The other week I posted a piece on my blog and at Sojourners — a progressive Christian publication associated with the work of Jim Wallis — about why Westerners join ISIS. The piece focused on some of the more sociological reasons Westerners choose to connect to such an violent group. The piece attracted some critics. Most notably, an ISIS supporter contacted me on Twitter to let me know where I got it wrong.
@DarAlHaq, who has an ISIS flag and symbol as his cover photo on Twitter and regularly posts photos and stories from the front in Syria and Iraq, told me, “the article doesn't give the reality of why a young western Muslims wants to leave the comfort.” Fair enough. This is my effort to share his views and problematize my previous presentation.
Many politicians, pundits, and everyday people are wondering why Westerners are joining ISIS and the answer is not singular, static, or straightforward. Westerners, who some surmise make up a significant segment of ISIS’s some 20,000 - 40,000 fighters, are joining ISIS for various reasons, but three categories of thought are worth considering — the theological, the societal, and the sociological.
As I argued previously, there is a sense in which (no matter the political rhetoric) ISIS is Islamic. It is Islamic insomuch as ISIS’s leaders, and many of its outspoken supporters abroad, contextualize ISIS’s cause within a theological framework.
Specifically, many media sources and ISIS spokespeople are explaining ISIS’s thought and action in terms of Salafism. Salafis are Islamic reformists who view their movement as a return to the roots, to the ways of the 'as-Salaf as-Saliheen', the first three generations of Muslims — the pious “predecessors” or “ancestors” of Islam. They hold to a literalist and individual interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah and a strict science of tawhid — the oneness of Allah. Their theological idealism leads them to contest and combat what they see as contaminated innovations (bida’) in Islam — such as veneration of saints, visiting graves, various forms of Sufism and Islamic mysticism, and even other Muslim schools of thought (an extreme view of taqfir, which leads ISIS to murder other Muslims they do not see as “pure” or “authentic” enough).
Salafis have a superiority complex, emerging from their understanding of their reform movement as a pure and perspicuous manifestation of Islam. As Roel Meijer said, “the basic power of Salafism lies in its capacity to say ‘we are better than you.’” This superiority bleeds not only into thoughts on theology, but also in terms of discourse and action. For Salafis, right thought must lead to right moral acts. Of course, not all Salafis are violent, but those who are — Jihadi-Salafists — theire superiority complex is on steroids because of the ultimate demands their philosophy makes of its adherents. This would be the case with ISIS fighters who go to Iraq and Syria and put their lives on the line for their brand of theology.
Yet, to say ISIS Islam is too simplistic. There are too many other Muslim communities and expressions of glocal (localized forms of the one global faith) Islam throughout the world. Islam is a diverse global faith, which takes on a different form, with varying interpretations of the Qur’an and the tradition of Muhammad where the local Muslim community deals with dissimilar concerns about local realities and contrasting views on religious violence and Westernization. It is unsophisticated to simply posit that ISIS represents Islam or is Islamic in a general sense with no further discussion or clarification. As Alireza Doostdar shared via Sightings at the University of Chicago, not only is there great theological diversity within Islam in general, and Salafism in particular, but also within ISIS itself. Furthermore, he opined, “the view that one particular religious doctrine is uniquely extremist will not help us understand the cycles of brutality that have fed on years of circulating narratives and images of torture, violent murder, and desecration.” Theology alone does not explain the allure of ISIS.
This is where my Twitter pal @DarAlHaq comes in. His handle name means, “Land of Truth” or, perhaps, “Land of the Right” or “Land of God,” depending on the translation. He is, evidently, in search of the “Land of Truth” where he feels he can live out his faith without the corrupting influences of modern, Western, society.
As Olivier Roy wrote we underestimate just how much Westernization contributes to the radicalization of Muslims and other extremists. @DarAlHaq is not alone in struggling with how to authentically practice (according to his view of what is “authentic”) his faith and remain pure in a context he is convinced is corrupting at its core.
In response to why he thinks Westerners leave “comfort” to join ISIS where “death and constant war” are guaranteed, he said to me:
these young [ISIS recruits] are fed up with [the] West and its lies, they don't want to see Muslims die and humiliated. They feel the [sense] of responsibility to protect them and free them from [the] hegemony of [the] U.S. and it’s corrupt agents and puppets who rule Muslims and plunder the little food they have left. They are sick and tired of western life. They are constantly bombard[ed] by prostitution, clubbing […]. The young muslims who knows their religion love to live a life of piety and faithful muslims, but the society they they live in is full of evil and that is [why] they seek salvation and join [a] group who truly believe in the same goal they want to establish a society where there is zero corruption, full of piety and [a] high standard of morals. These Islamic movements offer them a structural society where God[’s] words are above everything. They believe in the freedom of people, [but it has turned them] in[to] animals [who] have no second thought as to what the purpose of life is.
Because of this, he challenged, “we are eager to meet death, but what about you?”
@DarAlHaq’s sentiments echo a broader revitalized, and reformist, call from many Muslims whose lives are fragmented by Westernization. They see “the West” as responsible for immorality, widespread death, and a loss of purpose for life. Their ideological interpretation of Western society leads them to join groups like ISIS who, at the moment, are the foremost adversaries against “Western hegemony.” In this way, @DarAlHaq and others like him buy into the identity politics of Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” binary between “Islam” and “the West.” In so doing, they mirror the multiculturalists and “Islamophobic networks” in “the West” who and form a strange partnership with them in promoting the idea that “authentic” Islam is not compatible with modernity and vice versa.
In the past, those who wanted to join anti-Western movements would have become communists, joined leftist political or military organizations, neo-Nazi camps, or trained with al-Qaeda. Now, as ISIS seeks to establish an “Islamic state” in the Levant and the Middle East these young men and women fed up with “the West” join their ranks to combat the society they feel is degrading and destroying their lives. This sentiment is not necessarily Islamic, but could stem from various ideological sources including non-conformist sentiment, leftist creeds, or even Christian fundamentalism. Because of ISIS’s Islamic rhetoric it recruits Muslims, but any number of organizations opposing the “Western world” (notably, the anti-globalization camp) attract people from other backgrounds with similar attitudes toward the unethical lifestyle of “the West.”
As I mentioned in my previous blogs, many Westerners also join ISIS for social reasons. Most notably, because they are isolated and lonely. In his book Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, Olivier Roy says that in the passage to the West, Islam as a religion (and its practitioners) undergo a deterritorializing, deculturalizing, and destabilizing process that, both of us argue, leaves individuals feeling rejected not only by Western society (see above), but by their fellow Muslims. Thus, these isolated men and women go in search of a new ummah (global Islamic community, on the macro level) and a new local community (on the micro level). Enter ISIS.
This list of reasons why Westerners join ISIS is not comprehensive nor entirely cohesive. There are other reasons why Westerners leave their homes to fight in the deserts of Syria and Iraq alongside other ISIS recruits, ranging from the psychological to the criminal. Furthermore, our understanding of ISIS and its fighters is limited. My contact with @DarAlHaq is just an initial foray, but gaining further access is fraught with difficulty and danger. Thus, intimate knowledge of ISIS recruits’ motivations remains scant. Moreover, understanding why Middle Easterners join ISIS is an entirely different consideration, but I surmise that theological neofundamentalism, societal struggles related to the increased pressure of Westernization, and deculturalization, destabilization, and deterritorialization still play a significant role even there.
Whatever the conclusions, the situation is complicated and in need of further investigation and fine-tuned perspectives that attempt to summarize the multifarious motivations for Westerners to join the ISIS cause. Without thoughtful and nuanced discussion we run the risk of oversimplifying ISIS and its philosophical compatriots, which inevitably leads to exacerbating the issue we set out to solve in the first place.