A fair question. But it’s not hard to answer. ISIS or ISIL or Daesh – Obama has settled on the last, and we might as well follow him – is quite clear about its goal: to establish by force of arms, starting now, a universal Sunni Islamic caliphate. This will be ruled by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph according to an extreme Salafist version of shariah which even Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia think is over the top. What is more, unlike bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, the imperialist agenda is connected to apocalyptic prophecy. According to Graeme Wood, whose Atlantic article is basic reading on the movement:

Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.

…Now that it has taken Dabiq [in northern Syria], the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse.

An Australian convert expanded on the scenario to Wood:

After its battle in Dabiq, Cerantonio said, the caliphate will expand and sack Istanbul. Some believe it will then cover the entire Earth, but Cerantonio suggested its tide may never reach beyond the Bosporus. An anti-Messiah, known in Muslim apocalyptic literature as Dajjal, will come from the Khorasan region of eastern Iran and kill a vast number of the caliphate’s fighters, until just 5,000 remain, cornered in Jerusalem. Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off, Jesus—the second-most-revered prophet in Islam—will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory.

The fact that this is nuts – and mainstream Sunni and Shia leaders all concur in the assessment – does not make it unclear, any more than Mein Kampf was. Nor is it without precedent, in several religions.

I tried, shortly after 9/11, to inform my then employers in the Council of Europe about the rich historical tapestry of violent religious cults. The text is here, and I think it stands up pretty well. The one recommendation I really wish they had taken to heart was to read Norman Cohn’s great history of apocalyptic cults in mediaeval Europe, The Pursuit of the Millennium.

The best-known of many such episodes is surely the Anabaptist Jan of Leyden’s  takeover of the Westphalian city of Münster in 1534-35. Here is a portrait of him by Aldegrever:

It’s a fine but seriously creepy work. Here is dignified Jan, in royal robes, carrying the symbols of his insane Messianic claim to universal monarchy. But this portrait was not commissioned by him to celebrate his temporary power, but by his enemies after his defeat and capture – just before they dragged him into the square before the cathedral and tortured him to death with red-hot irons. (Sorry, but you need reminding that establishment Christians can be as vilely cruel as as any Daesh fanatic.)

Cohn’s book shows that Jan’s communistic dictatorship in Münster was not an isolated and freakish episode, but the last in a long series of movements led by popular prophets writing themselves into starring roles in apocalyptic scenarios loosely based on the Book of Revelations. The first he records is Eudes de l’Etoile or Eon, a Breton who started his movement in 1145 and described himself as the Son of God. He was captured in 1148 and starved to death by the Bishop of Rouen; a number of his unrepentant followers were burnt. Another leader, describing himself as Adam, arose in Bohemia in the fringes of the Hussite movement and wars:

These Adamites are said … to have lived in a state of community so unconditional that not only did nobody possess anything of his own but that exclusive marriage was regarded as a sin .. Blood, they declared, must flood the world to the height of a horse’s head; and despite their small numbers they did their best to achieve this aim.. They set the villages on fire and cut down or burnt alive every man, woman and child they could find; this too they justified with a quotation from the Scriptures…

The Taborite general Jan Žižka took time out from fighting Catholic and Utraquist armies to destroy the Adamite cult without difficulty in 1421.

Among the examples I found in other religions of violent apocalyptic cults, the closest to Daesh and Jan of Leyden may be the Sikh radical Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who in 1983 seized and fortified the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest shrine of Sikhism. Indira Gandhi had the temple stormed in 1984, killing Bhindranwale. (She was later assassinated by some of her Sikh bodyguards, in retaliation for the sacrilege). The Wikipedia article  is uncritical and presents Bhindranwale as a conventional radical nationalist. This does not offer any real explanation for his extraordinary actions, and I suspect a far less conventional theological agenda, perhaps even a self-identification as an avatar of the Eleventh Sikh Guru. (Comments on these speculations welcome.)

How do cults like Daesh and Jan of Leyden’s end? The usual story is, I’m afraid, one of violence. A radical and violent challenge to established authority based on religious conviction cannot be negotiated, as can be those from secular groups like the IRA or the Tamil Tigers. Would containment work? The historical record is not helpful. The policy does not seem to have been tried, and the nature of the challenge makes it extremely difficult. Kennan’s containment policy for Soviet Communism depended on its specific features, including its long view and pragmatic tactics within the non-negotiable goal of world revolution. Kennan in effect pressed the United States to copy this patient world-view, against all its instincts for chasing quick results. Daesh is closer to Nazism in the reckless immediacy of its vaulting ambition.

I fear that there is no alternative to military action. But Cohn’s book does offer one useful tip. These cults are extremely authoritarian, and depend utterly on a charismatic leader. Kill or discredit him, and the movement quickly fades. The survival of Christianity after Jesus’ execution depended on the resurrection story (whether true or imagined or fabricated), itself connected to a reinterpretation of Jesus’ non-violent teaching in an other-worldly sense. The death of the leader has usually been enough to dishearten the followers, or to turn them pacific like the Mennonites.


After their execution in Münster, the bodies of Jan Bockelson and two other leading Anabaptists were exhibited in iron cages hung from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church. The cages are still there, a chilling reminder of the lengths to which both religious revolutionaries and the defenders, like us, of the established order will go.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]