The Real Power of ISIS is that it represents the idea of restored Islamic greatness, offering “Hope” and “Change” to a population that is desperate for it and willing to risk death to achieve it. America (at least allegedly) tried to fight ISIS. Russia is really bombing ISIS. But it won’t die. I am reminded of the movie “V for Vendetta” in which, at the end of the final fight scene, the camera catches a vague image of V through the empty chamber of a revolver while Creedy shoots at him and says “Die! Die! Why won’t you die!”
Part of V’s response in that scene is that beneath the flesh and blood there is an idea, and that: “Ideas are bulletproof.” As Joseph Stalin said: “Ideas are more powerful than guns.”
Obama, and the West in general, is unwilling to acknowledge the ideas and visions that ISIS offers to those Muslims desperate to listen. This leaves the West almost blind, seeing through the glass darkly. Unable to discuss or understand the appeal of ISIS, we fail to effectively stop it.
The idea of “Hope and Change” won the 2008 presidential election in America, not because the candidate had demonstrated an experienced career in Washington and specific plans for reform – but for exactly the opposite reasons – he won largely because he appeared to be the opposite of a Washington insider, and because he wasn’t pinned down by specific details – allowing millions of voters to fill in the blanks with their own hopes, and their own ideas for change. Republicans lost that election because they could not defend the benefits of the existing way of doing things. Without an overall euphoria blanketing the country in the fuzzy warmth of economic boom times or the recent victory of a major war just having ended… it can be hard to convince people that the way things have been getting done is the best way and that change would only make things worse.
This underlying theme in American politics – that your party must substantially improve the standard of living and perception of progress in order to maintain the status quo and stay in power – is the same everywhere on Earth. Failure to do so creates conditions for a change in parties dominating a democracy, or revolutions where democracy does not allow people to merely vote for the vague promises of “Hope and Change” they always want to believe in.
In the Islamic world, democracy is rare. But the idea that change will be an improvement is widespread; even if that change comes from the barrels of guns aimed at those in power. And those in power have failed to give the people what they want. The typical Arab citizen of the Middle East sees great oil wealth being pumped out from under him, but only select billionaires benefit – while most of the people never achieve the economic prosperity of America or Europe, or even of China or Russia.
Militarily, the Arab people know that – once upon a time – their armies were dominant from Spain to India… but that in recent years they can’t even win against tiny little Israel, let alone against a superpower like America. And with American economic and military supremacy comes “Coca-colonization” – the importation and acceptance of many western products, music, movies, clothing, and behaviors. It is so hard to understand that Muslim Arab men in the Middle East who love their religion and culture and heritage might want to overthrow the existing order – which has failed them in every conceivable way – at any price? Or that they might listen to anyone claiming they had an idea of how to change things?
It would be an understatement to say that millions of such people feel desperate and betrayed and angry. Angry at their own leaders for greed and corruption while failing to improve the nations they rule. Angry at “others” and “foreigners” like Europe and America and Israel, or even Japan – all of whom have all achieved dominance and prosperity through Western culture – or the adoption and imitation of it – which undermines Islamic and Arab culture by consistently bettering it and showing that even copying Western ways of success appears to be a better alternative way of doing things.
Unfortunately the culture and institutions in many Middle Eastern nations do not make it possible to emulate the success of foreigners by imitation while maintaining the culture and traditions they wish to keep. The instability of the region also prohibits the reasonable hope of slow and gradual progress in any direction. There is only one idea which seems to offer hope for massive change in the Middle East – and that is the savagery of terrorism and war which could bring a revolutionary new Islamic caliphate into power – theoretically ending the chaos and occupation of Iraq, the greed and corruption of the Saudi monarchy, the Syrian dictatorship, and, if they are militarily successful – even offers victory over Israel and the West.
ISIS appeals to young men’s desperation and feelings that “justice” should be meted out to oppressors. It offers few specific plans but its overall vision of “Hope” for “Change” always works in an unhappy population. The West cannot fight the allure of ISIS or prevent new recruits from joining their ranks because the only alternative to ISIS is maintaining the status quo which is completely unacceptable.
As Scott Atran recently wrote in The Daily Beast on Oct. 25, 2015:
“The West has failed utterly to understand the appeal of the ISIS narrative, much less to develop effective counter narratives… This is, fundamentally, a war of ideas that the West has virtually no idea how to wage, and that is a major reason anti-ISIS policies have been such abysmal failures… Current “counter narratives” aren’t in the least appealing or successful, whether in attracting or deterring ISIS supporters and recruits. They are mostly negative and they lecture at young people rather than dialoguing with them…
In contrast with, say, the off-target tweets of the U.S. State Department’s “Think Again Turn Away” campaign, the Islamic State may spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist single individuals, to learn how their personal frustrations and grievances can fit into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims, and thus translate anger and frustration into moral outrage… Appeals to “moderation” (wasattiyah) fall flat on restless and often idealistic youths seeking adventure, glory and significance.
…George Orwell, in his review of Mein Kampf in 1940, descried the essence of the problem:
“Mr. Hitler has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. Hitler knows… that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice.” In a similar vein, the Arab Sunni radical revivalist trend, of which ISIS is now the spearhead, is a dynamic, revolutionary countercultural movement of world historic proportions…”
The Real Power of ISIS – is that there are hundreds of millions of people in the Middle East who are far more desperate for change than we are. Americans were willing to vote for their vague dreams of Hope and Change. In the Middle East, the lack of good options makes many willing to die for it. Conditions there are much like the social radicalization of Germany around 1930 – of Russia around 1917 – of France before the Revolution around 1791, or of America around 1776. Muslim men are willing to die because they are tired of a life of poverty, chaos, and fear in a world dominated by foreigners and foreign ideas. Notice that in every example of national revolution above, the revitalized nation’s army soon achieved continental domination – with superpower status and world domination potentially in their grasp.
Muslims have their own ideas of world domination – of a world no longer dominated by Christians, or Jews, or Americans, or Europeans. Their idea – their dream – is to recreate the glorious peak of Islamic civilization under a new Caliphate that can bring final victory over their enemies and Sharia Law to the world. There is no effective political counter-argument because the alternative is more of the same, and many would rather die fighting for glorious change. And the Islamic religion (like a mirror image of Christianity) tells them that in the end times – which many hope are here now – Islam will experience final global victory over its enemies. An individual jihadi intent on martyrdom will die. But the idea of fighting for something greater – for glorious hope and change – that is a universal idea that will not die.
— contributed by David Montaigne