At a Glance
What is the Ideology Underpinning ISIS?
29 Jun 2015
As consensus grows behind the need for an approach to ISIS that addresses its appeal as well as its military capability, Milo Comerford explores the group's ideological framework.
David Cameron spoke this week about the importance of tackling the appeal of ISIS by confronting an "ideology [that] stems from an extremist narrative which hijacks the religion of Islam." But what exactly is this ideology, and how is it used to manipulate young people into travelling to Iraq and Syria or committing atrocities in their home countries?
While al-Qaeda claims to be fighting for the establishment of an Islamic State, ISIS purports to be one. The declaration of a caliphate across Iraq and Syria by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in June 2014 demanded the universal allegiance of the entire ummah (global Muslim community), and presented the creation of the caliphate as a religious obligation. ISIS rejects the concept of the nation state, and presents nationalism (alongside democracy and secularism) as 'idolatry.'
ISIS' interpretation of religion is the key unifying force for its caliphate, which is presented as a positive, constructive and expansionist project. The group's English-language propaganda magazine, Dabiq, revels in the international constituency of fighters that ISIS have attracted, including "Caucasian, Indian, Chinese, Shami, Iraqi... American, French, German, and Australian."
ISIS propaganda cultivates an 'us or them' narrative.
ISIS is determined to divide the world into two camps, the Dar al-Harb (Abode of War) and Dar al-Islam (Abode of Peace), in an attempt to cultivate an 'us or them' narrative. This allows ISIS to frame Western involvement in the conflict in Iraq and Syria as a campaign "only against you and against your religion."
ISIS targets this rhetoric at what the group describe as the "endangered grayzone," the vast majority of Muslims who reject ISIS and its 'caliphate.' It derives from the Salafi ideology of "al-wala wal-bara," loyalty (to everything considered Islamic) and disavowal (of everything not considered Islamic).
In its propaganda, ISIS emphasises two moral duties above all else, hijra (migration to the caliphate) and jihad (which it defines exclusively as violent struggle). These prongs of religious obligation are also the ones essential to the future success of ISIS' caliphate project.
The group's emphasis on migration is intended to marshal support for people to lend their concrete backing to the ISIS project: although ISIS commends those who commit atrocities in their own countries, it is mainly focused on attracting fighters, but also doctors, teachers and engineers, to its 'state.'
ISIS is determined to present Islam as a "religion of war not peace".
Violent jihad is presented as the only legitimate demonstration of true faith, with ISIS emphasising its claims in Dabiq, that Islam is a "religion of war not peace," and that the authority of the 'caliph' means the jihad is legitimate. The group's spokesman recently singled out the holy month of Ramadan to be a time for violent struggle.
ISIS is determined to convey itself as a religiously legitimate actor. It portrays itself as a truer and more pious defender of Islam than its rivals, particularly where other jihadi groups challenge ISIS' legitimacy. In its competition with the Taliban over who 'owns' the Afghan jihad, ISIS seeks to show the Taliban as religiously 'deviant.'
The group is also at its most defensive when under attack from religious authorities; in a passage in its magazine it produced no less than five scriptural references to the acceptability of using fire in warfare, after being universally criticised, including by jihadi ideologues, for burning alive the Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh in February.
ISIS ideology is simultaneously constructive and destructive. As well as building a state, ISIS presents itself as an apocalyptic project, identifying greater Syria (or al-Sham) as the location of the final war before the day of judgement. 'End times' language from the Hadith literature (sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed) permeates ISIS' messaging; that of great battles involving 'Rome,' and 'Constantinople.' The name of its magazine, Dabiq, is itself a reference to the supposed location of one of the great battles of the end times, a small town near Aleppo.
This is one of the most powerful aspects of ISIS' ideology, that the final battle between good and evil is here, and that if you want to be part of it, and are a true believer, you must come and join the project.