Certainly, the end of this year’s Ramadan will go down as one of the century’s bloodiest. First Istanbul; then, Dhaka, rounded off by Baghdad, Qatif, Medina, and Jeddah. It’s not wholly clear just how much the Islamic State controlled or directed these attacks, or merely inspired them, but owing to their scale, scope, and timing, they are worth examining in the wider context of the geopolitical view of Sunni supremacist terrorism.
Thus we must embark upon the road of understanding, of causation and explanation, to pinpoint sources and posit solutions. We needn’t empathize with the madness, only know that it has its own form of rationality it is playing by.
So rule number 1: remember that Islam is not a thing.
Not in the physical sense, anyway. It is an idea held together by a collection of human brains and human-produced texts. (Look aside if the Qu’ran is the literal word of God; I think we can all agree my Barnes and Noble Qu’ran was printed by a machine, which was built by some person somewhere.) The texts are meant to bring consistency to the many human brains, which are inherently inconsistent.
But the texts are also vast: beyond the Qu’ran itself lay the Sunni hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, compiled by various writers over the centuries. There is also the sunna, or way of the Prophet, again compiled over time by many different people. Memorizing the Qu’ran itself is well-neigh impossible for most people, let alone having down pat the hadith and sunna.
This produces remarkable levels of inconsistency for something that is supposed to be absolute. Muslims, then, are people who take whichever parts of these texts they can understand or need and use them to guide or dictate their behavior. But no single Muslim is capable of behaving in perfect accordance with this multitude of texts; they contradict one another readily enough to make that impossible.
Thus the go-to of “blame Islam” is a silver bullet that will slay no monsters. Much as we do not fundamentally understand our relatively simply biologies enough to halt cancer, we are automatically at a loss to understand how the brains of billions interact with a multitude of texts spread out over centuries, dispersed unevenly, and utilized by various elites for differing schemes.
But we can narrow down the forces that bring people to use only the most violent bits of their texts to justify their most violent thoughts.
So first thing’s first: this all seems to be overwhelmingly the work of Sunni supremacists, which is a much better definition than “terrorists.”
Terrorism is hard to pin down; the semantic back and forth can readily ruin your evening with an otherwise pleasant friend.
Sunni supremacism is much narrower and better defined. Much as we almost instinctively know what a white supremacist wants and does, to define these bombings as the work of Sunni supremacists helps us know these were the actions of folks seeking very defined outcomes.
There is a Shi’a supremacist movement, as well, centered in Iran, but it is incredibly different from Sunni supremacism. Shi’a supremacism’s hayday was the 1980s, when old men could pick and choose their favorite texts to help them convince kids to run across minefields for tank offensives in the Iran-Iraq War. But it was also attached to a state, which wanted above all things to survive. When the extremist tactics and shrill cries of Shi’a supremacism didn’t pay geopolitical dividends, it was quietly pushed onto the back burner of the Iranian state.
This isn’t to say there aren’t still something akin to mad mullahs who would like to nuke Washington D.C. – surely there must be at least one skulking about Iran. The difference is the Iranian state would never countenance their strategy, knowing that to nuke America is to nuke Iran just as much. All of our societies have radicals; it falls to our states to muzzle and control them in whatever ways make sense. Since Shi’a supremacism has a state, those who indulge in it can never stray too far from the needs of Iran.
But Sunni supremacism does not have a state – not in the traditional sense, anyway. There is no one to muzzle the bites of rabid dogs.
And the lack of a Sunni supremacist state, as well as functioning Sunni states at all, helps us understand where the recruits come from.
Consider the Sunni scorecard: Iraq is a divided mess, Libya is shattered, Jordan wobbles, Saudi Arabia decays, and Yemen smolders. Sunni supremacism as exemplified by al-Qaeda and Qutbism has been around a long, long time, but only with the litany of failed or nearly failed states has it managed to find people who are ignorant, desperate, or angry enough to make up foot soldiers.
That ignorance is important: broken states do not run schools, police neighborhoods, or generally take part in socializing people. This allows the loudest people to seem the most genuine, or at the very least the most in charge. You know this phenomenon very well in your own terms: remember back to the last time you were with a large group of strangers and some loudmouth took charge. Only after repeated failures would you be able to ascertain that the loudmouth was merely loud rather than competent.
Within even the Islamic State’s territories, millions of brains are rushing about, trying to survive, racing from one situation to the next, encountering the relatively organized thoughts of the Islamic State that are stark contrasts to the chaos of other factions. Wild promises are made: Heaven, virgins, slaves, wealth, and power. Some of those, like Heaven, are wholly unprovable: others take time to bear out. But they still motivate a hungry man to grab a bomb or a rifle.
Were there a properly Sunni supremacist state, recognized on the map, it would channel much of that energy into survival. It would eventually moderate because Sunni supremacism is hardly the geopolitical roadmap to follow in the 21st century.
But there is no true state, just the Islamic State’s Toyota militia. And that helps us understand why it keeps acting so irrationally.
For the Islamic State’s elites are motivated by two things: their ideal of Heaven, and their ideal of power.
Doubtless, the two notions mix up deeply within their minds: the closer they are to Heaven, the most powerful they must feel. We know fully what they think Heaven is: it is a Sunni place in the strictest sense, populated only by those who followed the texts the way they did. It is a place that has consigned most of humanity to Hell; this again doubtless fuels their sense of Earthly power, much like a little kid knowing their family is the only family at school going to Disneyland that summer can make them insufferable.
But before arriving at Heaven, they indulge upon the very human delights of power and control. They are stymied by the lack of power: they don’t even command the influence of the shattered states in Damascus and Baghdad, which still have arms suppliers and foreign allies. The elites of Sunni supremacism must instead make do by expressing their power through whatever poor means they have: suicide bombers are the obvious favorite. Rarely do these elites risk themselves; why would they, when they can get dumb kids to do it for them?
Recent battlefield defeats at Fallujah and elsewhere have doubtless fueled the urgency amongst the Sunni supremacist elite to strike back. Baghdad’s butchery was doubtless retaliation for just that; yet we don’t fully know how directed the attackers of Dhaka or Istanbul were by Raqqa.
So if the Islamic State’s elites did not push those young men to do what they did, what did?
Heaven and power, but on smaller scales.
These are folks who have interpreted their texts to self-service themselves. They convince themselves they are special by building a version of Heaven that will forever remain unprovable: they then indulge upon the power trip of organizing and carrying out violence on the weak. It is precisely the same motivations as the elite, with the difference being these foot soldiers cannot be the elite, and must content themselves with wholesale butchery rather than strategy.
They are not always poor, or wholly uneducated; what unifies them is that their conviction Heaven is only for Sunnis and their forlorn belief that they can exercise power only through dramatic displays of mass violence. They don’t have to live in dictatorships to conclude the latter; Bangladesh is a creaking, but functional, democracy, as is Tunisia, sight of several murderous horrors. They merely need to lack the controls of a Sunni supremacist state and the status that living in such a state would give them; they do not feel special, and so they make themselves as special as they have means.
And there is something we can do about this, uncomfortable though it may be.
Sunni supremacism must be destroyed through a combination of battlefield and ideological victories. The battlefield part is easy; the latter involves breaking down doctrine that is so temptingly self-serving. Already that is happening: in the wake of attacks on the Prophet Mohammed’s tomb in Saudi Arabia, many Sunnis realize that there are texts they must repudiate if they are to combat the Islamic State. This is a small first step, and it will require painful self-examination of long-held beliefs, misinterpretations, and widely held assumptions. It cannot be readily carried out by those beyond the Sunni community: in truth, there are many in the Sunni community who themselves will lack the power to destroy IS thought.
First and foremost will be abandoning the idea that Saudi Wahhabism is an ideal form of Islam: it has brought little but heartache wherever it takes root. Second will be untangling the myriad of distortions caused by colonialism, the Arab-Israeli wars, the collapse of Arab nationalism, and the American War on Terror. In the wake of a century of calamity, it is all too tempting for the prideful to hold onto whatever apparently indigenous thought spits in the face of the Middle East’s conquerors. Yet repeated retaliations and provocations have hardly accomplished anything but new cycles of war, with outcomes rooted in geopolitical conditions that dictate the Middle East’s peoples will always pay the highest price.
Such processes must be undergone before Ramadan can end without bloodshed. They are in motion now; time will tell how long they will take to unfold.