Stephen Chan: We’ve talked about just war, and we’ve used just war the­o­ry as a tem­plate for dis­cussing just rebel­lion. And we’ve talked about the jus­tice that enables a rebel­lion to take place. And we’ve also talked about what is just con­duct with­in that rebel­lion, in both cas­es bor­row­ing from just war theory.

What hap­pens, how­ev­er, if rebel­lion uses war as one of its instru­ments to achieve its aims? At this point in time you’ve got an amal­ga­ma­tion of both just war and just rebel­lion the­o­ry, both in terms of just cause and in terms also of course of just con­duct dur­ing the actu­al upris­ing which would then nec­es­sar­i­ly involve war. This becomes the back­drop theme to what we want to dis­cuss today, which is essen­tial­ly in the first instance his­tor­i­cal exam­ples and debate on jihad. But also talk­ing about its mod­ern day man­i­fes­ta­tion par­tic­u­lar­ly in today’s headlines—things that con­cern all of us. Not only in the Middle East today but in oth­er parts of the world, includ­ing here in Europe.

But inso­far as jihad is often said to be launched against the new cru­saders, I thought it might be inter­est­ing to start with an exam­ple from the ear­ly Medieval Crusades. We’re very famil­iar with the Crusades from our his­to­ry books, of course. We have his­to­ry that tells one side of these cru­sades. But real­ly from 1096 through to 1272, you had pro­tract­ed efforts to launch cru­sade in the Middle East led by Christian armies, led by Christian kings and emper­ors. And there were a total of nine of these cru­sades in this peri­od of time.

The first three were the ones that made most of the his­tor­i­cal, as it were, grandeur of the efforts of these cru­sades to reclaim the for­mer Christian lands and to estab­lish Christian king­doms in them. And of course one of the great English kings, Richard Lionheart, was very much involved in the sec­ond great Crusade. And even out­side the hous­es of par­lia­ment today you’ll see two stat­ues. One is of Oliver Cromwell, the oth­er one is of Richard Lionheart hold­ings his word aloft, and this is the sort of Christianity, the sword of Christendom.

There’s actu­al­ly a very famous sto­ry of a truce dur­ing the Second Crusade. At a meet­ing of the two kings, Richard Lionheart lead­ing the cru­saders and Saladin lead­ing the resis­tance as it were to the cru­saders. They met in a moment truce dur­ing the Battle of [?]. The truce meet­ing was held in Saladin’s tent. Richard Lionheart strode into the tent and took out his broadsword, crashed down on of the logs burn­ing in Saladin’s fire­place and said, This is the sword of Christianity.”

In reply it is said Saladin picked up a silk scarf and tossed it in the air, took out his scim­i­tar, and sliced it in half and said, This is the sword of Islam.”

That kind of mutu­al regard and that kind of con­trast in terms of method­olo­gies of course did not obvi­ate any of the blood­shed that took place in the Crusades. But a very inter­est­ing thing hap­pened towards the end of the Second Crusade, which end­ed in the defeat of the Christian army. And Saladin was able to take cities that we would now rec­og­nize as Syrian cities. And also cities in what we would call the dis­put­ed ter­ri­to­ries of Israel and Palestine, such as Jerusalem. 

And after the cap­ture by Saladin of Jerusalem, after the cap­ture of what was left of the Christian king­dom and the Christian armies, he did not com­mit any atroc­i­ties. And so great was his mer­cy, so great was his capac­i­ty to spare life and to let peo­ple go free—usually for a very very token ransom—that the rumor was spread abroad in Europe itself that in fact this Islamic fight­er must’ve been a clos­et Christian because so great was his mer­cy that it was incon­ceiv­able in terms of the pro­pa­gan­da of that point in time that he could’ve been some­one who was in fact a Muslim. For Saladin him­self, he would have been observ­ing the emerg­ing Islamic doc­trines of what was just con­duct in war. More of that a lit­tle bit later.

But as I say, the whole image of the new cru­sades is put for­ward today as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for jihad. A lot of the mod­ern dis­course on jihad is asso­ci­at­ed with what we call Wahhabism. And I want to have a brief look at what Wahhabism means. It’s a form of Sunni Islam. It comes from a ter­ri­to­ry that we would now call Saudi Arabia. It was very very much con­ceived as a riposte an Islam that had been start­ing to go soft and lux­u­ri­ant as the 18th cen­tu­ry progressed.

So Wahhabism is a purifi­ca­tion move­ment that began quite recent­ly, the 18th cen­tu­ry as I said, prop­a­gat­ed by a preach­er and a schol­ar called Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. And of course Wahhabism was named al-Wahhab. And its influ­ence spread through­out the desert lands. So much so that in the 20th cen­tu­ry, when Lawrence of Arabia was con­duct­ing war on behalf of the Allied cause in this part of Arabia, he recount­ed what he came across in the town of Qasim. And he said that Qasim was a place which had be over­tak­en by Wahhabist belief. And he found no cof­fee, he found no tobac­co, he was unable to have dal­liances even of a Platonic nature with the local women. There were no silk clothes. There was no gold and sil­ver for head­ropes for the head­dress­es of the men. And for Lawrence after months of rid­ing around on camels in the desert this was a ter­ri­ble depri­va­tion, not to have what he thought were quite innocu­ous and inno­cent pas­times that he could set­tle into in the pause for bat­tle. And the idea of Wahhabism as a cult of depri­va­tion, almost like an equiv­a­lent of Puritanical Christianity, took hold from his writ­ings in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Now, in fact there was much more to Wahhabism than a sim­ple puri­tan­i­cal ele­ment to it. But what you’ve got in par­tic­u­lar is an ele­ment of purifi­ca­tion which is not sim­ply, as I said, puri­tan­i­cal, but an idea of purifi­ca­tion which makes an out­cast or an ene­my of any­one who is not Islamic in the strictest pos­si­ble sense. In oth­er words, if you thought out­side of a cer­tain pale, you become not a sin­ner, in oth­er words if you’re a sin­ner there may be all kinds of pos­si­bil­i­ties of your being for­giv­en, of your being rein­cor­po­rat­ed into the fold at a lat­er point in time. But if you fall out­side of the fold, even if you pro­fess a form of Islam you’re nec­es­sar­i­ly a heretic. So the dis­tinc­tion that he would draw between some­one who’s lapsed and some­one’s beyond the pale was some­thing that was drawn very very strict­ly indeed in Wahhabism.

Not only that but the purifi­ca­tion of the reli­gion also meant a very strict adher­ence to the wor­ship only of one god. So inter­ven­ing vari­ables such as giv­ing respect to the shrines of saints, for instance, some­thing that was very very much asso­ci­at­ed with both the Sufi and the Shia approach to Islam, that kind of inter­me­di­ate device that detract­ed from wor­ship direct­ly to the glo­ry of god, that was for­bid­den. So that Wahhabism nec­es­sar­i­ly at a very ear­ly stage came to be at odds with both Shia and also par­tic­u­lar with Sufi approach­es to Islam.

And the idea that here you had in the desert itself a metaphor for the puri­ty of Islam and the puri­ty of wor­ship towards God, stark and aus­tere, was giv­en a geopo­lit­i­cal impulse in the alliance that al-Wahhab made with the House of Saud, ances­tors of the present rulers of Saudi Arabia. Political rulers, they and al-Wahhab formed an alliance. It was an alliance which was, with var­i­ous devi­a­tions along the way, to last the test of time. So that the rela­tion­ship between a form of Wahhabism and the House of Saud con­tin­ues to this present day.

This impli­cates us direct­ly into the geopol­i­tics of today. It’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly the same Wahhabism, because obvi­ous­ly the House of Saud, par­tic­u­lar the roy­al fam­i­ly, is not giv­en to liv­ing a par­tic­u­lar­ly spar­tan life. But some of the stric­tures that you see in terms of the laws of Saudi Arabia; the very very strict obser­vance of cer­tain para­me­ters, the role of women being a sub­servient one being a case in point; the impos­si­bil­i­ty under­neath Saudi law to leave Islam as your religion—in oth­er words you can­not become an apos­tate, you can­not legal­ly leave the reli­gion of Islam if you were born Islamic, that is regard­ed as blas­phe­mous and is actu­al­ly a cap­i­tal crime. As we speak there are peo­ple who are charged with cap­i­tal offense of being apos­tate, of leav­ing Islam. And that is very much res­o­nant of the orig­i­nal Wahhabism that puts you beyond the pale. If you desert you are not sim­ply a sin­ner, you are apos­tate, you are hereti­cal, and that is a crime that is pun­ish­able by death.

But the very very great links and almost tena­cious inte­gra­tion between the reli­gion and the state became some­thing which was cement­ed by an inci­dent in Mecca itself with quite his­to­ry. But before I describe that par­tic­u­lar inci­dent I should say that what you had was not just Wahhabism as the only rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a puri­fied Islam. Wahhabism prob­a­bly is best regard­ed as a pecu­liar­ly Saudi vari­ant of what we call Salafism, which is very very much to do with purifi­ca­tion. It is some­thing which you might say was close­ly asso­ci­at­ed for instance with the advent of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for instance. And that began in 1928. So again a 20th cen­tu­ry manifestation

But very very much tak­ing on board cer­tain ten­den­cies that were demar­cat­ed by the Egyptian envi­ron­ment, oppo­si­tion to the par­tic­u­lar rul­ing class and the rul­ing elite in Egypt at that point in time. And of course the Brotherhood has retained its role as an oppo­si­tion­al device in Egyptian pol­i­tics, with a brief peri­od in recent times when it was able to form an unsuc­cess­ful gov­ern­ment before it was out­lawed and purged yet again. But the idea that there could be a puri­ty with­in a state struc­ture that all the same sought to mod­ern­ize, is some­thing which dif­fer­en­ti­ates to a very large extent Salafism that is not Wahhabi. In oth­er words the idea of inte­grat­ing with a mod­ern con­text, of try­ing to prac­tice the reli­gion with­in a mod­ern con­text, even if a very puri­fied form of the religion. 

In Saudi Arabia, of course, the great con­tra­dic­tion is how to trans­act a reli­gion which is to do with purifi­ca­tion in a state which simul­ta­ne­ous­ly wish­es to have the trap­pings of moder­ni­ty, but at the same time wish­es to have the admin­is­tra­tion of antiq­ui­ty. And that gives rise to all kinds of difficulties. 

When it was seen that the House of Saud and the state of Saudi Arabia was mov­ing far too much towards a lack of puri­ty in its habits and its asso­ci­a­tion with out­side forces, then there was rebel­lion with­in Saudi Arabia itself. And I’m think­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly of a moment in time when there was in Mecca what we might today call an atroc­i­ty. And that was in 1979 when a group of mil­i­tants seized the Grand Mosque. It was at pre­cise­ly the time of pil­grim­age. It was at pre­cise­ly that point in time when every­one thought that of all the places in the Islamic world that would be safe, it would be the Grand Mosque in Mecca itself.

So the mil­i­tants struck at that point in time, declar­ing that a new Mahdi was going to come to pow­er. That it was to cleanse Saudi Arabia from the deca­dence of the of the House of Saud. And that the Mahdi would return all of Islam, not just Islam as prac­ticed in Saudi Arabia, to a puri­ty not only of the time of al-Wahhab, but a puri­ty that was res­i­dent at the time of Muhammad himself.

Now, the Mahdi I should has­ten to add is not actu­al­ly a Koranic fig­ure. It’s a post-Koranic fig­ure. It’s prob­a­bly a title that is first referred to in a late hadith. It’s not some­thing which is orig­i­nat­ing from Muhammad’s time itself. But it is very very much to do with the restora­tion to Muhammadean era.

The Mahdi is some­one who is yet to come. In some respect you could say he has mes­sian­ic qual­i­ties, a coun­ter­part of the Christian mes­si­ah. But when he does come, cer­tain­ly he’s going to be Muhammad’s suc­ces­sor. That is very much the arti­cle of faith in a Sunni approach to the idea of the Mahdi. In the Shia belief, in fact the Mahdi has come but has dis­ap­peared, but will be able to reappear—this is called the occul­ta­tion of Hidden Imam, and at the point in time when he does reap­pear, the era of the just man will also come upon the Earth. But one way or the oth­er, at the appear­ance or reappear­ance of the Mahdi jus­tice will come to the Earth, and will be jus­tice in the image of Muhammad. 

This has not pre­vent­ed all kinds of would-be or want-to-be Mahdis declar­ing them­selves to be exact­ly this fig­ure. The British had an expe­ri­ence with a Mahdi who over­came British colo­nial forces in Sudan, General Gordon fell at the Battle of Khartoum at the hands of the Mahdi him­self. And what we have now in the so-called Islamic State is sim­ply the lat­est in a long line of peo­ple who are declar­ing them­selves to be this much-prophesied fig­ure to come to cleanse the Earth of wickedness.

But in 1979 at the bat­tle for the Grand Mosque in Mecca, what you had was the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a rebel­lion on behalf of the new Mahdi, who was going to accom­plish this cleans­ing and purifi­ca­tion in Saudi Arabia itself. And bloody bat­tles took place. And the Saudi forces were able to make no head­way what­so­ev­er against the rebels who entrenched them­selves not only in the build­ings but the under­ground cham­bers in the mosque precinct. So it took some weeks before the stand­off was able to be brought to a mil­i­tary conclusion.

Even now, accounts dif­fer as to exact­ly who accom­plished the over­com­ing of these mod­est rebels. We have accounts in which the CIA did the actu­al over­com­ing of the rebels. You have oth­er accounts where the French Foreign Legion was brought in, and they try to gas the rebels out of the tun­nel com­plex­es in the mosque precinct. You have oth­er accounts in which Pakistani com­man­dos actu­al­ly did the final deeds. 

Not all of the rebels, who­ev­er over­came them, were killed. Many of them, sev­er­al hun­dred of them, were pub­licly exe­cut­ed very much as a warn­ing to oth­ers after the event, after they were over­come by whichev­er force was able to do that. But what it meant was that apart from the pub­lic spec­ta­cle of behead­ing the sur­viv­ing rebels, the House of Saud decid­ed, accord­ing to many com­men­ta­tors although this is nev­er ever pub­licly admit­ted, that it had bet­ter to come to a deal with its Wahhabist reli­gious coun­ter­part with­in the kingdom. 

So there was, accord­ing to those who have spec­u­lat­ed on this mat­ter, a polit­i­cal deal that allowed the House of Saud to con­tin­ue its ruler­ship of Saudi Arabia pro­vid­ed cer­tain approach­es to the legal sys­tem and the con­sti­tu­tion­al sys­tem were main­tained along Wahhabist lines, and pro­vid­ed the House of Saud turned a blind eye to the prop­a­ga­tion of jihad out­side of Saudi Arabia. This estab­lish­es a dichoto­my in the prac­tice of state­hood and state­craft, when a state which is meant to be part of the Westphalian sys­tem is in some part involved, impli­cat­ed in, per­haps direct­ly con­cerned with the spon­sor­ship of the degra­da­tion of states out­side of Saudi Arabia.

We have no real evi­dence that this kind of deal was for­mal­ly made. However there does seem to be a lot of cir­cum­stan­tial evi­dence that this deal was made. However, those who make a straight link­age between this Wahhabism and its accom­mo­da­tion of the House of Saud and Islamic State today have to bear in mind that there was not just one straight descen­dant of Wahhabism that infect­ed oth­er parts of the world. If you’re look­ing for instance at Al-Qaeda, at its asso­ci­a­tion with the Taliban, for instance, in Afghanistan, you’re look­ing at a very very dif­fer­ent form of Wahhabism. Not one that renounces the purifi­ca­tion of Islam. But one which is res­i­dent with all kinds of local influ­ences. And even though some of these were influ­ences that were inflect­ed by Saudi support—Osama bin Laden com­ing over to Afghanistan, for instance; a Saudi noble­man from a very rich fam­i­ly, who came with a very great deal of mon­ey and mil­i­tary capac­i­ty to help those who were resist­ing war­lordism in Afghanistan—you still have in Afghanistan a Pashtun deter­mi­na­tion of key ele­ments of how this Wahhabism should be addressed.

And of course the pres­ence of the late Mullah Omar is very very impor­tant here. Don’t for­get in 1994 very much in the wake of the dis­putes and wars in Afghanistan, very very much engen­dered by resis­tance to the Soviet inva­sion of that par­tic­u­lar coun­try in 1976, very much exac­er­bat­ed by Pakistani chan­nels being used for American sup­port of the resis­tance to the Soviet occu­pa­tion, what you had in 1999 was basi­cal­ly a frag­ment­ed coun­try with many war­lords, many of whom were sup­port­ed by American weapon­ry and American finance. But what it means was that these war­lords were answer­able to no cen­tral code of law, no cen­tral code of con­duct, and were rapa­cious in the lit­er­al sense of being respon­si­ble for rap­ing peo­ple as opposed to pil­lag­ing the coun­try­side and the local population. 

So the sto­ry in 1994 is that the par­ents of two school­girls who were abduct­ed from their local vil­lage could find no redress. They could not get their daugh­ters back. Their daugh­ters had been abduct­ed by a war­lord who was going to use them as his con­cu­bines. And the par­ents came to Mullah Omar and said, Please help us.” He was the local illit­er­ate vil­lage priest, blind in one eye, inca­pac­i­tat­ed there­fore phys­i­cal­ly. And they plead­ed with the Mullah, Can you help us to get the girls back?”

And the mul­lah said, Yes, I will try,” and round­ed up thir­ty taleb—that is the­ol­o­gy stu­dents, the stu­dents of God. The thir­ty talebs and Mullah Omar—so there were thirty-one of them—managed to secure six­teen rifles. So one between two. And with six­teen rifles they assault­ed the mil­i­tary bar­racks of the war­lord. And mirac­u­lous­ly over­came the forces of the war­lord. They exe­cut­ed the war­lord by hang­ing him from the gun bar­rel of one of his own tanks. And restored the girls to their par­ents. And of course, overnight a leg­end was born.

Within weeks, the small num­ber of thir­ty taleb had become the Taliban, and they assault­ed the cap­i­tal city Kabul. Took it from the forces that were occu­py­ing Kabul at that point in time. Restored a form of Islam to Afghanistan which is pecu­liar how­ev­er to the south, to Pashtun ter­ri­to­ry. Those who were not part of the south melt­ed away into their north­ern strong­holds, many of them were Shia.

So you had as it were the con­struc­tion of almost an arche­typ­i­cal divi­sion with­in Afghanistan, with the south being led by a Pashtun-inflected Wahhabism enun­ci­at­ed and artic­u­lat­ed by the Taliban, with help from Osama bin Laden, who then made of course the mis­take of attack­ing the United States. And then, of course, the wrath of the West fell upon of Afghanistan. If it was left at that, maybe well and good and you might have had a con­tained phe­nom­e­non. Taking the fight into Iraq was of course, as many of us would now tend to agree, very much a steps too far. 

But the melt­down in Iraq is what con­cerns us now. Because this is now an area that’s asso­ci­at­ed with the depre­da­tions of ISIS. It spread over into Syria. Very much in terms of the geopo­lit­i­cal con­struc­tion of the region it is now a zone of com­plete con­flict. But a zone of con­flict which should not be dichotomized as sim­ply one between Western civ­i­liza­tion and Islamic State rep­re­sent­ing a form of mil­i­tant Wahhabism. Al Qaeda fac­tions are still active in Syria, the Al-Nusra Front, for instance is for­mal­ly affil­i­at­ed to what’s left of Al Qaeda, and they’re fight­ing Islamic state when they’re not busi­ly fight­ing the Soviets—well, the Russians, that is—using Western weaponry. 

In oth­er words despite the bina­ry ele­ments that come across in Western news­pa­pers, you’ve actu­al­ly got all kinds of cross-cutting cur­rents. An Al Qaeda affil­i­ate, armed and encour­aged by Western pow­ers, part of the 70,000-strong army that Mr. Cameron was going to depend upon, on the ground fight­ing anoth­er Wahhabist orga­ni­za­tion (Islamic State), but doing so for very very dif­fer­ent rea­sons, and that is for the sake of own­er­ship of Assyria as opposed to own­er­ship of a new caliphate under­neath a new Mahdi.

So the com­pli­ca­tion of all of this is pro­found. What is even more pro­found is in fact the extent to which the Islamic State might seek to reach. Don’t for­get that the ear­ly title of the Islamic State (ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), was not in fact demar­cat­ed as Syria in the first instance. Originally it was meant to stand for the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shām. And al-Shām is a his­tor­i­cal term for all that part of the Middle East between Anatolia (that is the mid­dle of Turkey) right through across Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and reach­ing into the upper reach­es of Egypt or into the Sinai. 

If that is in fact the vision of the even­tu­al extent of the caliphate, then that is an awful lot of ter­ri­to­ry. Of course, it has been drawn into Iraq and into Syria because of vac­u­um there, because of gov­ern­ments that were weak and cor­rupt in Iraq, and cer­tain­ly in terms of the civ­il war in Syria that allowed a vac­u­um to be cre­at­ed into which ISIS was able to step and to declare itself as the prog­en­i­tors of a new kind of state, or rather a very old kind of state, the caliphate would real­ize the dreams of Muhammad.

Complicating all of this of course in Iraq is that you have a gov­ern­ment in Iraq which, no mat­ter how incom­pe­tent or cor­rupt, is Shia. Thus the Iranians are drawn in on the side of the Shia in the gov­ern­ment of Iraq. When you look at the sit­u­a­tion in Syria, although the major­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion in Syria is Sunni, the Alawite fac­tion from which President Assad draw his sup­port and of which he is a member—something like between 12 and 15% of the pop­u­la­tion, that is Shia. When you look at oth­er forces that sup­port President Assad, like Hezbollah from Lebanon, then you’re also look­ing at a Shia force.

So what you have is a mul­ti­di­men­sion­al con­flict which involves not only geopol­i­tics and inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics, you also have a clash with­in Islam itself between a puri­fied Islam in two very key and dif­fer­ent forms: the Al-Nusra Front which is sid­ing with the oth­er rebels fight­ing against the Assad regime, but also fight­ing against ISIS, which is try­ing to declare and main­tain a caliphate across the bor­ders of Iraq and Syria.

Now, this has all giv­en rise to a num­ber of ques­tions. What in mod­ern terms does all of this mean, in terms of the beliefs of ISIS? And of course the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of ISIS as some­how mind­less, as some­how thought­less, as some­how fun­da­men­tal­ist, has relieved us of the bur­den of try­ing to deci­pher whether or not some­thing deep­er might be at stake here. 

You also have the great con­tra­dic­tion of course that here you have an orga­ni­za­tion, a move­ment that seeks to restore a moment of puri­ty to Islam, a moment of puri­ty along the lines of Muhammad him­self and his par­tic­u­lar time, that looks to a Mahdi that regards him­self as restor­ing a peri­od of rule, and the con­duct of rule, and the ethos of rule, and the puri­ty of rule from the times of Muhammad. But at the same time using all kinds of mod­ern devices. You’re look­ing at latest-generation elec­tron­ic capac­i­ty, for instance. Latest-generation social media com­mand. So not just the use of elec­tron­ic means but also very sophis­ti­cat­ed usages of them for pro­pa­gan­da and recruit­ment pur­pos­es. Access to elec­tron­ic bank­ing of the most sophis­ti­cat­ed sort. Access to weapon­ry of the very lat­est gen­er­a­tion. Access to trans­porta­tion of the very very lat­est sort. The num­ber of Toyotas and Nissans that have been armored, that’ve got rein­forced tires and are car­ry­ing iden­ti­cal Browning machine guns does sug­gest that there is some­where along the line an orig­i­na­tor in terms of the financ­ing and the pro­cure­ment of equip­ment for this insur­rec­tion, among others.

Of course since their ear­ly con­quests they’ve been able to estab­lish oth­er sources of income, not least oil, not least the reserves in the banks of the cities that have being con­quered in the ISIS out­reach. And of course also by tax­a­tion of the cit­i­zens who are now liv­ing with­in the newly-established caliphate.

So whether or not there was an orig­i­nal finan­cial spon­sor­ship and equip­ment of ISIS forces, that is now only one part of the over­all eco­nom­ic pic­ture which con­sti­tutes the for­ma­tion of a finan­cial for ISIS. So you’ve got all of the sophis­ti­ca­tion and all of these mul­ti­far­i­ous inputs that all the same are meant to sit along­side a fun­da­men­tal­ist ideology. 

And I think that what is strik­ing about dis­course in the West is just how prim­i­tive it has been. About a year ago there was the appear­ance of one arti­cle, and it was the first arti­cle that was more than 3,000 words long. It appeared in The Atlantic month­ly, which is a American intel­lec­tu­al journal—I think you can call it that. Conservative lean­ings, but you would not call it a right-wing jour­nal and sim­ply say that was all its con­tent rep­re­sent­ed. Let us say it is very well-considered think­ing per­son­’s,” slight­ly right-wing jour­nal, not a neo-con jour­nal in any sense that we would nor­mal­ly wish to give it. But that was the only such arti­cle to have appeared up to that point in time, almost exact­ly a year ago. There’s been very very lit­tle since. 

A recent effort has been a book by a col­league of mine called Paul Moorcraft, The Jihadist Threat. Paul is not only an aca­d­e­m­ic but also a jour­nal­ist and also let us say polite­ly a mil­i­tary adven­tur­er. So the book is large­ly breath­less jour­nal­ism, giv­ing a jour­nal­is­tic account of the his­to­ry of jihad. But also very very much some­thing which has not yet intrud­ed upon most Western dis­course. The lat­ter part of the book is a very very real inter­ro­ga­tion of strate­gic ways for­ward, which of course would dif­fer from a sim­ple airstrike or [inaudi­ble] and fix every­thing approach to the prob­lem that is now ISIS.

Karen Armstrong, who’s the author of numer­ous books on reli­gious issues—a for­mer nun turned scholar—books on Christianity, books on Islam, even a book on Buddhism and the char­ac­ter of Buddha himself—wrote a series of essays—one in The New Statesman, again reach­ing back six months ago to spring­time 2015—very much rein­forc­ing the idea that this is very much part of a Saudi out­reach into the rest of the world, and most­ly into the rest of the Islamic world.

So the casu­al­ties of the ISIS out­reach have been pre­dom­i­nant­ly Islamic, pre­dom­i­nant­ly those regard­ed as apos­tate, those who have fall­en by the way, those who are not mere­ly sin­ners but there­fore heretics and there­fore wor­thy of con­dem­na­tion. Whether you can sus­tain a sole and sin­gle Saudi link in the face of all of the oth­er inter­na­tion­al links that ISIS has been able to make, that is some­thing I think that Western states­men are try­ing in a very very sim­plis­tic way to ponder.

But cer­tain­ly the recruit­ment devices used by ISIS have been pro­found. You have essen­tial­ly inter­na­tion­al brigades fight­ing on their side. People attract­ed by the idea of just cause. Not nec­es­sar­i­ly restraint, how­ev­er, about what is meant to be just con­duct in a war which is meant at the same time to be a rebel­lion against impe­r­i­al out­reach which is apostate. 

So you’ve got a co-joint, geopo­lit­i­cal (that is in terms of the impe­ri­al­ism of the West), and reli­gious and con­fes­sion­al ambi­tion (that is to roll back apos­ta­sy), to cre­ate as it were an alter­na­tive to the Westphalian state by the restora­tion of a caliphate which would be ruled along Muhammadean lines. You’ve actu­al­ly got a series of ambi­tions there which are any­thing but sim­ply fun­da­men­tal­ist but quite pro­found when you put them all togeth­er. In oth­er words the sophis­ti­ca­tion of the ambi­tion is profound.

Which of course leaves unan­swered the ques­tion what is the nature of the belief?” I think this has to be approached in two ways: Whether or not the nature and the pro­fun­di­ty of the belief—if indeed there is profundity—is in fact what attracts recruits to the inter­na­tion­al brigades who fight, or whether they’re attract­ed by oth­er reasons—the very sim­plis­tic degra­da­tion of the com­plex­i­ties of the world into as it were a sound­bite jihadism. Or whether or not there is under­ly­ing all of it in the cir­cles around the self-proclaimed Mahdi a deep­er idea of a form of resis­tance to not only impe­ri­al­ism as led by the West, as it has infect­ed the House of Saud, and there­fore a response and a rebel­lion on the grounds of purity.

Whether or not that has any kind of res­o­nance and sophis­ti­ca­tion beyond a sim­ple blan­ket state­ment. What is this puri­ty? There would seem to be a very fair degree of prag­ma­tism in the way that ISIS admin­is­ters its con­quered ter­ri­to­ries. For the most part, apart from imple­ment­ing regimes of strict dis­ci­pline (you can­not stray beyond cer­tain as it were forms of every­day behav­ior), most of the actu­al day-to-day admin­is­tra­tion has been left in the hands of munic­i­pal author­i­ties who were already there. They know how to do it. In oth­er words there’s been a con­tex­tu­al accom­mo­da­tion of those ter­ri­to­ries that they have con­quered. Whether or not this is sim­ply as it were some­thing which is con­ve­nient at this point in time, or whether it is some­thing which is going to be a tem­plate for how oth­er con­quered areas, if indeed there are oth­er con­quered areas, how they’re going to be admin­is­tered remains to be seen.

What does that mean in terms of the Western response? Well, first of all there needs to be an engage­ment which involves Islam itself. Or dif­fer­ent strands, not only of Sunni and Shia Islam but with­in Sunni Islam itself exact­ly what is meant by a mod­ern Wahhabism. As I said, if you have one al Qaeda affil­i­ate that’s able to coop­er­ate with the West, sure­ly there are cer­tain lines of nego­ti­a­tion, accom­mo­da­tion, even of a prag­mat­ic nature, that are possible. 

What does the new caliphate mean to do in terms of the Westphalian state sys­tem if it’s allowed sim­ply to main­tain its place in the Middle East and occu­pies on a per­pet­u­al basis parts of north­ern Iraq and parts of north­ern Syria? Will it sim­ply be sat­is­fied with itself as that self-contained caliphate, or will it wish to spread into the areas that stretch from Anatolia to the Upper Sinai? Or would it wish to spread fur­ther and com­bat apos­ta­sy in all dif­fer­ent parts of the world?

One way or the oth­er there’s an idea afoot here. And as Dostoyevsky said in his famous nov­el you can’t actu­al­ly fight an idea with guns. If how­ev­er you are going to fight an idea with guns, and of course the debate that is rag­ing this very day as we speak here not too far in Parliament, is will guns be enough? And will guns from the air sim­ply be enough? 

And just as we have not had a joined-up for­eign pol­i­cy in the past with regard to this phe­nom­e­non, so it seems unlike­ly we’re going to have a joined-up mil­i­tary pol­i­cy on this mat­ter. Nor does it seem like­ly that we’re going to have a joined-up pol­i­cy on the eco­nom­ic con­se­quences of an Islamic State. Who is buy­ing the oil, for instance, that they use for part of their income? Nor have we got a joined-up ide­o­log­i­cal, philo­soph­i­cal, and eth­i­cal approach to how to have as it were an inter­course with Islam in all of its man­i­fold man­i­fes­ta­tions. That idea of being able to meet idea with idea is some­thing which I think has defeat­ed the West up to this point in time and actu­al­ly speaks vol­umes about the fail­ure of the West, even as the West hopes for an even­tu­al mil­i­tary victory.

Further Reference

Course infor­ma­tion