by Patrick Bahzad
About a month ago, the US were taken over by some kind of metaphysical frenzy. A lengthy piece about "What ISIS really wants" – published by Graeme Wood in "The Atlantic" – caused quite a stir, not just among its readers. The article focused in part on interesting facts and truths about the religious nature of ISIS and the beliefs of its followers, but the reason it probably echoed so well with "average" Americans was because of its references to the supposedly messianic and apocalyptic ideology of ISIS. Some of the observations made by the author were quite relevant, but he also missed basic clues as to real symbols the "Caliphate" is trying to conjure up. Listing up the rights and wrongs of Wood's article would be complicated and require long explanations, some of them debatable, but it seems appropriate to seize this opportunity in order to examine the points raised and analyse them from a different angle, especially regarding the article's central piece about the myth of "Dabiq".
First of all, credit has to be given to Wood for not shying away from tough questions we need to ask ourselves with regard to the rise of the Islamic State and its "Caliphate". Wood also adopted a laudable approach in the sense that he apparently tried to understand the religious rationale behind some of ISIS' actions. But however interesting and refreshing such an attempt may be in a media landscape that seems obsessed with gruesome descriptions of ISIS atrocities only, Wood's account about the motivations of the Jihadists was deeply flawed.
Trying to understand what makes ISIS fighters "tick" – that is, what they fight for and why they kill – is quite difficult when you don't get to speak to a single one of them. Talking to scholars and recruitment agents of various Jihadi movements may help, but it certainly isn't equal to tapping the source. Admittedly, in Wood's own words, getting access to such source equals almost to a "mission impossible". Nonetheless, Wood is thus compelled to put forward other components of the supposed ISIS narrative, some of which would cause head-shaking among the hard core of the group's ideologists.
An interesting but partial background piece
The highly perilous exercise Wood engaged in – that of deciphering the ISIS symbolism – put a lot of emphasis on unveiling the apocalyptic message behind the organisation's ideology. By doing so, Wood left out elements in the "Caliphate" narrative that are of much higher importance. At best, this points to a good marketing strategy for the article published by "The Atlantic", aimed at raising interest and creating a buzz among readers more familiar with messianic Christian sects rather than Takfiri and Wahhabi groups. At worst, it could be seen as part of an information war with ISIS, attempting to produce a counter-narrative about the group's real motives and interfering with its credibility among potential supporters.
As was already observed long ago by a well-known think tank working closely with the US government, one angle of the war against the Jihadi groups is to attack their ideology, the goal being to "deny extremists the high ground of Islamic politico-religious discourse", thus prevailing in the war of ideas and "empowering moderate Muslims to counter the influence of the radicals". For this reason alone, one can't dismiss the notion that something might have been at work here that didn’t just have to do with an objective and neutral description of the beliefs of the "Caliphate" supporters. The link established between the ISIS online magazine's title "Dabiq" and some obscure references to an End of time battle occurring in a place of that name raises questions as to how seriously the article was researched and what purpose it was supposed to serve in that regard.
After all, presenting ISIS as an organisation hoping for Jesus to come and save them from the Antichrist is not exactly a statement likely to encourage conversions among fundamentalist Muslims. Furthermore, describing this as a central piece in the group's ideology is quite disturbing. It is this imbalance between aspects totally ancillary to the Caliphate symbolism and basic clues that should not have escaped a trained eye that is particularly striking.
The Proclamation of a new "Caliph"
In his article, Wood mentions among other things the first sermon given by the self-proclaimed Caliph in the Great Mosque of Mosul on July 5th 2014. As a side-note, it has to be said that the aforementioned sermon actually took place one day earlier, on July 4th, during Friday Prayer. This may sound like a detail, but details matter, in particular when it comes to ISIS. Wood also fails to notice that the "Caliphate" itself was proclaimed a few days earlier, on June 29th, another symbolic date, as it was the first day of the holy month of Ramadan.
Of course, political reasons may also have played a role in ISIS and al-Baghdadi's decision to proclaim the Caliphate. The group even carried out some market research on social media prior to its decision, but failing to mention the date of June 29th and its relevance is a mistake, as it carries huge symbolic and religious weight. Al-Baghdadi's sermon may have taken place on July 5th – or rather July 4th – and it was recorded in HD resolution, but what iscrucial, is the designation of a new "Caliph" on the first day of Ramadan, the month in the Islamic calendar during which the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the Prophet (Sūrat al-ʿAlaq, verses 1-5).