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.