The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is not a territorial threat to any national sovereignty.
The group’s recent defeat in Fallujah and its resounding defeat by the Kurds, along with the sustained aerial bombing campaign by the United States, Russia and their regional allies, are clear indications that ISIL cannot maintain prolonged territorial control of any country.
The group’s strategy and success comes in its sudden, swift and above all symbolic attacks, designed to shock and awe – a tactic ISIL learned from former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during the Iraq invasion.
ISIL, also known as ISIS, is targeting Muslims’ holiest and most sacrosanct sites. It has turned its rage not just against Muslims, who have always been at the forefront of its barbaric savagery, but directly against Islam itself.
The world might be bewildered as to why ISIL, which purports to constitute an “Islamic state”, would target a place that is supposed to be one of its holiest. The answer is in the group’s delusional fantasies to recast Islam from the ground up – to place ISIL’s followers at the threshold of a new historic dispensation of divine will.
ISIL has metastasised over the years into a far more rabid transmutation of itself. The group indulges in Muslim doctrinal creeds in the same manner as Latin American drug cartels partake in Christian metaphors and allegories. It is attempting to reclaim the faith for itself for its own purposes, against the very grain of its historical reality.
ISIL is not the first group of violent fanatics to do so in Islamic history. In the 10th century, from its base in Eastern Arabia, a radical sect known as the Qarmatians invaded and sacked Mecca and Medina, desecrating the holiest Muslim sites and stealing the Black Stone.
But ISIL has a much bigger global spectacle to stage. It thrives on the terror it has created in the larger Muslim world. It is literally burning the very idea of Islam to the ground, for it is on those ashes that it wants to reassert, Armageddon-style, its own power of interpretation.
The only reason this assessment could come as a surprise is the predominance of the European and US narratives about ISIL, animated by a hateful Islamophobia that manufactures Muslims as the enemy and posits “the West” as ISIL’s primary target.
President Barack Obama has lectured presidential hopeful Donald Trump against the use of the term ” radical Islam “, so as to not give credence to ISIL’s propaganda – apparently forgetting that he himself has successfully institutionalised the use of the term “terrorism” as a coded reference for “Islamic terrorism”.
ISIL is a menace generated first and foremost by the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, predicated on the US and its regional allies’ formation of the Taliban/al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to fight against Soviet occupation and as a line of resistance against the appeal of the Iranian revolution of 1977-79. ISIL’s expansion was fuelled by the bloody suppression by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria’s 2011 uprising.
Through its monstrous acts, ISIL has long taken Rumsfeld’s “shock and awe” doctrine and extended it to terrorise Muslims into submission to its bloody barbarism.
This is not a war “within Islam”, even as the dominant US and European narrative continues to spin its vicious Orientalism. This is a war that the combined calamity of their cruel militarism, along with tyrannical Arab regimes, have launched against the life and liberty of average Muslims and what they hold most sacrosanct.
Through the recent ISIL attacks in Istanbul, Baghdad, Medina and elsewhere, the doctrine of “shock and awe” aims to do on Muslim lands what the most proverbially savage invasion of these lands, the Mongol invasion of the 13th century, could not do.
Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.