Terrorism is not just religion: Decoding the socio-political setups within Islamic State

Editor's Note: This three part series looks at the complexity of 'Islamist terrorism' in the context of the recent terror attacks by the Islamic State, targeting Dhaka, Baghdad, Istanbul and Saudi Arabia. The series explores the dangers of defining terrorism in terms of either 'religious' violence or 'political' violence; terrorism is more complicated than we think it is. In part three, read about why Islamic State is not just a religious force. 

To get a wholesome view of modern Islamist terrorism, focusing only on the religious angle is not enough. In this context, Robert Pape’s pioneering research on suicide terrorism comes to handy. A Professor of International Politics at University of Chicago, Pape conducted a landmark study of suicide terrorism from 1980-2003 and put down his findings in two period-defining books Dying to Win (2005) and Cutting the Fuse (2010). What Pape found, after scrupulously deconstructing 462 cases of suicide attacks was that most of them were ‘secular’ in nature and products of ‘rational choice’, driven by politico-strategic motives. The tactic was employed as a well-contrived counter to Israel’s continued military occupation. That, however, is also what renowned experts in security and terrorism studies Bader Araj and Assaf Moghadam also conclude. Evidently, while theological indoctrination is an inseparable part of the ‘radicalisation arc’ that shapes a terrorist, it is not the only pull factor.

Nonetheless, focusing exclusively on Israel-Palestine, as Bader Araj, Assaf Moghadam, and Robert Pape do, to understand the interplay of religion and politics within Islamist terrorism is inadequate, given the specific circumstances of Israeli military occupation and state repression. Radical jihad is a much more cross-cultural phenomenon, and thus, operates on a complex geopolitical plane across different social and political setups. There is no better medium to comprehend this all-encompassing phenomenon of ruthless aggression than looking at the key perpetrator of the recent attacks in Turkey, Bangladesh, Iraq and Saudi Arabia – the Islamic State (IS).

 Terrorism is not just religion: Decoding the socio-political setups within Islamic State

Representational image. Reuters

The Islamic State is hardly a purely ideological or religious force. It cannot be straight-jacketed as a puritan ‘Islamic army’, although it draws cultural legitimacy from a certain strand of radical Sunni Islam. The IS is a much more internally-variegated and diverse organisation than we would like to believe, and carries a confounding matrix of motivations. In 2014, while in the United Kingdom for my higher studies, I got the opportunity to interview Emile Nakhleh, the former Director of CIA’s Political Islam Program. Born in Palestine, Nakhleh commands unmatched knowledge of the Middle East, and was one of the select few in the Bush administration who had advised the President to reconsider his decision to invade Iraq.

When I asked him if the Islamic State (IS) was a “religious organisation with political undertones” or a “political organisation with religious overtones”, he chose the latter. He argued that ultimately, what IS aims to achieve is access to political and economic power structures in the territories they have captured by force, and ‘religion’ is a very effective galvanising medium to achieve that. Simply put, here, religion is the means, not the end. It is a time-tested ‘cultural wrench’ that is being conveniently instrumentalised to tighten the screw of political control. Al-Raqqa, the self-declared ‘capital’ of the ‘Islamic Caliphate’ in Syria, is a disturbing example of how Islam (or a certain strand of any religion for that matter) can be efficiently utilised to exercise strict territorial control over a particular population.

Even a cursory look at the composition of IS’ top leadership reveals plenty about the complex organisation that it really is. As pointed out by Robert Pape, the top leadership of the group is composed of three distinct groups of people, in equal proportions: hardliner Sunni Muslims, secular ex-Baathists, and Sunni tribal leaders. The existence of such a flecked pool of decision-making elites warns us to not place the “IS brand of terror” into neat boxes of either religion or politics. While it is impossible to know what each sub-group vies for today, one could make rational guesstimates by looking at their socio-political profiles.

The hardliner Sunni section might be aiming for a radical jihad against Shias and Sunni kufirs (traitors) to set up a puritan, theocratic regime. The ex-Baathists, logically speaking, could be aiming for a total seizure of all political and economic assets and structures that they lost during the American Invasion, and later to fundamentalist sectarianism.

Notably, one of the first offensives launched by the IS was not against any cultural or political institution but rather the largest oil refinery in Iraq, the Baiji Oil Refinery. Finally, the Sunni tribal leaders are expected to focus on recapturing and/or defending historically-claimed territories or ‘ancient, Biblical lands’. To the misfortune for the rest of us, these three sets of motivations intersect on a tactical level, ensuring continued proliferation and survival of the group.

As we see, the ‘IS brand of terror’, like most other variants is a dynamic flux of religion and politics. In fact, we do not need to look beyond the overall target profiles of the recent spate of violence in order to realise that Islamist terrorism can be quite varied within itself. It need not be an ‘East vs West’ civilisational clash, as Samuel Huntington would argue, but rather a purely sectarian conflict between the myriad different schools of applied Islamic thought. All four countries – Turkey, Bangladesh, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia – have different social demographics within one main religious umbrella, yet were seemingly attacked by a single, sub-sectarian (Wahhabi-Salafi) group. Why so?

The bombing in Baghdad was, in all possibility, a menacing retort to Iraq’s Shia-appeasing political establishment that the IS so dearly abhors. Last month, IS lost the strategic stronghold of Fallujah to an aggressive military onslaught propped by Iraqi forces and Shiite militia groups like the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs). The attack was perhaps a resounding attestation by IS of its indomitable strength. The attack in Turkey, a Sunni-dominated country, comes during a time when the country is proposing to collaborate with Russia to destroy IS – just like it had previously allowed American fighter jets to use the Incirlik Air Base for air strikes against the group.

The bombings in Saudi Arabia, surprisingly the ideological fountainhead of IS, follow a signature pattern of anti-Shia attacks in the country by jihadist groups. The IS detests the royalty for its closeness to Western regimes, and is at a constant tussle with the Saudi clerical establishment over which version of Sunni Islam is ‘purer’. Bangladesh is a distinctive case in itself. Nowhere else in the world has ‘politicised Islam’ so deeply pervaded mainstream socio-political dispositions as in Bangladesh, thanks to years of explicitly anti-secular rule by military strongmen. The country already had an extensive network of radical Sunni jihadists, most of which fell back to the ‘Islamic Caliphate’ creed to regain their lost credibility.

Hence, reiterating that the attack was “homegrown terror” is redundant and futile. Bangladesh is marked by a very nationalistic, ruthless, and primitive kind of jihadist terror that completely lacks any religious sanctity. This is proved by the shocking tirade of machete attacks against secularists and non-fundamentalists in the past three years – most of the victims being Muslims. Hence, when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in her emotional post-attack speech asked, “What kind of Muslims kill other Muslims on Ramzan?”, she sounded rather ignorant and oblivious of her own country’s politics and history.

From America to Britain to Syria to Myanmar – today, the world is under attack from a slew of powerful men and women who are extensively relying on the ‘politics of homogenisation’ to achieve preconceived ends. Oversimplified narratives are being packaged and sold in boxes of emotive jargon and anachronistic ideas. Some of it manifests in structural violence and discrimination, others in real physical terror. Some place it in misdirected referendums, others in nitroglycerin cans.

In such times, we could really do away with more oversimplification. The narratives of arbitrary cultural antagonism do not serve to build any positive social capital, but rather result in intense fissures within and between societies. It is crucial to counter them appropriately, with rationality and nuance. Only debate can trump monologic hatred. Hence, we must remain cautious of how we counter something so complex as ‘radical Jihadist terrorism’, lest we end up giving carte blanche to those greedy individuals who would not bat an eyelid before butchering innocents with the sharp tip of their blades of faith. The worst is, these men, more often than not, are convincing enough for a much larger horde of vulnerable women and men to shut their thinking faculties and board the wagon of mindless violence.

Part one: Products of targeted violence, terrorists are not criminals or psychopaths
Part two: Terror attacks and perils of emotive criticism: Why we must not delink religion and terror

Updated Date: Jul 11, 2016 15:56:55 IST