The Mess in Mesopotamia

28 February 2015


Islamic state territory

Introduction: A Failed Region

What do you get when you cluster several failed nation-states together in a single geographical region? You get a failed region, and what we see today in Mesopotamia and the Levant is a failed region catastrophically failing. This is regionalism gone horribly wrong. Even by the self-serving standards of the international nation-state system, the several regimes of the region are not only failing to provide basic services for their respective peoples, but are manifestly making life much worse and more difficult for the unfortunates resident in the region.

My previous post on Islamic State, The Philosophical Basis of Islamic State, was purely analysis; I made no recommendations or policy prescriptions. Here I am going to shift gears and consider how the present violence in the region will ultimately be reduced through some settlement to the ongoing conflict. The level of violence in the region is not now compatible with civil society, and the longer this level of violence continues, the greater the breakdown of institutions on the ground. The sooner the violence is reduced, institutions still in existence may recover. If violence persists, all functioning institutions may disappear and new institutions will have to be established in their place, even if they are former institutions resurrected.

Violence is destabilizing; insurgencies and political movements know this (this knowledge is a major source of revolutionary violence), and so they foment violence as a tactic to destabilize the established order so that they can insert themselves in addition to or in place of that order. But implicit in this tactic is that, once a new political accommodation is found, violence will subside and civil society will be able to return to some semblance of normality, perhaps on a different basis (presumably the basis preferred by those who instigated the violence). Islamic State is no exception to this time-honored political calculation, despite its apocalyptic pretensions. They seek to eliminate the nation-states of the region and to assert the control of the Islamic State caliphate in place of these nation-states. Once the work of replacement is completed (if it is completed), civil society will proceed under principles of Islamic law as recognized by Islamic State. The point here is simply that, one way or another, the unsustainable levels of violence will recede, and the only question is the mechanism by which the reduction in violence takes place, and whether it leaves in its wake a stable civil society or an unstable civil society that will give way to further violence.

This fantasy map for a future Islamic State resembles of fantasy maps of Akhand Bharat and Gazwa-e-Hind I have previously discussed; it also reveals something of the secular ambitions of Islamic State sympathizers, apart from their eschatological expectations.

This fantasy map for a future Islamic State resembles of fantasy maps of Akhand Bharat and Gazwa-e-Hind I have previously discussed; it also reveals something of the secular ambitions of Islamic State sympathizers, apart from their eschatological expectations.

The Options for Islamic State

After I wrote ISIS and Sykes-Picot I must admit that I was quite surprised that Islamic State declared the reestablishment of the caliphate. The stakes are high. If ISIS proclaims itself to be the caliphate and then fails ignominiously, this compromises any future attempt to reestablish the caliphate (i.e., another subsequent caliphate wouldn’t be taken seriously, and the caliphate is an institution that must command respect or it is better off defunct). If, however, ISIS can secure enough territory to keep its caliphate intact for some period of time, the longer it endures the greater legitimacy it will have.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. Islamic State has been called the best funded terrorist organization ever in existence. This may be overstating the case — organized insurgencies in the Golden Triangle that took control of the opium trade, and non-state groups in Andean South America that monopolized cocaine trafficking, both commanded serious financial resources — but even to be among the most well-funded of non-state entities is a significant accomplishment. If ISIS can continue the flow of money and find ways to increase its funding as it increases its de facto territory, this will go a long way toward securing a longer term future for the group.

On the surface, it would seem that the prospects of ISIS are grim, and that the group must almost certainly be destroyed, root and branch, as long as their horrific tactics alienate world opinion so that major powers (like the US) have the political cover to intervene with the support of regional powers. If a nation-state with the resources of the US decides that your group should be destroyed, then you really don’t have much of a chance. Under conditions of strong motive and weak constraints, the US can act with impunity at any place on the planet. However, ideal conditions of motive and constraint rarely obtain in the messy reality of politics and diplomacy.

ISIS is in the classic position of an insurgency, except that it has ambitions to rule territory distinct from any contemporary nation-state. Therefore it cannot simply replace the leadership of some extant nation-state; in order to achieve success on its own terms it must establish control over some territory that can with some credibility be called a caliphate, to which sympathetic Muslims can travel to join the cause. Situated as they are at present, they are in a geographical position to easily draw off the disaffected youth of six neighboring states, and the truly determined will find a way to join the cause regardless of geographical obstacles (individuals from all over the world have already, in fact, made their way to Islamic State). As long as this flow of fighters into Islamic State continues, the group can expand its ability to project power.

Inflows of money and fighters have made ISIS what it is today. Can it maintain or expanded its successes to date? What strategy could ISIS pursue in order to continue in existence as a viable political entity and thereby the gain credibility for the caliphate it has declared? There seems to be only a single viable course of action, and that would be to so divide regional powers so as to paralyze any coalition action against ISIS. If local powers are sufficiently paralyzed, larger powers would be hesitant to commit sufficient forces, or to unilaterally seek the destruction of ISIS. This paralysis is already one of the factors that has allowed ISIS to seize and to hold territory.

As it turns out, it is not terribly difficult to divide opinion and to politically paralyze those regional nation-states that a power like the US would require as cover for offensive action necessary for the attainment of decisive objectives. It has been pointed out by many commentators that the global Islamic community (i.e., the Ummah) is quick to jump on perceived slights to their faith from non-Muslims, but when it comes to atrocities perpetrated by Muslims (as those being committed now by Islamic State as I write this) there is a preternatural silence. And even when the occasional Islamic nation-state makes an official condemnation of ISIS and their like, there still is no broad groundswell of outrage from the Ummah. There are theological reasons for this.

Islam has never had a top-down institutional organization of the kind that is commonplace in Christianity. As a result there has always been a tension in issues of governance of the Ummah. This is particularly apparent when it comes to declaring anything unislamic (takfir). If you wrongly denounce another Muslim as being non-Muslim in beliefs or practices, you are yourself non-Muslim. To be non-Muslim fallen from the true faith is to be an apostate, and the punishment for apostasy is death. Thus an outcry against Islamic State and its brutality would risk the standing of those protesting the beliefs and practices of Islamic State. As Islamic State appears to have a literal reading of the relevant texts on its side, few are ready to meet them in theological debate.

As neighboring regimes are kept off-balance by internal conflict, and no great power is willing to intervene regionally for this reason, ISIS can continue to expand its influence into the vacuum of destabilized and paralyzed regimes, making good on its commitment of offensive jihad.


The Options for Dar al-Harb

The appeal of ISIS is powerful, but also limited. If it demonstrated a resounding series of successes, it would expand its appeal and draw in more who want to believe its message but don’t quite dare to believe it yet. If ISIS can be contained, however, it will not be seen as moving from one success to another, the inflow of excited would-be jihadis will slow to a small trickle, and to the extent that the legitimacy of ISIS is predicated upon expansion through offensive jihad, its legitimacy would be called into question.

If ISIS is to be contained, and its prophetic mission thereby called into question as it accepts de facto borders between itself and surrounding nation-states, it must be contained by local forces with an ongoing interest in policing these borders. Anything achieved by outsiders who will eventually pull out and go home will necessarily be ephemeral, and ISIS can resume offensive Jihad after any pull out, legitimizing any pause in operations as a temporary truce (the latter acceptable according to the prophetic methodology). Thus the containment of ISIS must not be by the US, or NATO, or Europe, or even Russian or Chinese assistance to any one of the warring parties; containment must be effected by those who live in the region and who will remain in the region.

There is a way to do this, but this way is closed to the western powers for political reasons. The one coherent, workable strategy for Mesopotamia and the Levant that would have any chance of success — and by “success” I mean a long term reduction in violence and the establishment of a regional order that will allow the majority of individuals to live out their lives in relative safety and security — is, unfortunately, politically impossible… impossible, at least, for the US, and only nearly impossible for the rest of the world — and cannot be implemented for political reasons. There are, of course, many other strategies as well, but these other strategies are either incoherent, unworkable, or unlikely to issue in success (as defined above).

Because the US and its allies are not going to throw their resources behind Assad in order to resurrect Syria as an Alawite-minority-dominated, Sunni majority dictatorship, and because the other forces that have fought against Assad have proved themselves to be far less capable than ISIS, a workable strategy would need to employ proxies in the region that are militarily capable. And there are militarily capable forces in the regions: the Kurds and Iran and Iranian proxies. If support and materiel were funneled to the Kurds and to Iranian proxies, it would be possible not only to defeat ISIS on the ground, but also to change the political conditions in the region that allowed for the rise of ISIS.

There are problems with this, of course, The Kurds want their own nation-state, and a well armed, supplied and financed Kurdish Peshmerga would take for itself a nation-state carved out of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, and in so doing to incur the hatred of all of these nation-states, who are jealous of their territory and who are not about to give up any of it for a homeland for the Kurds. Nevertheless, the Kurds have proved that they can fight and they can organize under adverse conditions.

Another problem is that Iran and Iranian proxies, which have also, like the Kurds, proved their mettle, are supporters of Assad. While this support for Assad has a long history, it is primarily a function of Syria’s ruling clique being Alawite, which is a small offshoot of Shia Islam, and I suspect that a deal could be struck that removed Assad from power while leaving the ruling clique of some rump Syria (dominated by Iran) in the hands of the Alawites. Such a deal would actually be facilitated by the credibility that Iran and its proxies would have in dealing with Assad and his supporters.

Once again I must assure the reader that I am under no illusion that the above scenario will take place, I only say that it is coherent and could be formulated into clear military objectives. There is already a certain measure of support being shown for the Kurds, and despite the apparent political impossibility, there is an article on Foreign Policy’s website, Washington’s Uneasy Partnership With Tehran Now Extends to Yemen by Seán D. Naylor, that discusses de facto US-Iranian cooperation, so, far from being unimaginable, such cooperation is already a fait accompli, and stunts like the IRGC blowing up a mock-up of a US aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz is merely a matter of placating domestic opinion so that no one thinks the regime has gone soft on the Great Satan.

These efforts, however, are much too small to contain what Islamic State has already become. A strategy that had a hope of success would have to be robust; instead of debating whether only non-lethal aid would be sent to the Kurds, the Kurds should receive massive support, and no complaints should be made when they assert territorial control over an independent Kurdistan with the assistance they were given. The geopolitical obsession with retaining current borders — itself an ideological outgrowth of the ossified international system of nation-states — prevents this kind of support from practical realization.

Since we can predict with confidence that the one chance for a sane stability in the region (not stability deriving from a xenophobic and genocidal regime imposing a Pax Islamica) will not be pursued, there is the question of the second best strategy. The second best strategy would be a decapitation strike against the apex leadership of Islamic State, and especially Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. I understand that there have been airstrikes that have killed several prominent leaders of IS; these efforts to date have been as ineffectual as support for anti-ISIS forces in the region. by a decapitation strike I don’t mean a rain of cruise missiles, which is the nation-state equivalent of “spray and pray.” I mean two dozen or more stealth helicopters with special forces commandos coming down on top of the apex leadership of ISIS and capturing or killing that leadership. Knowing the ISIS obsession with Dabiq as the location for an apocalyptic battle, it would be no great difficulty to convincingly feint in the direction of Dabiq long enough to draw fighters away from other duties and so to leave the leadership relatively exposed.

Given the commando resources available to the US, it would be entirely within the capacity of US special forces to capture or to kill al-Baghdadi even in the midst of Islamic State territory. The mission would have to be quite large — much larger than the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden — and it would entail casualties. Such an operation would likely result in dozens of US casualties and perhaps hundreds of IS casualties, but successfully executed the apex leadership of IS could be captured or killed, and this might be a sufficient blow against the nascent regime to scatter those who remain behind. (Follow-on strikes could continue the dispersion of remaining leaders and prevent them from regrouping.) It would also be the occasion for much hand-wringing on the part of the international community and protests by nation-states who feel they have a stake in the conflict. It would, however, be a decisive strike and a coherent strategy.

This second option is not much more likely than the first, though it can at least be said that it is not politically impossible. At same time, its greater political feasibility is balanced against its absence of an endgame that would allow the region to transition toward a sustainable and less violent order in the near future. The elimination of ISIS is a mere tactic to stabilize the region; regional stability requires a regional strategy, and not a single operation.

dar al harb dar al islam

Dar al-Islam vs. Dar al-Harb

Perhaps it is a universal truth that all civil wars produce civil atrocities on an unprecedented scale. The civil war within Islam, i.e., the civil war of the Ummah, like the civil war within Christendom in the 17th century, will be no exception. Whatever side in this conflict receives support from western nation-states, will eventually be implicated in atrocities and war crimes, and, when these atrocities and war crimes come to light, all popular will to continue any support will vanish, and political will to continue support will vanish soon after.

As I have argued elsewhere (The Neurotic Misery of Islamic Civilization), Islam is a civilization in the midst of neurotic misery, and the only therapy that will deliver them over into ordinary human unhappiness is philosophy taught by examples, that is to say, history.

There is a detailed article on The Atlantic’s website, What ISIS Really Wants by Graeme Wood that takes ISIS at its word in regard to the group’s “prophetic methodology,” which is the particular conception of history now entertained by the leadership of ISIS. Wood makes the valid point that ISIS is to a certain extent hamstrung by its Koranic literalness, and that this is a valuable guide in predicting the actions of the group. This is one of the few potentially valuable ways of understanding ISIS that can be of material benefit to any action taken against it.

Another point that Graeme Wood makes is that the west has, up to now, drawn a number of false analogies by putting all jihadist organizations into the same basket. This has indeed been part of the problem, but it is just as much of a problem to treat ISIS an the monolith it aspires to be. The success of ISIS to date has not only been the result of a brutal fidelity to “prophetic methodology,” but also a not inconsiderable rationality and organizational mettle. While there are no doubt a great many within ISIS who see their struggle as a cosmic war, there are probably also many who see ISIS in another, and much more pragmatic, light. Even if ISIS is successfully contained, and its claim to being in the vanguard of cosmic war called into question by any such containment, there will still be a struggle within ISIS between ideological purists and pragmatists who would be content with establishing a new state along the lines of Islamic State but shorn of its ideological pretensions.

A chastened but still violent and combat-effective ISIS could continue to destabilize the region for decades to come, if not centuries, during which time many strategies on both sides of the divide would be tested. If we test the optimal strategy for ISIS against the likely strategy of any anti-ISIS coalition (viz. the US and its European allies making feeble and half-hearted attempts to support the “good” side in this conflict), the prospects for the continued survival of ISIS are quite high, even if it is a mere shadow of its prophetic aspirations.

If a quasi-pragmatic leadership emerges from a less-than-triumphant ISIS, this leadership will have to arrive at some modus vivendi with its neighbors in the region. ISIS would then have to become a nation-state among nation-states, which is apostasy from the purely eschatological point of view, but also a human, all-too-human compromise that should be expected at some point in time.

In this case, the boundaries of existing nation-states — the status quo ante — would be re-established as far as possible given the events that have transpired to date, as part of the process of resurrecting institutions of civil society mentioned above in the Introduction. We recall that the European powers fought their religious wars for almost a century before they finally negotiated the Treaty of Westphalia (which came nearly to affirming borders that existed prior to the conflict), which settled on the principle cuius regio, eius religio, which I previously discussed in The Stalin Doctrine.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has taken the name of Caliph Ibrahim as leader of Islamic State, began life as Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has taken the name of Caliph Ibrahim as leader of Islamic State, began life as Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri.

Introduction: Madmen in Authority

If you’ve ever heard the final paragraph of Keynes’ economic masterpiece, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, you will not have forgotten these now-classic lines:

“…the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”

John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Chapter 24, section V

Whether you care to consider our homegrown madmen here in the west, or the madmen elsewhere in the world, it is difficult to deny Keynes’ estimate of the place of ideas in political life. We are now seeing some especially pernicious ideas being played out in our planet’s history, and while we can be confident that these ideas will be discredited in the long term, in the short term they will be the source of enormous human suffering as long as madmen in authority cling to them, and others are willing to follow the madmen.

One of these madmen in authority at the present time is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (born Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri) who, as leader of Islamic State, has taken the name and title Caliph Ibrahim, as the restoration of the caliphate abolished with the end of the Ottoman Empire has been one of the long-held dreams of political Islamists upon which Islamic State has acted. The political entity now called Islamic State is also called ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), in reference to the geographical region in which the movement is now active. The history of this geographical region is relevant to our inquiry, so we will consider this next.

Mesopotamia and the Levant

The Civilizational Milieu of Mesopotamia and the Levant

The region of the world now being fought over by Islamic State militants challenging established state structures was that region of the world most productive of ancient civilizations. The civilizations of India and China arose independently in almost complete cultural isolation, and they developed in isolation for hundreds or thousands of years before encountering other civilizations at a similar level of development. In the western hemisphere, there was perhaps more interaction between settled groups, with highland peoples of the Andes trading with lowland peoples along the coast from the earliest origins of civilization in South America, but even this was nothing like the density of civilization to be found in the contiguous regions of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, the Levant, and Egypt — a geographical area that came to be called the Fertile Crescent.

At the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea a series of civilizations arose in relation to and often in conflict with each other. Empire succeeded empire as the peoples of the region competed for power. This predecessor — this common ancestor — of Jewish civilization, western civilization, Islamic civilization, North African civilization, Russian civilization and all the civilizations that have their ultimate origins in the Mediterranean Basin, was the most complex, most polyglot, most diverse civilizational milieu on our planet. In my notes to myself I sometimes call this civilizational region the “West Asian cluster,” as these contiguous lands hosted a cluster of evolving and interacting civilizations. History has great depth and complexity here, and one might well spend a lifetime attempting to master all the diverging and converging strains that are interwoven in the region.

The civilization that was to become Western civilization is ultimately from this west Asian cluster (albeit derivatively), specifically, from Anatolia, and it is easy to trace on the map its journey through Thrace, Bulgaria, and into the Balkan Peninsula. Then in Greece that civilization experienced a dramatic mutation, and then again, further west, in Rome, again that civilization mutated into something else, and further west again when the Roman legacy was mixed with Barbarian Europe, Christendom emerged and western civilization as we know it today took shape. Western civilization, in other words, took shape outside the region of the west Asian cluster. The civilizations we see in the region today are those that remained in the region from earliest antiquity, and this is our first hint of the dramatically different histories of East and West. Christendom took shape in the muddy, rural backwaters of manorial estates in western Europe; nothing could be farther from the dusty, desert cities of the Levant, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt — cities that had already existed for thousands of years by the time Islamic civilization emerged and became the dominant power.

Islamic State is seeking to establish itself and to project power at the heart of this West Asian Cluster that proved itself fertile not only in its soil for the production of food, but fertile also in the minds of its peoples for the production of civilizations. But it is interesting to note that among the civilizations that emerge from the West Asian cluster, Islamic civilization is only derivatively from this cluster (like Western Civilization), since Islamic civilization in the narrow sense has its origins in the Arabian Peninsula, although the civilizations of the Arabian Peninsula had their origins in turn from the West Asian Cluster.


The Golden Age of Islamic Civilization

It is not unusual to hear the ideology of ISIS compared to medieval interpretations of Islam, but medieval Islam — a civilization of wealth and power at the height of its historical influence — was a large and diverse civilization, one of civilization’s “big tents,” and moreover a civilization of many hundreds of years in duration, so that if you were to compare early medieval Islam of the sort you might find in Samarra and Baghdad with late medieval Islam of the sort you might find in Granada and Cordoba, the differences may be more evident than the continuity of Islamic identity. Medieval Islam, then, is not exactly what people usually have in mind when they speak of “medieval Islam.”

The height of medieval Islamic civilization saw cosmopolitan cities, monumental architecture, and a great efflorescence of philosophy. The works of classical philosophy lost in western Europe with the collapse of Roman institutions were translated into Arabic and were the subject of extensive interpretation and commentary. When medieval Europe recovered to the point of being able to once again engage with philosophy, they received the Greek and Roman classics from Islam, and they consumed the works of Islamic commentators no less than ancient works. While St. Thomas called Aristotle “The Philosopher,” he also called Averroes “The Commentator.”

Any wealthy agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization that begins to produce an abundance of intellectual innovation will trigger a reaction from the conservative sectors of society who wish to preserve untainted the religious principles of social organization that are of the very essence of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. This was true for the Greeks, for the Romans, for the Jews, and it was true for Islam. The Greeks killed Socrates, the Romans exiled Ovid, the Jews excommunicated Spinoza, and Islam produced figures like Ibn Taymiyyah who condemned all intellectual innovation.

Ibn Taymiyya

Ibn Taymiyyah and reactionary philosophy

I begin my inquiry into the violence in the region from the earliest traces of civilization, but the echo chamber of the press and the popular media goes back only when pressed for explanations they do not have, and then they go only far enough to seize upon a figure who can be used to “explain” the apparently inexplicable. A review of regional history may include the split between Shia and Sunni, and will certainly go on to discuss the crucial role of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Wahhabism in the ideology of the militant Salafist groups. It would be an easy matter to use up one’s available time simply trying to clarify the distinction, if any, between Wahhabism and Salafism.

There are several older and deeper layers of history sedimented into the ideology of ISIS. One of the pivotal philosophical figures in contemporary militant ideology is that of Ibn Taymiyyah, who is one of the “Two Shaikhs” — the other being al-Islam — of the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence. It should be noted that jurisprudence plays a much larger role in Islamic thought than it does in Christian thought. Perhaps this is a consequence of the separation of political and ecclesiastical power that has always marked western civilization; perhaps there are other historical forces at work as well. In any case, one of the major distinction made within Islam is that made among the five schools of Islamic jurisprudence, viz. the Ja‘fari, the Hanafi, the Maliki, the Shafi΄i, and the Hanbali. There are in addition some other schools, though with relatively few followers.

Ibn Taymiyyah not only played a prominent role in the foundation of the Hanbali school, he was also what we would today call a technical philosopher, that is to say, he wrote technical treatises in philosophy that can only be understood by other philosophers who have studied similar questions. But Ibn Taymiyyah was a technical philosopher only because he felt the need to refute the doctrines of other technical philosophers. Refuting philosophers on their own terms has the paradoxical consequence of requiring that the intellectual representatives of a simpler past are forced to engage these philosophers on their own terms, adopting the language and the concepts of philosophy in order to give the lie to philosophy.

A figure like Ibn Taymiyyah within Islam has several parallels in the western philosophical tradition. When intellectual life revived in western Europe after the Dark Ages, and scholars began to read Aristotle and his Greek and Arabian commentators (all of these texts passed along via a cosmopolitan Islamic civilization, since they had been lost in the west), many sincere yet conservative Schoolmen were nothing less than horrified by the “Latin Averroists” and other philosophers who openly learned from pagan and Islamic scholars. They not only argued against these philosophical innovations, they also actively sought to have these views suppressed and their authors silenced, and they were successful with depressing regularity and thoroughness.

Giles of Rome is a good example of this: he wrote a book called The Errors of the Philosophers, in which he recounts in detail the false doctrines that Christian philosophers had disastrously picked up from reading Greek and Arabic philosophical texts. Yet, paradoxically, in order to effectively refute these doctrines, Giles himself had to learn to speak the language of the philosophers. A good example of this is his book Theorems on Existence and Essence — a technical philosophical treatise on ontology. If you read this book without knowing medieval philosophy, you would have no idea if Giles was a flaming radical or the most hidebound reactionary. It bristles with philosophical terminology that can only be understood by initiates of the discipline. Nietzsche once wrote, “Kant wanted to prove in a way that would dumfound the ‘common man’ that the ‘common man’ was right.” A similar observation might be made on Giles of Rome.

Ibn Taymiyyah was in a similar position: he wanted to refute the rationalism of the Greek logicians, but in order to do so he was forced to adopt the language and the concepts of the Greeks, and so his primary theoretical text, Against the Greek Logicians, like Giles’ treatises against Christians borrowing from Greeks and Arabs, is a demanding philosophical read. It is a subtle and sophisticated work, not a mere catalog of rejection or condemnation, though it also resembles Saint Augustine in its elaborate and verbose digressions. But his project is a paradoxical project. Like all anti-rationalist philosophies, it is beset with contradictions from the outset. But a little contradiction never worried a committed ideologue; indeed, the very idea of contradiction stems from logic, so that in so far as you use logic to condemn itself (as Ibn Taymiyyah does), you are in a position to welcome contradictions.

In so far as we can identify the Enlightenment project as the re-emergence of rationalism in western civilization, all of those western nation-states today who look to the Enlightenment project, or which, like the US and France, owe their very existence to the Enlightenment, have their source and origin in Locke, Hume, and the cluster of early modern political philosophers who made their work possible. But it is not only rationalism that re-emerges repeatedly in history; irrationalism also returns time and again in human history. The philosophy of ISIS constitutes a parallel re-emergence of Ibn Taymiyaah’s project, a reactionary, anti-rational project for civilization. While we already know that anti-rationalistic programs are failed civilizational programs, sometimes failed ideas are perennial ideas, and so they come back to haunt us time and time again, no matter how pernicious to human well being and many times discredited by history when history teaches by example.


Fawaz A. Gerges on Islamic State

In a cosmopolitan civilization, men like Ibn Taymiyyah and Giles of Rome would be mere cranks, rapidly left behind by accelerating intellectual innovations that open up new horizons of inquiry and research and which change civilization in their wake. (I suspect that Ibn Taymiyyah and Giles of Rome, had they ever met, would have gotten along famously as long as the topic of religion never came up, in which case they would likely have killed each other.) Unfortunately, in human history from all quarters of the planet we can find examples of growing and dynamic civilizations, civilizations that do not feel threatened by diversity of thought, retrenching from their cosmopolitanism, closing themselves off from new influences, looking to the past rather than the future, and refusing change, if not actively working to reverse changes. (In Islamic thought there is actually a term for this: “closing of the gate of ijtihad.”)

In non-cosmopolitan civilizations, in reactionary social contexts, failed ideas that fully deserve to be defunct ideas are given a new lease on life, and perhaps more importantly and most dangerously, these ideas are placed in the context of a mythology that gives cosmic significance to them. In such a retrograde social context, men like Ibn Taymiyyah and Giles of Rome take on a prophetic quality: they have seen the limitations of reason and scientific inquiry, and they were among the first to issue warnings about where such developments will take us if we allow them to continue.

We have seen that the philosophical basis of ISIS and related groups that share the ideology of ISIS is the principled rejection of that rationalism that has been the unique contribution of the western branch of the west Asian cluster of civilizations, and that Ibn Taymiyyah is one of the theoretical sources of this principled rejection, and author of the many of the principles that can be and have been invoked to this end. Much of the social and eschatological background against which these ideas have been received can be found in an article on the BBC, Islamic State: Can its savagery be explained? by Fawaz A. Gerges, Emirates Chair in Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In this article Gerges wrote:

“…IS actually stresses violent action over theology and theory, and has produced no repertoire of ideas to sustain and nourish its social base. It is a killing machine powered by blood and iron.”

Obviously, I do not share this view, but Gerges is unquestionably correct that Islamic State emphasizes violent action over theoretical disputation. Gerges, however, also notes several other factors in the appeal of Islamic State that constitute the social context within which the ideological superstructure of the group is played out:

“victory through terrorism” (the quotation marks are in the Gerges’ text, though I can’t find the source of this presumed slogan)
Get out of the way or you will be crushed; join our caravan and make history.
a powerful vanguard that delivers victory and salvation
shock-and-awe tactics against the enemies of Islam
capturing huge swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq
a greater mission — to resurrect a lost idealised type of caliphate (Gerges also says “establishing a caliphate”)
be part of a tight-knit community with a potent identity
to defend persecuted co-religionists
an anti-Shia diet and visceral hatred of minorities in general
the spearhead of Sunni Arabs in the fight against sectarian-based regimes in Baghdad and Damascus

All of these are direct quotes from the Gerges article on the BBC. While this may not sound like an ideology compared to the tortuous theological justifications for brutality to which we are accustomed, it is clearly an ideological program, and, more than that, it is an ideological program with an unmistakeable pragmatic bent.


Strategy and Tactics of Cosmic War

It would be difficult to produce a more concise list of the tactics of cosmic war than that above I have derived from Gerges. The violence and brutality, then, are epiphenomenal to the eschatological core of militant Salafism, which is in turn the core of Islamic State.

It is at least arguable that the devolution of warfare has driven the brutality of warfare on the ground, as this remains one of the few avenues for perpetrating atrocities that will command the attention of the world, and it is through the practice of atrocities that Islamic State has advertised itself and its ruthlessness to the world. But the calling card of brutality and ruthlessness is not be conflated with the ideological superstructure of Islamic State.

We can see that all of these slogans, ideas, and actions noted by Gerges play into a conception of history, that is to say, they constitute a kind of historical consciousness, and a particular conception of history superadded to the individual’s conception of himself — which is to say, the individual consciousness supplemented by an historical consciousness that places that individual within a big picture conception of the world — is a potent ideological cocktail. It is precisely this kind of historical consciousness that drove fanatical (and also often victorious) communists in the twentieth century. In other words, militant Islam today is in some sense parallel to militant communism in the twentieth century. This observation should give us pause, and it is something that we need to remember when we consider the problem of Islamic terrorism.

A conception of history, while powerful, is essentially only the scaffolding of an ideological superstructure. The scaffolding is there to support and to organize the principles that constitute the substance of an ideological superstructure. This substance of the ideological superstructure is taken from the older, perennial theoretical justifications found in original thinkers like Ibn Taymiyyah (who, I might note, would not want to have been thought of as an original thinker).

The principles that ultimately govern the shape of the ideological superstructure go far beyond the tactical implementation of a particular conception of history: these ideas are the strategy of cosmic war. We can understand thinkers like Ibn Taymiyyah, then, as the strategists of cosmic war — and I even think that if a sympathetic reader of Ibn Taymiyyah and a supporter of Islamic State took the time to understand that I have written here, that he would not necessarily reject this formulation.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

Hearts and Minds

21 December 2013



“…what could be more excusable than violence to bring about the triumph of the cause of oppressed right?”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translated by Gerald E. Bevan, Part 2, Chapter 4

How are hearts and minds to be won? And how are they lost? These are questions that have become central to the practice of war in our time. In an age of declining peer-to-peer conflict the military environment is increasingly that of asymmetrical warfare, and there is a tension in the environment of asymmetrical warfare between the methods necessary to wage and to win a counter-insurgency and the methods necessary to win the hearts and minds of the people for whom insurgents claim to be waging an armed struggle.

Not only do we live in an age of declining peer-to-peer conflict and increasing asymmetrical warfare, but we also live in of age of popular sovereignty. In an age of unquestioned popular sovereignty, winning the hearts and minds of the people (or losing them) has not only immediate practical consequences but also far-reaching political and ideological ramifications that cannot be ignored. Terrorism today cannot be cleanly separated from insurgency, and insurgency cannot be cleanly separated from the ideal of national self-determination and popular sovereignty. Popular sovereignty means that the hearts and minds of the people rule the state, so that winning or losing hearts and minds is the difference between decreasing or increasing incidents of terrorism. Thus the question of hearts and minds becomes a question of terrorism.

Terrorism — especially terrorism occurring in the context of an insurgency — is one of the great security issues of our time, and the causes and motivations of terrorism constitute one of the great sociological problems of our time. Why do people commit acts of terrorism? What do they hope to gain by the use of terror? Who becomes a terrorist? How do terrorists understand their actions, and how are these actions understood by others? (Some of my earliest blog posts here were concerned with the subject of terrorism — The Future of Terrorism and Terrorism and the evolution of technology — as I had at that time recently read Caleb Carr’s Lessons of Terror — and I have continued to occasionally post on terrorism, as in The Apotheosis of Terrorism.)

The self-understanding and self-justification of the terrorism typically takes the form of an elaborate and detailed extremist ideology, and this extremist ideology is usually found in the context of a broader ideological tradition, of which the violent militant’s faction is a refined and carefully crafted set of beliefs that hangs together coherently and provides an explanation for all things, including the necessity of terrorism and militancy. Often, but not always, this extremist ideology is a set of religious beliefs specific to a particular religious community, in which the ethnic and social community is indistinguishable from the ideological community; in other words, there is an identification of a people with a set of beliefs that define this people. Not all of the people within this community may assent to extremist militancy, but most are likely to assent to the religious ideology that provides the identity of the people.

One of the themes that appears repeatedly in the work of Sam Harris is that religious moderates provide cover for religious extremists, so while religious moderates don’t commit ghastly crimes in the name of religion, they implicitly facilitate ghastly crimes committed in the name of religion. Here is the passage in The End of Faith where Harris introduces this theme:

“…people of faith fall on a continuum: some draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity, while others would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy. There are, in other words, religious moderates and religious extremists, and their various passions and projects should not be confused. One of the central themes of this book, however, is that religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance — born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God — is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.”

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005

For Harris, religious moderation is not a welcome respite from fanaticism, but a pretext for reasonable people who are vague about their religious beliefs to make excuses for unreasonable people who are clear and unambiguous about their religious beliefs. Ideological moderation provides cover for ideological extremism, and ideological extremism provides cover for militancy. I haven’t read anything In Harris’ work in which he identifies this as a principle, but it is a principle, and, like many principles conceived to explain some particular aspect of the world, it can be generalized as a explanation across many other aspects of the world.

Thus in the same spirit of Harris’ principle that religious moderates provide cover for religious extremists, we can generalize this principle such that ideological moderates of any kind, subscribing to any set of (vaguely held) beliefs, provide cover for ideological extremists who are willing to put their beliefs into practice in an uncompromising form. I will call this the principle of facilitating moderation, since, according to the principle, moderates facilitate the beliefs and actions of extremists. This, as we shall see, is the great stumbling block in winning hearts and minds.

The generalization of Harris’ principle from religion to any ideology whatsoever makes it easier to understand extremist ideologies like communism and fascism (or even simple nationalism) in terms of the same principle without having to argue that such non-religious ideologies are surrogate religions. (I do not disagree with this argument; I have, in fact, made this argument in Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization, but I also know that many people reject the idea of religious surrogates, and as this is not necessary to the argument in the present case, I need not make that argument here in order to make my point.)

Another theme that appears repeatedly in Sam Harris’ lectures is that different religions are adaptable to a greater or lesser extent to being transformed into a suicide cult; some religions are very easily exapted to this end, while others are not at all easily exapted to this end. (Harris makes this point repeatedly in his lectures, but I did not find this explicit argument in his books.) In other words, not all religions are alike in the danger than they pose as pretexts for violent militancy, and Harris goes on to explicitly single out Islam as especially vulnerable to being exapted for violent militancy.

It is a moral “softball” to discuss Islamic suicide terrorism, as this is a topic on which almost all Westerners are in a agreement. It is more morally problematic — and therefore perhaps will better challenge us to sharpen our formulations — if we consider the relative peaceableness of Buddhists and their institutional representatives — a group which Harris explicitly singles out as much less likely to engage in religiously-motivated militancy than Muslims. The way to make intellectual progress is to take a problem at its hardest point and to seek the solution there, avoiding easy answers that cannot hold up in extreme circumstances. (Does this make me an intellectual extremist? Perhaps so.)

Harris contends that it would be much more difficult to transform Buddhism into a suicide cult than Islam, and I want to explicitly say that I do not disagree with this, but… one of the most powerful moments in the Viet Nam war that demonstrated that the US was not only not winning hearts and minds, but was rather disastrously losing them by its support of the Ngô Đình Diệm government, was when Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức burned himself to death in Saigon in 1963 to protest the treatment of Buddhists by the government of Ngô Đình Diệm. While the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức harmed no one but himself, it would be difficult to imagine a more “inflammatory” symbol of political protest (and please forgive me for that unfortunate formulation).

It would be difficult to identify self-immolation as anything other than an act of extremism, and it is ideological extremism that motivates ideological militancy. Buddhist monks who protest by self-immolation (and there have been many) represent an extreme form of violence, though as violence turned against oneself it causes no direct harm to others. In practical politics, however, spectacular violence toward oneself — a category that includes suicide bombings — may have the same effect as spectacular violence toward others. Buddhist monks who have spent a lifetime in meditation on the human condition should know well the reaction of the ordinary person to such a spectacle, and it is not likely to be peaceful.

The act of violence in the context of a mostly non-violent community, which latter seeks only to retain its identity and to go about with the ordinary business of life, presents a fundamental problem for counter-insurgency. In any effort to win hearts and minds it is essential to distinguish between those who assent to a given ideology, no matter how extreme, but who make no effort to engage in an armed struggle (or to aid and support such an armed struggle) and those who do engage in militancy, acting upon calls for violent intervention. Terrorism follows from militancy, and militancy follows from extremism, but if strong ideological views are tarred with the same brush as militancy there is the danger of pushing peaceful ideologues over the threshold of militancy and joining in armed struggle.

Most people, no matter how strongly they believe in a given ideology, do not engage in militant action but are willing to work within the established framework of society to attain their ends. Such individuals, and the groups that represent them and speak on their behalf, must not be alienated in any counter-insurgency campaign. On the contrary, they must be cultivated. It is this moderate majority whose hearts and minds must be won if peace is to be established and militants marginalized.

However, it is also this moderate majority that, according to the principle of facilitating moderation, make it possible for extremist ideology and militant groups motivated by extremist ideology to persist. And if the moderate majority are alienated, they are likely, at the very minimum, to give their support to violent militants. Chairman Mao, who came to power through guerrilla warfare and knew a thing or two about it, famously said that, “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” In other words, Mao clearly understood the principle of facilitating moderation, given that the guerrilla is the militant who moves among moderates who support and sustain him. Some alienated moderates may also pass beyond disaffection and support of violent militants and may become active militants themselves.

The inherent tension in the relationship between the non-violent majority and the violent minority who turn to militancy is held in check by a shared vision of the world, the common ideology of militant and non-militant, and this means that while individuals may disagree on ways and means, they are likely to agree on the end in view. I wrote about this previously, coming from a slightly different angle, in Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception:

Because a cosmic war does not occur in a cosmic vacuum, but it occurs in an overall conception of the world, the grievances too occur within this overall conception of history. If we attempt to ameliorate grievances formulated in an eschatological context with utilitarian and pragmatic means, no matter what we do it will never be enough, and never be right. An eschatological solution is wanted for grievances understood eschatologically, and that is why, in at least some cases, religious militants turn to the idea of cosmic war. Only a cosmic war can truly address cosmic grievances.

Sam Harris makes a similar point:

“In our dialogue with the Muslim world, we are confronted by people who hold beliefs for which there is no rational justification and which therefore cannot even be discussed, and yet these are the very beliefs that underlie many of the demands they are likely to make upon us.”

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005

This fundamental tension between winning hearts and minds and successfully combating violent extremists whose hearts and minds overlap to a significant degree with the non-violent majority cannot be wished away; there will always be a trade-off between placing more emphasis on fighting an insurgency or winning hearts and minds. The generality of this result is suggested by the fact that I first formulated this idea in Anti-Technology Terrorism: An Upcoming Global Threat?, and the generality of this result suggests to danger to which we are exposed.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .


A few days ago in Politicized Anger I mentioned that I have been studying How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror by Reza Aslan. In the book, Aslan mentioned that he took the idea of cosmic war mentioned in the title of his book from Mark Juergensmeyer’s book, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Chapter 8 of which is concerned with the idea of cosmic war. Juergensmeyer is a well-known scholar in religious studies who began his career at the Union Theological Seminary, studying to become a Methodist minister, there a student of Reinhold Niebuhr.

When I first saw Aslan’s How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror — for I happened upon it browsing the shelves of a library; I hadn’t read any reviews or even heard of it before I saw it — I was immediately interested and intrigued as I could see right away that a cosmic war clearly falls under the umbrella of the eschatological conception of history.

The eschatological conception of history assumes non-human agency in the world, and any human agency under this conception is mediated by non-human agency.

In several posts — Three Conceptions of History, Revolution and Human Agency, and The Naturalistic Conception of History, inter alia — I have been developing a general framework for understanding the overall conceptions that people bring to their understanding of history. This framework is based upon differing conceptions of human agency in the world. That is to say, the framework for understanding how people understand their history is based on how they understand their role in history. Are we helpless before the events of the world? Can we make of our lives anything we desire? Must we seek to supplicate unseen powers? Is human being-in-the-world no different in essentials from a tree’s being-in-the-world? A “Yes” to one of these questions places you, respectively, under the catastrophic, political, eschatological, or naturalistic conception of history.

Juergensmeyer in his above-mentioned book discusses several contemporary examples of religiously-inspired terrorism and war, saying that the religious militants have been “driven by an image of cosmic war.” He goes on to say:

“I call such images ‘cosmic’ because they are larger than life. They evoke great battles of the legendary past, and they relate to metaphysical conflicts between good and evil. Notions of cosmic war are intimately personal but can also be translated to the social plane. Ultimately, though, they transcend human experience. What makes religious violence particularly savage and relentless is that its perpetrators have placed such religious images of divine struggle — cosmic war — in the service of worldly political battles. For this reason, acts of religious terror serve not only as tactics in a political strategy but also as evocations of a much larger spiritual confrontation.”

Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Chapter 8, pp. 149-150

Aslan in his book follows Juergensmeyer closely in these formulations. Aslan says of the 11 September hijackers:

“They were engaged in a metaphysical conflict, not between armies or nations but between the angels of light and the demons of darkness. They were fighting a cosmic war, not against the American imperium but against the eternal forces of evil. A cosmic war is a religious war. It is a conflict in which God is believed to be directly engaged on one side over the other. Unlike a holy war — an earthly battle between rival religious groups — a cosmic war is like a ritual drama in which participants act out on earth a battle they believe is actually taking place in the heavens.”

Reza Aslan, How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror, Introduction, p. 5

I find this very interesting, but I would like to see it developed with much greater care and rigor. Both Juergensmeyer and Aslan are rather cavalier in their language. I heartily approve of Aslan’s careful distinction between holy war and cosmic war, but I would also suggest that in the interests of analytical clarity we should also distinguish cosmic war and metaphysical war, with the latter as the broader category, while the former is a particular kind of metaphysical conflict, and especially a supernatural kind of metaphysical conflict. This is important, as one could characterize the crusading spirit of early twentieth century communism (or even the French Revolution earlier) as exemplifying a metaphysical conflict of an explicitly materialistic (perhaps naturalistic) metaphysic.

I would myself prefer to speak in terms of eschatological war as being an expression of the eschatological conception of history, but it is just as well with me to speak in terms of cosmic war. The point I want to make in this connection is that the idea of cosmic war does not exist in an intellectual vacuum. It is part of a way of seeing and understanding the world; it is part of a Weltanschauung. This is relevant to some of Aslan’s claims.

Twice in his book, near the beginning and near the end, Aslan writes that the only way to win a cosmic war is to refuse to fight one. We are to decline eschatological combat. Aslan is right when we says that cosmic wars are unwinnable, and therefore also unlosable (p. 8). But Aslan also claims that aggrieved communities have legitimate grievances, and that these need to be addressed. I agree with this, but I also know from my reading of history the near hopelessness of this task. What task? The attempt to “help” people in utilitarian and pragmatic ways when their grievances are not expressed in utilitarian and pragmatic terms. Many efforts of the US around the world have come to grief on this rock.

Because a cosmic war does not occur in a cosmic vacuum, but it occurs in an overall conception of the world, the grievances too occur within this overall conception of history. If we attempt to ameliorate grievances formulated in an eschatological context with utilitarian and pragmatic means, no matter what we do it will never be enough, and never be right. An eschatological solution is wanted to grievances understood eschatologically, and that is why, in at least some cases, religious militants turn to the idea of cosmic war. Only a cosmic war can truly address cosmic grievances.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

%d bloggers like this: