Playing with Fire: Eventually, Extremism Burns

It’s difficult to ascertain the best course of action in dealing with the Islamic State. The Middle East and the actors are convoluted, at best. One certainty is that the group, which is responsible for genocide, slavery, terrorism, and brutal means of enforcement, is deeply steeped in radical Islam. The Islamic State’s main objective is to promote and wage jihad, and to expand its acquisition of territory, in the hope that it will increase the influx of radical Muslims—further bolstering its claim as the true Caliphate. Furthermore, the group’s fundamentalist leaders believe in an impending apocalypse that will pit “Rome” or the West versus the Caliphate. They are preparing for war, and they welcome it. In a periodic address challenging the West, an Islamic State spokesman said, “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women.” Claims like these have ignited a successful recruitment campaign targeting those who reject Western culture. They have also tempted U.S. and German leaders to respond with force.

The Islamic State follows a very literal interpretation of the Koran, in which Muslims are punishable by death if they sell alcohol, wear Western clothes, shave one’s beard, vote in an election, or even if they fail to inform on one another. Shiites are subject to punishment simply because they fail to recognize the Koran’s initial perfection. To enforce its strict laws, the Islamic State has adopted a medieval jurisprudence which is extreme, to say the least, and whose brutality is hard to fathom.

The legitimacy of the Islamic State is entirely founded upon the notion that it is the true Caliphate, and that, as such, it continues to follow Islamic law in its most literal interpretation. For instance, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi views the last Caliphate, the Ottoman Empire, as illegitimate because it did not fully enforce Islamic law, which requires stoning, slavery, and amputations. In addition to harsh punishments, the Caliphate is required to provide free housing, food, and clothing for all. Islamic State propaganda seeks to convey a sense of unity and determination that is highly attractive to any who feel disillusioned by their current circumstances.

The Islamic State has been able to withstand airstrikes from NATO and a Russian-backed Syrian army due to a steady stream of fresh recruits. If recruitment were to wither, however, so would the effectiveness of the group’s jihadist conquest. Unfortunately for the Islamic State, its propaganda campaign has already begun to take a hit from defectors who denounce the group’s brutality and killing of innocent civilians, and who claim that life under the Islamic State is harsh and disappointing; that it entails none of the equality, unity, and heroism that were promised.

Adding to recruitment issues, the Islamic State has also begun to face financial problems as taxpayers in the Caliphate flee for Europe. The Islamic State needs to maintain its extreme positions in order to preserve its legitimacy, but its extremism deters most people from residing in its territory. Such extremism is not sustainable, but if the Caliphate loses legitimacy, propaganda value will dissipate as will the allure of the group. The Islamic State is also faced with some other serious issues, such as the fact that it is not allied with any country and that the territory it occupies is mostly uninhabited and poor.

The United States and Germany have poured millions of dollars into Islamic State resistance measures. However, reports indicate that airstrikes and training programs have had little effect in crippling the group. U.S. Army General Lloyd Austin testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 16 and admitted that after spending $43 million over a ten-month period, the U.S. had trained only nine fighters to confront the Islamic State in Syria. In addition, U.S. Central Command reports indicate that air raids against the Islamic State have not been as successful as was previously thought.

These figures may indicate a need to take a more interventionist approach toward the Islamic State. However, one must pause and consider the whole picture before jumping into an armed conflict. Troops on the ground will bolster Islamic State recruitment and will lead to more violence and havoc for the innocent civilians trying to flee to Europe. In addition, it’s unclear who NATO should support in the region and what the fallout of a defeated Islamic State will look like. For the foreseeable future, the best option is to provide humanitarian aid and sanctuary to those affected by the conflict. Given the Islamic State’s extreme rule and ideologies, it seems likely that the regime will be ephemeral.

The United States, Germany, and much of NATO is at least partially responsible for the current mess in the Middle East, and we should feel an obligation to help the Iraqis and the Syrians. However, we need to do so in a way that is actually helpful to those in the region and doesn’t just serve to appease our guilty conscience. It may be helpful to re-evaluate and alter airstrike and training programs, but it would not be helpful to commit to a full military conflict, which is exactly what the Islamic State wants.

Hopefully, somewhere down the road, when the Islamic State falls, the United States and Germany will make a concerted effort to cut away at the root of the problems plaguing the region, instead of continuing to just trim its various manifestations.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.