Opinion

ISIS Is Dying, but ISIS II Is Destined to Take Its Place

The dream of an Islamic utopia is too powerful a current in the Muslim world for the reality of its failure to deter it

Graffiti reading "I love ISIS" on a damaged building in Marawi city, Philippines, October 25, 2017.
Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

It’s natural to assume that the agonizing death throes of the Islamic State group are being welcomed everywhere in the world, even among the Muslims for whom it was ostensibly created. But as Azadeh Moaveni wrote last week in her New York Times op-ed “The Lingering Dream of an Islamic State,” quite a few Muslims are actually mourning ISIS’ demise.

Few of them had much good to say about what ISIS was in practice – murderous, corrupt and ultimately ineffectual. But the ideal they believe it stood for remains as strong as ever and the hope is that where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi failed, another leader will eventually come and take his place with better results. “If the Islamic State was real, I would not have left it. I would prefer to have died there than leave it,” one female ISIS refugee told Moaveni.

The vast majority of Muslims never had much use for ISIS. Even when the caliphate was at the peak of its military power and media exposure, the number of Muslims answering Baghdadi’s call of “Rush, O Muslims, to your state” was infinitesimal and was far exceeded by the number fleeing ISIS-controlled areas. An opinion poll of Muslims conducted by the Pew Research Center last year found that support for ISIS in most of the 11 countries surveyed was in the single digits.

But if they don’t think much of ISIS, the same Pew survey showed how deeply Islam is seen by Muslims as the solution for society’s ills. Those who favor making Sharia the legal code of the land in their countries ranges as high as 99% in some countries.

It’s not that they pine for a society where people are routinely beheaded and women are covered head-to-toe in veils. But they do imagine there is an “Islamic” way of running things that will do away with the corruption, poverty and injustice they see around them. They don’t think much of the social models of liberal capitalism or communism that the West offers. Thus, when they had the chance to overthrow despots, Muslims voted either to become Islamists (Egypt, Tunisia) or joined Islamic militias (Syria, Libya).

That makes Islamism in some ways a distant cousin to Zionism. Zionist leaders and ideologues held out the idea that a state could solve all the problems of Europe’s Jews. The reality was that most Jews solved their problem by immigrating to places other than British Mandatory Palestine and assimilating. But the resemblance to Islamic dreaming ends there: The Jewish state did arise and, if it isn’t quite the idyll Herzl envisaged, it has done a pretty good job of gathering in the exiles and creating a democratic, prosperous, high-tech society.

A better comparison to Islamic longing is a century of communist revolution that time and again promised a utopia but, after several decades of trying, failed to match the economic performance while killing tens of millions along the way.

There were plenty of variations on the communist idea. But they each failed in their own way, so the great majority of thinking people have long given up on it. But there’s a small minority for whom the dream is so powerful – and, perhaps just as importantly for them, the theory behind it so elegantly constructed – they simply won’t let go.

On a smaller scale, political Islam has the same record of failure when it comes to delivering the goods of a prosperous and just society, despite the many variations on the Islamic model.

You can cut ISIS and Hamas some slack on the grounds they are fighting desperate wars and don’t have time to devote to economic development. But what’s the excuse for the widespread corruption they not only countenanced but practiced, and for the violence they perpetuate on their own constituents?

Demonstrators taking part in a protest against the situation in Iran in front of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, January 24, 2018.
Reuters/Vincent Kessler

In fact, corruption and deep social gaps are characteristic of all the “Islamic” societies that have arisen over the last decades. Among countries where Islamists of one stripe or another are in power now, Transparency International finds perceptions of corruption are quite high. After nearly 40 years of rule by Shi’ite clergy, Iran ranks 131st out of 176 counties, and corruption was one of the central issues that brought ordinary Iranians into the streets in protest recently. Lebanon, where Hezbollah calls the shots, is 136th. Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party has fallen 19 places since 2010 to 75th.

In all of these countries, poverty and inequality are endemic. Turkey has enjoyed strong economic growth, but not because Erdogan has imposed an Islamic economic policy of any kind. Saudi Arabia is wealthy because of oil, and now that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to diversify growth, he’s not looking to Sharia for solutions but to clipping the wings of his Wahhabi clerics and imposing free market concepts. Under the brief rule of its Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s economy went from bad to worse.

There aren’t too many Muslims willing to let go of the dream. The utopia that ISIS supporters imagine of perfect equality (except between men and women) and justice, social solidarity and functioning institutions is too compelling compared to the reality most live with. All efforts to eliminate Baghdadi and his movement are in vein because it’s almost inevitable another will take its place.