In the midst of a civil war they emerged. Young and foolish, they manipulate scripture to justify their campaigns of terror. They take to the streets shouting religious platitudes while killing all in sight until they themselves are killed. With their draconian and merciless tactics, they see no middle ground--they demand you join them or face death.
Though these certainly could be, these are not descriptions of Daesh (aka ISIL/ISIS). These are tales from over 1000 years ago of the Kharijites, a fanatical sect that broke away from mainstream Islam following the first Islamic civil war.
A 14th century theologian reportedly remarked of them:
"If they ever gained strength, they would surely corrupt the whole of the Earth, Iraq and Shaam ... as far as they are concerned the people have caused corruption, a corruption that cannot be rectified except by mass killing."
The similarities between the Kharijites and Daesh are quite uncanny, and there's even been some speculation that there's a link between the two. But despite their shared views and vitriol, it's the differences that most interest me.
Even though they were clearly connected to Islam, it was generally accepted by contemporaries of the Kharijites that they had deviated from mainstream practice. And their influence was limited to a few specific regions. In fact, they were named "Kharijites" (which in Arabic loosely translates to one who "goes out" or "leaves") because their extreme positions had led to their ouster and excommunication from many communities. Compare that to Daesh, which has managed to brand itself with exactly the opposite sentiment vis-à-vis Islam--they aren't described as detractors or outsiders, they're known as the Islamic State.
That's not to say that people accept Daesh as mainstream. But the destruction caused by the group has once again brought the question of how much religion is to blame to the forefront of public dialogue. It would be incredulous to say that religion has nothing to do with Daesh. The group professes to be Islamic and many of its members are no doubt brainwashed to believe that they're fulfilling some sort of religious duty. But, as Reza Aslan has skillfully articulated in a clip making the rounds on the web (again), religion in the abstract is neither violent nor peaceful--people are. Daesh has been condemned by Islamic groups and Muslims globally, yet public opinion and popular media suggest that there's growing belief that Islam itself is the real problem.
So I ask, why was one group decidedly rejected from Islam while the other has deftly manufactured an inextricable link to it in the public eye? Why was one limited in their reach while the other has had more far reaching appeal? Why was one only ever able to incite insurrection and anarchy while the other has been able to form a proto-state?
The answers to these questions are hardly simple, but I want to offer two significant differences between the pre-modern Islamic world in which the Kharijites operated in and the current political landscape of the Middle East that Daesh has been a product of, that I think shed light on some of the answers. The first is that the Middle East was, in many critical ways, more politically stable 1000 years ago than it is today. There was rule of law, with a religio-legal class that existed independent and outside government, providing a check on the power of the ruler (see The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State by Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman for a well-curated history and analysis on this). So while a group of assassins or fanatics may have been able to incite terror and commit violence, they couldn't conquer large swaths of territory without a fight. Daesh, however, benefitted from the large void in governance left from the combination of failed (and deeply unpopular) authoritarian regimes and destabilizing military intervention. A small but dedicated few can commit horrific atrocities almost anywhere. But seldom can they grow to be large operations without political instability.
The second difference is in reach and appeal. The Kharijites weren't particularly successful at attracting followers--likely because violent coercion isn't a particularly successful strategy long-term. If mainstream Islam actually promoted such nonsense it would have never grown to be the faith of nearly 1 in 4 people worldwide.
But that fact seems lost on many, as 1 in 4 Americans now believe that Daesh represents true Islam. Why has Daesh been so successful in its propaganda war? Because Daesh and the ideology that underlies it, is well-funded. Really well-funded. Billions of dollars have been spent promoting Wahhabism, the Saudi-based puritanical religious movement founded in the 18th century by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab. Coincidentally (or not), Wahab had studied in Basra, which happened to be home to the most extreme subset of the Kharijites, and later in life began preaching a "return" to a more pure form of Islam that never quite existed. He adopted the hardline stance that those who disagreed with him and his views were no longer part of the faith. He forged an alliance with the Saud family that still lasts today, and promoted the political legitimacy of the House of Saud in exchange for state-endorsement of his re-invented version of Islam. And if that was the end of the story, then Wahhabism probably would have remained within the confines of the uncolonized, isolated and tribal-dominated Arabian Peninsula. But in the late 1930s, some of the largest oil-reserves in the world were discovered there. Since then, a considerable amount of money has been spent spreading the ideology that groups like Daesh feed on.
So is Daesh actually Islamic? If mainstream followers of the faith are any proxy, then the answer is a resounding no. But unfortunately, many see the hesitation to cast blame on Islam as a matter of political correctness. To me, it ought to be part of our strategy.
We can't focus on defeating just Daesh--we have to defeat what Daesh is all about. And doing so requires waging an intellectual war against them, not just a physical one. It requires Muslims demarcating a separation so clear and so distinct that no one can reasonably believe them to be part of the faith. Daesh craves religious legitimacy, but why should we give it?
Everyone agrees that Daesh must go. But making sure there's not another cancer that takes its place requires consideration of the political void that exists in the Middle East. It requires an understanding of what funds their twisted ideology. And most importantly, it requires the leadership, support and aid of other Muslims. So in addition to a military strategy, our propaganda war must be about destroying their ability to convince others of their religious authority. Daesh, as some have been doing, should be declared the Un-Islamic State. And we should endeavor to make it known to all that anyone who joins their ranks is not joining their religious brethren in a clash of civilizations. They're joining an assortment of outsiders, defectors and lost souls awaiting near certain death.