Unlike the IRA, the ISIL project will outlive ISIL itself

A still from the film "66 Days" about the IRA member Bobby Sands' hunger strike
A still from the film "66 Days" about the IRA member Bobby Sands' hunger strike

‘These Days of Rage” was how The New York Times headlined an opinion piece this week by Kenan Malik, a British author and philosopher.

Malik explored a number of attacks in the past few weeks across Britain, Germany and France, noting a clear difference in the way groups such as ISIL use political violence and how other groups such as the Irish Republican Army or the Palestine Liberation Organisation used it in the past.

“Jihadists are different,” he wrote. “They have little or no explicit political aim but are driven by a visceral hatred of the West.

“What defines jihadist violence today is not righteous anger or political fury but a sense of inchoate, often personal, rage. Such rage is not uniquely Islamist.”

On the second point, Malik is right. Those who turn to ISIL usually so do because of their own personal demons, rather than anything external. But the idea that jihadist violence has no political aim is a misreading of ISIL’s intentions.

In fact, ISIL has a very clear political project. It is just so big that we struggle to grasp it.

Those who fight for ISIL’s ideology may well be motivated, as Malik points out, by reasons that are more personal than religious. But the cause they fight for is explicitly political. It seeks to bring about a change in the political circumstances of the moment.

The reason I think analysts fail to recognise the project as political is because it exists on a scale almost too big to understand.

Take one example that Malik mentions, the IRA. The IRA wanted the British government to give up a relatively small part of its territory. Its overall goal was limited: the group wanted Irish rule in a part of British territory where a significant percentage, if not an outright majority, agreed with the idea of a united Ireland.

By contrast, what ISIL seeks is colossal. Across a vast part of three continents, ISIL wants not only the removal of western armies, but the removal of all vestiges of influence – western, Arab, African and Asian – before the seventh century. The states, institutions and non-Muslim communities that exist across those three continents all have to be removed.

It seeks to accomplish all of this through political violence – remember that the overwhelming number of ISIL’s victims have been Muslims in the Middle East – in territories where the majority of the populations do not support its aims.

So there is a political project, but the scale of it makes it impossible to conceptualise.

In the era of nation states, a political project that flatly refuses to accept the parameters of those states is almost beyond our conceptual frameworks. If ISIL claimed a piece of territory here and a piece there, or even parts of two countries as they do with Syria and Iraq, then perhaps there would be a basis for discussion.

But when ISIL’s political project requires the unravelling of the current global order on three continents, with the essential component that almost none of the people it seeks to rule in fact want them, then its political project moves out of the boundaries of what can be rationally discussed. In that way, ISIL’s political project is closer to that of Soviet communism than to the IRA.

The ISIL “project” will be with us for the long-term – it will outlive ISIL itself. That makes the project especially dangerous, because the particular vehicles – Al Qaeda, ISIL, Boko Haram – may come and go, but the ideas remain.

That’s why, while it is important that we look at the reasons why it has started and is perpetuated, it is also vital to understand the political project at the heart of it. But it is that project, more than religion, that those recruited ultimately fight for.

ISIL’s recruits may be first motivated to get into the group by identity politics and their own issues. But once in, they become part of a political project. They are motivated by that political project in the same way that people who are part of other political groups are motivated.

This is an essential part of understanding the ISIL threat. If we see the threat as political, that moves it into the realm of ideas. If, on the other hand, we believe that ISIL’s recruits continue to be motivated by anger and fury – rather than that serving as merely the impetus to join – then we turn our attention to individual motivators.

But political groups can only be defeated by ideas. The defeat of communism did not come militarily – it came from the realm of intellectual ideas. It is in that realm that we must understand the appeal and ideology of jihadism. ISIL continually tells the world that it has a vast political project to reshape the world. We ought to start believing them.


On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai

Published: August 10, 2016 04:00 AM


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