How Not To Understand ISIS -- Alireza Doostdar

Alireza Doostdar

October 2, 2014

The group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or simply the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, or IS) has attracted much attention in the past few months with its dramatic military gains in Syria and Iraq and with the recent U.S. decision to wage war against it.

As analysts are called to explain ISIS’ ambitions, its appeal, and its brutality, they often turn to an examination of what they consider to be its religious worldview—a combination of cosmological doctrines, eschatological beliefs, and civilizational notions—usually thought to be rooted in Salafi Islam.

The Salafi tradition is a modern reformist movement critical of what it considers to be misguided accretions to Islam—such as grave visitations, saint veneration, and dreaming practices. It calls for abolishing these and returning to the ways of the original followers of Prophet Muhammad, the “salaf” or predecessors. Critics of Salafism accuse its followers of “literalism,” “puritanism,” or of practicing a “harsh” or “rigid” form of Islam, but none of these terms is particularly accurate, especially given the diverse range of Salafi views and the different ways in which people adhere to them [1].

Salafism entered American consciousness after September 11, 2001, as Al-Qaeda leaders claim to follow this school. Ever since, it has become commonplace to demonize Salafism as the primary cause of Muslim violence, even though most Salafi Muslims show no enthusiasm for jihad and often eschew political involvement [2], and even though many Muslims who do engage in armed struggles are not Salafi.

ISIS is only the most recent group whose behavior is explained in terms of Salafism. What makes it unique is its aspiration to form immediately a caliphate or pan-Islamic state. Even so, analysts’ emphasis on Salafi thought and on the formation of a caliphate makes it easy to ignore some important aspects of the ISIS phenomenon. I would like to draw attention to some of these neglected issues and to offer a few cautions about attempts to understand ISIS purely in terms of doctrines. My argument is not that studying doctrines is useless; only that such study is limited in what it can explain.

I should begin by emphasizing that our knowledge of ISIS is extremely scant. We know close to nothing about ISIS’ social base. We know little about how it made its military gains, and even less about the nature of the coalitions into which it has entered with various groups—from other Islamist rebels in Syria to secular Ba‘athists in Iraq.

Sensationalist accounts of “shari‘a justice” notwithstanding, we do not have much information about how ISIS administers the lives of millions of people who reside in the territories it now controls.

Information about the militants who fight for ISIS is likewise scarce. Most of what we know is gleaned from recruitment videos and propaganda, not the most reliable sources. There is little on the backgrounds and motives of those who choose to join the group, least of all the non-Western recruits who form the bulk of ISIS’ fighting force. In the absence of this information, it is difficult to even say what ISIS is if we are to rely on anything beyond the group’s self-representations.
Let me emphasize this last point. What we call ISIS is more than just a militant cult. At present, ISIS controls a network of large population centers with millions of residents, in addition to oil resources, military bases, and roads [3]. It has to administer the affairs of the populations over whom it rules, and this has required compromise and coalition-building, not just brute force.

In Iraq, the group has had to work with secular Ba‘athists, former army officers, tribal councils, and various Sunni opposition groups, many of whose members are in administrative positions [4]. In Syria, it has likewise had to negotiate with other rebel factions as well as tribes, and relies on local (non-ISIS) technical expertise to manage services such as water, electricity, public health, and bakeries [5].

The vast majority of ISIS’ estimated 20,000-31,500 fighters are recent recruits and it is not clear whether and how its leadership maintains ideological consistency among them. All told, our sense of ISIS’ coherence as a caliphate with a clear chain of command, a solid organizational structure, and an all-encompassing ideology is a direct product of ISIS’ propaganda apparatus.

We see ISIS as a unitary entity because ISIS propagandists want us to see it that way. This is why it is problematic to rely on doctrines espoused in propaganda to explain ISIS’ behavior. Absent more evidence, we simply cannot know if the behaviors of the different parts of ISIS are expressions of these doctrines.

And yet, much of the analysis that we have available relies precisely on ISIS’ propaganda and doctrinal statements. What does this emphasis obscure? Here I will point out several of the issues I consider most important.

First, we lack a good grasp of the motivations of those who fight for or alongside ISIS, so we assume that they are motivated by Salafism and the desire to live in a caliphate. What information we do have comes almost entirely from ISIS propaganda and recruitment videos, a few interviews, and the occasional news report about a foreign fighter killed in battle or arrested before making it to his or her destination.

Focusing on doctrinal statements would have us homogenizing the entirety of ISIS’ military force as fighters motivated by an austere and virulent form of Salafi Islam. This is how ISIS wants us to see things, and it is often the view propagated by mainstream media.

For example, CNN recently quoted former Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Ruba‘i as claiming that in Mosul, ISIS was recruiting “Young Iraqis as young as 8 and 9 years old with AK-47s… and brainwashing with this evil ideology.” A Pentagon spokesman is quoted in the same story as saying that the U.S. was not intent on “simply… degrading and destroying… the 20,000 to 30,000 (ISIS fighters)... It’s about destroying their ideology” [6].

The problem with these statements is that they seem to assume that ISIS is a causa sui phenomenon that has suddenly materialized out of the thin ether of an evil doctrine. But ISIS emerged from the fires of war, occupation, killing, torture, and disenfranchisement. It did not need to sell its doctrine to win recruits. It needed above all to prove itself effective against its foes.

In Iraq, the cities that are now controlled by ISIS were some of those most resistant to American control during the occupation and most recalcitrant in the face of the newly established state. The destruction that these cities endured seems only to have hardened their residents’ defiance. Fallujah, the first Iraqi city to fall to ISIS, is famous for its devastation during U.S. counterinsurgency operations in 2004. It still struggles with a legacy of rising cancer rates, genetic mutations, birth defects, and disabilities blamed on depleted uranium in American munitions [7].

In Mosul, many of those who joined ISIS last summer had been previously imprisoned by the Iraqi government. They numbered in the thousands and included peaceful protesters who opposed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian rule [8].

The situation in Syria is not entirely different. ISIS emerged on the scene after a long period of strife that began with peaceful protests in 2011 and deteriorated into civil war after President Bashar al-Asad’s military and security forces repeatedly deployed brutal force against the opposition.

A large number of ISIS fighters in Syria (as in Iraq) are indeed foreign, but the majority are local recruits. The emphasis on ISIS’ Salafi worldview has tended to obscure the many grievances that may motivate fighters to join an increasingly efficient militant group that promises to vanquish their oppressors. Do they need to “convert” to ISIS’ worldview to fight with or for them? Do they need to aspire to a caliphate, as does ISIS leadership, in order to join forces with them? These questions are never asked, and “beliefs” are made simply to fill the explanatory void.

Second, the puzzle of foreign fighters is no less obscured by an overemphasis on the allure of Salafism. Again, the tendency here is to ignore any motivation except the overriding call of the Salafi jihadist who persuades converts of the truth of Islam and of their responsibility to wage war in defense of the Islamic community. In ISIS’ case, the aspiration to create a caliphate is added to the equation. Foreign fighters must be joining ISIS, we are told, because they desire to live in a pristine Muslim utopia. 

Some analysts allow the possibility that the jihadi convert is mentally unstable, a privilege usually reserved for white non-Muslim mass murderers. But rarely do they consider that sensibilities and motivations other than or in addition to mere commitment to Salafi Islam or a desire to live in a utopic state may guide their decisions.

For example, could it be that a sense of compassion for suffering fellow humans or of altruistic duty—sensibilities that are very much valued and cultivated in American society [9]—has prefigured their receptiveness to a call to arms to aid a people they consider to be oppressed?

The novelist and journalist Michael Muhammad Knight has recently argued that his own flirting with jihad in the Chechen war of the 1990s did not grow out of his then commitment to Salafi Islam, but from American values: “I had grown up in the Reagan ‘80s. I learned from G.I. Joe cartoons to (in the words of the theme song) ‘fight for freedom, wherever there’s trouble.’ I assumed that individuals had the right—and the duty—to intervene anywhere on the planet where they perceived threats to freedom, justice, and equality” [10].

Unfortunately, such first-person accounts that give us a view beyond recruiter-side doctrine are rare. The situation is even more difficult with non-Western foreign fighters, about whose conditions and motivations we know still less.

Finally, the belief that Salafi Islam is exceptional in its extremism has made it convenient to view ISIS brutality as likewise exceptional. We are variously told that ISIS’ killings—especially the beheadings of victims, most recently of foreign journalists—are medieval, barbaric, pornographic, and ends in themselves (rather than means to any end). This violence is apparently counterpoised against civilized, non-gratuitous, means-end rational forms of killing, such as those practiced by the American military.

The anthropologist Talal Asad has questioned the presumptions that guide these distinctions between what we might call “humanitarian” and “gratuitous” violence and cruelty [11]. It is not my intention to pursue that line of thought here. Instead, I want only to point out that once again, ISIS’ brutality did not emerge in a vacuum; rather, it is part of a whole ecology of cruelty spread out over more than a decade.

Perhaps a decapitation is more cruel than blowing a body to bits with a high-caliber machine gun, incinerating it with a remote-controlled drone, or burning and lacerating it with a barrel bomb. But even if we limit ourselves to close-up, low-technology brutality, ISIS beheadings are hardly out of place.

The earliest video-taped decapitation of an American citizen in Iraq was conducted by ISIS’ predecessors in 2004 in response, they claimed, to the photographed and video-recorded torture, rape, and murder of detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison [12]. In 2011, it emerged that some American soldiers in Afghanistan had been hunting civilians for sport and collecting their fingers and teeth as souvenirs [13]. In the sectarian bloodshed that engulfed Iraq after the U.S. invasion, beheadings by Sunni insurgents turned into a morbid form of reciprocity with Shi‘a militiamen who bore holes into their victims using power drills [14].

The point is not to identify when cruelty emerged in the long American-led Global War on Terrorism—only that the view that one particular religious doctrine is uniquely extremist will not help us understand the cycles of brutality that have fed on years of circulating narratives and images of torture, violent murder, and desecration. 


[1] For example, see Bonnefoy, Laurent. Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012; and Hirschkind, Charles. The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (Cultures of History). New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gilsinan, Kathy. “The Many Ways to Map the Islamic ‘State’.” The Atlantic. August 27, 2014.

[4] Sayigh, Yezid. “ISIS: Global Islamic Caliphate or Islamic Mini-State in Iraq?” Carnegie Middle East Center, July 24, 2014. (Originally published in Arabic in Al-Hayat).

[5] Caris, Charles C. and Samuel Reynolds. “ISIS Governance in Syria.” Middle East Security Report.

[6] Karadsheh, Jomana, Jim Sciutto, and Laura Smith-Spark. “How foreign fighters are swelling ISIS ranks in startling numbers.” CNN, September 14, 2014.

[7] Dewachi, Omar. “The Toxicity of Everyday Survival in Iraq.” Jadaliyya, August 13, 2013.

[8] “Inside Mosul: Why Iraqis are celebrating Islamic extremists’ takeover of their city.”Niqash, June 12, 2014.

[9] Graeber, David. “Army of Altruists.” Harper’s Magazine, January 2007.

[10] Knight, Michael Muhammad. “I understand why Westerners are joining jihadi movements like ISIS. I was almost one of them.” Washington Post, September 3, 2014. 

[11] Asad, Talal. “Reflections on Violence, Law, and Humanitarianism.” Critical Inquiry. Accessed September 30, 2014.

[12] Nichols, Bill. “Video shows beheading of American captive.” USA Today,November 5, 2004.

[13] Boal, Mark. “The Kill Team: How U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan murdered innocent civilians.” Rolling Stone, March 27, 2011.

[14] Democracy Now! “Nir Rosen on “Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World.” November 10, 2010.

Further Reading:

Armstrong, Karen. “The Myth of Religious Violence.” The Guardian, September 25, 2014.

Haddad, Bassam and Basileus Zeno. “ISIS in the News: Extensive Media Roundup (August-September 2014).” Jadaliyya, September 26, 2014.

Image: Flag of ISIS, ronniechua /

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4a81faaf-f95a-4c59-b73c-78841bcf0b01.jpgAuthor, Alireza Doostdar, is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and the Anthropology of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His upcoming book, The Experimenters: Science, Skepticism, and the Supernatural in Iran, explores religious experimentation among Iranians.


ac_110325_151102_1489c9b397c70eff40990f.Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.


See all articles by Alireza Doostdar