Park: More Than Sadists
On the evening of Feb. 26, the Islamic State released a video that featured militants using sledgehammers to smash several priceless artifacts held in a museum in Mosul, Iraq, to pieces. What is most disturbing about these actions is that the pieces were not targeted with the intent of random, gratuitous destruction, but rather with a more specific and honed religious mission — to establish a global Islamic polity — in mind, as a representative of the Islamic State says at the beginning of the video. The Islamic State is more than a Middle Eastern terrorist group — it is a group motivated by a collectivizing, brutal and fundamentalist theology that poses a real threat to safety and stability throughout the world.
In a recent report on the Islamic State published in The Atlantic, Graeme Wood advises the world not to be fooled by the group’s seemingly irrational extremist exterior. He suggests that we are misled to believe that “jihadists are modern secular people with modern political concerns wearing medieval religious disguise.” He argues that, on the contrary, the Islamic State has charged itself with the goal of establishing a worldwide order rooted in Islamic theology. The Islamic State is to be feared not because they may appear simply violent and dangerous, but because they take their religious goal seriously — this is a group whose acts of violence and destruction follow logically from its beliefs.
The battle against the Islamic State cannot be isolated from religion and ideological conflicts. Although many peacefully adapt the practices of Islam to the modern world, the religion also has a darker history. This is not just the case for Islam — in the past, other Western religions doctrines have advocated violence. In a March 2010 story by NPR, Baylor University history professor Philip Jenkins points out that the Bible is very violent — in fact, the story ends by noting that scholars can agree that all three Abrahamic religions call for a lot of violence.
The first step in combating the Islamic State is understanding the laws of its militant adherents. Discussing the group often elicits responses that isolate it from mainstream Islam — often quoted as “a religion of peace” — as if the Islamic State were a rogue group that is not actually Islamic or is mistaken about its religious affiliation. Yet, the Islamic State is a religious group. The fundamentalist and outdated reading of Islamic texts and Muhammad’s doctrines separates them from the modern, peaceful practice of Islam — but violent punishment for alleged crimes is endorsed by antiquated schools of Islamic thought.
One may interpret the Islamic State beheadings as a twisted way of proving the group’s fortitude to the world. The group was, however, also acting within the bounds of a Muslim doctrine known as takfir, wherein a Muslim can use evidence to declare a non-Muslim or an apostate an unbeliever — and is used to justify religious executions by extremists. The Islamic State’s desire to “cleanse” the world through mass killings demonstrates its commitment to their interpretation of the takfiri directive to execute apostates. The destruction of cultural artifacts in Mosul may have been a dramatic demonstration intended to shock the Western world, but it is also a religiously-charged attack on objects that symbolize values they consider odious to their own. Most of the artifacts destroyed dated back to the Assyrian and Akkadian empire — and as an extension of its attacks on ethnic and religious minorities under its jurisdiction, the Islamic State has decided to violently erase any signs of diverse cultural heritage by destroying these prized examples of history.
The graphic nature of the videos that the Islamic State posts online are often shocking, but this does not mean that the group’s sole concern is shock value. Regardless of how outdated their ideology sounds or how gruesome their crimes may be, we should not ignore that the Islamic State has a distinctively zealous tone — one that makes them that much more dangerous than a collection of cruel sadists. If anything, it is a religious cult that will stop at nothing in its aggressive pursuit of establishing a fundamentalist Islamic order. We must accurately understand the ideological nature and the totalizing aims of the Islamic State to truly fathom how such an incomprehensible and inhumane group could attract so many to take part in its globally destructive mission.