The Roots of the Islamic State’s Appeal

In a long, rambling statement in September, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani expounded on his group’s inherent advantage: “Being killed … is a victory,” he said. “You fight a people who can never be defeated. They either gain victory or are killed.” In this most basic sense, religion—rather than what one might call ideology—matters. ISIS fighters are not only willing to die in a blaze of religious ecstasy; they welcome it, believing that they will be granted direct entry into heaven. It doesn’t particularly matter if this sounds absurd to most people. It’s what they believe.

Political scientists, including myself, have tended to see religion, ideology, and identity as epiphenomenal—products of a given set of material factors. We are trained to believe in the primacy of “politics.” This isn’t necessarily incorrect, but it can sometimes obscure the independent power of ideas that seem, to much of the Western world, quaint and archaic. As Robert Kagan recently wrote, “For a quarter-century, Americans have been told that at the end of history lies boredom rather than great conflict.” The rise of ISIS is only the most extreme example of the way in which liberal determinism—the notion that history moves with intent toward a more reasonable, secular future—has failed to explain the realities of the Middle East. It should by now go without saying that the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not share ISIS’s view of religion, but that’s not really the most interesting or relevant question. ISIS’s rise to prominence has something to do with Islam, but what is that something?

ISIS draws on, and draws strength from, ideas that have broad resonance among Muslim-majority populations. They may not agree with ISIS’s interpretation of the caliphate, but the notion of acaliphate—the historical political entity governed by Islamic law and tradition—is a powerful one, even among more secular-minded Muslims. The caliphate, something that hasn’t existed since 1924, is a reminder of how one of the world’s great civilizations endured one of the more precipitous declines in human history. The gap between what Muslims once were and where they now find themselves is at the center of the anger and humiliation that drive political violence in the Middle East. But there is also a sense of loss and longing for an organic legal and political order that succeeded for centuries before its slow but decisive dismantling. Ever since, Muslims, and particularly Arab Muslims, have been struggling to define the contours of an appropriate post-caliphate political model.

In contrast, the early Christian community, as Princeton historian Michael Cook notes, “lacked a conception of an intrinsically Christian state” and was willing to coexist with and even recognize Roman law. For this reason, among others, the equivalent of ISIS simply couldn’t exist in Christian-majority societies. Neither would the pragmatic, mainstream Islamist movements that oppose ISIS and its idiosyncratic, totalitarian take on the Islamic polity. While they have little in common with Islamist extremists, in both means and ends, the Muslim Brotherhood and its many descendants and affiliates do have a particular vision for society that puts Islam and Islamic law at the center of public life. The vast majority of Western Christians—including committed conservatives—cannot conceive of a comprehensive legal-social order anchored by religion. However, the vast majority of, say, Egyptians and Jordanians can and do.

This is why the well-intentioned discourse of “they bleed just like us; they want to eat sandwiches and raise their children just like we do” is a red herring. After all, one can like sandwiches and want peace, or whatever else, while also supporting the death penalty for apostasy, as 88 percent of Egyptian Muslims and 83 percent of Jordanian Muslims did in a 2011 Pew poll. (In the same survey, 80 percent of Egyptian respondents said they favored stoning adulterers while 70 percent supported cutting off the hands of thieves). Polling in the Arab world is an inexact science. But even assuming that these results significantly overstate support for religiously derived criminal punishments—let’s say support was closer to 65 or 45 percent instead—that would still probably give us pause (I discuss these and other polling results in greater detail in my new book on Islamist movements).

It’s worth noting that mainstream Islamist movements in the Arab world no longer include the hudud punishments for theft, adultery, and apostasy in their political platforms and rarely discuss them in public (South and Southeast Asian Islamists haven’t been as circumspect). In this sense, the median Egyptian or Jordanian voter is to the right of the main Islamist parties in their respective countries. (Many Muslims say they believe in the hudud because the punishments are in the Quran; whether they would actually be comfortable with the state—a state they may oppose—cutting of someone’s hand for stealing is a rather different question.)

These are, in any case, only the most extreme examples, and it would be problematic to take the hudud as somehow emblematic of modern Islamism or, for that matter, pre-modern Islamic law. The more relevant consideration is how Arabs view the relevance of Islamic law, including on issues like gender equality, minority rights, and the role of clerics, in drafting national legislation. Why, for example, do only 24 percent of Egyptian women, according to an April 2011 YouGov poll, say they would support a female president? What some might call “culture,” and not necessarily Islam, is a major factor, but it would be difficult to pretend that religion has nothing to do with these attitudes. And, presumably, Islam has at least something to do with why 51 percent of Jordanians, according to the 2010 Arab Barometer, say “a parliamentary system that allows for free competition, but only between Islamic parties” is somewhat appropriate, appropriate, or very appropriate.

Islam is distinctive in how it relates to politics. This isn’t necessarily bad or good. It just is. Comparing it with other religions helps illuminate what makes it so. For example, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling BJP may be Hindu nationalists, but the ideological distance between them and the secular Congress Party isn’t as great as it may seem. In part, this is because traditional Hindu kingship—with its fiercely inegalitarian vision of a caste-based social order—is simply less relevant to modern, mass politics and largely incompatible with democratic decision-making. As Cook writes in his new book Ancient Religions, Modern Politics, “Christians have no law to restore while Hindus do have one but show little interest in restoring it.” Muslims, on the other hand, not only have a law but also one that is taken seriously by large majorities throughout the Middle East.


Muslims are not bound to Islam’s founding moment, but neither can they fully escape it. The Prophet Muhammad was a theologian, a head of state, a warrior, a preacher, and a merchant, all at once. Some religious thinkers—including Sudan’s Mahmoud Mohamed Taha and, later, his student Abdullahi An-Na’im—have tried to separate these different prophetic legacies, arguing that the Quran contains two messages. The first message, based on the verses revealed while the prophet was establishing a new political community in Medina, include particulars of Islamic law that may have been appropriate for seventh-century Arabia but are not necessarily applicable outside that context. The “second message” of Islam, found in the so-called Meccan verses, encompasses the eternal principles of Islam, which are meant to be updated according to the demands of time and context. Taha was executed by the Gaafar al-Nimeiry regime in 1985 and his theories failed to gain many adherents. But the basic idea of extracting general principles while emphasizing the historicity of their application has, in less explicit form, been advocated by a growing number of “progressive” Muslim scholars, many of whom live in the West.

Can these ideas gain traction? And, if they do, could it lead to an Islamic “reformation”? Perhaps, but there is one slight complication. Islam has already experienced a “reformation” of sorts. In the late 19th century, the Islamic modernism of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Mohammed Abdu—the precursor to “Islamism”—attempted to make Islam, and pre-modern Islamic law, safe for modernity (or was it the other way around?). This movement was a response to many things—secularism, colonialism, the rise of Europe—but it was also, importantly, a response to the creeping authoritarianism of the late Ottoman era. The legal scholar Mohammad Fadel notes that Rashid Rida, a student of Abdu’s, proposed “a new legal system that would be consistent with popular sovereignty and whose method of law-making would rely on independent reasoning exercised collectively through deliberative institutions.” Such a legal system required codifying Islamic law, making it more uniform to prevent arbitrary abuses, and, in effect, nationalizing its implementation. A written, codified law would provide a check on the excesses of executive power. The arbitrary whims of corrupt rulers would give way to something resembling the rule of law. As Noah Feldman argues in The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, historically it was a self-regulating clerical class that, as keepers of God-given law, ensured that the caliph was bound by something beyond himself. “To see the [sharia-based system] as containing the balance of powers so necessary for a functioning, sustainable legal state is to emphasize not why it failed,” Feldman writes, “but why it succeeded so spectacularly for as long as it did.” The Islamic modernists had little interest in returning religious scholars to a place of prominence. Instead, they hoped to introduce consultative mechanisms and institutions to balance the burgeoning power of the executive.

The other contribution of Islamic modernism was to recognize the state, and state power, as a political fact. Since the state had more responsibilities—providing education and healthcare, regulating mass media, and concerning itself with family planning—it needed to have more discretion in public policymaking. Islamic modernists and mainstream Islamists alike made an effective distinction between matters of faith and creed, which were unchangeable, and matters of policy, which were not. If something was in the public interest, or maslaha, then it could (probably) be justified. If prohibitions on usury stood in the way of, say, an IMF loan, then there would have to be a way around it. Islamists needed to build in this flexibility. As Fadel writes, “The fundamental goal of modernist Islamic political thought was to define what good governance in accordance with the sharia meant in the modern age.” Pre-modern Islamic law, by definition, was incompatible with the modern nation-state, so there had to be a way to square the circle, even if that meant going well beyond what textual literalists were comfortable with. This opened Islamists, particularly in recent decades as they modernized their positions on political pluralism and women’s rights, to accusations of excessive pragmatism or, worse, outright insincerity. Indeed,ultraconservative Salafis, themselves a rather diverse bunch, regularly castigate the Muslim Brotherhood and its fellow travelers for putting the demands of politics over the requirements of faith.

The Brotherhood, in this respect, is a heterodox and reformist intellectual and political movement. Of course, it is also inherently illiberal. But there is no particular reason why Islamic “reform” should lead to liberalism in the way that the Protestant Reformation led, eventually, to modern liberalism. The Reformation was a response to the Catholic Church’s clerical stranglehold over Christianity. What would become Protestantism was inextricably linked to the advent of mass literacy, as a growing number of believers were no longer dependent on the intercession of clerics. With the New Testament translated for the first time into German and other European languages, the faithful could directly access the text on their own.

The Muslim world, by comparison, has already experienced a weakening of the clerics, who, in being co-opted by newly independent states, fell into disrepute. In Europe, the decline of the clerical class and mass literacy laid the groundwork for secularization. In the modern Middle East, these same forces coincided with political Islam’s ascendancy. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood disproportionately drew its leadership from the professional sectors of medicine, engineering, and law. The movement, founded in 1928, was decidedly non-clerical and, in some ways, anti-clerical. In the 1950s, Cairo’s al-Azhar, the Arab world’s preeminent center of Islamic thought, was co-opted and politicized by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime, the Brotherhood’s chief antagonist.

The much more literalist Salafis also had little time for the religious establishment. The premise of Salafism was that centuries of intricate and technical Islamic scholarship had obscured the power and purity of Islam, as embodied by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Salafi leaders told their followers that the Quran’s meaning could be accessed by simply reading it and following the example of the Prophet. Salafism—and for that matter groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS—would be inconceivable without the weakening of the clerics and the democratization of religion interpretation.


In pre-Enlightenment Europe, clerical despotism was the major problem. The nation-state system offered an alternative, one that could put an end to the seemingly endless religious wars that had devastated the continent. This Westphalian peace, as Henry Kissinger writes in World Order, “reserved judgment on the absolute in favor of the practical and the ecumenical.”

The Islamic modernists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had to contend with a different set of problems—primarily Western colonialism and the invariably autocratic rulers that the West insisted on supporting. Independence from Britain and France gave way to secular nationalistic states that solved one problem only to exacerbate others. In theory, Kissinger notes, the concept of raison d’etat “represent[ed] not an exaltation of power but an attempt to rationalize and limit its use.” But in the Arab context, the supremacy of the “national interest” meant empowering the state all too often at the expense of good governance, democracy, pluralism, and freedom of expression.

The Arab world clearly suffers from weak, failed, and failing states. But it also suffers from strong or “over-developed” states, to use Yezid Sayigh’s apt description (the line between weak and failing and over-developed but brittle is a blurry one). But, more than that, the Arab regional order suffers from the “exaltation” of the state—something most obvious, and frightening, in the case of Egypt, where President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has enthusiastically promoted the sacralization of state power. This is the democrat’s dilemma: Security and stability would seem to depend on strong states, particularly in the short-term, but the demands of pluralism and at least a semblance of democracy require ultimately constraining, and even weakening, those same states.

Whether the Islamic modernist project—reconciling the pre-modern Islamic tradition with the modern tradition of the nation-state—can succeed remains an open question. Wael Hallaq, a leading scholar of Islamic law, takes issue with Islamists for precisely this reason, arguing in his 2013 book The Impossible State that they have become obsessed with the modern state, to the extent of “taking [it] for granted and, in effect, as a timeless phenomenon.”

Remarkably, a growing number of foreign-policy hands, including most recently Kissinger and former Obama aide Dennis Ross, have made the opposite case, arguing that Islamism, in all of its diversity, is essentially incompatible with the Westphalian order. Ross, for example, writes that “what the Islamists all have in common is that they subordinate national identities to an Islamic identity.” To say that Egyptian national identity and “Islamic identity,” whatever that is, can somehow be separated would be news, for one, to President Sisi, whose regime Ross lauds. Sisi, for instance, wrote in his U.S. Army War College thesis that “democracy cannot be understood in the Middle East without an understanding of the concept of [the ideal state of the caliphate]” and, during his recent campaign, claimed that the president’s job included “presenting God [correctly].” Meanwhile, other “moderate” U.S. allies, such as the Moroccan and Jordanian monarchies, are constitutionally endowed with religious legitimacy (the Moroccan king is amir al-mumineen, or “leader of the faithful”).

More problematically, though, Ross and Kissinger, appear unaware of, or perhaps indifferent to, the state-centrism of mainstream Islamists. (This can sometimes lead to broad and sometimes bizarre brush strokes, as when Kissinger, in World Order, manages to lump together al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban, Iran, ISIS, and Hizb al-Tahrir, all in the same sentence.) Islamism, of the mainstream rather than extremist variety, has attempted to make peace with the state, hoping to reform it, rather than to erase it in favor of some pan-Islamic caliphal fantasy. The Brotherhood doesn’t do revolution well for precisely this reason; It does slow, prodding gradualism. Under Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, the Brotherhood, despite being harshly critical of government policies and eventually of Mubarak himself, showed deference toward the military, judiciary, and al-Azhar. The organization took issue with people and policies, not state institutions as such. The incremental reformism of the Muslim Brotherhood made the group anathema to ISIS and other extremist organizations. In one of his early public statements, al-Adnani, the ISIS spokesman, dismissed the Brotherhood as an “idol that has fallen,” accusing the group of holding to a “secular project supported by the religions of un-belief.”

These considerations make the movement to cast all Islamists as the problem— and to argue for constraining their political participation or even excluding them altogether—particularly dangerous. The demonization and marginalization of Islamists who have attempted to work within existing state structures threatens to radicalize them not so much toward violence or terror but, rather, toward revolution against the state. With their ill-considered policy prescriptions, Ross and Kissinger are effectively helping to create the very problem they claim to be solving.

The July 3, 2013 military coup in Egypt and the government’s subsequent, brutal crackdown on its Islamist opponents has led to the thorough, unceasing politicization of state institutions, which have become partisans in a civil conflict in which hundreds of Egyptians have been killed. It is unclear if the state, in the eyes of Egypt’s young, angry Islamist activists, can be salvaged. They see the state, at least in its current iteration, as an enemy to be undermined, if not destroyed.

If ISIS and what will surely be a growing number of imitators are to be defeated, then statehood—and, more importantly, states that are inclusive and accountable to their own people—are essential. The state-centric order in the Arab world, for all its artificiality and arbitrariness, is preferable to ungoverned chaos and permanently contested borders. But for the Westphalian system to survive in the region, Islam, or even Islamism, may be needed to legitimate it. To drive even the more pragmatic, participatory variants of Islamism out of the state system would be to doom weak, failing states and strong, brittle ones alike to a long, destructive cycle of civil conflict and political violence.

This piece was originally posted in The Atlantic.