Daily Times

What drives Islamic State?

Within its territory, IS is trying to run a brutal but, in its own way, efficient governing machine that works, as long as those under its control follow the rules and edicts couched as Islamic precepts
Another recent example is the bombing of a cultural centre in a Turkish town on the Syria-Turkey border, targeting Kurdish activists who were helping their fellow Kurds across the border reconstruct their shattered lives and battered town. This has brought Turkey into direct conflict, surprisingly, with both the Kurds and IS. Ankara was hoping that they would destroy each other, with Turkey standing aside as an observer and occasionally nudging one or the other in the desired direction. This has obviously not worked. IS continues to make waves. So much so that Australia’s Prime Minister is warning people that IS is coming after everyone.
Similarly, when al Qaeda sprang upon the world stage with the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, they were seen as larger than life. And despite the elimination of Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda brand is still out there, although it is largely eclipsed by IS. One important reason is that IS is a territorial entity that has established its writ in the areas that it has captured, while the al Qaeda leadership was either on the run or hiding in Pakistan after the US invasion of Afghanistan. By declaring themselves a caliphate, they purport to revive and recreate the glory of the Islamic past.
This notion resonates with many Muslims, even though most Muslims would be appalled by their methods of terrorist violence, because they feel a great sense of injustice and humiliation since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic Caliphate. The following period saw the division of the remnants of Ottoman territory in the Middle East into British and French colonial outposts, and the emergence of an independent Israel. The imposition of a Jewish state, largely supported by the US and its allies, in the midst of the Muslim world, only added to the outrage and humiliation of a people who were still wrestling with their downfall. This hurt continues, with Israel still running riot in Palestine and building more and more settlements to virtually negate the idea of a sovereign Palestinian homeland. IS is championing the Palestinian cause as well and is even seeking to supplant Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The oil-rich states of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners are also in IS’s sights. In other words, IS is tapping into the deeply humiliated psyche of the Muslim world.
But in the process it is also antagonising many in the Muslim world by its wanton and ghoulish use of violence. Such a representation of Islam certainly does not strike a chord with many Muslims. It is important to remember that Muslims are not an undifferentiated lot who fit into the image created and projected by IS. While most of them follow their faith, their interpretation and practice of Islam reflects local characteristics. Besides, the Muslim world has national and sectarian divides and differences. Therefore, the fundamentalist view that the global Muslim community is just pining to rally under the IS flag is overdone.
Having said this, it is also worth noting that within its territory, IS is trying to run a brutal but, in its own way, efficient governing machine that works, as long as those under its control follow the rules and edicts couched as Islamic precepts. According to Tim Arango, reporting from Istanbul and quoting a Raqqa resident (IS’s de facto capital in Syria), “You can travel from Raqqa to Mosul and no one will dare to stop you even if you carry $ one million.” This is partly because IS functions at a certain level according to its own raw morality but partly also because of the widespread fear of draconian punishments if caught. Arango adds, “Now there is a limited sense of order…a low bar, perhaps, but a reality amid years of war and anarchy”, against the backdrop of more than 10 years of war in Iraq and a brutal civil war in Syria for the last four years. This fact makes people feel that in IS “there is a functioning state”. And as long as people “avoid any dissent, they can largely go about their lives”.
According to a new book, Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, by Abdel Bari Atwan (to be published in September and previewed in The New York Review of Books), IS is a well-structured entity with two deputies, former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, who assist the caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi within the hierarchical structure of the organisation. There are said to be advisory councils and several departments run by committees, with leaders of each department sitting in Baghdadi’s ‘cabinet’. The most powerful of these councils is the Sharia Council, which is said to oversee the draconian implementation of penalties for “crimes against God’s limits”, which include amputations and capital punishment.
According to Atwan’s account, displaying horrific atrocities on the internet is part of a coherent strategy. To quote the author, “Crucifixions, beheadings, the hearts of the rape victims cut out and placed upon their chests, mass executions, homosexuals being pushed from high buildings, severed heads impaled on railings or brandished by grinning ‘jihadist’ children…these gruesome images of brutal violence are carefully packaged and distributed via Islamic State’s media department…As each new atrocity outdoes the last, front page headlines across the world’s media are guaranteed.” With an estimated force of anywhere between 30,000 and 100,000, IS has certainly been able to create a larger-than-life image through gruesome images that also strike terror and revulsion in the people.
At the same time, for its followers IS is “an emotionally attractive place where people ‘belong’, where everyone is a ‘brother’ or ‘sister’” and where the glory of martyrdom is within easy reach. This governing machine generates its own revenue through the illicit sale of oil and taxes. Its budget is said to be managed by an economic council. In January 2015, for instance, IS’s overall receipts were reported to be $ 2 billion, with a surplus of $ 250 million added to the war chest. Therefore, IS is a well-oiled machine in all aspects and seems to strike a chord with some of the dispossessed and disenchanted Muslim youth in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. Those working for it and affiliated with it feel empowered by striking terror in its hapless victims.The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at sushilpseth@yahoo.co.au


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