There is currently a great deal of panic in the western media about the rapid advance of ISIS (a.k.a ISIL or IS) and the various threats it is supposed to represent. These heavily armed jihadi extremists certainly pose a very present and deadly threat to anyone in their vicinity who is not similarly fanatical – and even some who are – but there is a wider picture here that is consistently getting lost.
The Islamic State that ISIS has set up is not a conventional threat to its neighbouring states. Let us be clear. IS has taken largely empty territory, and any areas they hold that are not yet empty soon will be – by flight or extermination. Jihadi terrorists have never taken control of any large area that was not already ungoverned; Afghanistan post 1996, Somalia, and now the barren lands of eastern Syria and northern Iraq, where the central governments in Baghdad and Damascus have lost their sway. ISIS cannot take large (inhabited) conurbations, and they cannot face conventional military forces in open warfare. They do not have the numbers or the weapons, notably air power. Hamas took Gaza via an election, but since then they have thought of little to do with it apart from using it to wage ineffective war against their sworn enemies.
This serves to illustrate that the whole jihadi project is not really about government, it is about unadorned ruling – domination. They are not defending anyone; they are attacking. ISIS is a war machine, and one that is currently on a roll.
But. The purposes of a modern state, the benefits it brings its citizens, is entirely absent from the whole Islamist project, despite its obsession with using the word ‘state’, as per the writings of Maududi and others. This approach rewinds us all to an era of Jacobin terror, with its twin naivety about the power of the state and the nobility of violence. Such simplicity has led nowhere in the past, and it will be no different this time. Unmediated state violence is the cruellest power on earth, and the IS ‘caliphate’ has embraced it wholeheartedly.
Whatever they say, their actions bertay the real agenda, which is violence – divinely inspired, divinely sanctioned violence. The logic of Islamist rule is violence, its method is violence. The jihadi image of God is as a violent, judgmental force, and the result of jihadi control is always more violence, because there are always enemies of God to fight. The internal logic is simple and never-ending. This means that, unfortunately, these people have to be countered with violence. There is no compromising with the intolerant God they serve (and fear). Western theologians have been reinventing God for centuries now, and the figure they address today is nothing like that imagined by jihadi theology, which is the most brutally simple entity.
More fortunately, this means that the project will kill itself in time, because there are no other ways of settling disputes within itself except violence. We can confidently await further splits, with arguments over tactics and booty, and succession disputes.
Two points arise. One is the necessity of violent countermeasures, and this is matter for the regional states, in alliance with global allies. We can expect a slow push back, away from centres of population, but we can also expect a long aftermath in desert areas, where only God lives. Jihadism and the wilderness will long remain natural allies.
Two: IS will not last, and will have great difficulty expanding. They cannot hold more territory without a great many more men, or unless they empty the spaces they occupy. Mathematics – the area/square rule – is against them, and the only thing in their favour is that they will probably have enough money to recruit soldiers for a while, but these recruits will be much less radical than the leadership, and they will be easily picked off if the fighting is in the open spaces IS is currently trying to hold.
ISIS and their spiritual companions have absolutely nothing to offer their putative citizenry. Unless they can wean themselves off their violent creed they will never take on any recognisable role as governors; they will remain simply butchers of anyone who disagrees with or resists them. The Muslim Brotherhood took on the ruling agenda and embraced social welfare as part of their programme; they got elected. IS will never stand for election and will never do anybody any good, unless they are a gun-wielding member of the gang, in which case they might get a wife and a daily stipend, for the duration of the short life allotted them.
Violence leads only to more violence. A narrow conception of God as a violent force leads permanently in the same direction. IS is set up to fight, and it will continue to do so. But it will not expand, it will not win, and it will eventually burn itself out by the logic of its own hatreds and methods.
Next: the wider implications.