Noting a “resurgence of various . . . jihadist movements,” George Washington (GW) University’s Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies, opened a January 22 GW panel on “New Challenges for Islamist Movements.” The panel highlighted the Middle East’s growing and well-organized Islamist dangers with a refreshing minimum of politically correct Islamic apologetics before an audience of about forty.
Graduate international relations students in the audience corroborated a reporter’s impression that Brigham Young University political science professor Quinn Mecham was the most intriguing panelist. Using the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index, he evaluated the Islamic State’s (IS) “trajectory of increasing stateness,” ranking it as merely the seventeenth most failed state in the world, more stable than such countries as Afghanistan or Yemen. He observed that the IS’s “multiple large revenue streams,” such as oil and taxation, are the “envy of many poor states.”
Mecham warned that the IS could “become the only [government] game in town” in certain areas, attracting locals longing for stability with “institutional realities that become the norms of governance.” The IS provides social services “reasonably well” and its “domestic security is often quite strong” under a “semblance of rule of law.” This, however, depends upon “which end of that rifle you are on” amidst the sharia law and “sectarian cleansing” that identifies IS as a “deeply distasteful terrorist group.”
Mecham described the IS as the “biggest start-up in the Arab world,” offering a “real career opportunity” for the cruelly faithful to “build something interesting.” Interviewed after the panel, Mecham discussed his unorthodox presentation of the IS as a “technology disruptor” that’s theologically “audacious . . . different, and innovative.” “People are getting excited about it, even though it’s a high risk project,” he added, employing Silicon Valley terms for the IS’s marauding, fanatical barbarians.
Such enthusiasm cast doubt on Mecham’s assertion that the IS has no “traditional Islamic credentials.” He alleged that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “is considered to be a ‘nobody’ by everybody” among Islamic scholars, incapable of declaring a caliphate. Yet the terrorist leader has a doctorate in sharia law from an Iraqi Islamic university.
Under further questioning, however, Mecham explained why the IS is “not being 100 percent laughed out by everybody.” He noted that the IS’s June, 2014 caliphate declaration spends “a lot of time” justifying its “Islamic legitimacy,” with one of its “main arguments” being that the group “now had sufficient momentum in territory and resources” to “pull this off.” A “sophisticated response” from IS supporters would be that “this is where the action is” or, in other words, while “everyone talks a good game, no one does anything” to establish a caliphate; therefore “my Islamic duty” is here. After the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) overthrow in Egypt “there seems to be no other path,” Mecham observed. Islamic theological arguments about necessity or darura and a jihad-caliphate imperative overriding normally applicable standards might then apply.
Cambridge University doctoral candidate Raphael Lefevre deepened the panel’s pessimistic prognosis by noting that the “rise of extremism . . . extends well beyond” Iraq and Syria into Lebanon. The IS and the al-Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra Front have both widened their operations and “are clearly on the rise” among a “growing number of Sunnis.” He pointed out that such “hardline Islamist groups” and their Shiite counterpart Hezbollah, the “most influential actor in Lebanese politics,” are both “very gifted” in the “Middle Eastern practice” of providing social services.
Lefevre described how IS influence extended to the MB in a mutually antagonistic, yet “very tricky” relationship. “Ideologically confused” younger MB members have chosen to join the IS, given MB’s “ideologically blurriness” on when and how the new caliphate should come into existence, implicitly suggesting a MB/IS radical affinity. Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies professor Khalil al-Anani added that the IS “is really inspiring” for Islamists reeling from the “unprecedented crisis” of Egypt’s “very comprehensive, brutal strategy . . . to defeat the Brotherhood, if not to end it.”
The Rhodes Scholar, doctoral candidate, and Tunisia expert Monica Marks tried, but failed, to brighten the panel’s uniformly gloomy outlook. She complained of a “notable uptick” in the media’s conflating of “Islamism with violent terrorism.” The “very flexible, fluid word” Islamist “often confuses, rather than clarifies,” she claimed, encompassing a wide range, from “al-Qaeda” to Oxford University professor “Tariq Ramadan.”
Marks declared Tunisia’s jihad-supporting Ennahda Party the “most Islamic lite” of the Islamist movements. She added that likening Ennahda to European Christian Democrats or the Republican Party, rather than the IS or MB, “might be more fruitful comparisons.” Her description of the party’s “civilizational project” as packaged in “very fluid, long-termist [sic] rhetoric,” though, was eerily reminiscent of the MB’s American “Civilization-Jihadist Process.” She also acknowledged that many secular Tunisians do not share her optimistic distinction among Islamist groups and consider “Islamism . . . the biggest threat.” What do these natives know as opposed to Ennahda apologist Marks?
The GW panel demonstrated that groups such as the IS and Hezbollah, for all of their brutality, have exhibited a sophisticated ability to conduct military-governmental operations and to garner support. While Marks and other apologists may try to distinguish between Islamists such as the IS, MB, and Ennahda, critical observers note differences over means, not ends. Western leaders may condemn Muslim atrocities as the work of a few crazed renegades, but the panel established that there is a method to the madness of instituting Islam’s divine dictates of sharia law.
Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project; follow him on twitter at @AEHarrod. He wrote this essay for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.