“…much remains unclear about al-Baghdadi’s background, but what we do know is this: the environment in which he grew up during his formative years was one of religious resurgence, increasing regime brutality and corruption, ruinous Western-backed sanctions and airstrikes, and extremist proselytisation. All, of course, before the invasion of 2003…”
For seasoned ISIS watchers, the smorgasbord of popular perspectives – ranging from antagonist to protagonist, apologist and detractor – will be familiar. As per one phalanx of opinion, explaining the Islamic State requires one to look no further than Islam itself. Interestingly, this group subsumes both ISIS fanboys and girls, as well as faith opponents and atheists – for them all, Islam is a political philosophy that abhors pluralism, and will, when the environment favours it, exploit the violence hardwired into its DNA to annihilate the same. (Sam Harris, the American philosopher and neuroscientist, has described Islam as ‘the motherlode of bad ideas’).
In the opposing corner are others, principally Muslims, who simply cannot square the horror of the ISIS show with the faith they live and breathe. For them, Islamic extremism is a function of decades of Western intervention: from colonialism through to the puppet-regimes that followed, an unending series of Western-led or Western-backed war, and the deliberate ruination of moderately successful nation-states.
Social media then provides the battleground for armchair General’s to cross swords – or rather, to exchange a few insults before going back to their respective trenches. Stalemate…
To move forward, and thereby explore more nuanced theories, one requires someone whose schooling in the subject goes beyond the Internet, and who expounds his theory with measured calm. Cue Jason Burke, who for almost two decades has reported on Islamic militancy throughout the Middle East and South Asia. The New Threat from Islamic Militancy is Burke’s fourth book, and seeks to explain the phenomenon as a whole, starting from its modern day roots – “…from the demographic changes that destabilised the Muslim world in the 1960s and 70s, to the rise of three particularly influential ideologues, and the revolutionary and religious models of thought that inspired them…” And this he duly does, managing a deep-dive account without sacrificing momentum, and even challenging the reader with sensational (but not shrill) perspectives:
“The Islamic State’s vision of ‘pop-up caliphates’ scattered across continents but all loyal to a single leader and a single political entity, appears much more ‘modern’ than the increasingly outdated idea that states are defined by the possession of contiguous territory.”
The macro-level account, taking in the origins of global jihad, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, is followed by Burke’s micro-level analysis of recent, individual actors – Mohamed Merah, the French-Moroccan gunman who went on a shooting spree in a Jewish school in 2012, and the Tsarnaev brothers, better known as perpetrators of the Patriots’ Day marathon bombing in Boston, Massachusetts, in 2013. It is here, as Burke unpicks a litany of micro failures in their lives, that one gets a handle on how a person morphs from “…joyriding in stolen cars, girls, clubbing, horror films, video games and hip hop…”, to being lured by extremist Islam and finally, killing. For perhaps the first time, the individual currents that merged, forming a perfect storm, are identified – and it makes for utterly gripping reading.
Whilst Burke’s credentials in the subject are unimpeachable, that does not make his account immune to criticism. But despite the book being aimed at a Western, implicitly non-Muslim audience, I suggest that all would do well to read this book first, pause, take a breath, and then opine.
Any Cop?: Without doubt, a must-read for anyone wanting to understand Islamic militancy, how it took root and grew, and where it may go from here.