Just as the Caliphate of ISIS seems to be crumbling in Iraq and Syria, it has opened a new front in the Philippines, where it has sacked a Catholic Church and uploaded a video which contains threats directed at Pope Francis himself. Even if ISIS is wiped out in Raqqa and Mosul, the franchise, one fears, will continue elsewhere.
Recently Channel Four produced a drama entitled The State, shown over four nights, which I have just seen on catch-up. It is excellent, as far as dramas go, most would agree, but it fails to answer the question we all have: why does any western-raised Muslim make the journey to Syria to join ISIS?
Peter Kosminsky’s drama told the story of two protagonists, one male and one female, who join ISIS only to be bitterly disillusioned. The nice young chap from Wembley and the very good-looking doctor with a young son both find that beheadings, beatings, slavery, forced marriage, child rape and other such things are not to their choice. But could anyone honestly think that life under ISIS would be any different? After all, ISIS itself has provided us with videos of its punishment regime; all the nasty things that go on there are not claims made by western propaganda.
So why do people join ISIS? They are not starry-eyed idealists who do not know what they are doing, surely. It is most unlikely too that they are driven by political concerns, as very few westerners know much about the internal politics of a country like Syria. What draws them is something far more visceral, and would draw them to wherever the black banner is raised, be it Syria, Iraq or the Philippines. My guess, and it is no more than that, is that young people are attracted to ISIS by its focus on cruelty and iconoclastic destruction.
George Orwell, our greatest political writer, might well have done ISIS justice, but what he writes in 1984 surely applies to the Caliphate:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me.
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.
ISIS is not really about means to an end, but rather it is exactly what it seems to be: a group of people who like causing pain to others, driven by a form of sadism that all human beings should recognise, for the will to power exists in all of us, thanks to Original Sin.
Does this have anything to do with religion? Yes and no. Does football hooliganism have anything to do with sport? No, and yet in some ways, yes, for it is a terrible advertisement for the sport. ISIS is really about the depths to which human nature can sink, and here, paradoxically religion has something to say.
The purported aim of ISIS is to re-establish the Caliphate, through the destruction of everything that has existed since. This is in itself absurd, as you cannot establish a seventh-century polity (about which we have only fragmentary knowledge) in the twenty-first century. There can be no going back to the past. But it is the destruction of everything that stands in the way of the Caliphate, whether it be buildings or people, that is really harmful to the rest of us. For it is this destructive work which becomes the main draw to supporters: they get to like blowing things and people up. They are thrilled by nihilism.
This iconoclasm – this desire to clear the board for the Caliphate – is theologically absurd as well, for it ignores the reality of Original Sin. Once everything “haram” has been destroyed, will humanity then be perfect? The myth of redemptive violence never works, because there can always be more violence, and the violence never quite goes far enough. Hence, in The State, we see that the jihadis are always ready to turn on their own, as much as their infidel enemies. The thirst for enemies can never be satisfied.
Theologically, there is an answer, and that is to realise that the state we are in, that of sinful humanity, is to be accepted as a starting point in the search for perfection. Much better would it be if people attracted to ISIS were to stay at home and contemplate their own sinfulness and work out how to try to be better people, rather than trying to create through violence the perfect state on earth. The former does no harm, and may in fact do some good. The latter has consequences we can all see.
As for the young man in the latest video making threats against the Pope and promising to conquer Rome, he needs to work out his personal problems in some other way. Paradoxically, a period of religious reflection might help him.