21 May 2015
Oh Mighty ISIS!
Reports of the decline of the self-styled Islamic State have unsurprisingly proved exaggerated. Instead, the jihadi army has made gains against both Iraq and Syria this week, leaving some global observers more concerned for the classical ruins in the city of Palmyra, likely candidates for iconoclastic demolition as they are, than for the lives of the army's still more likely human victims. Whether we like it or not, the Daesh is always going to have an advantage in moral over the soldiers of a sectarian and corrupt government, on one hand, and a blatant tyranny on the other. Maybe the Shiite militias reportedly coming to the rescue of Ramadi are sufficiently fanatical to stand up to the takfiri host, but the hirelings of the regular Iraqi and Syrian armies must rightly ask whether resistance is worth the risk. To those of us watching from the outside the imperative to resist and repel the IS is self-evident. To us, the fight against the Daesh is a fight for freedom, but for people who arguably have never been free as we understand the idea, life under a new master may be preferable to death for any idea. As for the jihadis themselves, I suppose I'm not the one to question whether the war really counts as a religious experience for them. But whether it does or not, they seem to have a more realistic hope for power and plunder than their opponents ever can under their current leaders. More than fanaticism, I suspect, the feeling that power is the only key to prosperity drives them. That may not sound religious depending on how you define religion, but as I understand it Islam has never taken an "our kingdom is not of this world" attitude. Part of why Islam as a whole seems more political, if not totalitarian, than the other Abrahamic faiths may be that Muslims are more likely to feel that this world is theirs to take and rule. Christians have often felt likewise, of course, but that impulse may be inhibited sometimes by a sense that it contradicts Jesus's message, while jihadi conquest does not necessarily contradict Muhammad's message. Another way to look at it is that jihad is the prosperity gospel for Muslims, with the difference that the jihadi is more convinced that his prosperity depends on coercive power over other people. Neither the Iraqi government nor even the Syrian tyranny can plausibly promise that kind of power, which may prove that, like it or not, the IS is more egalitarian, at least within its own ranks, than its opponents. That's how rotten the Middle East is today, and if no one other than the IS can realistically promise to make people's lives better, and not merely to create "opportunity" for them, it isn't going to get any better -- at least in our eyes.