They’re proud of their cruel mass murders – the staged beheadings, steel caged prisoners being paraded through the streets before their incineration, gays thrown off buildings, women stoned to death, mass hangings, children buried alive by bulldozers, trenches full of machine-gunned corpses of POWS, the bodies of victims of mass hangings left for display in a public square. The Nazis, the Stalinists, Mao in China, the Khmer Rouge, and North Korean communist dictators have killed the innocent on a far larger scale, but they tried to conceal it with secrecy.
What is unprecedented on the part of the Islamic State is their brazenness, the pride even, in this terrible cruelty. They stage their atrocities for maximum publicity – using showmanship to attract attention. The staging is seen in the bright orange uniforms in which they regularly dress their victims, how they force them to kneel before the black hooded executioners, and the standardized heavy iron bar cages for the presentation by video of killing-by-fire. Their latest barbarism – media addicts they are always looking for something newly shocking – is the training of young boys dubbed ‘caliphate cubs’ to be killers, dramatized in a video March 10 with a 13 year old used to execute a supposed Israeli “spy” with a pistol shot to the forehead, and, after he has fallen to the ground, more shots to his body.
The mass vandalism
Besides the cruel staged killings of Islamic State there’s the systematic vandalism.
In cities they occupy they are making it a rule to attack the cultural heritage of historic objects. It’s pretty common in the chaos of war for precious objects to disappear, often to be seized as loot that can be sold on black markets for quick cash. That’s about the best that can be expected in regions under attack from extremist Islam. We’re seeing far worse in doctrinally dictated destruction within the jurisdiction of Islamic State. At least stuff peddled on the black market can often be retrieved – at a price.
And again they are proud. They want the world to know of their destructiveness… that’s not how they see it of course. They see their actions as cleansing. They are cleansing the new caliphate of heresy – all relics that aren’t part of their fundamentalist Islamic faith. In the IS video a cleric’s Arabic has been translated declaring: “Oh Muslims, these artifacts that are behind me were idols and gods worshiped by people who lived centuries ago instead of Allah. The so-called Assyrians and Akkadians and others (the peoples of Mesopotamia for at least fur millennia) looked to gods for war, agriculture and rain to whom they offered sacrifices…Our prophet (Muhammad) ordered us to remove all these statues as his followers did when they conquered nations.”
This is the main message the man in an official video of the Jihadis attacking ancient carved stone statues in the Mosul Central Library/Museum with sledgehammers. Bas reliefs too are knocked down from the wall and smashed. And with power tools. Energetically destroyed in the video are artifacts dating back to the Assyrians whose most productive period was about three millennia back (1392-1056BC), long before Islam (c600AD.) There was also the burning of the Library’s deposits regarded as one of the most significant in the region. This includes a complete reference file of Iraqi newspapers and magazines through the 20th century and a collection of maps, books and ornaments and utensils from the Ottoman period.
A UNESCO official Irina Bokova was quoted in the WSJ as describing it as “one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history.”
Some 30km, 18 miles southwest of Mosul in Nimrud carvings of a winged bull and bas reliefs of archers are famous items now gone. Here reportedly the Islamic State deployed bulldozers. Their objective was to take down everything and turn the old city into rubble. Nimrud was the greatest 19th century archeological discovery by some accounts – the place where new clues were discovered (the Epic of Gilgamesh) as to the origins and meaning of old classics such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Paradise Lost.
For IS and other fundamentalist muslims human accomplishments before the era of the Prophet Muhammud (the early seventh century AD) are worthless. Author VS Naipaul who researched Muslim perceptions wrote they largely see the time before Muhammad as “a time of blackness.”
David Pinault director of middle eastern studies at Santa Clara university and fluent in Arabic notes that the Islamic State video “marshals both Quranic scripture and the actions of Muhammad himself as precedents to justify the group’s attack on these ancient treasures… No question, we’re watching a recruitment video here. Think what it offers for young extremists: a chance to re-enact actions from the life of the prophet (Muhammad,) to imitate Abraham, (and) imitate Muhammad himself.”
Cite the Koran to justify
Pinault’s account in the WSJ makes clear that IS takes its theology very seriously citing the Koran and the hadiths as calling for such “cleansing.” IS correctly cite the Koran, Pinault notes
In connection with a small statue of Abraham back in the time of Muhammad Pinault notes that the Koran in Chapter 21 has Muhammad as having been reared in a family of idol worshipers. Confronting them Muhammad said to his family: “What are these statues, to which you’re so devoted?” And then the Prophet smashed the ‘idols’ in front of the family. For the ‘believers’ who are sure that Muhammad spoke and acted according to the word of God (Allah) this legitimates destruction of ‘idols’.
Immediately after the IS video’s recitation of these verses, a jihadi reminds viewers that the Prophet Muhammad “removed and destroyed the idols with his own exalted and noble hands when he conquered Mecca.” Historic accounts say that a circle of idols once surrounded the Meccan shrine of the Kaaba. But with the prophet’s conquest in 630, the Kaaba was “purified” and the idolatrous traces of Mecca’s pre-Islamic past were expunged.
Thus Islamic State marshals both Quranic scripture and the actions of Muhammad himself as precedents to justify the group’s attack on these ancient treasures. So much for President Obama ’s claims that Islamic State’s actions have nothing to do with Islam.
Graeme Wood of The Atlantic magazine concluded after meeting IS supporters and talking to scholars:
“The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam. Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, ‘the Prophetic methodology,’ which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail….When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar (God is great) while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.”
Of course assertive violent Islamist organizations like Islamic State also provide a permissive setting for vicious personalities, sadists, to unleash their violence even if their their real attachment to Islam is tenuous.
There’s also the sheer legitimation of power. Scholar Daniel Pipes notes that humiliating others establishes one’s superiority and power: “Destruction of infidel remains confirms the superior power of Muslims and, by implication, the truth of Islam. In parallel, eliminating the vestiges of Muslim rivals establishes the superiority of Islamism over other, less assertive interpretations of Islam.”
What to do?
In the short-term President Obama appears to have it right on IS – help local forces with air support, intelligence, supplies and training. But IS must not be allowed the military success in expanding its jurisdiction which will give it an aura of inevitability. It must be rolled back and defeated. Saudi Arabia seems to be stepping up: first in hitting the Iran-backed Houthi forces, second organizing an impressive collection of muslim states – including surprisingly Turkey, Pakistan and Sudan – to pool resources and fight IS together.
This may succeed without more American ‘boots-on-the-ground.’
Islamic State should be an easier foe to defeat than Al Qaeda and other guerrilla Islamist groups since as a purported ‘state’ it is intent on holding ground.
Iran the real threat
The President looks to be quite wrong on Iran however. Obama appears to be attempting a detente with Iran, ceding the Mullahs in Tehran regional hegemony and allowing them to continue to acquire nuclear weapons, all in the hope that they will moderate. Iran’s leadership has been consistently committed to a fundamentalist Islam just as oppressive and intolerant as IS though more restrained in its PR.
Where the Islamic State produces videos for all the world to see the grisly details of its decapitations and incineration the Islamic Republic conducts its executions and tortures behind prison walls or conducts gang style ‘extra-judicial’ hits on dissenters. Internationally Iran’s themes continue to be “Death to America” (the chant of choice at rallies led by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini. And of course they predict the annihilation of Israel.
Moderating the mullahs?
Greater regional power and nuclear weapons are more likely to embolden the Iranian Islamists than moderate them as the Obama administration hopes. That is the judgment of Israel, of course, but also of the Suadi-led group of moderate and Sunni regimes alike. This makes a mess of the Obama doctrine, so that in Iraq power is being ceded in effect to Iran and Shiite Islamists, while in Yemen the US is opposing the extension of Iranian power via the Houtis.
Between the Saudis, Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey and Israel the local powers may well pre-empt Iranian nukes now that the US under Obama has made clear it doesn’t have the stomach to do the job. 9/11 could look like a fire-cracker attack in comparison to what the nuclear-armed Iran could inflict on America.