For terror, what does winning look like?

Anti-Muslim protests over the weekend in France

Anti-Muslim protests over the weekend in France

In November 2001, the Los Angeles Times ran a short piece compiling uses of the phrase “…then the terrorists have won.” Hawkeye football earned a dubious mention after a letter to the Iowa City Press-Citizen claimed that long security lines at Kinnick Stadium were “letting the terrorists win.” The New York Times opined that the terrorists win if we “don’t send the marching band from Frank Scott Bunnell High School in Stratford, Conn., to the 2002 Rose Parade.” Disrupting Big Ten football1 was probably not the impetus behind the September 11 attacks, or behind the series of massacres and bombings in Paris Friday. So why kill all those people? Now that we have been at war with terror for 14 years, we should probably be able to say what the other side’s objectives are. “They hate our freedom” is not a goal we can stop terrorists from achieving. For the Islamists who keep killing civilians around the globe, what does winning look like?

“We have not defeated the idea [of the Islamic State,]” Major General John Nagata remarked last year. “We do not even understand the idea.” I got that quote from this March article in the Atlantic, whose central contention is that the Islam of the Islamic State is not just a front for criminal activity or old-school psychotic mayhem. Contrary to President Obama’s claim that they are “not Islamic,” ISIS is deeply Islamic, in the same sense that medieval Europe was deeply Christian.

Sex slavery and religiously motivated genocide are anathema to modern Islam, just as they are to modern Christianity, but there are explicit instructions for them in the Koran—just as there are in the Bible. Because most modern cultures are not organized around a single book, mainstream Islam has moved past instructions about war and justice specific to Mohammed’s lifetime during the sixth and seventh centuries. In his Atlantic article, Graeme Wood argues convincingly that ISIS wants to move back. Quote:

There is a temptation to rehearse [the observation that] jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

First of all: what assholes. Nobody is pining for a seventh-century legal environment except undereducated men, regional warlords, and scholars of ancient religious texts. For those people, the seventh-century legal environment is a sweet deal. Second of all, how’s that apocalypse coming along? Because it looks like it is going great.

Plenty of commenters have suggested that Al-Qaeda wanted a war between Islam and the West. But Graeme has identified that objective explicitly within ISIS rhetoric and religious scholarship. Based on its readings of the Koran and other Muslim texts, the Islamic State believes that the apocalypse will begin with a battle between the caliphate and “the armies of Rome” in Dabiq, Syria—a region it has recently captured. Here’s Graeme:

Now that it has taken Dabiq, the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse. Western media frequently miss references to Dabiq in the Islamic State’s videos, and focus instead on lurid scenes of beheading. “Here we are, burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive,” said a masked executioner in a November video, showing the severed head of Peter (Abdul Rahman) Kassig, the aid worker who’d been held captive for more than a year.

In the terror activities of the Islamic State, victory looks like a military conflict between Islam (ISIS) and Rome (western modernity) at Dabiq. More broadly, it looks like a geopolitical environment in which modern Muslims have to choose between secularism and seventh-century Islam. ISIS has been particularly vicious to Muslims of other sects, reclassifying as apostasy what other groups consider sin or merely disagreement. ISIS seems to believe that forcing western nations to declare war on Islam will force modern Muslims to join the caliphate.

In other news, France has declared Friday’s attacks in Paris “an act of war.” Russia has increased its military intervention on behalf of Bashar al-Assad, and a former NATO commander has called on that organization to deploy 15,000 ground troops against ISIS.

It looks like terror is getting exactly what it wants. Does Francois Hollande believe he disappointed the architects of the Paris attacks when he declared war on the Islamic State? What other outcome could they have expected? Like al-Qaeda, ISIS does not exist to govern. It exists to start a war between Islam and the secular West. We have abetted that strategy for 14 years and counting.

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