When a friend in Gaza recently told me he supports ISIS, I stopped dead in my tracks. WTF?
My friend is not a half-crazed, ignorant nut-job —- what I thought were the prerequisites for pledging allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) otherwise known as Daesh, the acronym for the group’s full Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham.
My friend is a university graduate with a great command of foreign languages and cultures, and a bright future ahead of him — if he lived anywhere but Gaza. Just like thousands of other young, disaffected men in Gaza, he’s lived his entire adult life under Israel’s brutal 8 year siege, lost opportunities to travel abroad for graduate studies, and given up looking for non-existent jobs.
On a side note, I’ve decided I’m going to jettison ISIS from my vocabulary and refer to the group as Daesh. Why? Because the term apparently really pisses off the group’s leaders who have threatened to cut out the tongue of anyone who uses the term. So there! Daesh! Daesh! Daesh!
I asked my friend “Why?” “Why do you support Daesh?”
Paraphrasing, I think his answer was: “Because it’s a strong group that stands up against the corrupt Arab leaders in the Middle East. Eventually, a strong caliphate will redeem our struggle and free us from Israel’s occupation of our lands.”
I tried to understand how he reconciled the atrocities committed by Daesh with the teachings of Islam as a religion of peace. I reminded him of this passage from the Qu’ran 5:32
Whoever kills an innocent human being,
it shall be as if he has killed all mankind,
and whosoever saves the life of one,
it shall be as if he saved the life of all mankind.
My friend acknowledged this passage but then spouted another from the Qu’ran that he argued provides exceptions.
That’s when I decided I can’t argue in terms of a religious text and a religious tradition that I know very little about. So I have to learn as much as I can about Daesh. Where did it come from? What are its intentions?
Graeme Wood‘s article in the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic was a real eye opener. I highly recommend it. Although it’s long and requires a thoughtful couple of hours to digest, I have a better understanding of Daesh as well as why my friend might be swayed to support it.
Here are the take-away points from Graeme Wood’s article:
- Daesh is most definitely Islamic despite the fact that the vast majority of Muslims worldwide disavow it, and want to distance themselves and their religion from the actions of Daesh.
- Daesh members follow a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment guide their actions.
- Daesh has declared a caliphate and already rules an area larger than the United Kingdom.
- Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been the self-declared leader of Daesh since May 2010, but his power really took off in July 2014 when he delivered a Ramadan sermon from Mosul. Recruiting efforts for Daesh went into full gear.
- Daesh evolved from al-Qaeda but is very, very different and Western leaders are making a big mistake when they fail to grasp the differences.
- Daesh is committed to returning civilization back to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse. Daesh leaders see their role as central to this plot.
- Any Muslim who doesn’t follow Daesh’s interpretation of the Qu’ran must be killed, which means roughly 200 million Shia are marked for death. Daesh is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. However, Christians who do not resist the caliphate and pay a special tax (jizya) may be spared.
- The Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and other Islamist groups have participated in the political process and thus, in the eyes of Daesh, are apostates and must be condemned (killed?)
- Leaders of Daesh have taken emulation of the Prophet Muhammad as a strict duty and have revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years. The closest thing to Daesh was probably the Wahhabis of 18th-century Arabia, but the Wahhabis did not practice such wanton violence.
- The last caliphate was the Ottoman Empire which peaked in the 16th-century and then declined for many years until Ataturk replaced the caliphate with a secular government in Turkey.
- The caliphate is not just a political entity but also a means to salvation. Daesh propaganda (the group has its own YouTube channel, Twitter account, and magazine) says that a “Muslim who acknowledges one omnipotent god and prays, but who dies without pledging himself to a valid caliph and incurring the obligations of that oath, has failed to live a fully Islamic life.”
- If Daesh succeeds, all of my legal education will fly out the window. A more robust version of Sharia law than is found anywhere in the Muslim world today will be the law of the land.
- What sets Daesh apart from other jihadists? The group’s focus on the End of Days, the apocalypse.
- The apocalypse will happen when Daesh slays an enemy army at Dabiq, a Syrian city near Aleppo. Until that time comes, the duty of the caliph is to wage war to expand the caliphate.
- Daesh and Al-Qaeda are very different and, in fact, they are completely at odds with each other. Al-Qaeda is like an underground political movement, while Daesh requires territorial authority. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements. Western intelligence services haven’t figured that out yet.
- We can thank George W. Bush and his cronies for the invasion and occupation of Iraq as the catalyst for the rise of Daesh. What a legacy he has left!
- Graeme Wood surmises that “properly contained, the Islamic State is likely to be its own undoing. No country is its ally, and its ideology ensures that this will remain the case. The land it controls, while expansive, is mostly uninhabited and poor. As it stagnates or slowly shrinks, its claim that it is the engine of God’s will and the agent of apocalypse will weaken, and fewer believers will arrive. And as more reports of misery within it leak out, radical Islamist movements elsewhere will be discredited: No one has tried harder to implement strict Sharia by violence. This is what it looks like.”
- Graeme Wood believes that denouncing Daesh as un-Islamic is counterproductive, “especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them.”
- “There is another strand of Islam that offers a hard-line alternative to the Islamic State — just as uncompromising, but with opposite conclusions.” They are known as the “quietist Salafis.” They agree with Daesh about not engaging in voting and political parties, but quietist Salafis are strictly forbidden from dividing Muslims from one another.
After reading Graeme Wood’s article, I watched this video about a young Egyptian named Islam Yaken who grew up in the nice Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, attended a private school and became a strong body builder with six pack abs. He had friends, dreams and goals but, without saying ‘goodbye’, he left his family and joined Daesh. His story is one that probably mirrors many young men in the Middle East.
So what would I tell my friend in Gaza if I could sit down with him over tea?
I wouldn’t talk religion because I’m not a Muslim and can’t begin to tell a Muslim how he should live his life.
I wouldn’t talk about dreams because I don’t have a clue what it’s like to be a young ’20-something’ living in a community which is worse than a prison, with no jobs, no movement, and no opportunities.
I wouldn’t talk about politics because no politicians ANYWHERE have shown themselves capable of lifting Israel’s interminable occupation.
I wouldn’t talk about hope because I can’t promise anything will change.
I will listen. And I will tell him I love him. I hope I get to see him again when I return to Gaza. Until then, I’m going to do my best to educate Americans and U.S. leaders about my country’s complicity in this immoral and unholy occupation.