In some parts of the world such wishes would be a cruel fantasy. That includes the swathes of disintegrating Syria and Iraq under the control of Islamic State and its charismatic leader, the Rolex-toting and self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.


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US officials are baffled how to fight this new kind of enemy. Al-Qaeda had a bizarre and fantastical goal, the restoration of a purified Caliphate of all Muslims, and a too-clever bank shot strategy, attacking the “far enemy” American sponsor rather than the corrupt governments of Muslim states directly. But its structure and methods were straight out of the 150-year-old manual for conspiratorial violent revolutionaries, and would have been familiar to the Fenians, the Black Hand, or Carlos Marighella – and to the governments who fought them. Islamic State has similarly crazy ambitions, but it rules a territory, and possesses a useful army and a Twitter account.

The NYT reports on the puzzlement.

Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, commander of American Special Operations forces in the Middle East, sought help this summer in solving an urgent problem for the American military: What makes the Islamic State so dangerous?

Trying to decipher this complex enemy — a hybrid terrorist organization and a conventional army — is such a conundrum that General Nagata assembled an unofficial brain trust outside the traditional realms of expertise within the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence agencies, in search of fresh ideas and inspiration. Business professors, for example, are examining the Islamic State’s marketing and branding strategies.

“We do not understand the movement, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it,” he said, according to the confidential minutes of a conference call he held with the experts. “We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.”

The general has not cast his net wide enough. The article does not mention scholars of history, comparative religion or the psychology of cults. I am none of these, but in the weeks following 9/11 I tried to remind my colleagues in the Council of Europe of salient facts about religious terrorism. Nobody took any notice, so I felt free to publish the memo on my vanity website later. More important, the line of inquiry I proposed has SFIK been little explored. This was a mistake.

Most of the cultural discussion about jihadism in general and al-Qaeda in particular has treated them as perversions of Islam in particular. What is there in mainstream Islam that could enable these deformations? It looks a fair question, but the approach is biased and incomplete. I was quickly able, even in pre-Wikipedia days, to identify parallel movements that have from time to time emerged from almost all of the main world religions.

My short list was:

  • The Assassins (out of Shia Islam), 13th-century Persia and Syria
  • Millenarians (out of Christianity), 1200-1550
  • Sicarii (out of Judaism), 1st century Judaea
  • Thugs (out of Hinduism), India, ?? – 1840
  • Jarnail Singh Bindranwale (out of Sikhism), Punjab, 1980-1984
  • The Taiping Rebellion (out of Asiatic syncretism), South China, 1840-1864
  • Aum Shinri Kyo (out of Asiatic syncretism), Japan, 1984 to present

It’s easy to see from this that violent cults are a perversion of religion in general, not merely Islam.

You may fairly object that my list mixes up movements of very different types. Fair enough, but the “terrorism” posed in 2001 as the problem was not then, and still is not, a clear analytic concept. Even where the objectives differ, the cult psychology may be parallel and worth study. This holds for the Assassins, who sought political influence in self-defence not power, and the Thugs, whose Kali-worship was basically a licence for banditry.

Let’s narrow the list to the cults that sought political power, dropping these two, plus Aum Shinri Kyo which seems purely nihilist. That still leaves four, representing four different religious traditions. I am deliberately laving out the much more common exploitation of religion by established authority, or a side in a civil war.

A comparative frame is far better for addressing Nagata’s questions – how do movements like Islamic State arise and grow, and how do you destroy them?

Two obvious preconditions for emergence are a charismatic unhinged leader to brainwash followers, and a willingness to read the sacred texts in a highly selective and creative way. Christian millenarians for instance concentrated on the two apocalyptic books, Daniel and Revelations; curiously ignoring the prosaically genocidal Joshua. One cult, the Adamites in Bohemia during the Hussite wars, were so bloodthirsty as to make Islamic State and bin Laden look positively moderate. Cohn: “Blood, they declared, must flood the world to the depth of a horse’s head; and despite their small number they did their best to achieve this aim.” Buddhism alone seems relatively immune, perhaps immunised by Gautama’s radical pacifism. There are no doubt Buddhist traces in the Taiping and Aum Shinri Kyo, but very remote from the origin.

The social conditions were well tackled by the late Norman Cohn in his great study of mediaeval Christian cults, The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957, revised 1970).  Cohn points to the social disruptions of mediaeval proto-capitalism in Flanders, the Rhine and Northern Italy as enablers, along with a long mystical and apocalyptic tradition in the Christian mainstream. The millenarian map does not correlate at all with the later witch craze, rooted in stable rural backwaters like Scotland and Bavaria. Social insecurity leads to psychological insecurity, and an openness to radical messages. This seems to fit the Taiping, Islamic State’s success in recruiting second-generation young Muslim immigrants in Europe, and – outside our frame but within Cohn’s – the rise of Nazism.

How do these movements end? Generally, in blood. Only Aum Shinri Kyo seems to have just faded. The strength of the commitment that religious cults can generate, and the complete unacceptability of their ambitions, makes war with the surrounding society inevitable. An irrelevant exception here is the Assassins, but their political objectives within the Muslim world were so limited as to be negotiable. It was their bad luck that they came up against the overwhelming force and limitless brutality of the Mongols.

So Nagata has to capture, kill, or (as with the entirely pacific Jewish “Messiah” Sabbatai Zevi) discredit al-Baghdadi. Go with the Rolex, not the red-hot irons inflicted on another Messiah, Jan of Leiden, in Munster in 1536. The iron cage in which his body was exposed still hangs from the church steeple. You can take “heritage” too far.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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