In the early phases of the war in Syria, ISIS did not appear as a major threat to the West. Jihadists made their way to Syria to fight the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad with little interest to carry out attacks in their respective countries. The November 13 attacks in Paris reveal a shift of strategy, but also, a change in actors of the global jihad.
Until this point, global attacks were the defining feature of Al Qaeda, especially in the West. Ironically, a few days before the Paris attacks, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri sent a message to the Muslim youth to intensify their fight in the West.
Many observers have noted that the November 13 coordinated attacks endorsed by ISIS illustrate not only a change of players but also of the rules of the game. Yet they fail see that this strategy is not driven only by the material, institutional, and geopolitical features of the Islamic State. It expresses a binary vision where the merciless and relentless “fighters of God” aim to destroy the “forces of Evil.” We should not underestimate the influence of such a vision, which provides an ideology of resistance to the disenchanted youth, and therefore will require mobilization of religious and cultural narratives that could offer credible alternatives to this “cosmologic” vision.
The November attacks in Paris and Beirut follow a war strategy inspired by Abu Bakr Naji (a pen name), author of the tract called the Management of Savagery, which was released online in 2004 and used by the Iraq branch of Al Qaeda in 2005-07. In this pamphlet, he advocates for restless violence and massacre in order to scare and exhaust the enemy. In his own words:
“The tyrants plan and plot together for the continued humiliation and pillage of the Ummah, the suppression of the jihad, and the buying off of the youth and the (Islamic) movements. Therefore, we must drag everyone into the battle in order to give life to those who deserve to live and destroy those who deserve to be destroyed … Thus, we must burn the earth under the feet of the tyrants so that it will not be suitable for them to live in …” (p.176)
The means to achieve this goal are not only military, but also psychological. It entails attacking everywhere and at anytime in order to destabilize populations across countries. It is what Naji calls “waves operations”–which never end and maintain high levels of fear among masses. The fight is also about capturing the hearts and minds of youth in the lands of savagery by raising their belief and turning their energy and enthusiasm into lethal weapons against the “armies of Evil.” The November massacres in Paris and Beirut, and the downing of the Russian jetliner in the Sinai, are signals that the whole world will be the target of successive waves, which will be more intense and restless than those of Al Qaeda ones.
A military response to destroy ISIS’s infrastructure in Iraq–and to dismantle its material resources beyond oil–is with no doubt an important component of any attempt to defeat them. But will it diminish their global appeal? Probably not.
First, because only a military response cannot defeat such an apocalyptic vision. Beyond the combat zones in Syria and Iraq, ISIS provides a narrative–or “ideology of resistance”–not only against the pitfalls of domestic and international politics, but also against the personal disenchantment and anxiety of the youth. What is needed is an alternative global narrative that is appealing across nations and cultures. Attempts of counter-narratives are doomed to fail from the start if initiated by western political actors.
Second, such a narrative has to include some religious references, because interventions based only on secular motivations run the risk of actually increasing the solidarity and empathy of Muslims with ISIS, especially if those interventions are pitching the West against Islam, as some American politicians have already done.
Like an efficient military strategy, the search for an alternative narrative is actually a global issue and requires involvement of all Muslim countries, and most importantly, non-state Muslim actors.
In these conditions, it is imperative that political leaders take religions seriously both domestically and internationally and include it in any response to ISIS. However, it is easier said than done because of the secular culture that prevents or inhibits governmental and international agencies to take into account the religious dimension of peace building, conflict resolution, and any form of positive development.
The main reason for this inhibition is related to the dominant but false perception that religious groups and actors are not as rational, nor inclined to compromise, as non- religious ones. It also neglects the crucial influence of political and cultural contexts that fashion and shape the readings and interpretations of religious texts.
In other words, the understanding of the context in which religious actors are operating is key to identifying the ones that could support international initiatives in favor of peace or rapprochement.
It also means that such international policies inclusive of religion will require specific information and understanding that cannot be gathered in the high peak of crisis or conflict, but rather through a prior understanding of religion across nations and regions.
It is also important for Muslims and non Muslims alike to stop repeating that Islam needs a reform. ISIS are the heirs of the eighteenth-century reform in the Arabic peninsula, known as Salafism, which is based on the imitation of the Prophet Mohammad at Medina. This interpretation undermines the principles of plurality and flexibility of opinions that are central to the Islamic tradition.
The exportation of this “reform” from Saudi Arabia to the whole world since the 1970s, benefited also of the discredit of traditional clerics seen as tools of the authoritarian nation-states. It has therefore gained influence across Muslim countries while presenting itself as “the true” Islam. The challenge is for Muslims to regain ownership of their tradition in all its diversity. For this purpose, centers for education and transmission of Islam outside authoritarian Muslim countries are deeply needed.
To avoid isolating Islam as the “problem,” it would also be critical to create a global network of religious groups and actors of all denominations and traditions who work locally in favor of peace, economic development, and social justice. The key word here is “local.”
Too often, the action of religion at the international level consists of high profile religious figures signing a document enunciating the broad principles of peace and tolerance. In most of the cases, these documents do not have any impact on the ground.
For example, the “Amman Message,” initiated by the King of Jordan in 2004, is a remarkable document bringing prominent Muslim figures to assert–or re-assert–the tolerance of the Islamic message. Regretfully, this document is not known or referenced by religious actors in different localities. In contrast, a more positive action would provide greater visibility to groups and actors who are not automatically religious scholars and authorities, but who act positively in the name of religion.
Introducing religious actors and organizations into policymaking is not angelic or naïve; it is sorely needed to overcome the one-sided perception of religion that is dominant, not only within political agencies, but also among religious radical actors as well.