The scale of the Islamic State’s (IS) brutality against dissenters across swathes of Syria and Iraq give the West yet another opportunity to accept and embrace the civilizational conflict between Islamists and the modern world order. Since at least the 1960s and especially under the Obama Administration, a growing portion of Americans and Westerners generally have believed that humanity’s universal and inherent goodwill make any quarrel reconcilable with adequate discussion. While the fallacy has long been apparent, it has rarely been illustrated with IS’s tremendous alacrity.
IS’s basic motivation is establishing, or re-establishing, the khilafa – the Islamic Caliphate. According to IS’s brand of Islam, allowing the kafir – the unbeliever – to rule in any land that once was ruled by Islam is an offense to Allah. In this interpretation, once land has become part of Islam – dar ul-Islam – it rightly remains so in perpetuity. Thus IS requires all Muslims to wage war to “restore” the Caliphate, which shall include all of dar ul-Islam, which in turn is coextensive with Islam’s farthest expansion. IS proposes to undo at least 500 years of history, as it would claim the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal), Eastern Europe to the gates of Vienna, the Caucuses, North Africa, parts of Italy and Sicily, and all of Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent.
For IS, any and all means are permissible for reestablishing the Caliphate. IS perpetrates mass executions, enslavement, kidnapping and forced marriages to eliminate potential enemies. Those who refuse to convert are executed. Mosul has no Christian population for the first time in 2000 years. IS razes Christian and non-conforming Muslims’ shrines, whether as anathema in-and-of-themselves, or to deprive dissenters of rallying points and hope.
In its attacks on other Muslims whom it deems apostates, IS illustrates its own extremism and one of the flaws in Western thought about Islamist terror. IS does not represent all Muslims; neither does al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban, Boko Haram, etc. These groups often hate one another with equal or greater passion than they hate Christians, Jews or anyone else. IS merely arrogates its interpretation as the unique, true Islam and self-identifies as Sunnis. Yet many Sunnis oppose them and Sunnis are but one sect of Islam. There are probably around 1.2 billion Muslims who would reject IS theology. So it is that Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the Kurdish Peshmerga are all battling IS despite often deep hostility to one another.
Despite the diversity of Muslim sects and beliefs, Western leaders insist on purveying the same superficial assessment that Islam should be treated as a benign monolith. Western leaders’ penchant for saying “Islam is…” reflects little but the speaker’s ignorance. Islam is not a religion of peace, of war, or of anything else in particular, even if various sects’ more illiberal adherents think it ought to be. Islam is a varied religion led by men who espouse wildly different interpretations and views. IS and its followers are motivated by an interpretation of Islam not only permitting, but requiring unrestrained violence in the name of Islam.
The Western world has no modern equivalent of such religious fanaticism. Europe’s religious wars essentially ended with the enlightenment, albeit with latent patches of religious violence and continuing socio-political battles along sectarian lines. Religious affiliation of any kind continues to wane in the West and committing violence for religious goals is virtually unheard of. There is no ability to internalize that anybody might have religious beliefs so strong, so deep and so harsh that it compels unadulterated violence against nonconformists.
The alienness of unadulterated religious belief that condones violence and ubiquitous rote proclamations that “Islam is a religion of peace” lead Western populations and leaders alike to suffer a sort of cognitive dissonance and avoidance rather than confront the implications of the ongoing, 21st Century religious war. Classical Western ideology holds individual rights including freedom of expression and conscious sacrosanct. IS and discordant other Islamist terrorist organizations believe they are obligated by god to destroy anybody and anything derogating from the universal imposition of their own interpretations of Islam. There is no common ground; only one civilizational principle can survive.