Islamic State’s Islamist utopia has taken hold of the imagination of small Sunni communities almost everywhere, including in Brussels, where suicide bombers killed 32 people last month.
Its worldview, Salafi jihadism, is perhaps the most powerful weapon in its deadly arsenal. A traveling and expanding ideology, Salafi jihadism, or religious totalitarianism, has evolved into an influential social movement with a repertoire of ideas, iconic leaders, far-flung supporters, networks of recruiters and theorist enablers who provide members with theological sustenance.
Regardless of what happens to Islamic State, Salafi jihadism is here to stay and will likely gain more converts in politically polarized Arab and Muslim societies.
Regardless of what happens to Islamic State, Salafi jihadism is here to stay and will likely gain more converts in politically polarized Arab and Muslim societies. The challenge is to shine light on this growing ideology and make sense of it.
Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi and his inner circle rely particularly on three Salafi jihadist manifestoes to justify what they do. The most well-known is “The Management of Savagery.” Circulated in PDF format under the pseudonym Abu Bakr Najji in the early 2000s, the manifesto provides a strategic road map of how to create an Islamic caliphate.
The second book is “Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Jihad” by Abu Abdullah Muhajjer, which calls on Salafi jihadists to do whatever it takes to establish a purely unified Islamic state.
The final book is “The Essentials of Making Ready” (for Jihad) by Sayyid Imam Sharif, aka Abdel-Qader Ibn Abdel-Aziz or Dr. Fadl. This massive work focuses on the theological and practical meanings of jihad in Islam, and it has become a central text in jihadist training. Fadl admitted that he wrote the book in the late 1980s as a manual for training camps of what subsequently became known as Al Qaeda.
The three manifestoes represent the most extreme thinking within the Salafi jihadist movement and the degeneration of this ideology into Fiqh Damaa (the jurisprudence of blood). Despite differences, there are common conceptual threads.
First, the three authors call for all-out war and advocate performing offensive jihad as opposed to only defensive jihad in order to bleed the kuffar (infidels), or the enemies of Islam, thus creating chaos and fear. Second, although this total war should target both the “near enemy” (Muslim rulers) and the “far enemy” (the U.S. and its European allies), they prioritize the fight against tyrannical Muslim rulers who do not apply sharia (Koranic law).
Finally, all three call on the movement’s planners to kill with impunity, to observe no limits and follow in the footsteps of the prophet’s companions, who, in their opinion, brutally punished dissenters and rivals. They cite selective cases of early Islamic history to prove their claim that excessive violence produces the desired effect: submission. According to their logic, viciousness is the secret to success, while softheartedness is a recipe for failure.
Although all three Salafi jihadist theorists advocate offensive jihad rather than defensive jihad, Najji explicitly makes the case for all-out war. He offers an expansive plan with three stages in which violence escalates qualitatively and strategically rather than in an ad hoc and random way.
In the first stage, Nikayawal-Tamkeen (vexation and empowerment), Salafi jihadists break the will of the enemy by carrying out attacks against vital economic and strategic targets such as oil facilities and the tourism infrastructure. As security forces rush in to protect these targets, the state weakens and its powers wither away, a condition conducive to “savagery and chaos.” Salafi jihadists can take advantage of this security vacuum, notes Najji, by launching an all-out battle on the thinly dispersed security forces.
Once the rulers are overthrown, a second phase commences, Idrarat Tawhush (the administration or management of savagery), and the third and final stage, Shawkat Tamkeen (empowerment), sees the establishment of an Islamic state. This Islamic state, Najji explains, should be ruled by a single leader who can then unify diffuse and scattered groups in a caliphate.
Not surprisingly, Najji emphasizes the significance of the media and propaganda as an ideological tool to mobilize and recruit the Muslim masses to the side of Salafi jihadists during the first and second stages of the long war, and then to control them and pacify them during the final stage.
All three authors argue that Salafi jihadists must hasten social and institutional disintegration of the state system, induce mayhem and be prepared to manage this cataclysm. The goal is to kill and terrorize not for the sake of killing or terrorism but for a higher moral purpose: cultural cleansing and the imposition of God’s laws on infidels.
For example, Najji points out that “the worst chaotic condition is by far preferable to stability under the system of apostasy,” thus turning the received wisdom of the mainstream religious establishment on its head.
He depicts Salafi jihadists as the vanguard best equipped to trigger an apocalypse, an end to the world as we know it and a religious rebirth.
“We must drag all the people to battle and bring the temple down on the heads of everyone,” Najji states. Even “if the whole umma [the global Muslim community] perishes, they would all be martyrs,” he adds, justifying the death of millions of Muslims.
The three manifestoes provide a glimpse into Islamic State’s worldview, one characterized by a perpetual war against real and imagined enemies. According to this ideology, stability can only be attained when enemies are either subjugated or forced to recognize the group’s sacred mandate.
Islamic State’s absolutist ideology is a doubled-edged sword. On the one hand, it has cemented the ties that bind among Islamic State combatants. On the other, it has blinded the group to the complex realities of governance at home and international relations abroad. Ideological fanaticism has led Baghdadi and his associates to monstrously miscalculate by turning the entire world against it, including the clerical Muslim establishment.
The group’s religious ideology is important inasmuch as it allows it to exploit a poisonous environment, and to offer an alternative model (the Islamic State) to secular political authoritarianism. But in the final analysis, Islamic State is a product of the breakdown of Middle Eastern institutions and geostrategic regional and global rivalries. Syrians and Iraqis would not have embraced Islamic State’s Islamist worldview if their legitimate grievances had been addressed.
While ideas are the first line of defense against Islamic State and other Salafi jihadists, the key to delegitimizing this transnational ideology will depend on the reconstruction of the political process and genuine political reconciliation among warring ethnic and religious communities, a complex and difficult process that will take years to materialize.
Fawaz A. Gerges is professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and author of “ISIS: A History.”