In early January, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) released a video purporting to show a young boy executing two men whom the extremist group accused of being Russian spies. The use of a child executioner is but the latest example of ISIL’s evolving, horrific methods. Over the past year, ISIL has employed shocking tactics, including immolation, beheadings, slavery and efforts to exterminate the Yazidi minority in Iraq.
It would be easy to consider the barbarisms of ISIL’s various incarnations from North Africa to the Middle East and imagine some kind of darkness at the heart of Islam that could explain the group’s obscene violence. Sadly, the catalog of hacked limbs and severed heads, death marches, extermination camps and genocidal and ideological savageries of the last two centuries remind us just how easily humans can brutalize and murder each other.
Violence is the rule of, not the exception to, our collective humanity. The problem is how to understand and lessen the violence. In this vein, studies such as a recent Brookings analysis of ISIL’s Twitter activity to understand its violence are of limited value because they treat only outward symptoms of a systemic disease. Instead, we must return to the analysis of authoritarian systems and the enabling international order that the 2011 Arab uprisings sought to overturn.
ISIL’s rise and brutality are not accidental. They mark the arrival of a new kind of blowback that seeks, through violence every bit as vicious as the kind long used and supported by the West, to complete the revolutionaries’ call to “take down the system.”
The authoritarian order in which Arab states have operated for most of the last century did not allow for the kind of redistribution of power that protesters demanded. But neither is it strong enough to crush or co-opt most of the movements. Groups such as ISIL have filled the vacuums that opened up between forces calling for change and authoritarian systems. But as author Scott Ritter points out, ISIL “was born from the chaos and anarchy that erupted in Iraq after the United States invaded and occupied that country.”
For ISIL, savagery is necessary for its internal vigor, as well as to overcome the violence of Islam’s purported enemies and the international political and economic system that violence has long held in place. As Tom Peters wrote in his famous 1987 book, thriving on chaos demands incredible strength. ISIL understands this wisdom.
“If we are not violent in our jihad and if softness seizes us,” Islamist strategist Abu Bakr Naji wrote in "The Management of Savagery” in 2004, “that will be a major factor in the loss of the element of strength.”
As a result, groups such as ISIL and Boko Haram have created a kind of Mardi Gras of mass brutality by making the gruesome violence that often occurs out of the world’s plain sight a centerpiece of their political theater. ISIL has ramped up its violence because it is motivated by an apocalyptic world view that sees its so-called Islamic State as a staging ground for the final battle between Muslims and the West.
“Its deliberate cultivation of ultraviolence as a core element of its society will lead it ever further into darkness, into a pit of horror that cannot be escaped,” terrorism researchers Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger wrote in a recent Atlantic article. ISIL believes no escape is necessary or even possible. The group imagines its violence merely as a foreshadowing of a much more violent future: that of Judgment Day.
ISIL is loudly and brutally proclaiming that we are not living in normal times. And if we aren’t approaching the end of days, we are certainly living in a historical moment of transformation, one that has been decades in the making, defined by such buzzwords as globalization and neoliberalism. As with the other eras of capitalist restructuring, the current period is producing unprecedented dislocation and wealth amid rapidly rising inequality and poverty. The appearance and swift spread of ISIL indicates that we are at the tipping point.
One of the hallmarks of globalization is that it removes people from their local context and environment and forces them to find their ways elsewhere. This occurs either through actual migration to distant shores, or through cultural invasion by powerful external forces, which threatens the home culture.
The Muslim world has at times rebelled against forces of globalization. During the Iranian Revolution, for example, protesters responded directly to the adverse effects of the emerging neoliberal system. “It is perhaps the first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is the most modern and the most insane,” wrote the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who covered the uprising as a journalist.
The effect of neoliberalism — which Arab critics describe as inhuman globalism — has only grown. The resulting negative consequences, which spurred the initial Arab Spring protests, range from rampant inequality and increased poverty to unprecedented environmental degradation. Young Muslims in particular have experienced an ever-increasing control over their lives and identities through constant surveillance, repression and imprisonment both in the West and across the Muslim world.
The Arab uprisings and the Occupy movement were responses to the incurable authoritarianism of corrupt regimes and the global neoliberal system that sustains them. ISIL’s horrific violence is another. The group’s apocalyptic vision seeks an end to the domination of the U.S. and other major powers over the Muslim world through support for undemocratic regimes or by employing massive levels of violence and using the ensuing chaos to gain even greater control over the region.
If world leaders don't want Chibok, Raqqa or Mosul to be the new model for resistance, what are they prepared to do to foster a truly democratic, just and sustainable model for the region, and the world?