements about the primacy of the nation and the importance of being modern simply produced autocratic regimes characterized by a personality cult.

Later events showed us that all that was required for those weak national identities to crumble was a push from a more structured and purist version of Islam.

And that was provided by the global expansion of the House of Wahhab through the madrassas and Koranic courses financed by Saudi Arabia after 1979 and the radical imams they dispatched to every corner of the world.

Why did they do it, you might ask. And why after 1979.

It is an interesting tale.

House of Saud, House of Wahhab and the Bin Laden Prequel

The political system of Saudi Arabia is quite similar to the Divine Rights of Kings setup in feudal Europe, whereby a religious institution (in this case, the descendants of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who are the holders of the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam) confers legitimacy to an absolute monarch (one of the descendants of  Muhammad bin Saud, the founder of the House of Saud).

One side needs the other to exist. This worked out nicely once the deal was struck between those two men in the second half of the 18th century and helped the House of Saud immensely after they got their independence from the Ottoman Empire early in the 20th century.

Let me note three things here.

Wahhabis call themselves Muwahhidin after the Tawhid principle emphasized by ibn Abd al-Wahab and repudiate the term Wahhabi as a deification of their founder. Second, the descendants of ibn Abd al-Wahab are known as Al ash Sheikh (House of the Sheikh) so my term House of Wahhab is not meant to be accurate but evocative. Third, they are not simple Jihadis, they see themselves as a religious reform movement. They want to review the Koran and Sunnah to uncover the original thinking of early Muslims. However, they are willing to participate in any Jihad and become Mujaheddin, as they did in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Back to our story.

Sticking to an austere form of Islam was not difficult for poor and rural people; it might have made their harsh life bearable. But once huge reserves of oil were discovered in 1938, the ensuing wealth accumulation, urbanization and consumerism became major challenges for Wahhabi Islam. Muwahhidin tried to slow down the creeping Westernization and the growing distance between the Saudi society and the communal life of early Muslims.

They protested in vein when two TV stations were launched in 1965. They demonstrated constantly against the liberalization of Saudi society in the 1970s. Despite all their efforts, as the country experienced a 25-fold revenue increase between 1970-1979, large pockets of Saudi society began to look more like Iran under the Pahlavi dynasty than Medina under the Rashidun.

And that did not sit well with the Wahhabi ulema. After all, they were the ones providing the legitimacy of the House of Saud. Not Aramco.

The turning point was the siege of Mecca by Juhayman al-Otaybi. That is the well-groomed guy on the right. On 20 November 1979, he invaded the Grand Mosque of Mecca with several hundred armed companions.

What he stood for was very similar to what Bin Laden had asked before joining the Jihadis: "a return to the original ways of Islam, among other things; a repudiation of the West; an end of education of women; abolition of television and expulsion of non-Muslims."

Eventually, the ulema allowed the King to use force to dislodge them from the Mosque and they were arrested and later beheaded.

Here is the crunch.

Even though al-Otaybi was very closely linked to the Wahhabi ulema, once the siege ended, the Saudi king decided that they should be given everything they wanted and more.
Saudi King Khaled did not react to the upheaval by cracking down on religious puritans in general, but by giving the ulama and religious conservatives more power over the next decade. He is thought to have believed that "the solution to the religious upheaval was simple -- more religion." 
First photographs of women in newspapers were banned, then women on television. Cinemas and music shops were shut down. School curriculum was changed to provide many more hours of religious studies, eliminating classes on subjects like non-Islamic history. Gender segregation was extended "to the humblest coffee shop". The religious police became more assertive.
The reason for that seemingly contradictory decision is quite simple. Contrary to what many people assume, Wahhabis make up only 23 percent of the Saudi population and they are mostly concentrated around Najd. In fact, depending on who is counting, there might be more Shia in Saudi Arabia than Wahhabis.

Any situation that jeopardizes the "dominant minority" status of Wahhabis is a direct threat to the House of Saud whose ruling family status is solely based on the legitimacy provided by the House of Wahhab. As a group concentrated in one region and powerless to stop increasing Westernization and consumerism, Wahhabis were rapidly losing ground. The siege set the alarms off and King Khaled moved in decisively to halt that erosion. It was threatening his family's rule.

And he did not stop there.

The House of Saud gave huge sums of petrodollars to the House of Wahhab for them to export their radical vision of Islam.

Once again, they were motivated by self-preservation, as their goal was to push Pan Islamism as an alternative to Nasser's Pan Arabism. They were afraid that Arabs, in general, might be tempted to follow Egypt's lead and eventually their kingdom could be swept away by the nationalism of the masses. In fact, their fight against Pan Arabism predates 1979 but after the siege they decided to redouble their efforts.

And it was a massive undertaking.

Madrassas and Radical Imams Funded by Saudi Arabia

Since 1979, Saudi Arabia spent over $100 billion to finance madrassas and to support the work of radical imams.
Over more than two decades, Saudi Arabia has lavished around $100 billion or more on the worldwide promotion of the violent, intolerant and crudely puritanical Wahhabist sect of Islam that the ruling royal family espouses. (...)
This included financing 210 Islamic centres, 1,500 mosques, 202 colleges and 2,000 madrassas (religious schools). 
Various estimates put the amount the Saudi government spends on these missionary institutions as up to $3 billion a year.
These are conservative estimates as they do not include the huge sums channeled through Islamist charities.

Everybody knows Saudi Arabia'a leading role in radicalizing Islam.

But did you know that, in most settings, these Islamization funds were handled by military regimes?

For instance, there were 137 madrassas in Pakistan at independence. In 2008, they had over 12,000. And oddly enough, it was the work of the generals.

The ghoulish Zia ul Haq, who overthrew the civilian government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1978, announced a new education policy in 1979, right about the time Saudi petrodollars began to flow to the world:
Zia’s 1979 education policy envisaged 5,000 mosque schools and established a National Committee for Deeni Madaris to transform madrassas “into an integral part of our educational system” (ICG Asia Report 2002, p.10). 
Zia also instituted a system of compulsory zakat (Islamic tax) according to which a certain amount was deducted from bank balances and spent on religious purposes and institutions “worthy of support.” This led to a rapid growth in religious schools and institutions at the local level as it created powerful incentives for opening religious schools.
Similarly, a 1980 coup in Turkey brought to power a military government that viewed Sunni Islam as the unifying ideology of the country.
The Turkish-Islamic Synthesis (..) rose to become the de facto state ideology. In practice, this meant (...) huge budget increases for the Religious Affairs Directorate, rapid building of new mosques and opening of Quran courses, the introduction of mandatory religion classes in state schools (only on Sunni Islam), more tolerance for religious bureaucrats, active encouragement of religious organizations, and a widening of opportunities for graduates of religious imam hatip high schools. In this way, the professedly secular military “tactically open[ed] up a social and political space for Islamist mobilization in Turkey.”
It has been estimated that in the aftermath of the coup, over 14,000 Koranic courses began to operate in Turkey.

So much for the modernizing and secular military elite.

You look at Egypt and you see the same process of Islamization around the same time. There too, the supposedly secular military took the lead. First, Sadat changed the Constitution and introduced the notion that Sharia was the principal source of legislation. He then eliminated the social safety net brought in under Nasser, making the Islamic charities the principal source of welfare assistance for the needy.

Guess where their money came from?

After Sadat was killed, his replacement, Hosni Mubarak, continued the same policies.

You can see this process replicated in all Muslim countries. For instance, Suharto in Indonesia was late to the party but he covered the same ground much faster.

On the right, you see the original promoter of Pancasilia ideology after a radical change of heart in 1991 sporting his new name (Haji Muhammad Suharto) and Islamic garment after pilgrimage.

It is estimated that a quarter of Indonesian primary and secondary school students attend pesantrens (Islamic religious schools).

While financing this massive process of Islamization in previously secular Muslim countries, Saudi Arabia turned its attention to the 15 to 20 million displaced Muslims in Western Europe.
Although not a source of emigrants, wealthy Saudi Arabia has played a major role in sponsoring the construction of mosques, Islamic centers and schools in Europe, and has supplied them with their own imams. 
The initial wave of immigrants to France (primarily Algerian and North Africans) or Germany (Turks) or the UK (Pakistanis) were secular. In France, they tended to assimilate as there was no language barrier and inter-ethnic marriages were not frowned upon. In Germany, Turks kept mostly to themselves, always thinking of their presence there as a temporary arrangement. In the UK, the Pakistanis were in between the two cases, where their linguistic advantage was offset by the British society's unwillingness to assimilate them.

Still, all these groups accepted their minority status as a given and kept their focus on their economic activities. However, this was not the case for the second generation. They were bitter about their second class citizen status and their "neither here, nor there" identities. If their parents' national identities were weak, theirs were far too fragile to withstand any questioning.

In that context, the radical imams in their freshly built mosques and community centers set out to work. Not surprisingly, they were very successful in countries like France, the UK, the Netherlands or Germany where they could influence the second generation of disaffected Muslims.
A Nixon Center study of 373 mujahideen in western Europe and North America between 1993 and 2004 found more than twice as many Frenchmen as Saudis and more Britons than Sudanese, Yemenites, Emiratis, Lebanese, or Libyans. Fully a quarter of the jihadists it listed were western European nationals.
Conversely, these imams failed to attract people into Jihad in countries like Spain and Italy where most of the migrants arrived after 1990.

These two elements, that is, weak national identities and the diffusion of radical Islam that challenged them provided the ingredients of our Jihadi bomb.

They created the "Us" part of the identity.

To complete the circuit, we needed a "Them" component.

And that was furnished by the cataclysmic event we call simply 9/11.


The attack on the Twin Towers will one day be marked as one of the most important events in modern history. It literally changed the course of history.

But for our purposes here, its most important consequences were to convince hundreds of millions of Muslims that "the West" was out to destroy Islam and Muslims.

In Muslim countries, the preaching of the radical imams had already laid the groundwork by citing the examples of Bosnia and Chechnya where people seemed to be oppressed, attacked and killed just for being Muslim. It seemed like this was the case everywhere, even in India.

When 9/11 occurred, from W's fateful decision to declare a crusade to his determination to invade a Muslim country that had nothing to do with that attack, everything seemed to fit with what the radical imams had been saying in madrassas and mosques around the globe. For the pious masses it was now crystal clear that the West was determined to destroy Islam.

Mind you, this was not just a skewed and off-the-mark perception foisted upon gullible people by some evil clerics. It contained a solid empirical basis. As Colonel Bacevich recently noted, since 1980, the US bombed, invaded or occupied 14 Muslim countries.
Syria has become at least the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces have invaded or occupied or bombed, and in which American soldiers have killed or been killed. And that’s just since 1980.

Let’s tick them off: Iran (1980, 1987-1988), Libya (1981, 1986, 1989, 2011), Lebanon (1983), Kuwait (1991), Iraq (1991-2011, 2014-), Somalia (1992-1993, 2007-), Bosnia (1995), Saudi Arabia (1991, 1996), Afghanistan (1998, 2001-), Sudan (1998), Kosovo (1999), Yemen (2000, 2002-), Pakistan (2004-) and now Syria. Whew.
[hat tip Greenwald]
So, it wasn't too hard to back up those claims.

Moreover, in the West, the public opinion turned frosty towards Muslim immigrants. In the months after 9/11, there were a series of violent attacks against anyone looking Muslim-ish. Anti-Muslim violence was on the rise in Europe as well, even though most EU members do not collect statistics on the subject.

In a recent book, Glenn Greenwald suggested that a multi-tier justice system emerged after 9/11 with Muslims at the bottom as sub-persons.
One of the things that I talk about in the book is that there has always been a two-tier justice system where (...) if you are wealthy and well connected (...) you are basically insulated from accountability even for egregious law breaking. And then there is the second tier, where if you are poor and powerless, you are subjected to entirely different rules, you have this incredibly harsh criminal justice system that comes crashing down upon you even for trivial transgressions. 
But now there is even this lower tier, a tier of nonpersons, or sub-persons, where there is not even the pretense of the rule of law, and that is basically Muslims who are accused in some way of being involved with the support of terrorism. (...) And so you see the creation of an even lower category of the law that is very much grounded in this bias against Islam and Muslims that is just a further distortion and deviation of the idea of equality before the law.
While the first generation of Muslims in Western Europe remained shaken by this new situation, the second generation, their kids, who grew up with the echos of the radical imams' fervent sermons, were swept by the lure of this comprehensive identity that channeled their anger and frustration and sense of victimization.

It enabled them to replace the dubious and second class identity of their parents with the idea of belonging to a global community regardless of class, ethnicity and skin color.

And joining was easy.

Show up for prayers, listen to the imam. For the rest, Wahhabi imams distilled the entire religion into two simple behavioral rules.

No alcohol and women have to cover themselves.

There are a number of studies that established that the use of Islamic garments like burqa, niqab or hijab skyrocketed after 9/11. It was both a statement of defiance and a sign of belonging to a larger community.

But, as is always the case, women ended up paying a much higher price for the same defiance. What began as a sort of protest act, soon led to tremendous intra-community pressure on women who refused to cover themselves up.  Moreover, it also served to marginalize Muslim women and justify overt discrimination against them.

The second generation's sense of being targeted and victimization triggered other pointless acts of defiance like open air Friday prayers in some suburbs of Paris.These and countless other polarizing acts were actively encouraged by the radical imams in Western Europe.

For instance, the best known case, the infamous cartoons for the Prophet incident, was wholly fabricated by these imams. The 12 cartoons were published in September 2005 in a local Danish paper and nobody cared much. A local association filed a complaint with the authorities but that was it. Until that is, a few months later, some European imams began a tour of the Middle East to whip up some reaction and as we know they succeeded beyond measure.

Helping those imams gleefully were the right wing parties like Front National in France or the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. They discovered that pointing to the nature morte created by these radical imams, a.k.a. the second generation Muslim men with shaved heads, long beards and shalwar kameez outfits with niqab wearing wife in tow was a surefire way to get more votes. And engaging in debates about the violent and misogynous nature of Islam proved to be even better.

And they did. And the other side said, I see your bet and I raise you.

In that sense, you could say that, given the inherent problems with the Muslim identity, the public reaction after 9/11 and the goading of radical imams provided the perfect platform for Jihadi recruitment.

But there is one more element to the puzzle. Why did they choose ISIS over any other Jihadi outfit, including and especially al Qaeda?

That, as they say, is an excellent question.


If you have been reading this blog for some time, you might be aware that I am fascinated by ISIS or more correctly, by the forces that seem to be behind ISIS. I maintain that ISIS actions cannot be explained if we go with the assumption that they are a bunch of displaced Muslim youngsters trying to reach martyrdom.

They are far too skillful for that. Their military strategies are exceptional and military operations are highly efficient. Their multimedia empire is peerless and their ideological moves are very intelligent.

There is simply no such Jihadi organization in the world. More importantly, there is absolutely no reason for a Jihadi organization to built itself like ISIS and to do what ISIS has been doing.

I would suggest that the main reason why people from 80 different countries flock to ISIS is the fact that the new and radically different identity it offers solves more than one problem: Joining ISIS frees you from your past allegiances, provides you with redemption and resets the Muslim identity question that arose in the aftermath of the abolition of the Caliphate.

Look at this poster.

It says "Jihad is purification no matter who you are or what sins you have, no good deeds are needed to come before it. Don't let nothing hold you back."

And the punchline, "Sometimes people with the worst pasts create the best futures."

I was wrong to call them the band of idiots formerly known as ISIS. The team behind this is anything but. Selling redemption is not easy and clearly ISIS has the tools and the creative team to conduct a very successful advertising and marketing campaign.

You know of their incredible multimedia machine and their astute use of social networks. They have film studios churning out high quality, feature length movies.

They tweet incessantly their battle exploits to a growing global audience. They have Android apps that can re-tweet those messages eliminating the possibility of blocking their marketing efforts.

Their slick campaign targets specific market segments and speaks the language of these media-savvy young people.

But this is not all marketing, there is substance behind all this.

After their initial successes, ISIS did something unexpected. It changed its name to Islamic State and declared itself the Caliphate. I have to confess that, at the time, I did not get the significance and cleverness of this move.

I knew that symbolically, ISIS was striving to give to those lost Muslim masses a chance to recreate the golden age of the Rashidun.
Seventy years after the Prophet's death, this Muslim world stretched from Spain and Morocco right the way to Central Asia and to the southern bits of Pakistan, so a huge empire that was all… under the control of a single Muslim leader," says historian Prof Hugh Kennedy. "And it's this Muslim unity, the extent of Muslim sovereignty, that people above all look back to." 
But I did not immediately grasp the enormous significance of ISIS' move. By changing its name and the nature of their organization, ISIS provided a clear and definitive answer to the question that emerged after the abolition of the Caliphate.
 "Do Muslims need to live in an Islamic State? What should that state be like?"
The answer was yes and that new state was to be called the Islamic State.

Hence the name change.

In short, ISIS provided a brutal and radical solution to the Muslim identity issue that emerged after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate.

Or to put it more economically, ISIS reset the clock to 1924 and rendered the national identities moot.

Hence the attraction.


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