ISIS & the crisis of Sunni Islam: “This is not an ISIS revolution. This is a Sunni revolution”

Conflicts Forum, 12 June 2015

An edited version of this piece was published by Energy Intelligence (June 2015)

“This is not an ISIS revolution. This is a Sunni revolution” 

(Anonymous Iraqi Sunni fighter)

28,000 for ISIS and 6,000 against – Al-Jazeera Arabic gauging how many of its viewers support what ISIS is doing in Syria and Iraq.

(Al-Jazeera Arabic, May 2015)

An opinion poll of Saudis done by leading Saudi newspaper, Al-Hayat, in July 2014 found that 92% of the target group believed that “IS conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law.” 

(Al-Hayat, July 2014)

‘Any military intervention on behalf of the government of Maliki would be seen as an act of “war” on the entire community of Sunni Arabs’.

(Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa, former Qatari ambassador to the US, warning the US in the days before the US-led coalition began bombing ISIS in Iraq, June 2014)

“ISIS are an important part of what we are doing …. We brought ISIS to defend our religion, our money, our land and our people”.

(Sheikh Ahmed al-Dabash, senior commander in Iraq’s Sunni insurgency & founder of the Islamic Army of Iraq, interview with the Telegraph, June 2014)

“I want to say to America and the world, this is not an ISIS revolution. This is a Sunni revolution. We ask the EU and America to support the Sunni people. We are not terrorists”.

(Anonymous Sunni fighter interviewed by the BBC, June 2014)

“ISIS [is] so far the best thing that has happened to many Sunni tribes since 2008”.

(NOW Lebanon, Oct 2014,)

“If killing innocent Sunni Iraqis and Syrians continue[s], a day will come when all Sunni Arabs from [the] Atlantic to [the] Gulf will embrace ISIS”.

(Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifeh, former Qatari diplomat, writing on twitter, June 2015)

“We don’t admit that there’s some sort of huge mistake inside us … There’s no foreign conspiracy but mistakes of 60 years … Or it’s perhaps the mistakes of 100 years ever since colonization established a distorted Arab world. What matters is that they are accumulated mistakes and collapse was inevitable … It’s time to ask “what went wrong?” It’s time to look inside us. Those looking for a foreign conspiracy are evading the truth and failing to see our own mistakes. Is it tyranny enveloped in the deceptive word “stability?”

(Leading Saudi commentator, Jamal Khashoggi, What did we do wrong? Looking inwards to explain ISIS’ rise, Al-Arabiya, July 2014)

“Unfortunately, we are still in denial … It is time we asked ‘what went wrong’ and let’s search within ourselves.”

(Khashoggi, quoted by the Financial Times, Sept 2014)

“How can [our scholars] respond [to] Isis . . . and all the other parasites which have sprung up on the margin of Islam, when its germs grew among us and within our homes and it was us who nurtured its thought and rhetoric until it grew?”

(Turki al-Hamad, a well-known Saudi liberal, quoted by the Financial Times, Sept 2014)

“We cannot effectively intervene in a region where so few share our goals”.

(Tom Friedman, New York Times, May 2015

The various statements above, all speak of deep crisis within Sunni Islam. Why, and what is happening?

We are, we believe, seeing some long-standing fractures and psychological tensions within the Sunni sphere coming to a head:  ‘Old certainties’, old landmarks, familiarities, longstanding ways of being – all are eroding, leaving people bewildered and angry – and ready to lash out (at the world because they feel it is no longer what they know and want it to be).  The ‘world around them’ is perceived as ‘doing this to them’ (destroying their handholds in life which kept them psychologically secure).  It – all of it – as it were, has become ‘their enemy’.

Islam as a whole, is in the process of reinventing itself in a new way, but history suggests that this usually is done by reaching back to the archetypal narratives of a people — to some insight drawn from the deepest being of a people — which then is metamorphosed into contemporary meaning, in such a way that somehow gives sense and understanding of the current distress of a people in terms of meta-history, but which also provides a solution to the crisis. 

It seems, however, that we are not at that point now. Rather, we are the stage in which people, seemingly crazed by these real psychological pressures, are trying physically to ‘kill’ the demons and dragons that afflict them (not yet realising that they cannot literally be killed).

Primordial amongst these tensions are two. We do not speak much of metaphysics today, but nonetheless, the metaphysical assumptions (which we all have, whether consciously, or not), are the cornerstone or foundation stone on which all our subsequent intellectual ideation is founded.  Many Muslims, both secular and practicing, feel caught between two opposing metaphysics – quite literally, they feel pulled apart: culturally schizophrenic, in a way.

The metaphysics of Islam is founded in the understanding of the paradox of ‘Oneness’ within diversity: that despite the apparent multiplicity of life, we nonetheless all share this one thing – the creative life-energy which suffuses everything in one way or another, and surrounds us with daily evidence of its creative power.  We are part of a matrix of throbbing life; a pixel of consciousness, if you like, within the bigger picture of cosmic consciousness.  In this view, life as a whole, has directionality and is purposeful (if not disrupted from unfolding in its own ‘way’).  In brief, our human meaning derives from the whole: the microcosm gains its meaning from the macrocosm.

This was the metaphysics shared also by Europeans up until the European Renaissance, but which has been (almost totally) displaced by the Scientific Enlightenment’s metaphysics: that the ‘world about us’ is dead and inert – and that our cosmos lacks any meaning or purpose other than that which humans give it through the reasoning ability of our minds and which they project onto the ‘objects’ around them. It is our mental conceptual capacities therefore that give the world its meaning, rather the other way around – and our very existence in this cosmos is held to be but a freak (unmeaning) accident of chemistry.

In fact, the original ‘move’ from one metaphysics to the other was more an intentional decision made about what comprised the assumptions suitable to an empirical methodology (or science), than a conclusion about which of the two was truer.  The early Enlightenment physicist and mathematician, Isaac Newton, for example, pursued an empirical methodology, but held to a meaning-giving cosmology as the context to his science (as early Muslim scientists did too).

Many Muslims today, live caught between these two systems which have become progressively more polarised, and ideological: forced to study the practical sciences on the assumptions of modern scientific metaphysics (and perhaps live their working lives under these secular assumptions), whilst, on the other hand, trying to live their family life with values built upon the ‘other’ metaphysics, by which they are called to harmonise with a value-giving, living, world about them – of which they are but one contingent cell, in a continually interacting, shifting, network system.

The invasion of ideological secularism (which derives from this Enlightenment metaphysics) into the Middle East over the last centuries, began the crisis. Just to be clear: it was forced secularism (especially in Turkey and what was then Persia). And it was pursued destructively. But the consequences today, are that some Muslims have become wholly secular; some exist with one foot in each metaphysical camp; and some adamantly insist on reviving the early Islamic cosmology – as the basis for science, and as a way of being. What has been less noticed is how parts of wider Sunni Islam itself effectively have come closer to – if not actually adopting European Enlightenment metaphysics (Turkish Islamism is an example) – whilst other elements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, consciously pursue very ‘secular’ socio-economic programmes to widen their appeal to their constituencies (whilst downplaying Islamic doctrine).  The West naturally finds ‘secular-Islamists’ appealing, but they should understand too why other Muslims see this trend as endangering the very essence of Islam.

What then is the import of all this? Firstly, the ambivalence that now presents in parts of Sunni Islam between these two metaphysics (living a part of your life by one, and another part of life by the other), means that the dividing line between the two worldviews is not so difficult to cross (i.e. for a secular European Muslim suddenly to emerge as a bearded takfiri – a personal crisis may be sufficient to be the driver). 

Westerners always profess bafflement at how a Muslim brought up in a secular society can suddenly turn into an Islamist radical. Well, unlike the West, where the so-called Enlightenment absolutely crushed the early Renaissance cosmology (i.e. Newtonian ambiguity was driven out) – in Islam, it was never the case. It came close (in the 1920s) but there remains an on-going, personal, metaphysical struggle in the individual minds of many Muslims – even many ostensibly secular Muslims.  And this this crossover potential is heightened, of course, when secular ‘values’ are shown to be wanting (as is the case today).

The second major faultline stems from socialism and secularism (in Turkey, Egypt and Persia) becoming, in the 1920s, an existential threat to Sunni Islam. The (new) Islamists, stunned by Ataturk’s assault on the Umma, on the Caliphate, and on Islam – on the one hand – consciously adapted their Islamism to compete with the appeal of secularism to their youth. But on the other hand, they began to construct a new Islamic ‘identity’ in polar opposition to secularism (exemplified in the adoption of Islamic dress, and the public displays of piety, for example).  The net result of this was a drift towards literalism (as literalism was the language by which young Muslims were being drawn away from Islamism) – plus a heightened emphasis on ritual, as a differentiator to a secular way of being.

Literalism has always been present in Sunni Islam (especially at times of crisis, but not as a majority orientation); but since the 1920s, Sunni Islam has become progressively more literal, including the laying of emphasis on ‘exteriority’ in religion (i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood notion of social and political activism as the path to religiosity: i.e. social activism as ‘religious ritual’).  Step-by-step, Sunni Islam has become more literal.  Finally, we have reached the extremity of literalism: ISIS. It is difficult to conceive of anything more literal than the neo-Wahabbism of ISIS.

This is a part of the crisis: We already have in the Sunni sphere, what is sometimes called ‘secular Islam’ – a market, consumerist orientation of Islam (for example, AKP in Turkey and the neo-liberal ruling elite in UAE). The question is whether this orientation of Sunni Islam will continue down this secular path; or will we see a reversion to one of the historic discourses of Islam – with its greater emphasis on ‘interiority’?  This is the dilemma: if Sunni Islam is not to be secularised, where can it go? In ISIS, it has already hit the limits of literalism, but the paths back to the historic discourses are complicated by being perceived by many Sunnis as somehow representing a move closer towards Shi’ism – as the upholder of non-literal Islam.

The second major fracture in Sunni Islam concerns the state: the Ottoman Empire was never based on the western notion of a nation-state (a top-down: ‘one authority, one law, one gun’ structure that necessitated considerable homogeneity – blood, confession, land – within the nation, in order to stand-up a credible social contract). The Ottomans never had that. Their Middle East was a patchwork of different confessions, ethnicities and loyalties all jostling untidily together – and often overlapping each other; and flowing awkwardly across boundaries.  The Ottomans resolved this by allowing political space to be occupied by different (confessional, tribal, ethnic) horizontally separated, layers of overlapping authority, law and order and religious power to exist in any given geographic space – and even allow these overlapping ‘authorities’ to bleed across administrative divisions. In a way it was quite effective; but the western nation-state model allowed state power to be wielded much more effectively – and with deadly consequence.

After World War I, the Europeans set up nation-states (ignoring their demographic and confessional mix). Indeed, they deliberately contrived states that they thought would still require continued western help, to be ruled) across much of the old Ottoman Empire.  Mostly, the old Ottoman élites were carried forward as ‘kings’ and leaders of this new political dispensation.  But the very diversity, contradictions and inherent animosities of their new inheritances, meant that the transitioned leaders could only rule by aggressively using the tools of the western nation-state (a monopoly of violence and of security forces). But they lacked the national  ‘homogeneity’ that would permit a ‘social contract’ between governors and governed to be agreed, and as a consequence, the whole ‘Arab system’ has fallen into popular discredit.  

It is that system which is collapsing now.  We are experiencing, in a sense, the final throes of the old Ottoman system.  This is the region’s political crisis (as opposed to its metaphysical crisis). And it touches on a deeply sedimented layer to the Sunni psyche: a layer that is very  pertinent to ISIS – and to the mindset of many of today’s Sunni Muslims. The Sunnah see themselves as ‘the majority’: they see themselves as the majority not just in terms of absolute numbers (in which they are the majority), but more importantly, in terms of having been ‘the majority’ at the confabulation that followed in the wake of the Prophet’s death (and which chose the Prophet’s immediate successor: the first Caliph). 

In this sense, Sunnis ‘see’ that the first Islamic State was of them, by them – and that ‘the State’ somehow is them; it was, and is Sunni.  There is a connotation here of mission, of entitlement:  And in this context, the Shi’i were, and are, viewed as ‘rejectionists’; and ‘anti’ the Sunni state – a omni-present danger to it. (There is some truth to this, though it is a much more complex truth than this flat assertion conveys).  This Sunni sense of mission and entitlement concerning ‘the state’ however – subsequently – was very thoroughly consolidated through the institutions of the Ottoman Empire and the post-Ottoman architecture set up by the Colonial powers.

Yet all around, Sunni states, institutions and ‘models’ of governance are eroding — Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood …). And Sunnis feel this deeply. They feel usurped; they feel ‘marginalised’ (having been once a great empire), and they are resentful.  And that which they resent most of all, is the growing power and influence of Shi’i and of Iran, in particular.  This is the psychological pivot around which worldly politics metamorphoses into Islamic conflict and sectarian impulse.  It is the psychological fulcrum around which a secular professional from Europe or the West, a doctor, say, may pivot into a supporter of the Islamic State – It is a cri de coeur, a Sunni demand for that which always has been ‘theirs’.

And, as in previous eras, the crisis in Islam requires an explanation.  And the explanation offered by ISIS is the same as that offered by Sunni figures such as Ibn Tayymiyah at the time of the Mongol conquest: Islam has abandoned its roots; it has been bent out of shape, and must be straightened out from all its deformations. 

Islam, in this mindset, is beset by ‘demons’ that threaten it: heresies, improper innovation, deviation – and far too much heterogeneity.  Its ‘soul’ is in peril.  These ‘demons’ are beavering away (and forever extending their influence), in order to undermine the Sunni ‘mission’ and to weaken Sunnism itself.  These demons, for many, have become psychologically entirely real. 

Many Sunni Muslims are attracted to such notions of Islam under threat from fifth columnists. They become liable to see the Shi’i expansionism and heresy hiding behind every tree. They consequently feel drawn to ISIS’ new ‘counter’ project of ‘the Sunni State’ – and even have come to see ISIS as a necessary corrective element to the decayed Arab Order.

(There is unfortunately, here, no Hermes to remind Heracles that the ‘demons’ that  Heracles was attempting to kill in the ‘Underworld’ were not real, but the charged fabrications of Heracles’ own imagination: they could not literally be killed.)

We intend nothing facile here:  Iran is on the ascendant.  Its influence is expanding.  There is no doubt about it.  But what is not at all so clear, is that the present plight of Sunnism should primarily be attributed to a rising Iran. Rather the crisis facing Sunni Islam, reflects as much the rotting of the old Ottoman order, and Sunni Islam’s existential metaphysical dilemma.

In the 16th century, the European fixation on demons and satanic works eating away at the fabric of Catholic society portended the huge civilizational change to come (the Enlightenment hurricane). The Sunni world’s – and particularly the Gulf’s – ‘demonic’ fixations may portend a similar storm heading for the Middle East.


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