A literary specialist, a former officer in the Pakistan Army and a United States citizen, Masood Ashraf Raja is in a unique position to offer his analysis of the rise and fall of the militant Islamic State group that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as IS). Raja’s multiple heritages and range of skills enrich his analysis and offer fresh new insights into the evolution and growth of ISIS.
Raja has been contributing articles to different journals on various aspects of the triply related phenomena of ISIS, Al Qaeda and the Taliban. His book ISIS: Ideology, Symbolics and Counter-Narratives further expands these articles into a brief and theoretically grounded narrative on the rise of ISIS. Though many books have been written about the rise of ISIS — and its earlier incarnation Al Qaeda — by political scientists and journalists from the Western hemisphere and the Middle East — there are pretty few by writers of Pakistani extraction, and fewer even by literary specialists such as Raja. Its added importance lies in the fact that the book works its way through the story of the origin and the material conditions that fostered the group through the South Asian lens. ISIS’s larger ecosystem is refracted through the writings of Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Abul Ala Maududi, besides other Arab and Western thinkers and writers.
Raja show how the concepts of jihad and mujahid have contributed to the promotion and recruitment of ISIS, and I am keen to know what the Middle Eastern reaction to the book would be and how its South Asian take on ISIS will be received in the region.
Raja begins by identifying the frames, language and discourse used by ISIS and uses Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault and George Lakoff’s definitions of ideology, frame and language to identify leitmotivs in ISIS’s self-narratives.
An analysis of the rise of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ presents a unique look at its narratives through a South Asian lens
ISIS’s key frames and discourse revolve around the return of Khilafa (caliphate), honour and prestige, the Islamic calendar hijra and the role of ISIS’s flag or alam. Raja delves into Dabiq, ISIS’s propaganda journal, to tease out the organisation’s ideological and theoretical frames. Maududi’s writings are also referred to as ancillary to ISIS’s ideological frames. This elucidation of the ISIS’s ideological universe and theory of the state is quite a task, since ISIS’s inspiration, Al Qaeda, was largely focused on hitting Western targets and it was said at the time that the organisation had no theory of state beyond hit and run and hide operations.
However, it was from the hidden caves of Afghanistan that Al Qaeda’s ideological narratives and its incipient theory of state began to take shape, as explained by Steve Coll in The New Yorker. Abu Musab al Suri was one of the early theorists. With Al Qaeda’s expulsion from Afghanistan, the movement’s budding theorists and fighters congregated in the ungoverned spaces created by the Western intervention in Iraq. ISIS began to take more territorially rooted and ideologically grounded shape there. The weakening of Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria further opened up opportunities for ISIS to establish its territorial foothold. Earlier on, the Taliban had filled a similar vacuum left by the collapse of the communist-backed regime in Afghanistan and the resulting civil war there.
Raja devotes a chapter to the ISIS recruitment strategy, which is quite crucial to its continuing relevance. Key to the recruitment is the broadcasting and televising of its barbarity and savagery. Raja points to the use of key texts such as Abu Bakr al Naji’s Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through which the Islamic Nation Will Pass in ISIS’s consolidation and expansion strategy. The strategic use of barbarity and savagery during the collapse of the existing order is central to ISIS’s expansion into ungoverned spaces left by the collapse of, or the fragility of, previously stable governments in Iraq and Syria. Such a state of anarchy is exploited by ISIS to promote itself as the party bringing state provision of healthcare and other welfare services, as well as stable law and order. Thus, the rise of the Islamic State is inextricably bound with the collapse of the old order. The chapter on savagery is quite revealing about the elements of brutalisation that are inherent in the rise and spread of ISIS.
Since the publication of Raja’s book, another new addition to literature on ISIS comes from Max Blumenthal, titled The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS and Donald Trump. Raja deserves praise for focusing on this comparatively less analysed aspect of ISIS in terms of theory and praxis of savagery. What drew me initially to his book — apart from its South Asian lens on the rise of ISIS — was the book’s focus on the role of new liberal policies in swelling the ranks of ISIS.
The Pakistani madressah system, spawned by the collapse of the state provision of education, has created a new pool of young and unemployed youth vulnerable to ISIS’s appeal. These students have acted as the early foot-soldiers of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In the European continent, ISIS ranks have been filled by young Muslims. Most European countries have been grappling with pockets of ISIS-influenced young European Muslims who, doubly squeezed by institutional racism and identity crises, have turned to ISIS with disastrous consequences, especially for beleaguered Muslim communities which have come under increasing general societal suspicion and state surveillance. Not surprisingly, ISIS and its offshoots figure prominently in Western governments’ domestic security policies and their foreign relations with the Muslim world.
Though it is pretty clear that ISIS ideology is rooted in mainly Sunni male subjectivity and draws its adherents from an almost exclusively Sunni universe, it is also manifestly and virulently anti-Shia in its ideological and operational orientation. The anti-Shia atrocities committed by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, one of the key architects of ISIS, are too well advertised to bear repetition here.
Raja’s conclusion on the final demise of ISIS may seem slightly premature as the recent incursion of Turkey in Syria has thrown open the dangerous, fresh possibility of ISIS reconfiguring and regrouping in the region, stirring up its almost buried toxicity and savagery. The spectre of ISIS’s prisoners being released back into the resurgent fighting pool as a result of the chaos generated by the Turkish invasion of the bordering regions of Syria is yet again beginning to haunt Europe and the US.
The reviewer is a public health consultant and the author of Patient Pakistan: Reforming and Fixing Healthcare for All in the 21st Century
ISIS: Ideology, Symbolics and Counter-Narratives
By Masood Ashraf Raja
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 1st, 2019