Thinking Aloud: “The Islamic State’s Ideology and Propaganda,” Part I

Mar. 11, 2015 by Darius

Today I attended a panel discussion on “The Islamic State’s Ideology and Propaganda.”  Cole Bunzel, a PhD candidate at Princeton University, gave a very interesting presentation based on his research on ISIS’s history and ideology, and J.M. Berger, a nonresident fellow of the Brookings Institution, talked about ISIS’s social media presence and campaigns.  Today, I’ll bring you Bunzel’s comments, and tomorrow, I’ll share Berger’s remarks.

Bunzel’s research is almost entirely based on ISIS’s own Arabic-language materials (documents, speeches, etc.).  He chose to focus on ISIS’s own words because ISIS prides itself on the volume, consistency, and clarity of its ideological message.

Bunzel said that ISIS’s ideology falls within a very narrow band of political Islamic thought known as jihadi Salafism.  Jihadi Salafism emerged in the second half of the 20th century and combines the activism of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Brotherhood’s eventual goal of reestablishing an Islamic caliphate with radical Salafism’s animosity towards Shias and drive to eliminate all forms of idolatry.  From the beginning, ISIS has occupied the radical end of this ideological space, outstripping al-Qaeda in severity.

ISIS is also much older than most people realize.  The Islamic State in Iraq was founded on October 15, 2006.  Even then, the Islamic State in Iraq was sometimes called the Islamic State as for short.  Moreover, back in 2006, ISIS set out to do exactly what it has done: create a proto-caliphate in Iraq which would then expand internationally.  In fact, all the way back in 2001, the leader of the predecessor of the Islamic State in Iraq, Abu Zarqawi, discussed with senior al-Qaeda leaders the idea of forming a caliphate in Iraq.  ISIS’s state-building aspirations have been explicit since the beginning.

Between 2006 and 2013, though, the rest of the world considered the Islamic State in Iraq to be nothing more than an offshoot of al-Qaeda.  In fact, although most of the rest of the world referred to the group as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the leaders were furious that they were dismissed as a branch of al-Qaeda.  At the time, though, their “caliphate” was functionally nonexistent and was mocked even by other jihadists as a paper state.

Bunzel argued that ISIS is truly not an errant offshoot of al-Qaeda and that it has been unhelpful to think of them as such.  According to Bunzel, the relationship between proto-ISIS and al-Qaeda has always been troubled.  In fact, as early as the 1990s Zarqawi consistently favored a more extreme ideology than “mainstream” al-Qaeda.  When Zarqawi opened his own training camp in Afghanistan, it was across the country from bin Laden’s to avoid being co-opted by al-Qaeda.  Bunzel argued that it would be more accurate to think of al-Qaeda leaving ISIS than ISIS leaving al-Qaeda.

Bunzel also made the point that, leaving aside the largely unhelpful argument about if ISIS is truly “Islamic” or not, ISIS makes an effort to find religious validation for everything it does.  ISIS has shown willingness to dig deep into the literature of Islamic jurisprudence from the last 1400 years to find a respected jurist who condoned their kinds of actions.  Ironically, much of ISIS’s theological evidence is actually Saudi in origin.  Due to this effort to obtain religious sanction, Bunzel felt it was important to engage ISIS on religious grounds or, as he put it, to “fight them chapter and verse.”  A core part of ISIS’s propaganda is that ISIS is actually putting forth scriptural support for its actions, while everyone else just dismisses them as unbelievers without offering anything to back up their claims.  However, Bunzel cautioned against the US government trying to play this role—the US has no authority or legitimacy on Islamic religious matters.  He also made clear that the US should consider itself to be at war not with Islam but with jihadi Salafism.

Finally, Bunzel claimed that ISIS’s current success is due largely to the eloquence and competence of its leadership.  In previous years, the group struggled under inept leaders, but according to Bunzel, the top three leaders of ISIS today, including the caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, are all effective, educated, and speak excellent classical Arabic.  Bunzel felt that eliminating these individuals would have a profound impact.

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