The Islamic world has a tendency to underestimate the extremists within its midst. The burning alive of the Jordanian pilot, Moaz al-Kassasbeh, is the latest in a series of grotesque acts of barbarity that ISIL has splashed across the world’s screens with a sickening pride.
One good service that ISIL has done is to remind Muslims that ISIL has an infinite capacity for horror, dishonesty and cruelty, all of which it attributes to virtues of Islam. Their behaviour, as so-called believers, is far more offensive to the honour of the prophet of Islam than the cartoons produced by atheists. While the Quran speaks of the prophet as a mercy to mankind, ISIL has become a curse on humanity.
This line of thought emanated from King Abdullah of Jordan’s statement last night. Earlier in the evening, a CNN anchor chose to read a verse from the Quran and quote from the hadith (the sayings of the prophet of Islam) condemning the practise of burning humans. The separation of religion from the essentially totalitarian political ideology of ISIL seems to be gaining ground.
King Abdullah’s strong words
Once the anguish of the pilot’s family fades from the media, the anger of the Jordanian people abates and the strong words of King Abdullah are forgotten, what will be the lasting impact, if any, of this latest offence against decency? Judging by the Jordanian record on dealing with international threats, it is likely to be secretive, limited and underwritten by US authority.
Therein lies part of the appeal of ISIL. Like al-Qaeda, it has committed stunning acts of violence to create the illusion of power to compensate for what most extremists see as the loss of dignity in the Islamic world resulting from an alleged subservience to western nations.
Even by the most generous estimates about its strength, ISIL fighters cannot match most Middle Eastern states’ forces in terms of numbers, training and weapons. Yet, there has been a remarkable reluctance by Middle Eastern states to take the lead in fighting ISIL. Some have chosen to fund groups fighting the Assad regime.
Whether intentionally or not, some of that money and associated weapons have fallen into the hands of ISIL and other extremists. Consequently, the illegal, unrestrained violence committed by ISIL and other extremists is a response to the absence of legal and restrained use of military force by regional states to deal with problems in their vicinity.
Dealing with confidence
Jordan, like most states in the region, has a confidence issue. It cannot, even today, think in terms of acting alone or with neighbours to confront a relatively small group of terrorists. A habitual glance at the West for leadership seems to be wasting valuable opportunities for uniting Islamic nations around common concerns and exerting regional leadership.
Calls on the street for vengeance and promises of revenge by the head of the armed forces have been tempered by a call for resilience by King Abdullah. Hanging of two former al-Qaeda terrorists including Sajida al-Rishawi is the only visible government response so far.
How this hesitant behaviour of Muslim states contrasts with Israel’s frequent robust responses to relatively smaller perceived threats is not lost on Middle Eastern populations.
Calls on the street for vengeance and promises of revenge by the head of the armed forces have been tempered by a call for resilience by King Abdullah. The hanging of two former al-Qaeda terrorists including Sajida al-Rishawi is the only visible government response so far.
There is no doubt that the Jordanian government will not leave it at that. Its rhetoric claiming that ISIL had “opened the gates of hell”, and ISIL’s publication of a list of 12 Jordanian Air Force officers on whose heads it had placed a bounty, will ensure sustained interest in dealing with ISIL.
Another driver for action must surely be that ISIL has a small but worrying base of support within Jordan. A slightly larger number of extremists who are not ISIL have more in common with ISIL’s worldview than they do with the regime’s.
Past track record
Jordan’s past track record of deftly and successfully handling Palestinian, Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda and Salafi extremists will also shape its thinking in the days ahead. The policy so far has been one of containment rather than confrontation. ISIL’s obvious expansionist and provocative ambitions, however, do not lend themselves to containment and will force a change of strategy if Jordan is serious about dealing with the threat.
The greater problem is that it is difficult to ideologically confront ISIL without confronting elements of the ideology shared by other religiously motivated political movements within the country.
A related facet of the conflict has been the incompatibility in the way the Jordanian government and ISIL have conducted dialogue. The release of Turkish hostages by ISIL last year shows that it is willing to deal with governments over hostages in secret, a practise familiar to regional players.
The Jordanians worked tirelessly to negotiate for the release of their pilot, Moaz al-Kassasbeh, through tribal sheiks in Ramadi. It seems that foreign fighters in ISIL from Eastern Europe and elsewhere were reluctant to strike a deal, preferring instead to use the pilot to continue their strategy of projecting the illusion of power through terror.
The realisation that negotiations are not an option may well force the Jordanian government to shift its stance from containment to confrontation.
If it does not, then it, and other regional governments, must accept more messages of morbidity from ISIL.
Afzal Ashraf is a consultant fellow at Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies and served in the UK Armed Forces. He was involved in developing a counterinsurgency strategy and in the policing and the justice sectors in Iraq.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.