Confronting ISIS Has No Military Solution

History teaches us that military attacks and repression cannot eliminate ideas, particularly religious ones, from any society.
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Various groups linked to al-Qaeda, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, and in particular the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in both Iraq and Syria, are posing serious threats to peace and stability of the world. In his speech of September 15 to the nation, President Obama announced that the United States has formed a coalition with several other nations in order to contain and eventually destroy ISIS. He declared that his strategy will be similar to the "successful" U.S. strategy in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere where the U.S. has been using air power and drones to attack terrorist groups.

But, the fact is what the president claims to be a "successful strategy" has not succeeded in uprooting its targets. To the contrary, since 2009 the terrorist groups in many countries of the Middle East and North and West Africa have grown considerably. The reason for their growth is multifold.

One is that they claim to be Islamic forces and, thus, not only referring to them as un-Islamic does not discredit them, but also makes them attractive to some Muslim masses. The second reason is that they represent an interpretation of the Islamic teachings that have not been paid enough attention to. The third, and perhaps the most important, reason is that there exists a social-economic context that provides the necessary background for the birth and growth of such extremist groups. Even the President acknowledged in his speech that such terrorist groups exploit the dissatisfaction of the masses to advance their agenda.

Although it may be a wise policy to some not to refer to such terrorist groups as Islamic in order to avoid offending Muslim masses, but the fact is that these groups are Islamic and do define themselves in the context of a certain brand of Islam. To see this, we must first recognize that there are at least three Islamic schools of thought, namely, the traditional, the fundamentalist, and the modern schools, just as we also have various interpretations of the teachings of Judaism and Christianity. The al-Qaeda type groups belong to the fundamentalist school. But, despite this, Islamic fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon for the following reasons.

First, it has emerged in the modern era. Second, it utilizes modern technology, such as the internet to propagate and espouse its ideas. Third, it possesses modern organization and social networks through the region in which it is active. Fourth, it pursues establishment of a government and an Islamic state, both of which are modern concepts that did not exist in the medieval era.

Islamic fundamentalism claims that Islam -- the Holly Quran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad -- obliges Muslims to form an Islamic government. So long as Muslim masses suffer at the hands of corrupt and secular dictatorships that are supported by the West, such a claim resonates with a significant fraction of the Muslims. As Martin E. Marty explains in his fine article on fundamentalism as a social phenomenon, fundamentalist activity always occurs as a reaction to what is happening in a society and by returning to the past. Thus, as a modern ideology, Islamic fundamentalism is against modern social concepts such as democracy, respect for human rights, secularism, and feminism, because it aspires to return the society to a "golden era."

This Islamic school of thought and its manifestations cannot be eliminated by military means. One must confront its main pillar, namely, the idea that it is the duty of the Muslim masses to set up an Islamic state or caliphate. Such a claim has no credible roots in the Quran and Islamic traditions. While it is true that, similar to non-Muslims, Muslims must also have governments, the Quran has left the task for the collective wisdom of the masses and local and national councils to form a government.

Sociologists believe that modern governments emerged sometime between the 12th and 18th centuries. Islam was born in the 7th century in an Arab community in which there was no government. It was simply a tribal society. Thus, there is no model of Islamic government to refer or return to.

In his book, Fundamentalism Observed, Marty explains that the fundamentalists select certain aspects of the past in order to construct their own identity and then build defensive walls around it. The only part of the Islam of the 7th century that has any utility to the fundamentalists is Feqh, or the Quran's teachings, although the Orientalists have played an important role in reducing Islam to its Feqh. But, even then, only one out of every twelve verses of the Quran is about the Feqh, and many of them are about individual tasks and worshiping of God. In addition, jihad has been mentioned only 32 times in the Quran and it is about defending Muslims, not attacking others. The Prophet Muhammad ratified and signed many of the teachings of Judaism and inserted them in the Quran. Moreover, such concepts as capital punishment by stoning, executing the apostates, and similar teachings that exist in the Torah have no place in the Quran.

But, even if all of the about 500 verses of the Quran that are about Feqh were about the social problems, they could not form the basis for establishing an Islamic government. A modern national government needs thousands of laws, about which the Quran and other religious books are silent. Forming a government and governing a society is not just about punishing offenders. Even then, the punishments described in the Quran are not meant to be of the permanent type, rather they were meant for the simple communities of the 7th century, not the current complex societies.

Those Muslims that have been trying to present modern interpretations of the Islamic teachings have paid attentions to such facts, which explains why their version of Islam is completely compatible with democracy and respect for human rights. Modern Islam is a secular Islam; that is, it believes in the separation of the mosque and the state. It is only this version of Islam that is capable of taking on the fundamentalist Islam, and rejects the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and its Arab allies of the Persian Gulf as Islamic governments.

But, the competition between the two Islams takes place in societies whose corrupt and dictatorial governments are supported by the West led by the United States. It is the fundamentalist Islam that benefits from such circumstances and "wins" the competition. The erosion of the traditional Muslim societies, failure of the nationalists, who have always been opposed by the West, and the secular forces in modernizing the society and its political structure, lack of adequate economic growth, and the huge gap between the rich and the poor have all been beneficial to the fundamentalists, transforming them into an alternative to the present governments and ruling elites.

Consider Egypt as an example. For six decades the Egyptian army violently cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups, and has also controlled the economy to a large extent; seehere,here, and here. And, since the 1970s Egypt has been an ally of the United States, receiving considerable economic and military aid from the U.S. But, when the first democratic elections were held in Egypt in 2012, it was the Islamic groups that won the elections. After only one year, the army intervened again and overthrew the democratically-elected government of President Mohammed Morsi. Thousands of people were killed, which have been calledcrimes against humanity and the worst massacre of the people in contemporary Egypt by credible human rights organizations. After an initial hesitation, the U.S. has supported the Egyptian coup regime. This will only benefit the extremist groups.

History teaches us that military attacks and repression cannot eliminate ideas, particularly religious ones, from any society. Discrimination, humiliation, dictatorship and corruption in Muslim countries whose governments are perceived, correctly or incorrectly, as puppets of the West by their people have made the fundamentalist an alternative to the status quo.

In a part of the world in which the daily lives of millions of ordinary people have become insecure and disrupted, resorting to the rigid and "secure" fundamentalism provides a type of psychological breathing space for the masses, and resorting to violence is a way of escaping humiliation. So long as such issues are not addressed, fundamentalism will not only survive, but also thrive. Confronting it has no military solution.

This article was translated by Ali N. Babaei.