"We know from experience that the best way to protect people, especially young people, from falling into the grip of violent extremists is the support of their family, friends, teachers and faith leaders."- President Obama on ISIS Recruitment
The violence of the so-called "Islamic State" is at the forefront of America's current discussion on the Middle East. This week, the White House has been hosting a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism about curbing the recruitment of America's young Muslims into organizations like ISIS. Thus far, America's strategy at combating the forces of ISIS has been focused predominantly on the military aspect of this fight (no surprise there). That aspect is certainly necessary to prevent the spread of ISIS in the region, but it doesn't address the underlying reasons for the group's existence or stop people from wanting to join it. To do that, we must understand the logic behind the group and its main goals. Recent articles such as this one from The Atlantic breakdown the goals and motivations of ISIS and shed a critical light on the need for a more nuanced understanding of this group. In short, the reason ISIS continues to be a threat and people continue to join it is because humanity has not yet rid itself of the idea of this group. Let's look at the overall goals of ISIS and some of the reasons why a person might join in their crusade (hint: it's not because they are evil, crazy villains).
First, Islamic extremism is not monolithic. Organizations like Al-Qaeda and Hamas have very, very different goals in mind from ISIS. These groups desire political concessions and are willing to make treaties to get what they want. The goals of ISIS, on the other hand, are apocalyptic. ISIS requires territory and legitimacy, not political gains, as a means to bring about their violent interpretation of the end of days. In fact, they roundly reject any and all political systems other than their version of Islam, refusing to work within any international body or make any sort of deal with a sovereign nation.
What are the goals of ISIS? Basically an Islamic version of the apocalypse. They seek the end of days and follow several Qur'anic verses which suggest that a Caliphate (Islamic society ruled by what a single religious leader) must be installed before this can happen. Then, according to some interpretations, an anti-Messiah shows up, and Jesus arrives just in time to lead the Muslims to victory (yes, Jesus). Its not unlike Christian millennialism which seeks the accomplishment of certain events (the Rapture, rise of anti-Christ...) in order to bring about the end of the world. It too is pretty brutal (fire, brimstone, and so forth), but most people who look hopefully to the Christian apocalypse only think of it in terms of something to one day look forward to (but not actively bring about). Similarly, most Muslims who actually believe in this "End of Days" basically think of it as something that would be ideal to have one day (when everyone is already a Muslim so nobody really suffers under it) but not something to actually bring about any time soon.
The Atlantic's article makes a good point: It isn't really correct to say ISIS is un-Islamic. ISIS is actually very Islamic, just not at all the good kind. They have taken all of the worst and least compromising ideas of Islam and made a society out of it. This society fits in pretty well with the ancient times of the medieval world just like every other society of the time, but its failure to adapt to modernity (which is literally the point of their society right now) makes it seem really, really brutal in comparison. They consider themselves the only true Muslims, and thus believe themselves to be like the early society of Islam under Muhammad (according to the traditional interpretation) which expanded into non-Muslim territory.
This all begs the question: Why would anyone possibly consider joining this group? There are several theories on group dynamics and behavioral psychology which help explain this. Many believe that these individuals are longing for a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives and see joining this group as a means to facilitate this. They are often marginalized from society and want to become a part of something much bigger than themselves. In this regard, they aren't much different from people who join other (not necessarily Islamic) extremist groups.
Still, in the case of ISIS, religion is obviously a big motivator of people who wish to join. Many are enticed by the idea of joining an "Islamic State" in its "purest" form. They see membership as part of the ultimate struggle between good vs. evil, while themes of eternal salvation are obviously a big drawing factor. In their minds, the Caliphate is a vessel for salvation, and pledging their loyalty (a concept called bay'a) to the Caliph is of utmost importance to achieving this salvation. There are also the "positive" aspects of this society as viewed by its proponents. While the society imposes a very strict version of Shari'a law (law based on the actions and saying of Muhammad and the Qur'an), this society also offers things like free healthcare and a strong sense of community welfare. This section of The Atlantic's article in particular shows this irony:
"Choudary took pains to present the laws of war under which the Islamic State operates as policies of mercy rather than of brutality. He told me the state has an obligation to terrorize its enemies—a holy order to scare the shit out of them with beheadings and crucifixions and enslavement of women and children, because doing so hastens victory and avoids prolonged conflict."
This is why people can turn so quickly to such extreme violence once exposed to the group. Suddenly, those who were once marginalized become the powerful, their every action justified as a means to a righteous end.
So how can such an ideology be stopped? Not by military means alone. President Obama's recent request to Congress for an Authorization for the Use of Military Force means that the conflict is not likely to end anytime soon. An invasion would ruin the "Islamic State" by ending its hold over territory and the Iraqi and Syrian populations. However, it would also be a huge propaganda victory for ISIS, proving once again that America is susceptible to provocation and quick to begin waging war against Muslims. The invasion of Iraq helped bring about the conditions which created ISIS, another prolonged military campaign probably won't help things either.
The roots of ISIS are an ideological struggle within Islam which has been going on for centuries. Islam's prominent contemporary scholars and clerics have to do the heavy lifting of providing the appropriate religious counters to the ISIS ideology. ISIS does not represent Islam, but it is a problem which Islam has to accept in order for moderate Islam to win the ideological battle. This blog has stated before that Muslims should not have to apologize for these actions and many prominent leaders denounce ISIS and its ideology (again, not that they should have to). Still, many Muslims throughout the world are still in a position to curb this ideology from expanding.
Rather than expelling Muslims who start to become enticed by the propaganda of ISIS, peaceful mosques and religious communities would do better to embrace these individuals as devoted (but often marginalized or frustrated) members of the community seeking self-worth. By providing the sense of brotherhood and religious purpose (which is often what they are really seeking in the first place), and doing so in a peaceful context, these individuals can be shown the problems with the ISIS ideology and can be prevented from even wanting to travel to fight for them in the first place.
Excommunicating members who begin preaching ISIS ideology only confirms them in their righteousness, driving them into communities of like-minded believers who will encourage this further adoption of violent beliefs. The desire to expel them outright is understandable. After all, many communities wish to be clear in their disapproval of ISIS and do not want to gain the attention of the Intelligence Community by keeping these members around. For its part, U.S. security agents ought to take more care to build trusting relationships with Muslim communities in the U.S. rather than spying on Muslims en masse. These are some of the key points of the program being discussed this week to stop religious extremist recruitment.
Ultimately, ISIS is so narrow-minded and brutal that it is its own worst enemy. Eventually, this so-called "Islamic State" will crumble under the weight of its own brutality, showing the world once again that this is the type of horror which can be unleashed when an ideology goes too far in maintaining its interpretation of purity. When that happens, there will be no great battle in Jerusalem, no shining Mahdi (savior) to carry the last remnants of ISIS fighters to eternal victory. There will be only death, millions of broken lives, and another embarrassment for a worldwide community of rational believers.
TL;DR: You can't kill an idea with bullets alone.