Short DescriptionSecond, the puzzle of foreign fighters is no less obscured by an overemphasis on the allure of Salafism. Again, the tendency here is to ignore any motivation except the overriding call of the Salafi jihadist who persuades converts of the truth of Islam and of their
Second, the puzzle of foreign fighters is no less obscured by an overemphasis on the allure of Salafism. Again, the tendency here is to ignore any motivation except the overriding call of the Salafi jihadist who persuades converts of the truth of Islam and of their responsibility to wage war in defense of the Islamic community. In ISIL’ case, the aspiration to create a caliphate is added to the equation. Foreign fighters must be joining ISIL, we are told, because they desire to live in a pristine Muslim utopia.
Some analysts allow the possibility that the jihadi convert is mentally unstable, a privilege usually reserved for white non-Muslim mass murderers. But rarely do they consider that sensibilities and motivations other than or in addition to mere commitment to Salafi Islam or a desire to live in a utopic state may guide their decisions.
For example, could it be that a sense of compassion for suffering fellow humans or of altruistic duty — sensibilities that are very much valued and cultivated in American society — has prefigured their receptiveness to a call to arms to aid a people they consider to be oppressed?
The novelist and journalist Michael Muhammad Knight has recently argued that his own flirting with jihad in the Chechen war of the 1990s did not grow out of his then commitment to Salafi Islam, but from American values: “I had grown up in the Reagan ‘80s. I learned from G.I. Joe cartoons to (in the words of the theme song) ‘fight for freedom, wherever there’s trouble.’ I assumed that individuals had the right—and the duty—to intervene anywhere on the planet where they perceived threats to freedom, justice, and equality.”
Unfortunately, such first-person accounts that give us a view beyond recruiter-side doctrine are rare. The situation is even more difficult with non-Western foreign fighters, about whose conditions and motivations we know still less.
Finally, the belief that Salafi Islam is exceptional in its extremism has made it convenient to view ISIL brutality as likewise exceptional. We are variously told that ISIL’ killings — especially the beheadings of victims, most recently of foreign journalists — are medieval, barbaric, pornographic, and ends in themselves (rather than means to any end). This violence is apparently counterpoised against civilized, non-gratuitous, means-end rational forms of killing, such as those practiced by the American military.
The anthropologist Talal Asad has questioned the presumptions that guide these distinctions between what we might call “humanitarian” and “gratuitous” violence and cruelty. It is not my intention to pursue that line of thought here. Instead, I want only to point out that once again, ISIL’ brutality did not emerge in a vacuum; rather, it is part of a whole ecology of cruelty spread out over more than a decade.
Perhaps a decapitation is more cruel than blowing a body to bits with a high-caliber machine gun, incinerating it with a remote-controlled drone, or burning and lacerating it with a barrel bomb. But even if we limit ourselves to close-up, low-technology brutality, ISIL beheadings are hardly out of place.
The earliest video-taped decapitation of an American citizen in Iraq was conducted by ISIL’ predecessors in 2004 in response, they claimed, to the photographed and video-recorded torture, rape, and murder of detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison. In 2011, it emerged that some American soldiers in Afghanistan had been hunting civilians for sport and collecting their fingers and teeth as souvenirs. In the sectarian bloodshed that engulfed Iraq after the US invasion, beheadings by Sunni insurgents turned into a morbid form of reciprocity with Shiite militiamen who bore holes into their victims using power drills.
The point is not to identify when cruelty emerged in the long American-led Global War on Terrorism — only that the view that one particular religious doctrine is uniquely extremist will not help us understand the cycles of brutality that have fed on years of circulating narratives and images of torture, violent murder, and desecration.
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