The March 2015 issue of The Atlantic has an excellent article by Graeme Wood called ‘What ISIS Really Wants’.

Everyone would do well to read it at least once. It is easy to follow, fascinating and detailed. A few people commented that it tells us more than daily reports on television news or in the press.

IS propaganda involves a heady combination of bloody battle, religious purity and apocalyptic prophecy. It is Koranic; it is religious. The way its followers and recruiters present it online proves irresistible for thousands of youths around the world.

Wood’s article also addresses two prominent Christian converts to Islam.

A summary with excerpts follows.

Apocalyptic offshoot of Al-Qaeda

Before getting into the story of IS, here is (repeated) advice to Christians who get excited by prophecy involving the Apocalypse: don’t.

A number of Christians online grew up reading apocalyptic literature and think this is what the Church is about. Were they to read a balanced explanation of Revelation (see my Essential Bible Verses page) based on a Lutheran amillenialist perspective, they would be left wanting. It’s not exciting enough, even if it is the truth.

The same holds true for adolescent or young adult converts to the IS cause. It has all the elements of adventure, bloodshed and fervour.

On this subject, Wood quotes George Orwell on Adolf Hitler:

Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them, “I offer you struggle, danger, and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.

Al-Qaeda shied away from Islamic apocalyptic pronouncements about the Mahdi (a saviour figure) and the End of Days. It was not in their framework. Will McCants of the Brookings Institution told Wood that Al-Qaeda leadership considers it unsophisticated:

Bin Laden and Zawahiri are from elite Sunni families who look down on this kind of speculation and think it’s something the masses engage in.

However, that didn’t prevent a group within Al-Qaeda to wax lyrical about it:

McCants says a prominent Islamist in Iraq approached bin Laden in 2008 to warn him that the group was being led by millenarians who were “talking all the time about the Mahdi and making strategic decisions” based on when they thought the Mahdi was going to arrive. “Al-Qaeda had to write to [these leaders] to say ‘Cut it out.’ ”

That group became ISIS — the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham:

During the last years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Islamic State’s immediate founding fathers, by contrast, saw signs of the end times everywhere. They were anticipating, within a year, the arrival of the Mahdi—a messianic figure destined to lead the Muslims to victory before the end of the world.

Wood likens IS to an odd sect, not unlike those of Jim Jones or David Koresh. He does not compare it to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Koranic to the letter

IS takes the Koran seriously, to the letter. Its adherents are ever ready to accuse other Muslims of apostasy for not being holy or observant enough.

IS justifies its existence through its self-proclaimed caliphate under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has been in charge since 2010.

Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani is IS’s chief spokesman. He exhorts followers to crush unbelievers, borrowing the phraseology of the 7th century with passages from the Koran. Everything about IS is based on the book, down to coinage and stationery.

Wood tells us that IS believes that many deaths must take place if pure practice of Islam is to predominate. As IS is Sunni, their first targets are Shia Muslims and the Yazidis. Sunnis consider Shia as a departure from true Islam. Therefore, Wood says, it is estimated that 200 million Shias must die. Although we know little about it, those who are studying IS believe that they are murdering individuals nearly every day and staging mass executions every few weeks.

IS also considers Muslim leaders around the world to be apostate, as they favour a manmade political system and voting.

Christians, for now, are left alone as long as they pay IS jizya, a koranic tax imposed on non-Muslims. Jizya not only brings in extra money, it also serves as a constant reminder to those paying it that they have been ‘subdued’.

The Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, originally from the Lebanon, says that it is a mistake for Westerners to consider IS as un-Islamic. He says that this type of outlook emanates from interfaith dialogue and has no basis in reality. Haykel points out that everything IS members are doing conforms to the Koran and is a rerun of the conquests that took place in the early centuries of Islam.

For IS members and supporters, the Syrian city of Dabiq is where the final battle against ‘Rome’ — the Islamic version of corrupt and worldly ‘Babylon’ — will unfold. Dabiq is near the better-known Aleppo and is in a huge expanse of rural flatland. Wood says one can imagine it could be a battleground. The IS publication is named Dabiq, and the city is often referenced in beheading videos.

Two different converts from Christian backgrounds

Many Christians say, ‘Why are we reading about this when it has nothing to do with us?’

However, even certain Christians can ‘revert’ to Islam. Wood gives us their stories and photographs.

Travelling to Australia, Wood met with Musa Cerantonio, the son of Irish and Calabrian parents. He has an online presence as one of IS’s ‘new spiritual authorities’. Cerantonio used to be a televangelist on an Islamic television channel in Egypt until he started making too many appeals for a caliphate. Now in a suburb of Melbourne, the convert takes his message and sermons online via Twitter and Facebook.

The Australian government has confiscated Cerantonio’s passport, and he is well known to the local police. Whilst he is technically unaffiliated with IS, he and his wife attempted to emigrate via the Philippines, where he overstayed his visa. Hence the passport confiscation.

Cerantonio is thrilled with the IS caliphate. In general, he believes pledging allegiance to a caliphate is necessary for salvation. However, he told Wood that he has not personally pledged his to IS, which would be forbidden under Australian law.

Cerantonio told Wood he believes that the aforementioned Rome actually refers to Turkey, which many Islamists think had a false caliphate in that it did not enforce every rule of the Koran, e.g. slavery and stoning. After the fateful battle in Dabiq:

Cerantonio said, the caliphate will expand and sack Istanbul. Some believe it will then cover the entire Earth, but Cerantonio suggested its tide may never reach beyond the Bosporus. An anti-Messiah, known in Muslim apocalyptic literature as Dajjal, will come from the Khorasan region of eastern Iran and kill a vast number of the caliphate’s fighters, until just 5,000 remain, cornered in Jerusalem. Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off, Jesus—the second-most-revered prophet in Islam—will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory.

One can see that wrapping the relevant imagery into sermons or messages would have the desired effect on certain minds.

However, a former Catholic who is now a practising imam in Philadelphia, does not hold with IS, although he is an extreme, albeit nonviolent, Muslim. Wood met with Breton — now Abdullah — Pocius. A former Chicagoan, Pocius grew up in a Polish Catholic family. He now sounds as if he were a Muslim his entire life.

Pocius’s Islam could be compared to the legalism of an ultra-Orthodox Jew. Pocius believes that only an internal devotion to obedience of the laws of Islam will bring about a caliphate, and then only through the will of Allah. For him, Islam is all about personal holiness, not war against others.

He agrees with IS on daily observance and practices but says their penchant for violence is not for him. Wood tells us that Pocius is a ‘quietist Salafi’ and eschews anything to do with excommunicating others and a socio-political system. That said, he is not happy with the US government; he told Wood his mosque was under surveillance and that his mother had been harrassed at her place of work.

Conclusion

Wood’s article has much more, including a piece on London’s Anjem Choudhury, a map from January 2015 of IS territory as well as possible solutions as to how Western governments can approach this group. Yes, it is growing. Yes, it must be contained. Yes, it must be seen to be stagnating or receding.

Wood says that one of the best ways this can happen is for opposing Muslims in the area to resist expansion.

Expect a long battle ahead. This could take years.

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