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What We Think the Islamic State Wants is Wrong

The Islamic State is a turbo-powered al-Qaeda but far more hideous.

Amid much discussion about the Islamic State (IS), there remains a horrendous gap in understanding what is plaguing the minds of sensible people everywhere.

A growing body of people are seeking to define IS as deeply Islamic in its outlook and practice. But by doing so, they ignore 1,400 years of “Islamic religious evolution.” This period of history cannot be simply blanked out by anyone who wants to see IS for what it is. The Islamic State is an ideologically-driven death cult, loosely borrowing from age-old Sunni takfiri dogma, wanting to return to a darker and deadlier past — to the origins of Islam no less — in order to fulfill some disturbed notion of Islamic millennialism.

This end of times thesis, in reality, is seen by most Muslims as some kind of allegory. It is there to make Muslims better people today, so they have a stronger chance of a more favorable afterlife.

In many ways, the Islamic State is similar to al-Qaeda, but far more warped. IS believes it has reason to be so because of events across the Middle East in recent years. Some Muslim minorities in the West — a small number at the margins of integration — buy into the rhetoric of IS because it fits a traumatized narrative, partly built up by radical online recruiters who pontificate to pliable ears ideas and thoughts loosely disguised as authentic Islamic teachings.

Most young Muslims from Europe who are radicalized by IS do not even need to meet a fundamentalist preacher to feel encouraged. They can do so from the comfort of their homes, sitting in front of their laptops.

Many young European men who join IS are bewildered. They are searching, exploring and yearning for recognition, acceptance and status — a meaning to their “between cultures” existence. Some of these are young men with problematic criminal histories, who are close to the edge psychologically. Others are looking for a deeper significance to their spiritual existence, while others are politically motivated through sheer anger and frustration at what is going around them in their home countries and across the Muslim world.

There are fewer young European-born women joining IS, but those who do are also malleable. As clearly demonstrated by three British Muslim teenagers thought to have left East London to join IS, these young people are smart, savvy and tuned in, but the online efforts of the IS media machine exploits certain fissures.

Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase

Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase

When young women are groomed as sexual objects, much is rightly focused on the ugly ambitions of certain men and their manipulative ways. But in the case of these three young women — Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana — there is a tendency once again to focus on ideology, religion and culture. It results in further vilification and demonization of a vast religion and a tremendously diverse body of people associated with it.

In the case of young men and women, both are vulnerable and exposed; both need help and support in their home countries. But few, if any, get what they crave. Much of this is about the failings of Western societies, but few “experts” want to examine these issues, as they have invested so heavily in the idea that the Islamic State is about Islam.

The Islamic State is essentially a turbo-powered al-Qaeda but far more hideous. IS has extensive financial means and vast territory, which allows it to be self-governing, concentrating its madness at the top and filtering it down to loyal followers.

However, as recent reports have showed, IS does have cracks. Many who leave Europe to join the group do not find what they expect. Faced with the possibility, many choose not to die. Instead, they subsist within a brutal regime that suppresses at every level, even dominating its own so-called followers.

The discussion in Europe on what ought to be done about Europeans who join IS — from taking their passports and denying citizenship to permanently excluding them from their countries of birth — is an attempt to discourage joining IS in the first instance. It does not, however, help those who are unsure of why they went in the first place. These young Muslims are placed in limbo forever, without any recourse to redemption. This situation merely adds to their hopelessness and sense that self-annihilation is the only way forward.

In relation to the role of the West, when the 9/11 attacks occurred, the “coalition of the willing” attacked Afghanistan, even though the perpetrators were mostly Saudi in origin, as was Osama bin Laden. Soon after, Iraq was illegally invaded. British and American forces were complicit in torture, rendition and acts of war in places such as Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, which are now regarded morally and ethically reprehensible.

Presently, IS maraud Syria and Iraq, destroying world heritage sites, engaging in ethnic cleansing and burning precious books and manuscripts, but the enlightened world merely watches. The Islamic State is arguably one of the most horrifying, shocking and disturbing organizations in the world, but the lack of action on the part of the West is staggering. So, what are the solutions?

First, young Muslims must be empowered to be resilient — to fight the inner fight before they can project positive integration outward.

Second, we must stop giving IS media fuel. The Islamic State thrives on the attention it receives. The more lavished upon it, the greater the oxygen it feeds off.

Third, we must deal with IS by breaking it down politically and militarily from the outside-in, and theologically and intellectually from the inside-out

Fourth, what IS wants can never be attained in reality, which is a return to an idealized form of a caliphate that was presumed to have occurred in 7th century Arabia. This means removing the command and control structure of IS, and sustaining the infrastructures that Muslim nations need to deal with the group.

Fifth, if the status quo persists, much will remain in favor of IS. Iraq and Syria are too fragile, while other nations such as Libya and Yemen are weak and wide-open for maneuvering. Many Western-born Muslims are far too excluded. All this means is that unless change is imminent, IS can only get stronger.

There is a considerable opportunity to take matters into our own hands rather than leave it to the likes of IS to dictate the terms of engagement. The Islamic State is a problem with solutions that can be broken down at many different levels. It is up to right-minded people to make them happen.

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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Enno Lenze / ITV / Flickr