Monday, August 17, 2015

The Appeal of ISIS

by Michael Dorf

A recent anonymous article in the NY Review of Books argues that none of the now-conventional accounts of the rise of ISIS in fact explains the phenomenon. Casting aside the lesson of dozens of insurgencies since ancient times, ISIS seeks and holds territory while engaging in combat with regular militaries. ISIS picks fights it seemingly cannot win, and wins or at least survives. Although ISIS now has substantial funding from extortion, looting, oil, and foreign donations, it began with very little money, and was not well-positioned relative to other jihadi groups. I cannot do justice to the article, which I urge readers to examine for themselves. The author concludes that "we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled." One is left much like Shakespeare's Othello in puzzling over the motives for Iago's evil, while Iago spits "Demand me nothing: what you know, you know."

But is there really that little that we know? Despite its astute observations, the anonymous NYRB article puzzles over some matters that really oughtn't to be puzzles at all. For example, the article traces ISIS to the organization--previously known by many names, most recognizably "al Q'aeda in Iraq"--built by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (né Ahmad Fadhil). An American airstrike killed Zarqawi in 2006 but the NYRB article makes a persuasive case that despite the fact that ISIS has only received substantial attention in the last few years, its core was in place before Zarqawi was killed. The anonymous author marvels at how a man of so little talent could build such a horrifyingly successful organization. Yet this is perhaps the least baffling question of all. Pol Pot was an undistinguished and flunking student in Paris before rising to infamy. Who would have predicted Mullah Omar's evil success based on his early life (or what is known about it)? Or Hitler's? History is full of mediocrities from humble beginnings achieving world-altering evil chiefly through a talent for ruthlessness.

The more genuine mystery on which the anonymous NYRB article focuses is the success of ISIS in recruiting people from a wide variety of societies. The article notes:
At first, the large number who came from Britain were blamed on the British government having made insufficient effort to assimilate immigrant communities; then France’s were blamed on the government pushing too hard for assimilation. But in truth, these new foreign fighters seemed to sprout from every conceivable political or economic system. They came from very poor countries (Yemen and Afghanistan) and from the wealthiest countries in the world (Norway and Qatar). Analysts who have argued that foreign fighters are created by social exclusion, poverty, or inequality should acknowledge that they emerge as much from the social democracies of Scandinavia as from monarchies (a thousand from Morocco), military states (Egypt), authoritarian democracies (Turkey), and liberal democracies (Canada). It didn’t seem to matter whether a government had freed thousands of Islamists (Iraq), or locked them up (Egypt), whether it refused to allow an Islamist party to win an election (Algeria) or allowed an Islamist party to be elected. Tunisia, which had the most successful transition from the Arab Spring to an elected Islamist government, nevertheless produced more foreign fighters than any other country.
The sickening revelation that ISIS systematically set about capturing Yazidi women and girls to be given as sex slaves to its fighters offers one window on its recruiting success. For young men willing to believe that God smiles on the rape of polytheists, the prospect of sex slaves in the here and now is perhaps more tempting than the 72 virgins that await each of them after martyrdom. Yet surely the lust for female sex slaves fails as an all-purpose explanation for ISIS's recruiting success, at least for young straight American women. As reported today, about 550 Western women and girls have joined ISIS.

Writing in the NY Times on Saturday, Roger Cohen expresses puzzlement that echoes but does not reference the anonymous NYRB article. Cohen cites another, earlier NYRB essay, Mark Lilla's review of Michel Houellebecq's novel Soumission, which portrays a future Islamic France. As Lilla writes, Soumission "is about a man and a country who through indifference and exhaustion find themselves slouching toward Mecca." Cohen sees the appeal of ISIS as of a piece with a broader phenomenon that he associates with Putinism and, more broadly still, with disaffection with what the disaffected regard as the false promises made by a free society. Even as Cohen expresses bafflement in the face of complexity, he unwittingly channels George W. Bush simplifying the ideology of our enemies to they hate us because of our freedom.

In any event, Cohen's concern is less immediate than the concern expressed in the anonymous NYRB article. Cohen is trying to understand the appeal of radical fundamentalism in general. The NYRB article focuses on the appeal of ISIS in particular. It accepts that some large number of people will be drawn to radical and/or reactionary ideologies but asks why this one?

Let me give what I think is at least part of the answer: People are drawn to ISIS for the same reason that people are drawn to the candidacy of Donald Trump: Because they are the MOST radical.

If one surveyed the field of Republican candidates a couple of months ago and asked where there was room for someone to make his mark, it would not have been immediately apparent that the answer would be to the right of the field on immigration and sexism. And yet, that approach has thus far worked for the Donald because in appealing to angry alienated people looking for someone to "stand up" for them, the loudest most obnoxious guy wins.

Likewise with ISIS. If one looked around at radical Islamist groups a dozen years ago, it would hardly have seemed obvious that the appeal of the Taliban, al Q'aeda etc. was limited by their moderation. And yet, outflanking al Q'aeda and everyone else on the brutality side has worked for ISIS because in appealing to angry alienated people looking for someone to "stand up" for them, the most radical group wins.

Needless to say, there are important differences between Trump supporters and ISIS recruits, the most obvious being that the latter but not the former behead people. Moreover, Trump can only succeed in his quixotic quest for the presidency by persuading a majority of voters that he's the man for the job--an impossible task given his (understandably) high negatives even among Republicans. ISIS, by contrast, is building a totalitarian theocracy, and while even non-democratic regimes depend on some level of public acceptance, that acceptance can be coerced. Accordingly, whereas Trump's negatives will keep him out of power, ISIS can thrive even as most people in the territory it controls and beyond revile it.

In the end, then, the puzzle of the rise of ISIS is not so puzzling, once one understands that people have long been willing to brutalize others in pursuit of ideologies that they embrace--including both secular and religious ideologies. The core and pressing puzzle remains the obvious one: How to combat ISIS? Unfortunately, no one--and least of all Donald Trump--has yet given a good answer.


Joseph Simmons said...

As I read this, two things came to mind: (1) Donald Trump, a connection you also made, and (2) "indifference and exhaustion" makes it unconscionably difficult to deal with ISIS. On the latter point I think of those who lament America's initial inaction to intervene in WWII and the holocaust.

Whatever one thinks of the merits of war against ISIS, the Iraq War and its attendant political narrative has made it difficult for it to be an option. Obama calling ISIS a "JV" team was a rhetorical blunder on par with the worst of Bush's. His decision to abandon our efforts in Iraq tracked American fatigue but gave ISIS the freedom to grow. We can and should criticize presidential candidates for a lack of good answer to how to deal with ISIS. We should criticize the candidates on both sides, and certainly the sitting president. But is America just too tired to care?

My biggest fear is that some country that isn't too fond of America will give a nuclear weapon to a group like ISIS. And once they use it, then what? Where do we direct our efforts? Any lessons or sense of solidarity learned in WWII seems to have been forgotten in facing the greatest and most evil threats in the world.

Unknown said...

I generally agree, though I would use the word "reactionary" and not "radical".

t jones said...

a. Who gives away nuclear weapons?
b. Assuming that's a realistic fear, of even if you just want to stop ISIS from continuing its non-nuclear evil, what do you suggest the US do now?

James Longfellow said...

"fortes, inquit, fortuna iuvat"

Today, however, I think that fortune does not favor the bold so much as it favors the obnoxious.

Now let me add something more controversial. Namely, that to many on the right issues like Obamacare and Gay Marriage are themselves examples of the way fortune favors the obnoxious. So in their view someone like Trump or ISIS is simply responding in kind.

Joseph Simmons said...

t jones,

a) A power that sees advantage in weakening American influence and expanding their own. It's only an unrealistic concern until it happens.

b) My response to ISIS would be military action. The alternative is what? To watch the atrocities hoping ISIS burns itself out, hoping other countries (Iran?) exert their influence (eg China vis a vis NK), or waiting until they solidify power so we can find a diplomatic solution - whatever that might mean.

I completely agree with the professor that ISIS, in particular, succeeds because of a sense of alienation. While a brutal regime is killing and terrorizing, any solution to the social and political welfare of the people remains theoretical.

While there might be some 'original sin' in our going to war in Iraq under George W. Bush, the situation on the ground now gives ample justification for military action. We should have followed Powell's "Pottery Barn rule," where if we "break it, we own it." I don't think he meant that purely in a political sense, where the succeeding administration could wash its hands and move onto other things, not if we wanted to avoid chaos. The question is whether we can get back to the stability achieved after the Surge and then maintain a peace and development of stable non-murderous government. I think we could.

Muhammad Taufan said...

I come from Aceh - Indonesia , the world needs to know here is also very excited with ISIS talks , even former members of the Free Aceh Movement I heard it wanted to enter isis , I read from the local news media , news content = "Head of the Criminal Investigation Police Commissioner General Budi Waseso follow up information hundred former members of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) who want to join the group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"I've received a report. I believe in the Aceh Police, BIN, Pemprovnya own motion to prevent," said Budi at Police Headquarters Complex, Jakarta, Thursday (07/09/2015).

Police, law enforcement agencies, defense agencies to provincial governments throughout Indonesia, said Budi, have long cooperated in the field of prevention of terrorism. Such actions must have been prepared prevention strategies.

"The areas that makes monitoring it for example in Central Sulawesi, West Nusa Tenggara, including Aceh," said Budi.

But personally, Budi was not too sure hundreds of former combatants it really wants to join the ISIS.

"Do-not only by the chatter," said Budi.

A number of former GAM members led by Fakhruddin bin Kasem aka Robot Din expressed readiness to join the ISIS. They also expressed readiness to leave for Syria. According to Din Robots, already more than 100 people who wanted to join the ISIS.

When asked what the underlying desire of joining ISIS, Din Robot answer because in the unity of former GAM combatants currently very unfair. According to him, today the rich get richer and the poor poorer.


quoted " they are attracted by the salary is on offer " , because Aceh was not independent , " they are ignored " , I hope all the problems go well ,
Sorry if my language less regular .

Muhammad Taufan said...

I have yet to find out more about ISIS, just that the news on the subject of ISIS in Aceh which is there are 100 former members of the GAM would like to join, this is very serious in spoken... tks once in a while don't forget updating update information from our area, I wait for the next post

Shag from Brookline said...

With respect to the comparison of Trump to ISIS, consider if Trump became President a "blind trust" for his business assets and potential conflicts of interests if government funds were expended on his business interests, including buildings bearing his name, towers, resorts and golf courses, whether owned by him or licensed. I've long been suspicious of "blind trusts" in operation and I find it hard to believe that "The Donald" of the "Art of the Deal" would go along with a meaningful "blind trust" that would limit his ability to deal. And what if an asset of a President Trump went into bankruptcy? I don't think he will become President but we may know more about him than why people join ISIS. ISIS may be looked at as a "start-up" and getting in early may lead to imagined fame/riches.

Joe said...

now for something fairly different:

From another resident of this blog.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Joe: Sherry's piece on Roberta Kwall's book will be cross-posted here at a future date.

Joe said...

oh okay. you can delete my comment then.

Joseph Simmons said...

James Longfellow, I think Obamacare and gay marriage are good examples in that they were both considered longshots and only by ignoring voices of caution - essentially by being obnoxious - did they succeed. We see a debate within the GOP between the Establishment/"RINO" and those of a Tea Party persuasion. The latter segment believes that the hard battles can be won if only they fight for them. Liberal successes prove that it works.

It might seem obnoxious, especially to political opponents, to battle Obamacare ad nauseum, to rail against Stimulus/Bailouts, and to be the "Party of No," but the belief is that in the end dividends are won, and importantly, people are convinced. It's not about "responding in kind" - except regarding the ruthlessness of tactics some advocate (eg pursuing specious and cheap narratives like "War on Women") - but in having a stomach for the fight. When Ted Cruz calls McConnell a liar on the floor of the Senate, he is signalling that he has the stomach for the fight and that the Establishment does not. Rand Paul's fight on warantless searches is another example. People want a champion. Obama supporters were disgruntled enough that he didn't pursue single payer, imagine if he had pursued actual compromise on health care (not just a token offer to study tort reform)!

James Longfellow said...

@Joesph Simmons

You write, "except regarding the ruthlessness of tactics some advocate" That's not an exception, it's the whole ballgame or at least a major part of it. That's part of Professor Dorf's point. The medium is the message (or the tactics are the message if one prefers that formulation.

Recently the NYT had a headline that ISIS is promoting a "theology of rape".

My god, does the NYT understand that it is playing directly into ISIS hands?! ISIS is gambling that in the battle between moderation and extremism, extremism will win. By making ISIS appear as crazy as cookoo clocks the NYT enhances its appeal.

There are lots of people in America to whom a theology of rape sounds damn good. Why the hell is the NYT offering ISIS that free advertising?!!

James Longfellow said...

@Joesph Simmons

You write, "except regarding the ruthlessness of tactics some advocate" That's not an exception, it's the whole ballgame or at least a major part of it. That's part of Professor Dorf's point. The medium is the message (or the tactics are the message if one prefers that formulation.

Recently the NYT had a headline that ISIS is promoting a "theology of rape".

My god, does the NYT understand that it is playing directly into ISIS hands?! ISIS is gambling that in the battle between moderation and extremism, extremism will win. By making ISIS appear as crazy as cookoo clocks the NYT enhances its appeal.

There are lots of people in America to whom a theology of rape sounds damn good. Why the hell is the NYT offering ISIS that free advertising?!!

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Joseph Simmons said...

James Longfellow, I said "It's not about 'responding in kind' - except regarding the ruthlessness of tactics some advocate." This is a simple case of taking the latter part of the sentence out of context, and even then your contention is wrong.

To simplify, ISIS, at least, is not seen as "responding in kind." I really don't know who on the right, as you claim, take that view of ISIS or even who ISIS would be responding 'in kind' to. The comparison Professor Dorf is making between Trump supporters and ISIS supporters is not on ruthlessness of its methods (Prof Dorf is not, here at least, attributing a sadism to Trump supporters) but on showing the will to be a champion, to fight, to be obnoxious (which, if we are being literal, is an appalling understatement of what ISIS is doing).

I gave your marriage and Obamacare examples credence as examples of how obnoxiousness prevails. Yet one can separate the resolute taking of strident positions from the tactics used to achieve those goals. Did gay marriage supporters lie or cheat their way to victory? That would be a kind of ruthlessness, but I don't think you are arguing anything of that kind.

So far, Trump is a loud mouth and that is what is attracting people. While we can attribute "ruthlessness" to rhetoric, that is of an entirely different character from ruthless action. And to shoehorn it into the analog we have to stretch it in directions that causes it to break (as every misused analogy does).