George Packer’s thoughtful essay on ISIS predates our discovery of the fate of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh but it gains more salience from that execution.
As of today, ISIS seems to have succeeded in cornering the market in depravity and horror. It has become the true reincarnation of the Third Reich. By now, we have just about run out of terms that accurately describe its evil.
The more you use terms like “depravity” the less they resonate.
For his part Packer believes that ISIS does have a strategy in mind, and that its strategy is, for now, working.
The young people who are flocking to ISIS in Syria are not making a rational calculation. They are not setting out to build a new society. They have been captivated by images that suggest superior power and strength.
As they see it, Islam is no longer losing out in the clash of civilizations. It is no longer being ignored. It has captured the minds of the civilized world, even to the point of receiving a grudging respect.
Like Islamist versions of the Nietzschean Superman, ISIS captors have overcome all considerations of human feeling, of human empathy, of human restraint, of human decency. They perform the most brutal acts to show that they will eventually overcome the decadent and pusillanimous West.
We are shocked by their brutality. Their adherents cheer it.
But it’s the vaulting ambition of an actual Islamic State that inspires ISIS recruits. The group uses surprise and shock to achieve goals that are more readily grasped by the apocalyptic imagination than by military or political theory. The capture of Mosul last June shocked the Iraqi and U.S. governments; for a while, ISISseemed to believe that it could even take Baghdad. The genocidal attack on the Yazidis of Sinjar, in August, shocked the conscience. The videotaped beheadings that began at the same time shocked the West. Last week’s decapitation shocked Japan….
The point isn’t to use the right level of violence to achieve limited goals. The violence is the point, and the worse the better. The Islamic State doesn’t leave thousands of corpses in its wake as a means to an end. Slaughter is its goal—slaughter in the name of higher purification. Mass executions are proof of the Islamic State’s profound commitment to its vision….
The level of its violence hasn’t discouraged new recruits—the numbers keep growing, because extreme violence is part of what makes ISIS so compelling. Last year, Vice News shot a documentary in the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, and what was striking in the footage was the happiness on the faces of ISIS followers. They revelled in the solidarity of a common cause undertaken at great personal risk. They are idealists—that’s what makes them so dangerous.
The last point is important. These Islamist terrorists are not pragmatic politicians. They are idealists. They are not looking to protect and provide for their people. They do not even care about gaining and holding territory. They want to transform the world, to make it conform to their vision.
Better yet, these terrorists want the world to bow down before the signs of its will to power. It doesn’t matter that ISIS just lost control of an unimportant city on the border between Syria and Turkey. With the city reduced to ruins ISIS can claim to have left its mark. Call it the power of deconstruction.
Packer calls ISIS a death cult. One is obliged to agree:
In this sense, ISIS is less like a conventional authoritarian or totalitarian state than like a mass death cult. Most such cults attract few followers and pose limited threats; the danger is mostly to themselves. But there are examples in modern history of whole societies falling under the influence and control of a mechanism whose aim is to dictate every aspect of life after an image of absolute virtue, and in doing so to produce a mountain of corpses.
One might imagine, as the Obama administration seems to, that ISIS is so profoundly wrong that it will eventually self-destruct. Obama seems to believe that by ignoring ISIS, he will hasten its demise.
And yet, Packer concludes, history shows that these death cults are resilient and durable. They do not implode from within. They do not self-destruct. They can only be defeated by an opposing counterforce that is stronger and perhaps even more ruthless.
In his words:
One thing we’ve learned from the history of such regimes is that they can be stronger and more enduring than rational analysis would predict. The other thing is that they rarely end in self-destruction. They usually have to be destroyed by others.
Which “others” are today up to the job?
As the world cries out for leadership, Barack Obama declared that 99.9% of Muslims want what everyone in the world wants.
This would, of course, make Muslims more pure even than Ivory soap—which is notably 99.44% pure.
Obama does not seem to know that large numbers of Muslims voted for Hamas in Gaza and that many Muslims voted for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
But it also tells us that Obama wants above all else to defend the good name of Islam. He seems to believe that if he does not say that Islamist terrorism has something to do with Islam he can help the religion to maintain its reputation.
In that he is simply wrong. The reputation of Islam is now so closely associated with human depravity that it will take a long time to restore it. Ignoring the problem merely makes it worse.
As it happens, Obama has confused guilt and shame.
It is true, as I have often argued, that when an individual commits a crime that individual and only that individual is prosecuted and imprisoned.
And yet, the shame that accompanies the public exposure of that failure tarnishes the family name and effects all of those who bear that name, regardless of whether or not they participated in the crime or the failure.
Bernard Madoff was incarcerated for his fraud. So was his culpable brother Peter. One assumes that other family members were not involved, and they were not indicted or tried.
And yet, the name has now become a stigma. It affects all of those who bear it. One of Madoff’s sons hung himself because bearing that name had made it impossible for him to find work or to socialize.
One needs to recognize that Islamist terrorism is precisely designed to tarnish the reputation of Islam. In this it has largely succeeded. It will take far more than a few empty phrases from the commander-in-chief to restore the good name of Islam. Pretending that there is no stigma does not cause the stigma to disappear.
ISIS wants to make it increasingly impossible for Muslims to live in democratic societies or even to adopt modern ways.
Thus, it has helped produce a pervasive anomie among Western Muslim communities. Having made Islam a stigma, ISIS and its fellow death cults are offering a way out. Or better a way into a death cult that will provide structure and meaning to the lives of Muslims.
The meaning is demented and the social organization is a partnership in crime, but at least it gets people noticed. For many people ignominy is better than anonymity.