A Point of View: Isis and what it means to be modern

Islaimist fighter on parade in the Syrian province of Raqqa, 30 June 2014

Although it claims to be reviving a traditional Islamic system of government, the jihadist group Isis is a very modern proposition, writes John Gray.

When you see the leader of Isis, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, in Mosul announcing the creation of a caliphate - an Islamic state ruled by a religious leader - it's easy to think that what you're watching is a march back into the past. The horrifying savagery with which the jihadist organisation treats anyone that stands in its way seems to come from a bygone era. The fact that Isis - the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which has now changed its name to the Islamic State - claims that it wants to restore an early type of Islam, leads many of us to see it as trying to bring about a reversion to mediaeval values.

To my mind, this gives too much credence to the way Isis views itself. There's actually little in common between the horribly repressive regime it has established in parts of Iraq and Syria and the subtle Islamic states of mediaeval times, which in Spain, for example, exercised a degree of tolerance at a time when the rest of Europe was wracked by persecution. Destroying ancient shrines and mosques, Isis is trying to eradicate every trace of Islamic tradition. It's probably even more oppressive than the Taliban were in Afghanistan. In power, Isis resembles a 20th Century totalitarian state more than any type of traditional rule.

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John Gray
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated Sundays 08:50 GMT
  • John Gray is a political philosopher and author of False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism

Surprising as it may sound, Isis is in many respects thoroughly modern. Like al-Qaeda before them, these jihadists have organised themselves as a highly efficient company. Initially funded by donations from wealthy supporters, they've rapidly expanded into a self-financing business. Through kidnapping and extortion, looting and selling antiquities, siphoning off oil in territories they conquer, seizing gold bullion and other assets from banks and acquiring large quantities of American military hardware in the course of their advance, Isis has become the wealthiest jihadist organisation in the world. According to some estimates, it's worth well over $2bn.

Isis uses this wealth to expand its popular base, providing public services and repairing damaged infrastructure in the areas it controls. Its use of social media is highly professional. On its websites it issues annual reports containing detailed accounts of its acquisitions and operations, including breakdowns of the bombings, assassinations and suicide missions it has carried out.

Isis makes effective use of the internet to broadcast the brutal manner with which it deals with anyone judged to be an enemy. Isis's savagery isn't impulsive. Everything suggests it's a strategy developed over a number of years. When it posts videos of people being beheaded or shot, Isis advances several of its goals - simultaneously inspiring dread in its enemies, teaching the communities it controls the dire consequences of departing from an exceptionally extreme interpretation of Islam and sowing chaos in the population as a whole. There's nothing mediaeval about this mix of ruthless business enterprise, well-publicised savagery and transnational organised crime. Dedicated to building a new society from scratch, Isis has more in common with modern revolutionary movements.

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in Mosul Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, pictured speaking in Mosul

Though al-Baghdadi constantly invokes the early history of Islam, the society he envisions has no precedent in history. It's much more like the impossible state of utopian harmony that western revolutionaries have projected into the future. Some of the thinkers who developed radical Islamist ideas are known to have been influenced by European anarchism and communism, especially by the idea that society can be reshaped by a merciless revolutionary vanguard using systematic violence. The French Jacobins and Lenin's Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge and the Red Guards all used terror as a way of cleansing humanity of what they regarded as moral corruption.

Isis shares more with this modern revolutionary tradition than any ancient form of Islamic rule. Though they'd hate to hear it, these violent jihadists owe the way they organise themselves and their utopian goals to the modern West. And it's not just ideas and methods that Isis has taken from the West. Western military intervention gave Isis its chance of power. While Saddam was in charge, there were no jihadist movements operating in Iraq - none at all. With all the crimes Saddam's dictatorship committed, it was a regime that applied secular law and had made some steps towards emancipating women.

Islaimist fighters on parade in the Syrian province of Raqqa, 30 June 2014 Islamist fighters in the Syrian province of Raqqa celebrate the declaration of the caliphate

In my view, toppling Saddam was bound to unravel this secular state and the Iraqi state itself. Even if the American-led occupiers hadn't made the mistake of disbanding the army and dissolving the ruling party, the country would eventually have broken up. Iraq was constructed from provinces of the former Ottoman Empire by the British in the 1920s, with the Sunni minority being the ruling group. The Sunnis had ruled since 1638, when the Ottomans took Baghdad from the Persians. The Kurds, who were included in the new state because the British prized the oil resources in the north of the country, were sure to take any opportunity to seize independence. Whatever the failings of the Maliki government, the idea that a stable federal system could develop in these circumstances has always been far-fetched. As some of those who opposed the war from the start foresaw, regime change created many of the conditions for a failed state. These are the same conditions that have allowed Isis to emerge and thrive.

It's sometimes suggested that ideology played no real part in the invasion of Iraq - grabbing the country's oil was what it was all about. No doubt geopolitical calculation played a part, but I think an idea of what it means to be modern was more important. The politicians and opinion-formers who clamoured for the invasion believed that all modern societies are evolving towards a single form of government - the type that exists in western countries. If only tyranny was swept away in Iraq, the country would move towards democracy and the rest of the Middle East would follow. Until just a few months ago, some were convinced that a similar process could take place in Syria.

US tank on Kuwait/Iraq border, on the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion US tanks on Iraq border, 2003: "Regime change created many of the conditions for a failed state"

As I see it, this has never been more than an ideological fantasy. The modern world isn't evolving in any single direction. Liberal democracy is only one of several possible destinations. With its delusional ambitions (which, if we are to believe recent statements, include reconquering Spain) Isis illustrates a darker aspect of the modern world - the practice of using terror and violence in an attempt to achieve impossible goals.

Isis may have already over-reached itself. It's facing determined opposition from many sides - not just from Shia militias but also rival Sunni jihadists such as Al Qaeda, from which it's an offshoot. There are conflicting interests among the disparate elements Isis has recently recruited, and it's not clear that it can govern a state on any long-term basis. Moreover, Baghdadi's claim to speak for all Muslims is dismissed by Islamic scholars and rejected as absurd by practically the entire Muslim world. Even so, Isis poses a real danger - and not just in the Middle East.

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Statue of Suleiman the Magnificent Statue of Suleiman the Magnificent, Istanbul
  • Name given to Islamic state led by supreme religious and political leader known as caliph, or successor to the Prophet Muhammad
  • Succession of Muslim empires described as "caliphates"; most famous is Ottoman caliphate or empire (1453-1924)
  • Centring on power of Turkish sultans, Ottoman Caliphate expanded to cover the Balkans and Hungary under Suleiman the Magnicient in 16th Century, and reached gates of Vienna
  • Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk abolished Ottoman Caliphate in 1924 and exiled the last caliph, Abdulmecid
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It's hard for anyone to estimate in precise terms the scale of the threat Isis poses to countries such as Britain. Its main targets are in the Middle East. Still, there must be a danger that Western citizens who have gone to Syria and Iraq as Isis fighters will return battle-hardened and with new bomb-making skills. Also, Isis has now declared war not only on the west but also on al-Qaeda. In these circumstances there may be an increased risk that one or other of these groups will be tempted to stage a spectacular act of terror in order to secure a position of leadership in the global jihadist struggle.

Through their policies of regime change, Western governments have pursued an ideological vision that leaves out the dark side of the modern world. In doing so, they've unwittingly let loose a particularly nasty version of modern savagery. Whatever happens to the self-styled caliphate, the forces it embodies aren't going to fade away. Isis is a part of the revolutionary turmoil of modern times, and until we grasp that uncomfortable fact we won't be able to deal with the dangers we face.

A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST- or listen on BBC iPlayer

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Here is a selection of your comments

What is not allowed by most people is the believe that there needs to be a new world order ruled by a just and merciful ruler who can not be bribed, corrupted, and is invincible. Any ideas ?

Eliza, Cornwall

A great example of the level headed, balanced British perspective that is a result of not forgetting history as well as the level-headed logical and rational analysis the Brits were once famous, and which made it possible for them to gain control of the largest empire ever by besting their opponents intellectually as much as militarily. Unfortunately the one thing it never did was immunize the Brits against the irrational and illogical, the call to arms based on lies and allegiance to causes that hurt her cause. Regardless, The world would be a much better place if we could somehow infuse our modern leaders, especially in the USA, with the same ability to contextualize modern events using the appropriate lessons of history that the author of this BBC piece has.

Johnny Morales, Harker Heights, TX USA

John Gray's View on ISIS draws together many strands of valuable information about that jihadist state and modern jihadism in general. How unfortunate that his information and opinions were not available to [or were ignored by] the ideological "neoconservatives" in the Bush II administration who misled the USA and UK into Iraq and, apparently 'til now, by the Obama administration's advisors. Yet some Middle East business people and academics were saying twenty years ago, at least privately, that the objective of many then-young otherwise unemployed would-be jihadists [including children of some of them] was to re-establish the Islamic Caliphate.

Larry Wick, Shalimar, Florida, USA

I agree that Isis is acting just like the Communists acted in Russia in 1917 and again in China in 1947 Stalin reportedly killed 50 million in his quest for soviet Communism and Mao in 1947 reportedly killed 80 million in his quest. Today neither these countries of these countries are anywhere near true communist states both are more like capitalist ones so the tragic lose of live was for nothing and so it will be for those who suffer death and torture under Isis. I dont agree that Isis is that modern when Islam captured and Spain it killed many Christian and those who captured Spain were running away from the third Jihad of Arabs across Africa, The Berber Almoravids had already destroyed the Almohads Islamic sect to get there. There Islamists lost Spain as fighting was reported amongst around 15 Islamic sects.

Robert Mucci, Hastings East Sussex

This problem of Isis is a again a west created problem. Its very hard to say at this point of time weather the Phenomena of Isis is good or bad in long run. May be its better and due to its hard rule and the fear it has been able to develop in the society that uncontrolled bombing in the region at part of world we see could be brought under some check. In a way it was during Saddam's rule.

Ajay , India

The Jehadis in Iraq and Syria will succeed in the promulgation of Islamic Sharia, provided they remain united and consolidate their occupied positions in Syria and Iraq.

Sheikh Muhammad Rafi , Karachi, Pakistan

They may dress their message up in terms of Islam, but these thugs do not understand the basic tenets of the faith they claim to follow, nor do they have a clue about how to proselytise. If you want to grow a religion, you have to convince people of its truth, there is no other way.

Megan, Cheshire UK

A pretty good example of western propaganda. Most of the discussion by this western-supremacist 'intellectual' was quite logical - though western arrogance seeps through with a claim that ISIS's strategies are inspired by western historical revolutionary movements. It's strange that it doesn't occur to the writer that the strategies of ISIS are just simply based on what might be the most strategically self-serving thing to do given the conditions they are faced with rather it just being an idea they took from the west. It betrays western juvenile belief that all others are comparatively inept. Finally, the writer ends off with the statement, "Through their policies of regime change, Western governments have pursued an ideological vision that leaves out the dark side of the modern world. In doing so, they've unwittingly let loose a particularly nasty version of modern savagery." It doesn't even occur to John Gray that it is BECAUSE of western policies of regime change that the 'dark side of the modern world' has been unleashed. Seems like 'the white man can do no wrong even when he doesn't do right.' Take note of Gray claims ISIS's progress as a western achievement whilst the evils that come from it as having nothing to do with the west.

Edwin, Essex

I think John Grey's analysis of the current situation in the Middle East is profound and absolutely correct. Isis pose a threat to the world as a whole. No matter how delusional they may be in some of their goals, the mere fact that they have proved they can strike at the very heart of western civilization and as John Grey points out these so called fighters returning to cities in England , Scotland, Wales, France, Belgium and so on will be armed with new skills. The Jihadist extremist has no value on his own life and is quite happy to die for Islam, so the death of his perceived enemies, that is anyone who does not subscribe to this extreme view, or infidels, is welcomed. This creates a state of imagined terror where travel even in its simplest forms can become feared. The cost of policing this imagined threat is astronomical and is done so at the cost and negligence of lesser law breaking activities. So basically everyone suffers. Governments not only need to act, but must be seen to act, not only to assure the general public but to ensure that extremist groups totally opposed to Islam, the BNP for example, don't not get a foothold because the government of the day appear to be letting this threat run its course.

Ray Sylvester, Bletchley, Milton Keynes

You describe here the Imperialist ambitions of Olde Europe "The politicians and opinion-formers who clamoured for the invasion believed that all modern societies are evolving towards a single form of government - the type that exists in western countries. If only tyranny was swept away in Iraq, the country would move towards democracy and the rest of the Middle East would follow. Until just a few months ago, some were convinced that a similar process could take place in Syria."Enriching the Exchanges and Owners they represent as they impose Fascism globally. The problem is every country has its own fascism which must be released during this imposed process, and subdued ruthlessly at great cost in human life. The Caliphate has another couple of million people to kill before it even begins to compete with us. Given our head start and our rate of accelerating genocide they'll never get off the ground.

Graham Pearson, Nottingham UK

I don't claim to understand the religio-political aspects of these ferocious cultural clashes which, as in the break-up of Yugoslavia, always seem to involve a shocking degree of cruelty and destruction. What I would like to understand is something much more basic; how do the people manage to live? Here in the UK, we worry desperately about productivity, about days lost to strikes, sickness, unemployment and so on, yet countries like Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt and now Iraq, seem to function where nobody goes to work. Or is this just the view the press gives? Are there, in fact, millions of Iraqis, Egyptians, Afghans etc all struggling to work every day, maintaining their livelihoods and their countries' economies in the face of seemingly impossibly adverse conditions? How did Egypt sustain the vast crowds in Tahir Square for all those months? How is is possible that crowds tens and even hundreds of thousands strong can be summoned at the drop of a hat and sustained for days, weeks and months? Or so it seems when watching the TV news. Do we get too simplistic a view? Are there millions of people going to their shops and factories and offices and putting in a day's work every day, just as we do? It would be illuminating to see reportage covering this aspect; how do countries which effectively have broken down continue to feed their people, maintain their infrastructure and operate their schools and hospitals? Some still-to-develop countries have never had these issues but Iraq, Egypt and the like are sophisticated economies. Aren't their populations more concerned with putting bread on the table for their families than they are for joining in religious wars? Is the reality that Iraqis, Afghans, Egyptians are more oppressed by forces like ISIS and Al Qaeda than any Western country, or its population, is ever likely to be?

Brian Smith, Radlett, UK

A really interesting article, but I wander how many young disaffected Muslims will read it? The power of ISIL's message appears to be its simplicity (join us and fight to create a caliphate / Islamist utopia - and if you die trying you'll be martyred) and as you note, their expertly controlled 'branding' through social media. Military intervention aside, Western and Middle East governments surely need to do more to counter ISIL propaganda (and where possible, disrupt their finances). Unfortunately governments seem only to focus on condemning ISIL, rather than pragmatically excepting some challenges in reconciling elements of Western society/capitalism with some aspects of Islam, and disputing ISLI's historical and theological narrative and offering a credible alternative. In reality, however, this is likely only to resonate with some of ISIL's target audience (e.g. 18-25 yr old Muslim males in the UK?), if communicated by respected Islamic scholars, community leaders etc. and, crucially, with high quality production and via the same communication platforms exploited by ISIL - relying on Friday prayers to middle aged moderate Muslims may have little impact. I'd be really interesting to read a report on why this doesn't appear to be happening and what could be done to undermine and degrade ISIS's propaganda machine...

Paul Reid, London, UK

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