Part of the ISIS Explained series.
ISIS controls large areas of Syria and Iraq. As well as fighting in the Middle East the group has carried out terror attacks across the world. Why are they doing this?
As we explain in the introduction to this series, our understanding of ISIS is constantly changing. We’ve done our best to compress some of the main ideas, but some things don’t have a rough and ready straightforward explanation. We thought we’d try anyway.
ISIS members want an Islamic state or caliphate run according to Islamic Sharia law. We’ll explain what Sharia means in a moment. A caliphate is an Islamic state. It’s led by a caliph, a person considered to be a political and religious successor to the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. Throughout history there have been eight caliphates, though there is some debate about which of these were legitimate. It’s not a case of just wanting to set up a caliphate. ISIS believes it is a legitimate state right now, rather than a rebel group. It wants recognition by the rest of the world and for all Muslims to recognise its version of Islam. Refusal to do so can be fatal. Graeme Wood, author of “What ISIS Really Wants” says ISIS is committed to “purifying” the world by killing vast numbers of people.
“The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from the region suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims.”
An apostate is someone considered to have abandoned religious faith, a political party, or one’s principles. Islamic State’s extreme beliefs stem from an obsessive adherence and controversial interpretation of religious texts. We covered this in Part 1 – What is ISIS?
Misconceptions about Sharia law include that it’s a rigid fixed system. That it is archaic and backwards and all about punishments. Wrong! Think of it as a moral framework on how to live your life.
The BBC calls Sharia “Islam’s legal system”. It’s based on teachings from the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad. While Western laws cover only crime, legal disputes and individual rights and freedoms, Sharia also covers aspects of personal life. For example, Sharia covers the correct course of action if invited out for a drink with colleagues.
There’s a pretty heated debate about the fundamental aspects of Sharia. Writing in the Huffington Post Qasim Rashid breaks down some of the stigmas. According to him, Sharia cannot be imposed on people against their will (which is what ISIS does). People have to choose. The Quran also doesn’t promote any form of government. Sharia actually compels Muslims to adhere to the laws of the country they live in. The constitutions of many countries like Mali and Algeria draw from Sharia law. In others like Iran and Saudi Arabia Sharia is also implemented. But ISIS believes that Sharia law, or at least some version of it, should be above the laws of countries. The group imposes it immediately on territory it captures. Graeme Wood notes that the heads of states of Muslim countries are marked for death by ISIS. This is because they have raised man-made law above Sharia. Has ISIS misinterpreted Sharia? Sharia law isn’t the only aspect of Islamic texts that ISIS takes literally. We kid you not, the group believes the apocalypse is nigh.
ISIS believes a prophecy from the Prophet Muhammad means the end of the world is coming. The 1,300-year-old prophecy says the Day of Judgement will come after an epic battle between Christians and Muslims.
Muslims will defeat the “armies of Rome” at Dabiq, a town close to the Syrian border with Turkey. According to legend, the year of this confrontation will be in 2076, or if you use the Islamic calendar, the year 1500. For Rome, we should now think Turkey. Romans ruled Constantinople (now Istanbul) at the time of the prediction. So it might seem this doesn’t really fit, but another prophecy says Rome will have 80 allies. Seeing as global coalition of 62 countries is currently trying to wipe ISIS out, we’re not far off.
So although the town of Dabiq is not an important military target you can see why ISIS worked hard to take control of it. The group also named their propaganda magazine after the town. Islamic State recently began referring to the prophecy more frequently. William McCants from the Brookings Institution and author of “The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State” writes;
“The shrewd leaders of the Islamic State combined two of the most powerful yet contradictory ideas in Islam — the return of the Islamic Empire and the end of the world — into a mission and a message that shapes its strategy and inspires its army of zealous fighters.”
This is a key difference between ISIS and other Islamist groups like Al Qaeda. Other Islamist groups don’t put as much focus on the apocalypse. McCants believes that being “more ruthless, more apocalyptic and more devoted to state-building than its competitors” helped Islamic State attract so many followers and conquer so much land.
Some might say that. Extreme and violent tactics have always been part of the Islamic State playbook. The United Nations reports widespread abuses carried out by ISIS. These may amount to war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. ISIS has established a “bureaucracy of rape” according to the Guardian. An estimated 3,500 women from the Yazidi religious minority (neither Christian nor Muslim) are currently held captive by ISIS. ISIS concluded Islamic law permitted their enslavement. ISIS fighters strip them and sort them by desirability. Many of these women are “gifted” to ISIS fighters.
The group also sets itself against other Islamist groups. Al Qaeda, which ISIS used to be a section of, thinks the group’s tactics are too brutal.
ISIS burst onto the international scene in 2014 attacking not only the Syrian government but also other rebel jihadi groups. As we covered above this isn’t just a tactic to gain publicity. ISIS genuinely has them marked as “apostates” or false believers.
So what gives? Why does ISIS do these terrible things and how does it justify them? As we explored in Part 1 the group believes in going back to the religious texts of Islam and adhering to the letter. The Quran mentions the beheading of enemies in battle and since 2014 the group has killed a number of prisoners in this manner. It also gives crucifixion as a method of punishment for non-Muslims.
“What ISIS Really Wants” quotes Bernard Haykel from Princeton University who believes ISIS is recreating the techniques from when Islam was a young religion. These “authentic throwbacks to early Islam,” according to him, are faithfully reproducing the norms of war from that time period.
Territory, legitimacy as a state and loyalty from other Muslims. The core motivation behind the group’s actions is a belief that they represent a pure version of Islam. Yet many Muslims and Muslim leaders argue that ISIS does not represent Islam at all and is misinterpreting religious texts.