Playing Into ISIS Hands


Continuing the discussion from Former ISIS hostage: they want us to retaliate:

A friend put this video up on Facebook, and it’s an excellent indictment of reactive responses to ISIS:

Story Time:

I grew up in a Muslim fundamentalist household. There’s a lot of nuance as to what that means and I hesitate to say it because it doesn’t translate well. The reality is that growing up in a Muslim fundamentalist household is actually not considerably different, based on everything I’ve read and heard, from growing up with Christian fundamentalism. I’m not going to write my biography here: The point is that for better or for worse, I was directly exposed to the uglier side of Islamic fundamentalism. I knew plenty of people who sympathized with Al-Qaeda growing up, or who at least equivocated when it came to justifying their atrocities. I have a lot of stories there, but the one I’m thinking of at the moment was someone credulously explaining to me the brilliance of Al-Qaeda’s model: Al-Qaeda has a certain set of theological and political philosophies, and if you or a group accepts them, you can become affiliated, and never take direction from any kind of central authority. This decentralized model of terrorism was supposedly their great strength.

In reality, people like Zarqawi in Iraq didn’t always cleave to the Al-Qaeda doctrines, and there was always a tension between Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the original AQ organization’s founding leadership. This rigidity about doctrine hindered the replication of AQ organizations worldwide. What we have in ISIS is something different, and something far more insidious. ISIS doesn’t care about doctrine. They don’t split hairs. While AQ actually bothered to generate a facile calculation for the number of people it would be Islamically acceptable to kill based on an arcane set of considerations I can’t be arsed to remember right now, ISIS legitimately does not give a fuck. AQ and their ilk were millenarians, believers in a great shift or cosmic change in the order of mankind. That was always their goal. ISIS, by contrast, is trying to bring about the apocalypse.

Without boring you (or enthralling you, depending on your religious nerditude) with visions of exploding seas and Gog and Magog, I can say that I’m very intimately familiar with Islam’s particular eschatology. Muhammad made a number of prophesies that ISIS (and many Muslims in general, regardless of whether they harbor any fundamentalist sympathies) believe have come true. E.g. A common one is the prophesy that Muslims would eventually be forced to engage in the use of interest-based finance in order to navigate the world. The Signs of The Last Day, as they’re known, have no temporal boundaries. Muhammed never said that they would happen within a certain timeframe. They are simply supposed to accumulate. ISIS inparticular relies on a specific vision, where Islam itself is almost obsolete. Visions of Islam for the future include the idea that most Muslims will not uphold the mores of Islamic behavior. In their vision: Muslims are supposed to go astray, they’re supposed to forget their religion, so that God will send down a Chosen One (the literal translation is the Guided One) to finally rid the world of evil.

They are almost nihilists. It’s okay for them to burn people to death (a punishment strictly prohibited by Islam- actually very clearly and indisputably) because Muslims are going to be redeemed when God sends his chosen one to rid the world of evil. (Here, they are inconsistent: It’s okay to burn people to death, but if you live in Raqqa and you skip Friday prayers, that’s Not Okay. They might even burn you to death for it.) This brings me to their model of terrorism. They just tore a page right out of Al-Qaeda’s book, where anyone can join ISIS without being beholden to central operational control. There is a critical difference, however: They have no doctrinal standards. They will happily accept responsibility whether they had any control over the terrorism whatsoever. Whether the people who commit the atrocities were even known to ISIS leadership before an incident is not important.

What they’re after is a concept known as fitnah, which roughly translates to “trials” or “tribulation.” A period of extreme fitnah is widely believed to precede the apocalypse. They really want to create a world where Muslims will wrestle with the conflicting options of either joining their religious brethren, or turning their back on them. ISIS genuinely wants this dichotomy. ISIS doesn’t have to win militarily. They just need to make it so that Muslims at large are forced into a binary choice.

One thing that really worries me, and I’m completely serious about this, is if we experience a series of unstable magnetic pole reversals before settling on a pole flip. This is not only possible, but certain to happen. It’s just a matter of time. This accords very well with a very specific Islamic prophesy that states that the sun will rise in the west on one day and then rise in the east again in the next. It doesn’t have to happen exactly like that for people to believe that the prophesy is satisfied. Here’s the problem: It demarcates a temporal boundary after which there will be no atonement. I suspect that if ISIS continues to be successful, and if Muslims are forced into even a perception that they have to choose one side over the other, something like that might tip the balance. It’s considered a Major Sign of the apocalypse. The less predictable the world seems, the more convincing ISIS’s theology becomes. It’s become a cliche at this point, but this is an excellent summary of everything ISIS does:

(OT, I want to see a movie about the young Alfred… he seems way more interesting than Bruce Wayne.)


That was a very interesting read, I would recommend you do some more of this.

I was most interested in your point about the selective rule-following. As I see it, this notion gets right to the heart of the problem of belief in any faith. The adherence is to adherence alone, to group-think within the handy and almost arbitrary container of faith. Sure, the image system and the history are significant contributors to the style of thought and behaviour, but not as important as the accentuation of the division between Us and Them.

The selective rule following in religion always seems to accentuate the most destructive behaviour possible. I can only imagine that from within the framework of an ideological structure, the memetic protection mechanisms that promote the strongest possible division from other ideologies are the easiest way of maintaining the integrity of that structure.

In a way, the less sense those actions make, the more it makes sense for the adherents to adopt such behaviours. Add the revelatory aspects that those image systems are able to tap into, the activation of the part of the brain/mind that generates those special feelings of significance and quickening and you’ve pinned your prospect to the apparent source of those feelings. Voilà, you’ve made an adherent.

When you look into the eyes of someone captured by an ideology, perhaps as you are debating them on the strengths and weaknesses of their chosen world-view, sometimes it is not the person staring back out of the eyes and talking back out of the mouth. Often, there is no thought except how to best capture or destroy you.


Not strictly true.

When was the last time you saw a newlywed Jewish man stone his bride to death on her father’s doorstep? Because the old testament says very clearly that’s what he has to do if his bride isn’t a virgin on their wedding night.

For that matter when was the last time a witch was burnt at the stake… On second thought, that’s probably a bad example, considering what US evangelical missionaries have done to Uganda.

People are often better than their religions. I’d say that people are most often better than their religions, because when you follow the bible completely literally, or the koran, or the bhagavad gita, or the book of mormon, you end up mired in so much blood and shit and filth. Because they were all written by primitive savages compared to the world today. They were all written by ignorant people who didn’t understand the world around them. And following bullshit to the letter gets you bullshit.

It’s a good thing most religious people are selective in how they follow their holy doctrines. Otherwise the killing, the savagery, would never end.


That’s a little too literal. Perhaps I should have written ‘within the context of accepted norms’ but I thought it was an unspoken assumption.

I have absolutely no doubt that if it was a regular practice for Jewish people to stone their family members to death, some Jewish people would be promoting the practice. (See ETA below)

The envelope of acceptable behaviour guides how destructive the behaviour can be, and as you say, Christian missionaries seem to still have fewer boundaries when missioneering out in the lands of ‘the savages’.

That’s my point. No one really does follow the rules as doctrine has laid them out, except to pick and choose to enact those rules and behaviours which most dynamically promote the divisions necessary to maintain a hermetically sealed complex of ideological memetics.

I agree that not following the rules can be a good thing when the rules are so inhuman, but getting to pick and choose what rules to follow, and more importantly, how to arbitrarily interpret the rules you do follow to allow whatever behaviour you’ve decided most strongly promotes and seals your ideology, can be even more destructive. See @ActionAbe 's differentiation between AQ’s attempts to actually maintain some kind of link with scripture and DAESH’s flouting of those links in favour of extreme violence. Extreme violence which strengthens and promotes the ideology of the in-group.


I should have said, 'If the practice of stoning people to death were still religious doctrine, some people would justify it as morally acceptable. See: Pro-Death Penalty Christians who justify the practice with “The commandment should really be translated as ‘Thou Shalt Not Murder.’ Lawful killing is still allowed.”


This is interesting to me, because I’m not sure that’s true. When I was younger, I was still sincerely religious. Yet, I never really bought into the more violent interpretations. The lessons I learned from reading about Islam’s mythic history were all about restraint and dignity in the face of persecution or war. I would argue that a lot of my morality today comes from Islam, including my hesitation to judge other people. I can very much trace a lot of what I value morally today to things I believed in religiously when I was younger.

There’s this interesting idea I’ve seen floating around, that says that good people are good without religion and that it takes religion to make good people do evil. I think it’s all pith with no wisdom, frankly. As far as I’m concerned, it’s One of Those Things People Say Without Ever Really Thinking About. It presumes, first of all, that there is a universal method by which we can select for good and evil people and that we can sort them into categories. As if people don’t change over their lifetime.

Two year-olds are horrible, horrible people. I wouldn’t trust a two year-old to behave morally. That same person at twenty will be very different. What is the totality of a person’s moral being? How do you evaluate that. It’s also demonstrably false from personal experience. Everyone reading this has done something that they feel is fully justified that someone else could look at and immediately decide was immoral. Everyone here has done some wrong and continues to justify it to themselves. The statement that it takes religion to make “good people” do “bad things” requires a certain lack of introspection to work. I guarantee you that you have fooled yourself into thinking you’re a more moral person than average. I’ll bet most people think this, despite the fact that it’s statistically impossible for that to be true.

I think people are far more complicated than that, and I think people are damned dirty apes that still have very strong instincts around clans, groups, and hierarchies within those groups. We’re just smart enough to either transcend it, mask it, and/or convince ourselves that it’s somehow the way things are supposed to be. I think that talking about religion like it’s something that exists in isolation, like it’s something that can be bottled and transported, is not really justifiable. Ideas by their very nature never truly work in isolation from other ideas. Yes, cognitive dissonance exists, but generally ideas work as systems of ideas.

Pretending that the ISIS sprung spontaneously from Islamic apocalyptic eschatology would be foolish. ISIS finds its genesis in the unique environment of post-Saddam Iraq in the 21st century, as well as a long-running lack of self-determination in the region. I mean, we have a lot of Americans in the news talking about whether we are going to allow democracy in Syria. We have been sticking our finger in the dyke for a long time now. It’s not a clash of civilizations if ISIS has never attacked Japan, or Argentina. You cannot fully separate it from a political and historical context where the United States became exceptionally influential in world affairs over the course of the 20th century.

All of this is to say, I very much favor multi-causal, multi-factor explanations of human behavior over giving religion what ultimately amounts to a great deal of credit.


I’m not necessarily indicating violence but rather destruction. This could be destructive social ideas, impinging on equal rights etc.

And most religions act as arbiters of morality, so I don’t find it at all surprising that you found good, applicable moral guidance from your religion. I’m not attempting to make the case that all of morality from religious sources is wrong.

Neither possibility necessarily precludes the other. Some people find right morality from religion and some find wrong morality in it. I would hazard a guess that the determining factor is the person who is seeking guidance from whatever source, be it religion or philosophy, experience or example.

I don’t think I’ve made that argument.

I certainly don’t think that about myself. I may very well have fooled myself about exactly how moral I am, but the spiritual practice I follow (if it can even be called that) is centred around right perception, and that involves a lot of introspective auditing. It can be very uncomfortable, being confronted with your true constitution, and especially having to constantly keep watch on one’s motivations and behaviours. I lapse, like I suspect most people do, but I think that if one is prepared (through meditation or any other form of practicing concentration) one can be aware of the upwelling of motivation to behave in a particular way and let the urge pass if that is what I determine is right.

Perhaps you should have said, “I guarantee you that you have fooled yourself into thinking that you are more moral than you actually are.”

Is there any sensible person alive that this statement would not apply to? How many enlightened masters are there really, anyway?

I could not agree more, but I would go further. I believe that the cover of religion, which often times portrays itself as the ultimate and usually perfect arbiter of morality, is a factor which can often contribute to an obfuscation of the truth. If one believes oneself to be pious and to follow one’s religion, one may not concentrate fully on the reality of the situation. One may come to believe that the sheer fact of belonging to the religion makes one moral and so dismiss evidence of the contrary. This is certainly my experience of some people, who hide behind the tenets of their chosen religion. But again, I think this has more to do with the people involved and that they are seeking an enabler of their negative instincts. Which they can often find without too much searching. Hate and intolerance, as I said, serve as very efficient delineating functions for the identification of in and out groups.

Memeplexes. :smile:

My criticism is for the whole of religion. Apologies if I made it seem like I was picking out Islam. Perhaps I could have been more explicit. I agree entirely with your appraisal of the proliferation of ignorance of moral culpability found so often in the west.

I agree that we must be careful to study all of the contributing factors to negative moral agency. However, given the history of the way in which religion has encouraged violence, I’m not so sure enough credit has yet been heaped at its feet. As I said, I really feel the central factor lies within the people, the adherents, but religion is a central enabler and motivating factor and has been for a long time.


I don’t think I was arguing with you… I was just using your comment as a jumping off point for thought. Apologies if it seemed that way. :smile:

But again, religion doesn’t really separate easily from other motivators for conflict, like identity, othering, and old historical grievances. In other words, I don’t feel that pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die beliefs are intrinsically linked to violence. I just don’t see that link. I’m much more inclined to attribute violence to systems of norm-making and group dynamics because those are common to every single conflict in the history of mankind.


What came first, the violence or the social dynamics which encourage and enable it?

Religion can and does serve this function.
Other aspects of sociality also serve this function. Religion takes advantage of the violence inherent in human behaviour and codifies those in and out group dynamics. It is just another of the tools used by violent humans for violent purposes.

It is used in this way. Do you disagree?


Like I mentioned in my first post, the use of religious, spiritual feelings can be used to quicken people into becoming adherents. They are brought into the fold with spiritual tricks. Impressive spiritual tricks, I will admit, but nevertheless, tricks of the mind. Religious image systems can enable us to feel the presence of the numinous, woe betide those that find that experience from a corrupt and corrupting source.

And here’s my favourite cultural theorist criticising my chosen spiritual practice. How’s this for clarity of introspection?

Kill the Buddha!


I kind of disagree, or equivocate a bit. It comes down to interpretation, I think. Because that’s where literalism falls down. Lots of people feel as if they are following the religious books literally, but if that were true then each set of followers who are literalists would behave in the exact same manner - they don’t. Even in fundamentalists interpretation, there is no singular coherence to be found.


There are no true adherents. Is there even really a religion in there?


Yes. Because most major religions focus on the journey to some sort of perfection, not in the notion that perfection can be achieved just by converting.


Yeah, I’m sort of a lapsed, cultural Protestant/Catholic who doesn’t practice Zen meditation enough, with a twist of Discordian humour and some Chaos Magic thrown in for good measure.

I strive to attain perfection but only so I can laugh at myself for doing so.


Right, but you can’t skirt these social dynamics simply by avoiding religion. My point is that they exist no matter what.

This presents an interesting agency question. Religion [verbs][thing]. Strictly speaking religion doesn’t do anything. It comes about by evolutionary process. Its fitness in terms of its survival actually has nothing to do with human social progress, but I can say that about nationalism too! Do you see what I’m saying? My point isn’t that religion has no role in violence and conflict, but I look at how people “worship” the Constitution of the United States, and very much see that behavior as falling well within the mold you seem to be casting exclusively for religion. To be clear: I’m not saying that you think that religion is the only causal factor in violence, or that you don’t think other ideas and issues can be implicated in violence. I wouldn’t accuse you of thinking simplistically. But I fail to see the specialness in it. I can’t distinguish it, in my mind, from other group cohesive factors that have nothing or little to do with superstition.

It is used. I like that. I like it very much. This cuts right to the heart of the issue doesn’t it? It is used. I would argue it is used very much like a number of other ideas to satisfy a specific social order. Again, I don’t see the specialness of religion here. When an American soldier is killed “fighting for his country,” he or she is glorified. They’re martyrs in the eyes of society. Yet that soldier’s war really reflects a very narrow set of interests riding on the coattails of American nationalism. I don’t see how that’s different from religion. So in a way, I’m half arguing with you, but I really seek to generalize and universalize this idea, rather than telescope in on religion that closely.


Right? I’m in the we need to focus on the actions of religous adherents actions not the texts themselves (with a few exceptions, maybe, like Christian Indentity and other verifiable hate groups?).

This is more about ideology than anything else, really. An ideology builds up a world view, that seeks to order all things and brokers no tolerance for doctrinal variation. But of course, despite the insistence that X thing is how the world really is, it’s actually not true - or is only partially true.

Because that in and of itself is an ideology. And we can understand and describe an ideology.


I don’t disagree.

See @Mindysan33. Nothing.

Hehe. :smile: :beers:

Group dynamics lie at the heart of the problem. And those groups are made out of individuals. I really do want to characterise religion as a veil behind which violent people hide but also that the organisations of people in religions are often drawn to, draw strength from and are enabled by those groups, those religions.


I agree. I think it’s how people employ whatever ideology for their own agendas.


It doesn’t do anything, it makes no speeches, has no limbs and exists in a torpid state of inaction. It’s the most violent and corrupting, quickening and glorious thing that does not exist. Quite an impressive trick of the mind, eh?

I just realised this is touching on one of my favourite ideas.

Composite Objects. Does anything exist? Everything is made out of other things. When we refer to a composite, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to treat the composite, the ideology, the memplex or whatever as an actual real thing which can have causative impact upon other things. The fact that religion is built out of scripture (written by people), people, places, associations etc doesn’t subtract any agency from it. It’s probably a sane behaviour to recognise that it is built out of people and their behaviours, but where are we going with this impulse?

Do we start to reduce down to genetics when discussing religions? How about quantum mechanics? Where is the action?


I can’t tell if you’re making fun of me or not? :wink:

But I think these things can be real in how they manage to get people to act - or maybe the people who develop ideologies make them do work on their behalf?


I’m having fun. :wink: But no, wouldn’t do that to you. I really do mean it’s impressive. I’m a little obsessed with memetics (can you tell) and I really do feel it’s an interesting avenue we’ve taken.

I guess even genes are not inert, prone to mutation as they are, so probably Religion is not totally inert, being mutated by the adherents and the texts they write, practices they pass on etc. But I do like this idea that the ideological factors which quicken human minds into being captured by the memeplexes need themselves those same human minds and bodies for expression.

The Discordian in me likes to find such weirdness.


Right, but does an ideology have existence outside of the human mind? Can’t we see an expression of ideology in our built environments or in the culture we create, which have a life of their own that floats between us? ISIS creates it’s own ideological structures in the territory it controls in various ways - how people dress, what they are allowed to do on a daily basis, the kind of sounds that carry through these towns, villages, and cities, the smells… those attempting to create an ideologically pure space try and rid these areas of the things that don’t conform to the ideology. But of course, as Leonard Cohen says: