“The revolutionary’s Utopia, which in appearance represents a complete break with the past, is always modeled on some image of the lost Paradise, of a legendary Golden Age,” wrote Arthur Koestler in a 1949 essay on his painful disillusionment with the Soviet Union. Koestler was a Hungarian communist intellectual who had been passionately committed to the cause, but later rebelled against the party over Joseph Stalin’s abuses. His essay was part of a collection of writings called “The God that Failed,” published by disaffected communists who had been forced to grapple with what appeared to be the failure of their revolution, as it veered into Stalinism.
“It [is] true that in the face of revolting injustice the only honorable attitude is to revolt, and to leave introspection for better times,” Koestler reflected. “But if we survey history and compare the lofty aims, in the name of which revolutions were started, and the sorry end to which they came, we see again and again how a polluted civilization pollutes its own revolutionary offspring.”
Looking back on the Arab Spring revolutions of the past decade, these sorry ends are not hard to find. These revolutions are also commonly judged to have “failed,” after briefly capturing the world’s imagination in 2011 when they first broke out. But the same set of circumstances that led to the uprisings in the first place continue to exist. And the ways in which different revolutionary movements failed are important, with relevant implications looking forward.
Among the revolutionaries there was a democratic trend that included liberal activists, nationalists, and Islamist groups willing to engage in the electoral process. Alongside the democrats was a violent, wildly utopian religious movement launched by groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda that tried to destroy Muslim societies and recreate them as a “caliphate” — an imaginary community where all the world’s Muslims would ostensibly live happily-ever-after under the rule of jihadis.
The democratic movements were largely crushed by the brutal response of local dictators. The jihadis, meanwhile, briefly managed to achieve a version of their caliphate, only to see it destroyed in a final cataclysm. But while the core idea that animated the Arab democrats continues to be attractive despite its repression, the utopian project of the jihadis has been undermined in critical ways by its failure.
The idea of a “caliphate” today looks like just another modern radical movement that promised a new paradise on earth, before violently destroying itself and its adherents.
Not only did the jihadis lose in their grand confrontation with local regimes and the international system — a confrontation that they repeatedly promised that God would not let them lose — their brief attempt at implementing their ideal society was stained by an unforgettable litany of crimes and disasters. Rather than inaugurating a new Golden Age of strength and security, the idea of a “caliphate” today looks like just another modern radical movement that promised a new paradise on earth, before violently destroying itself and its adherents.
The defeat of the Islamic State might ironically be a letdown for some in the West. Western politicians, military officials, and their assorted hangers-on in the media and think tank world have already begun planning for a long war against “global jihadism,” an analogue to the Cold War that would justify their inflated budgets and provide a continued sense of purpose. Unlike communism or nationalism, however, there’s little indication that apocalyptic jihadism as an ideology is attractive or sustainable enough to meaningfully compete with Western democracies in the way that those ideologies did. Diehard Islamic State sympathizers may continue committing individual acts of terrorism for the foreseeable future and mini proto-states pledging allegiance to the group will still proliferate, but the rapid rise and fall of the caliphate demonstrates an important lesson about the fundamentally self-destructive nature of millenarian movements.
In his 1962 book, “The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of Germanic Ideology,” the German-American historian Fritz Stern described the ideological project that gave birth to Nazism in terms eerily portentous of the Islamic State. “The movement did embody a paradox: its followers sought to destroy the despised present in order to recapture an idealized past in an imaginary future,” Stern wrote. “They sought a breakthrough to the past, and they longed for a new community in which old ideas and institutions would once again command universal allegiance.”
In the end, the Nazis’ attempt to recreate an idealized past led to disaster and humiliation, and the Islamic State, too, is poised to go that way. With the immediate crisis posed by the group having mostly subsided, it’s becoming possible to look at the Islamic State in clearer context. Despite its propaganda and the sensational image portrayed in the Western press, the group was less a harbinger of the apocalypse and more like one of history’s many desperate and fanatical radical movements, burning quickly and brightly before settling into a pile of ash. Understanding the depths and reasons for the Islamic State’s failure — how it fizzled out — might be the first step to preventing another group like it from again gaining a hold on the world’s collective imagination.
Understanding the depths and reasons for the Islamic State’s failure might be the first step to preventing another group like it from again gaining a hold on the world’s collective imagination.
Yassin al-Haj Saleh has had closer experience with the brutality of the Islamic State than most. A longtime Syrian democratic activist and native of Raqqa, Saleh lived through the Syrian uprising and is the author of “The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy.” In 2013, Saleh’s brother Feras was kidnapped by Islamic State militants. The same year, his wife, Samira Khalil, was detained along with three other well-known activists by a separate group of Islamist militants near Damascus. None have been heard from since.
Saleh has a unique perspective on Salafi jihadism, the radical religious ideology that drives the Islamic State and similar groups, borne in part from his experience of the group’s rise. Rather than a traditional religious ideology or political movement capable of appealing to broad segments of society, Saleh says that the harsh, unrealistic, and self-defeating nature of jihadism alienates all but a fringe.
Instead of a return to traditional values, Saleh describes Salafi jihadism as the latest iteration of a quintessentially modern phenomenon: nihilism. A philosophy with its roots in 19th century Europe, nihilism denies that the material world and life itself hold any intrinsic value or meaning. While nihilism does not inevitably lead to violence, its world-denying tenets helped inspire numerous campaigns of terrorism by its adherents. In Europe, where atheism had already become normative, local expressions of nihilism were atheistic. But in Muslim-majority societies like Syria, nihilism “looks for its pillars of support in the religion of Islam,” Saleh says.
The nihilism analogy goes deeper into the practices of groups like the Islamic State. Suicide and murder are normally considered to be grave sins by Muslims. But during periods of widespread crisis and trauma, radical groups like the Islamic State exploit a cognitive opening to try to portray these acts as acceptable, even positive. The religious concept of an afterlife is also twisted to support a nihilistic worldview, by devaluing acts committed in the material world in favor of a promised hereafter.
Yet this radical inversion of traditional values is not one that has shown itself to be appealing to large groups of people in Muslim countries. Rather than a mass movement with deep social and cultural roots, Saleh says that jihadism relies mainly on exploiting conditions of crisis to coerce the support of people who would normally find its tenets repellent.
“Although they can succeed in exploiting the failures of other opposition movements and the hatred of local dictators, the nihilist groups do not have appeal on a popular level.”
“Although they can succeed in exploiting the failures of other opposition movements and the hatred of local dictators, the nihilist groups do not have appeal on a popular level. They don’t think in terms of broadening their social base of support or about appealing to wider sectors of the population,” Saleh says. “These groups know very well that they don’t have popular support, which is why when they take over territories they begin killing the local people and hanging their bodies in the streets. They want people to be afraid of them.”
According to the State Department, an estimated 40,000 people are believed to have migrated to Islamic State territory as foreign fighters, from upwards of 100 countries. The number was significant to the battles in Iraq and Syria, but it represents a tiny fraction of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims, the broad target audience for jihadis’ ideological message. Despite making sophisticated use of new propaganda technologies and having its message amplified by the world’s biggest media outlets, in the end the Islamic State was only able to recruit at the margins of Muslim societies and their diaspora communities.
“The majority of those that left home to join Islamic State were people who had social problems, had been in jail, or were otherwise despised in their own societies,” Saleh says. “Jihadism may have offered a solution for people like this, but it was a solution for individuals — maybe hundreds or even thousands of individuals — but not for whole sectors or classes of people.”
This rational perspective of the threat posed by the Islamic State flew in the face of messages from both sides of the conflict over jihadism, the extremes who both sought to raise the specter of an apocalyptic clash of civilizations. For those purporting to oppose jihadism, this view was massively counterproductive: Instead of treating the Islamic State and terrorism in general as a policing and governance problem, cultural and political pathologies in the West contributed to a distortion and magnification of the jihadist threat that has proven very helpful to the jihadis in building their own mystique.
“There is a lot of attention to jihadism because it feeds into the narrative of the U.S. global war against terrorism and because Western media and politicians are generally obsessed with Islam. But I don’t think we should be deceived by this — we are not talking about a civilizational conflict here,” says Saleh. “These are armed groups that combine religion with military training and fascist educational indoctrination. But they are mainly concerned with violence. They do not have any meaningful social, political, or cultural base, nor do they offer any real emancipatory potential for Muslim societies.”
In a videotaped address given in 2014 from Baghdad’s historic Al Nuri Mosque, the Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that his group had reinstated the “caliphate,” a medieval form of Islamic governance that predominated in the region before the emergence of nation-states. It was a declaration that touched on a long history in the Muslim world. The office of the caliphate was first created during the seventh century, at the time of Islam’s founding, and continued to exist in symbolic form in Istanbul until 1924, when it was abolished by Turkish nationalists.
Despite the global attention that their inflammatory proclamation received, it was never clear what the Islamic State actually meant to convey with the announcement of a “caliphate.” The medieval caliphates were not utopian dreamlands of peace and prosperity, nor did they claim to be. The real-world caliphates were fairly standard political entities of their time; they made alliances with Christian kingdoms, had minorities living in their territories, and were sometimes led by caliphs who indulged in wine, poetry, and other worldly pursuits.
The Islamic State also did not bother explaining how their caliphate was going to solve the problems of the people they claimed to represent. Instead, like other modern radical movements of the past century, Baghdadi simply proclaimed the revival of a past Golden Age and told his followers that supporting the group would be a panacea for their ills. In their hysterical propaganda, the Islamic State promised that it would soon “eliminate the grayzone” — a reference to the area of peace and cohabitation between peoples — triggering a clash between Muslims and non-Muslims worldwide.
Despite the provocative violence and rhetoric, the caliphate failed to achieve any of its goals. From the accounts of those now emerging from its rule, life under the Islamic State was a dystopian nightmare. And instead of fighting imperial “crusaders,” the group spent most of its time killing other Muslims and local minority communities who opposed it. Although the level of terrorist violence the group inspired was enough to disturb Western societies, it was far from what was needed to follow through on the promise of crippling or destroying the Western world.
“ISIS faces the same problems that the non-jihadi militant groups do, which is that they don’t actually have any proposals about how to tackle the real problems.”
For the people of Middle Eastern countries who rose up several years ago against local dictators in particular, exchanging the brutality and incompetence of their old leaders for the brutality and incompetence of the jihadis hardly seemed like an attractive proposition. The Islamic State’s global recruitment call succeeded in attracting many zealots and the group’s leaders were able to win the allegiance of some local tribes in Iraq and Syria. But ultimately the fantastical promise of a caliphate was not enough to make up for the complete lack of any other appealing ideological program.
“ISIS faces the same problems that the non-jihadi militant groups do, which is that they don’t actually have any proposals about how to tackle the real problems — socioeconomic, political, and generational — that Muslim communities around the world face,” says Chris Anzalone, a research fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center International Security Program and an expert on contemporary jihadi movements. “In many ways, they actually mimic the regimes that they claim to reject — they just Islamize the language around their governance. And, in general, when they take over areas from local regimes, they do a worse job than the people they are replacing.”
Even when trying to appeal to people for whom “purely” theological questions take precedence over economics or politics, the Islamic State had a serious problem: While many Western media outlets were glad to accept the group’s propaganda about its religious legitimacy, for many conservative Islamists, the caliphate appeared as an alien and unorthodox intrusion into their religion. It was a political project that, like every other attempt to create a heaven on earth, was radically modern in nature. Instead of an ideological alternative to the West, the Islamic State behaved more like a negative image of Western modernity, the object of its obsession.
“While recognizing that it draws on historical and medieval elements, the idea of a caliphate is in its entirety a modern idea,” says Anzalone. “The [jihadi’s] self-definition and structure is almost entirely predicated on a reaction to modernity; they mimic the nation-state down to their idea of what they are [and] what are they not. It’s not just Islamic State but Al Qaeda as well: Everything that they propose is simply a reaction to the West, the secular nation-state, and the international system.”
The depraved and voyeuristic nature of the Islamic State’s violence begins to make more sense in this context. The religion of Islam generally contains rules and prescriptions on violence, including, for example, the proscription on burning people with fire, as the Islamic State notoriously did to a Jordanian pilot who it captured in 2014. But, in the Islamic State’s ideology, these religious rules became secondary to what was by far its most important concern: antagonizing and horrifying Westerners. Even the group’s adapted slogan — “Die in your rage” — reflected this all-consuming preoccupation.
German cultural historian Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, whose writings later helped create the basis for the Nazi movement, counseled a similar ideology based on rejecting modernity, antagonizing “the West,” and even embracing self-destruction as a political strategy.
“Our calling is to be an irritation of the spirit to the people of comfort,” Moeller van den Bruck declared in 1924, writing about the purifying power of violence and suicide in terms that might as well have come from today’s jihadis. “Our miracle will be: when we, to whom it has been intimated that we should annihilate ourselves, will achieve out of our revolutionary suicide, our political rebirth.”
The desperate and nihilistic ideology inspired in part by Moeller van den Bruck’s thoughts briefly succeeded in creating a mass following in 20th century Germany, the place where it was first articulated. In its Islamic expression, similar ideological proclivities have gained limited traction, reaching a fever pitch in the Islamic State, which was defeated militarily with much greater ease than Nazism. Yet even if jihadi ideology falls out of fashion following its recent failures, stabilizing the Middle East and guaranteeing that such movements do not arise in the future requires addressing the root causes of why militancy — both jihadi and non-jihadi — has been endemic to the region over the past century.
Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the end of Western colonial mandates in the Middle East, this region has seen an endless stream of militant movements arise. These movements have been variously leftist, nationalist, and Islamist in orientation. The emergence of the Salafi jihadis in recent years is only the latest in this succession of ideologies that have all attempted to do one fundamental thing: solve the problems of the underdeveloped masses of Middle Eastern countries.
“There is an interesting effect that, when the left and the nationalists are eliminated or marginalized from Muslim public discourse, it is the radical religious groups, with some exceptions, that get to claim the mantle of being anticolonial and anti-imperial,” says Omid Safi, a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University. “A few decades ago, even passionately Muslim intellectuals were also leftists and socialists. But when these leftist movements were persecuted and destroyed, people had to turn elsewhere for help when they felt the power of muscular Western militarism encroaching on their land, culture, and values.”
Unlike the xenophobic and world-denying nihilism of Salafi jihadism, leftist politics in the past century actually offered solutions to many of the problems facing people in postcolonial countries. Despite the eventual corruption and defeat of most regional communist parties, many of these movements, in contrast to the jihadis, also succeeded in producing genuine intellectuals around the world who were capable of expressing a crisis of conscience over the crimes committed in their name.
“Though we wore blinkers, we were not blind. Even the most fanatical among us could not help noticing that all was not well in our movement.”
While the movements were not morally equivalent, sometimes the intensity of the conversion experience for jihadi recruits and former communist revolutionaries were not dissimilar. Arthur Koestler described his initial belief that Soviet communism would liberate the oppressed masses of Europe as a feeling of “mental rapture,” in which “the new light seems to pour from all directions across the skull [and] the whole universe falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a jigsaw.” The euphoria of that conversion was equaled only by the pain of his eventual disillusionment.
“Though we wore blinkers, we were not blind,” Koestler reflected. “Even the most fanatical among us could not help noticing that all was not well in our movement.”
Surveying the destruction of ancient cities like Raqqa and Mosul, and the millions of shattered lives left in the wake of the Islamic State’s failed revolution, it’s hard not to see the group, now stripped of its power, as anything other than the latest, most fanatic attempt to remedy the ills of long-tyrannized societies. Although jihadis may be killed and their ideology may even fall out of favor, until the people of the region experience genuine emancipation, there is unlikely to be an end to terrorist violence, nor to radical armed groups promising to bring heaven down to earth by any means necessary.