"a caliphate upon the prophetic methodology", a street sign above a bridge in Mosul (Source: Islamic State media)

The Religiosity Challenge in Analyzing Islamist Movements

Ignoring the religiosity of ISIS and other Islamist movements is characteristic of many Western commentators and analysts, but these movements see religion as the overall framework for interpreting and justifying their actions

Less than two weeks after the Temple Mount Crisis erupted in mid-July, Ofri Ilany wrote in Haaretz that regarding the Temple Mount, “nowhere else is the secular left so tragically isolated – not just from the millions of religious-nationalist Jews who wish to return to the Temple Mount, but even more so from the millions of Palestinians who swear fealty to Al-Aqsa.” Ilany argues that there is a secular discomfort – in this case, of the Israeli left – in the face of the deep religious sentiment among religious Israelis and pious Muslims concerning the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Mosque.

Writing in Shvi’i, a weekend newspaper which voices the position of the Israeli religious right, Amnon Shomron also discussed the Temple Mount Crisis and accused the left of not recognizing the true nature of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: “This is a religious war. Only in Israel are Arab Islamist murderous acts attributed nationalistic motives. It is simply more palatable, as a political conflict has the potential for a solution, while a religious struggle is total.”

Both Ilany and Shomron are right: there is a secular discomfort regarding the role of religion in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, whose emotional intensity was clearly evident after Israel placed metal detectors in the entrances to the Temple Mount last July. But ignoring the religious nature of “Arab Islamist murderous acts”, as Shomron puts it, and even denying the religious aspects of Palestinian violence in the first place, is not limited to the Israeli left but underlies the dominant Western views of political conflicts which have religious dimensions.

While in Israel commentators such as Mordechai Kedar give significant weight to Islamic fundamentalism in explaining the actions of ISIS, in Western media discourse many commentators refuse to give any significance to religious belief in explaining the behavior of the so-called ‘Islamic State’. This is due not only to political correctness, as Donald Trump and some conservative pundits claim, but also due to the complicated history of religion and politics in Western Europe, in which the state sought to push religion away from the public sphere and replace the religious discourse with a rational and scientific one.

The efforts of many Western observers to distance religious violence from religion (understood here as a system of values which provides meaning to the individual and the community) is especially salient in the public discussion of ISIS. Religion is not the only motivating factor of individuals from around the world who decided to join ISIS, and psychological factors such as a desire for meaning and the need for belonging seem to play an important role in this process. However, there’s no reason to question the authenticity of the religious impulse (which should not be confused with religious knowledge) among ISIS’ fighters and commanders, as is so often the case.

Peter Kosminsky, the director of UK Channel Four’s new series The State which dramatizes the real-life stories of British recruits to ISIS, claimed that the decision to join ISIS “isn’t really about religion.” Similarly, the German journalist Christoph Reuter stated two years earlier that “there is essentially nothing religious in its [ISIS’] actions, its strategic planning, its unscrupulous changing of alliances and its precisely implemented propaganda narratives. Faith, even in its most extreme form, is just one of many means to an end.” According to Reuter, “Islamic State’s only constant maxim is the expansion of power at any price.”

The denial of the religious aspects of ISIS’ behavior and propaganda isn’t characteristic only of journalists, but also of some terrorism experts. In Anatomy of Terror, a recently published book on al-Qaeda and ISIS, former FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan claims that there’s nothing religious in the behavior of al-Qaeda and ISIS. Soufan argues that jihadists are not motivated by “religious fervor”, but by “nationalism, tribalism, sectarianism.” This claim is extremely baffling given ISIS’ rejection of nationalism and the borders of Arab nation-states as shirk (the sin of associating others with God) – a crime punishable by death under ISIS’ legal system – and a colonial ideology imposed on the Muslim world by the “infidel” West.

Denying the role of religion in the behavior of jihadist groups is especially surprising in the case of researchers who claim to know the ideological and historical background of ISIS. ISIS’ ideology is based on Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative form of Islam which serves as the official religious doctrine of Saudi Arabia. The writings of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi creed, were even distributed by ISIS as textbooks in territories under its control in 2014. Furthermore, ISIS uses medieval Islamic apocalyptic traditions and claims that these traditions have in fact prophesized the emergence of ISIS in the present age.

ISIS’ motto, “a caliphate upon the prophetic methodology” (khilafa ala minhaj al-nubuwwa), fits its pretention to restore Islam to its past glories in the days of the ancient Muslim caliphates. Many of its propaganda videos feature idyllic scenes of everyday life under the ‘Islamic State’, but the basic theme shared by most of these videos is the religious devotion of ISIS’ fighters and members and the enforcement of Islamic law in the public sphere by the hisbah (ISIS’ religious police), which enforces the Quranic commandment “commanding right and forbidding wrong” in the areas under the group’s control.

The argument that ISIS is a religious and Islamic organization should not be understood as a normative claim regarding the “true” and “authentic” Islam (although this is exactly the argument made by ISIS). Islamic scholars from different legal schools reject ISIS’ brutality and extremist ideology and do not consider the organization and the “state” it established as Islamic. Furthermore, some of the individuals from Britain and the United States who attempted to join ISIS were arrested with copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies, which indicates at the very least a lack of familiarity with Islamic tenets of faith.

Despite this, ISIS’ religiosity is real and significant, even if it is exaggerated for propaganda purposes and even if it is vastly distant from the accepted norms and religious rulings in contemporary Sunni Islam. Research conducted by Lorne L. Dawson and Amarnath Amarasingam, two Canadian sociologists, based on interviews with twenty foreign fighters who joined ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch) and other jihadist groups in Syria found that “the [researchers’] interactions with these individuals were so heavily mediated by religious discourse it seems implausible to suggest that religiosity (i.e., a sincere religious commitment, no matter how ill-informed or unorthodox) is not a primary motivator for their actions.

Religion provides the dominant frame these foreign fighters use to interpret almost every aspect of their lives, and this reality should be given due interpretive weight.” Similarly, Thomas Hegghammer, a leading scholar on jihadism and the editor of a new book on jihadi culture, argues that jihadists’ “religiosity needs to be taken very seriously.”

Ignoring the religiosity of ISIS and other Islamist movements is characteristic of many Western commentators and analysts, but discomfort in the face of religious belief is a major obstacle in the analysis of movements which see religion as the overall framework for interpreting and justifying their actions. In addition to understanding the political and sociological context in which these groups emerge and highlighting important processes such as secularism in the Arab world, acknowledging the religiosity of ISIS and other Islamist movements is a necessary step to better understand their behavior.

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