The Islamic State will ultimately collapse – and indeed it was doomed from the start because it could not offer real hope to the populations under its control, only the relentless fury of destruction and an obsession with perpetual war against enemies real and imagined, coupled with extreme religious interpretations of daily life.
ISIS is failing and will fail not only because it is a brutal and shortsighted organization that rules through fear and totalitarian control of day-to-day life, but because it is a denial of the creativity of the human mind – it is an intellectually starved group that is devoid of ideas, of anything resembling theological or philosophical content. Thinking or theorizing outside the strict bounds of Sharia is forbidden and regarded as a criminal violation of Islamic law. So while ISIS has a great deal of technical expertise at its disposal, it suffers from an utter dearth of ideas, and anything like a positive vision of government is entirely lacking.
Its ideological zealousness betrays a nihilistic core – a void. This emptiness is perhaps the key to understanding ISIS’s appeal to certain youths who are attracted by the violent and uncompromising simplicity of its outlook: there is no necessity to think, and indeed anything resembling theological or religious speculation is forbidden.
ISIS represents a form of Islamo-nihilism: a name that underscores the inherent contradiction of this ideology, which turns the Islamic tradition against its own conditions of possibility and literally consumes itself in the fury of destruction. And in terms of ideas, when we look at ISIS, we can find nothing positive, only a cult of death: in the end the only content it offers is genocidal rage.
The vacuum of ideas has emboldened Salafi-jihadists, who have responded with a selective, and brutally enforced, reading of scripture. It would appear that not only Salafi-jihadists, but also many Westerners as well, have forgotten that the Koran prohibits forcible conversion: “There shall be no compulsion in religion.” (2:256) People must be allowed to choose freely. Similarly, it has been largely overlooked by those that seek to demonize Islam, and those that seek to oppress others in the name of Allah, that one of the salient features of the Koran is precisely that it regards the sexes as fundamentally equal. The Koran insists on gender equality in the creation of male and female from a single soul. Islamo-nihilism cannot be defeated with military means alone: the final death blow will involve an intellectual and epistemological break with the harsh and polarizing narratives which characterize Salafi-jihadists like ISIS.
If, as Marx once observed, to be a radical is literally to go to the ‘root’ of a matter, then the truly radical Muslim is the one who recognizes that Islam is a religion not of indiscriminate violence and subjugation of women, but of activism and solidarity with the marginalized, the oppressed, and the disenfranchised.
In an authentic fundamentalist, you do not find any resentment or envy regarding a non-believer’s way of life. That is not the case with fanatics or pseudo-fundamentalists, who are profoundly disturbed and captivated by the sinful life of the non-believer. Interestingly, the Koran itself makes the same point and warns us against this: “Do not grieve for the unbelievers, nor distress yourself at their intrigues.” (16:127) In waging war against the infidel the fanatic is fighting his own temptation – for he always harbors a secret doubt, and his violent assault reveals the absence of a true belief or conviction. By contrast, the Koran tells us to “Call men to the path of your Lord with wisdom and kindly exhortation. Reason with them in them most courteous manner.” (16:125)
Especially now, when Islam is appropriated and directed towards purely destructive ends, it is essential to retrieve and embrace Islam as a force for radical social and political egalitarianism. Islam’s tradition of nonviolent resistance in the face of injustice needs to be among the repertoire of ideas that we employ to fill the nihilistic void that ISIS continues to exploit. In a 2013 speech before the UN, Malala Yousafzai invoked the life of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Muslim leader from the Pashtun tribe, who was a close friend of Gandhi and nicknamed the “Frontier Gandhi” in British India. Khan, imprisoned by the British for over fifteen years, successfully mobilized 100,000 nonviolent Muslim soldiers (the Khudai Khidmatgar) and demonstrated that there is a genuine compatibility between methods of nonviolent resistance and Islamic values and beliefs.
Judeo-Christianity is threatened not by radical Islam but by right wing, anti-immigrant racism. At this moment, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition has something special and unique to offer, precisely when it seems to be defeating itself: this is because the political problem of today is the problem of love thy neighbor. Trump’s crass brand of populism is based precisely on distrust and fear of the neighbor.
The question we need to ask is: what is the neighbor? Is it someone who reminds us more or less of ourselves? Or is the neighbor rather that which startles us by their unfamiliarity, their strangeness, their refusal to accommodate our expectations of the other? I submit that it is the latter – and if that is the case, then perhaps there is an alternative to irrational fear and hate. To fully rescue Islam from the nihilistic violence of today will mean championing an Islam that is radical in its embrace of the excluded other, that represents solidarity and non-violent resistance in the face of social inequity, oligarchy, exploitation, and injustice.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. firstname.lastname@example.org