So here is an important question facing journalists, diplomats and presidential candidates as they ponder the mysteries of the Middle East, at this moment in time. This is the question that "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I explored in this week's podcast. Click here to check that out.
That question: Is ISIS a political state defined by a political system, by an ideology, in the same sense as the United States, France or Germany? Or, is the Islamic State best understood as a theocracy in which its political and religious institutions are wedded together, while operating according to laws and logic based on its leaders own understanding of Islamic theology and tradition?
Yes, ISIS leaders want land, oil, money, weapons and prisoners. But they also want converts -- other Muslims, for sure -- to their cause and their version of Islam, both in the regions they conquer as well as in the lands they threaten.
So ponder the opening lines of the recent ISIS statement (as printed in The Washington Post) in which its leaders claimed responsibility for the massacres in Paris:
In a blessed battle whose causes of success were enabled by Allah, a group of believers from the soldiers of the Caliphate (may Allah strengthen and support it) set out targeting the capital of prostitution and vice, the lead carrier of the cross in Europe -- Paris. This group of believers were youth who divorced the worldly life and advanced towards their enemy hoping to be killed for Allah's sake, doing so in support of His religion, His Prophet (blessing and peace be upon him), and His allies. They did so in spite of His enemies. Thus, they were truthful with Allah -- we consider them so -- and Allah granted victory upon their hands and cast terror into the hearts of the crusaders in their very own homeland.
The bottom line: Does this sound like political language?
The question, for journalists (and I assume statesmen as well) has become rather obvious: To what degree should the words of the ISIS leadership be taken seriously? When they say they are dedicated to building a caliphate -- an Islamic state for all of the world's Muslims -- to what degree should outsiders take that apocalyptic claim seriously?
Want to ponder a possible end-game here? Do the ISIS leaders plan to take Mecca from Saudi Arabia? What armies stand between ISIS and Mecca? Can you imagine Western troops invading Saudi Arabia in an attempt to protect Mecca?
This week, there was one Washington Post story in particular that I thought demonstrated the struggle that many journalists are having with this question of whether or not to take seriously the stated goals if ISIS. Read along, please. The starting point is the logic of the attack on Paris:
Expanding the conflict may seem like a self-destructive move. But to some analysts, it is squarely in keeping with what the group advertises as its overriding, apocalyptic mission: to lure the world’s unbelievers into Syria for a final, Armageddon-like battle.
In the short term, the Islamic State is almost certainly betting that it can survive a counterattack. Whatever losses the group may suffer will be far outweighed by the propaganda value of its newly proven ability to infiltrate other countries and kill hundreds of civilians, according to counterterrorism analysts and U.S. officials.
“The more the West strikes, the more people are killed [in Syria], it only builds into the narrative that the end is coming,” said Matthew Henman, managing editor of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center in London.
Then a few lines later:
Others cautioned that it is difficult to ascertain the Islamic State’s strategic motives or what it might have been hoping to accomplish with the Paris attacks and the downing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula.
The attacks could reflect a simple decision to “inflict pain” on France and Russia and deter them from further involvement in the region, said William McCants, an analyst at the Brookings Institution and the author of a new book, “The ISIS Apocalypse.” Or, conversely, it could mark an attempt to draw them deeper into the fight.
“It’s one of the hardest questions to answer,” he said. “It’s totally unclear. We don’t know their motivation or what is motivating the decision-making at the top of the organization.”
Wait a minute. ISIS has not stated its motivations?
Frankly, I was glad that the Post editors printed these two statements, showing readers a glimpse of the arguments that are taking place among Western elites. Clearly, some people believe that the leaders of the caliphate think they are leading a caliphate, while others believe they are lying about their stated motives.
Here's a question to ponder: Are ISIS leaders focusing on money or purging their lands of unbelievers? I would say that the answer is "both."
The Post team carries on with its exploration of the apocalyptic theology of the Islamic State, noting:
According to the group’s extremist ideology, the caliphate will eventually triumph in a great war against infidel forces, culminating in a final end-of-days battle in Dabiq, an obscure Syrian town near the northern city of Aleppo.
The group’s online propaganda magazine is titled “Dabiq.” Each edition features the same prophetic quote about how the conflict will unfold: “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah’s permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.”
And at the end of the story:
Yet it would be a mistake to analyze the group’s apocalyptic ideology through the lens of Western rationality, said Matthew Levitt, head of the counterterrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“They don’t see being way too brutal as a bad thing,” he said. “Brutality is working for them. They don’t see taking over the world as overstretching. This is part of the divine mission.”
This brings us to a final journalistic question, one that I have asked before here at GetReligion: Is the accurate word, in this case, "ideology" or "theology"? Why not own up to the theological content of ISIS and its motives, along with the content of its statements?
Enjoy the podcast (once again, if the word "enjoy" fits in this context).