The Theology of ISIS, with Dr. Adam Silverman

October 06, 2014

The rise of ISIS, the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has sparked debate about the role of religion — specifically Islam — in violent extremism. This week, Dr. Adam Silverman offers us a glimpse into the theology of ISIS, and tackles some difficult questions; What does ISIS believe and how do its religious beliefs shape its political choices? What about the notorious video-taped beheadings and reports of rape as weapons of war? How does ISIS want the United States to react, and how should we?

Dr. Silverman has just completed a four-year stint as Cultural Advisor to the U.S. Army War College. He holds a doctorate in Political Science and Criminology from the University of Florida and he deployed in Iraq in 2008 to interview Iraqi religious and political leaders to better understand their culture and values.


This is point of inquiry from Monday, October 6th, 2014. 

Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry, a production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein, and my guest today is Dr. Adam Silverman. He’s here to talk to me about the theology of ISIS, the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. ISIS, which grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq, made massive military gains this summer at the expense of Iraq and Syria and now controls an area the size of Belgium. President Obama says that ISIS is neither Islamic nor a state. What do you think? 

Well, I think some of that is, you know, intended for domestic political consumption. 

But if you were to assess the claims on their factual merits, is ISIS Islamic? Is it a state? Jerry Coyne wrote in The New Republic that if ISIS isn’t Islamic, the Inquisition wasn’t Catholic. 

You know, you have a group of extremists here who are perverting religion or doing things in the name of a religion that really isn’t what that religion is about. And I think that that’s sort of where the it’s not really Islamic or it’s not Islamic part of the statement comes from. I think that’s probably the intent. But it isn’t. You guys in the past in terms of the state that what I think he’s trying to say is, look, we’re not going to give these guys any legitimacy. Right? You know, they they can claim that they have territory. They can claim that they can defend the borders and boundaries of that territory. They can claim that they are going to be the sole legitimate source or use of force within those within those boundaries. But that’s still not enough for them to be recognized in the state. So we don’t want to give them any legitimacy that way. So I think, you know, the part if you’re just addressing the parts that I think that that’s probably where he was going, whether that’s how we got interpreted by anybody or not is another story. But I think that’s really where he was going. I think there may have been a third component to it as well, which is something you see not just with his administration, but with the previous Bush 43, you know, President George W. Bush, the forty third president, as opposed to the forty first president, both of President Bush administration, where a lot of the president’s speeches, first President Bush and President Obama, they tried to be very, very careful about painting with his narrow brush as possible when talking about whether it’s Ida or you’re talking about the Taliban or they’re talking about any Goshute groups or they’re talking about other groups that claim that what they’re doing is justified or somehow legitimated under or according to Islam and things like that, which is to sort of make it very clear that the U.S. is doing not something that is in direct conflict with Islam, per say, or certainly the majority of Islamic adherents, you know, Muslims throughout the world per say, but that there’s something very narrow and Taylor going so that there may have been a third component to it. 

But if you’re just going to step back and look at those two claims, such as claims pretend the president of the United States wasn’t trying to communicate sub rosa stuff with them, would you say that there’s any truth to nouns and other republic public state that was claiming that it was disputing the view on its merits that ISIS is not Islamic? 

Well, you know, you can I think you can accurately disputed. I mean, the issue becomes who gets to decide what something is, right? So to give an example, you know, if you’re not within the religious tradition and you claim that somebody who’s doing something and their argument is, look, I’m doing this because I believe acts under religion, why you’re not part of that. You know, can you really come in and say, look, that’s not really what’s going on. So, you know, I haven’t seen the New Republic article on that. But my guess is that’s probably where they were. They were trying to take it. You know, the reality of it is, is that, you know, there’s a huge variety and variation in the forms of Islam, both Sunni and Shia, into some second Sufi or mystic Islam. 

And the issue becomes one of, you know, if you have a group of people that are self-described sulpher, that once or from many other religion, and then they’re engaged in a certain set of behaviors that everyone else lawfully finds to be in Florence, the question is that, you know, how do you pass it out? So you’re not painting with that broad brush? You know, from my take on looking at it. I mean, there’s certainly Muslims, you know, they certainly fall within a very specific Muslim tradition, which is a which is sort of this reaction I see in terms of they want to go back to an idealized period of time version of Islam that’s largely been promoted in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Gulf states and exported to other parts of the love of the world. And the Saudis refer to this type of Islam, though not the violent components of what they would. It’s Salafist or fundamentalist Islam. 

They put that label on, it refers to how they refer to their own adherents within the kingdom or in other places where you have these same type of things. The difference, differences with the Islamic State guys, is that they’ve added a component to this, which is that, look, not only is this the only right way to do this, but everybody else has to conform or we’re going to use violence to make you behave. 

When the Saudis describe their version of Islam as fundamentalist, does it have the same connotation as it does in Christianity? 

Here again, we’re back to the same thing is who gets to define and determine what somebody is doing or what somebody believes. You know, within broadly defined evangelicalism in the U.S., which include evangelical Christians, charismatic Christians and fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists are the ones that are sort of arguing for the most. Severe and I don’t mean necessarily a negative connotation, but in terms of what they see as sort of the most, you know, bomb scra gross scrub down to the bare essentials, speaking well, understanding of what it means to be a practicing Christian in the U.S. and how to adhere to that that tradition in that respect. 

What the Saudi’s talk about with Salafism. I think that’s what they mean. Whether either of those cases to people that are outside the tradition, whether that’s what’s actually being observed by outsiders. We may not be what’s going on in show here, you have that same problem, which is what everyone’s saying about what the president said this. Well, what did he mean? You know, how can you say that? You know, the issue becomes is is that people on the outside, they observe this. It looks completely different. The people that are on the outside, even if they were related tradition, then it doesn’t the people who are on the inside. And so what you wind up with is the squashing of, again, who gets to determine who gets to use what label and then who gets to really define what the label is or what the label means or what’s contained within the bin that we put the label on. But as someone with a background in comparative religion, can you give us a sketch of the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam as briefly as possible to sort of go over over a thousand years of religious and social history of Sunni Islam? Is the Islamic tradition for the majority of Muslims in the world. Currently, there are sort of four schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Sometimes it’s referred to as Islamic theology, but it’s really not. It’s jurisprudence, it’s its interpretations of the law. You should do HACS under these conditions. You should do right under those conditions. And those are called mob paths or schools. And the people that are formally trained to interpret the tradition and hand down the things that are even remotely qualified decisions on what it means. 

Are you, Amar, or the cleric in the Sunni tradition of those? The youngest is Hanbali Islam, which is a school name for off and handball. The Saudis, Clent and the Saudis work in a religion. Wahhabi is, according to the Salafist teaching or how the Saudis presented it, that the cleric or the visionary or the theologian that this is attributed to, Osman Wahhab, was himself a student within the Hambali tradition. So they’re just a variant of families. That’s sort of a Sunni. And so you at one point sort of put the most broadly reaching one, if I remember correctly, is the Hanafi native. And that’s because the roots of the Ottoman Empire were were uneasy. So it kind of became sort of de facto over. The Ottoman Empire was in some expect the major division, the Sunnis and the Shia, is really originally a question over who would lead the community of Muslims after the death of Prophet Muhammad. And the way this works is that according to the Islamic teachings itself, if there’s a deep the war with Cordoba ended down literature to explain that the sooner which forms the basis for understanding the Sunni Islam called the teaching or the tradition of the gates or the portico, or the bond of the people who were a family who lived in the area. And supposedly after the death of Prophet Muhammad, the group of the original followers of the Prophet were walking past the monarch to keep his home. And they heard this dispute going on. So they go in what’s going on? 

And basically what they’re told is, look, we’re we’re we’re going to pick a successor. We’re going to pick a new leader of the community. And they’re like, you’re not going to take it from your group. We were the original companions were the original adopters of Islam. You were the second group. Yes. You took us in. Yes. You gave us Haven. But if anybody should be in charge, you should be from your original birth. So they start being around. Well, it should be this guy now. It should be that guy. Finally, they come to some sort of consensus on a nominee. I’ll be back. And he’s sort of elected the first leaf on the first temporal successor, if you will, to the Prophet Muhammad. Now, the split with the Shia begins sort of here because the argument is, is that none of this should never have happened for several reasons. One of which is there’s a belief, especially among Shia, that Prophet Muhammad intended for Ali, the son in law, to succeed him as leader of the community. But, of course, his son in law and his wife, Fatima, were at home helping to prepare for the funeral. So they weren’t part of this nomination and the election process, if you will. 

So it’s kind of a stabbed in the back theory. 

Well, there’s some of that that he was passed over that there is political machinations. 

But to his credit, Ali, basically was a proper upright individual. Never argued that everybody shouldn’t be Ali. Same thing with his successor. And the next successor to Ali eventually becomes the fourth probably. And for most Muslims, especially Sunni Muslims, they refer to this as the Raucci doing period or the period of the rightly guided colleagues. In other words, there were still a little bit. Divine guidance going on. This is sort of the golden age before when I refer to that, that the ISIS guys have this sort of reaction, as you’re seeing in Islam. Part of it isn’t that there’s an attempt to get back to this way. Things were during this Boldon period in the first couple of decades after the death of Prophet Mohammed. Now, so what happens is that the split occurs and that Ali becomes Cali’s. You know, he’s waited. He hasn’t contested the others. He’s he’s not, though. He’s been asked to do something. He’s he’s accepted it without without grumbling, etc.. And all of a sudden, one of the cousins of one of his predecessors decides, no, he should be colleagues should somehow be dynastic. Certainly it should be a Dynarski type of thing. And a civil war basically breaks out. And all these supporters are referred to as the Shiites always, which means the partizans of Ali. And so the term Shia comes from this word, meaning partizan originally in in there. And there is treachery. You know, they come to a point in the fighting where a ceasefire is called or can try to negotiate it. Ali’s opponents says, look, you know, it’s unfair for you to have the mantle of colleague. What essentially I’m paraphrasing the truth. In fact, you know, it’s unfair for you to have the mantle of Colley’s while we’re negotiating an end to the conflict and this is actually going to be in charge. So all is just fine. I, I give this up so that we can negotiate it. Which way go this far. You’re not to police, honestly. And treachery ensues. Ali, kill the war continues. These children and great sons and grandsons are dragging. It’s messy and violent. Eventually, all this family does not want to be in charge of anything. And you get the mired caliphate, which moves to what’s now with Syria. They lost a couple of generations. Then they’re replaced by the bastard caliphate, which moves to Baghdad during this time. What you have is this group of people who had been supporters of Ali basically angry over the way this is worked out. This is the beginning of some discrimination. There is the beginning of, well, you know, your people’s allegiance is to Ali is not really to the prophet. You’re not really Muslims like the rest of us. But you begin to get the enfranchised men of what we would now think of as this security and as it tries. It’s the worst of times has been better in some places where Sunnis make up the majority Shia. Lorsch was left alone, had been left alone in other places. They’ve been tremendously persecuted. It wouldn’t schism. You sort of have three different divisions, the Shia that most people in the US are paying attention to, where they don’t, whether they know it or not, are what we call the Twelver Shia or the is not Oshri. And they believe that the 12th descendant of Ali was the last sort of the last leader of the community, both religious and spiritual, who had the ability to not only issue real official pronouncements, but had some guidance from the divine the. And that’s sort of the largest group. You find them in Iran, you find him in the Gulf States, you find them in Iraq, you find them in Lebanon. That Mesta twelve. 

When ISIS wants to go back to a golden age, are they talking about becoming closer to God? 

I think what you see with them is the children and they are taking the Wahabi understanding of Islam, which is itself the most severe, severe on a door. And I don’t mean used to say I mean, people going to hear that sounds terrible, unadorned. It sounds horrible. The point of the sort of Wahhabi tradition was we are going to be, which is why the Saudis use the term Salafist or fundamentalists for. Is that it is back to basics. It doesn’t have any frills. It doesn’t have any, you know, interesting adaptations or add ons or adornments on it. It’s not been been dusted off. It’s it’s functional. It’s utilitarian. It’s as give you any religion to be utilitarian. It’s plain. It’s just the simple, but not in a sense of dumb or stupid or uneducated, but it’s it’s a very back to basics sort of basic sort of concept. What what the ISIS guys what the al-Qaida guys said did the same thing. Ayman al-Zawahiri had been Egyptian Islamic Jihad who became sort of the theological were the ideological spark working with bin Laden in an al-Qaida. Taking this a step further, which was that there’s a notion here that this could be the only corrected version of this law, and therefore, if you were to be a muzzle on, you can all you either adhere to this understanding or you’re not really a Muslim. And so you’re going to be given a choice, adhere. Or you’re not a Muslim. And if you’re not a Muslim, then you’re the enemy. Europe, a third target, etc.. And then there are other groups that are outside of this, right? If you’re Shia or you’re Jewish or you’re Christian, you grew up Shia. A little bit different there in this, but you’re basically given also you get one chance to convert to the appropriate way to do things or you’re gone. Now, apparently, there’s some question as to whether the ISIS guys are going to actually bring back a head tax or the jizya, which was a tax on Jews and Christians, that people of the book that would allow them to live under Muslim rule with a curtailed set of what we would think that was sort of civil rights and not be put to death. But given their behavior towards the Christian groups that they’ve come across in Syria and parts of Iraq. I’m not so sure that the Jews, you’re the head tax will really be applied and they’re not going to just do the you know, is this why you or your wife’s forfeit? 

Michael, do you believe the media reports that ISIS is using rape as a weapon of war? 

You know, I I’m not they are right now. 

I’m not this I’m not talking to anyone specifically on the ground. I would not necessarily be surprised. 

I mean, you know, the the understanding that we have developed in the US and in Europe and there are partners of European sense that the Australians, the the New Zealanders who are part of the north in Canada, that there are certain behaviors that are out of bounds in war, that there is a you know, the the the fundamental nature of war may not have changed. And its fundamental character war, they not a change any time, but some of the characteristics have to change over time. This comes into what is permitted on the battlefield. What is it to you? Things like the Geneva Conventions about the use of chemical and biological agents and and how you treat prisoners and things like that. These are not necessarily shared by everybody on the planet. It would not surprise me to find out that this is being used because this is a control mechanism. 

How does the videotaped beheadings fit into ISIS is theology. 

Well, there are punishments within Islamic jurisprudence for crimes that that are capital punishment and that the way to do it is to is to use beheading. It’s you know, I think to some extent they’re using it partially for that. 

I mean, remember that the week that the that ISIS executed by beheading their first hostage, the. 

Saudis executed something like 19 people using a beheading. Using beheadings or a variety of capital crimes. Now, that’s within the Saudi legal code. Saudis, a recognized state, have a legal code that says if you do act, here’s the potential punishment. These people were convicted of it and they received the punishment. So this is interesting use. And I’m not trying to equate what ISIS does with what a sovereign state does within the articulated legal boundaries of state and society, you know, etc. But to some extent, you know, it is in line with larger with some of the larger teachings in the tradition. At the same time, I’m pretty sure that they’re using it as a weapon or in this case, to be permanent. It’s an information weapon of terror. The idea is to remember that with terrorism, the targets of terrorism aren’t the victims of terrorism. The targets are usually kill. So in this case, Mr. Foley, the second and third hostage, were also killed. You know, they’re threatened to do the same thing with several others. There is a term. The victims are the victims are these people’s families, their coworkers, other aid workers or reporters that would come into the area. They’re the host nation governments that where these people are from, they’re the citizenry of these countries where they have to. Where were the governments have to be? If they’re democratic are going to have to respond at some point to the way public opinion or public attitudes are on the topic as a result of what’s happened. In other words, the the the the choice of doing the right was intended as march to hand down what these people are going to justify as a appropriate punishment if something. As it is to send a message and that message is an attempt to traumatize the survivors into responding a certain way. 

How do you think ISIS wants the U.S. to respond? 

You know, the you seen a couple of there’s been a couple of arguments made that if you go back to the original bin Laden manifesto, that the whole point of what you know of the attacks was to start to ask into a prolonged conflict where it could be bled economically and it could be bled, you know, greatly bled economically, bled to some extent militarily tied, are distracted, scared, you know, kept in sort of a positive state of agitation, the fear which would then have incredible impact domestically. There’s some argument that what they’re doing with this was an attempt to sort of beedis in in. To continue this type of response because they observed and learned that bin Laden for, you know, the al-Qaeda. Carries out the attacks on 9/11. We immediately before we go and do a variety of things, and then we get stuck in the places that we’re doing. And it has negative economic consequences or negative social and political consequences. Back home in the U.S. and therefore it makes it easier for the ultimate goals of these groups to be achieved. Well, that’s really the case, right? I don’t know. Because ISIS has not come out and clearly stated the reasons behind their attacks. Now, that’s sad. Pretty sure it’s probably a component of that, which is, you know, is this nosier? You know, ISIS is is getting better militarily. Their capture capturing more women. They seem to be getting better at their logistics. They seem to be getting better at their strategy defeater strategy. But it’s a combination of both actual learning while doing well was picking up a number of key former senior military and political personnel who served under Sudan’s government have been locked out in Iraq for the better part of the past decade and have felt poorly treated under the pacification. It also includes the fact that we picked up, I believe, based on the reporting I saw in the news media back in April and May, about a thousand or so hardcore Chechen fighters who been fighting the Russians for 20 years now or so over Chechen independence. You know, all this stuff contributes to ISIS’s capabilities and capacity to do what it wants to do ultimately for ISIS to achieve its its goals, which is to create a true Islamic state in the Middle East. They’re going to have to move to Saudi Arabia. They’re going to have to try to topple Saudi Arabia. 

But right now, Saudi Arabia is supporting ISIS, right? 

Well, this is the issue, right? Is that, you know, the the reporting has indicated that, you know, the Saudis provided funding, especially when they were fighting in Syria, because this is part of Prince Bandar, as you know, as the head of intelligence, his attempt to covertly support the rebels in Syria against the Assad government and the Iranian backers. So you’re saying that the Middle East has its own regional geopolitics, right? You know, you’ve got the Saudis see themselves because they have the most economic strength, because they have the most strength with an OPAC in the region and a sort of you know, they should be the great power in the region. They should be the Edgemont, and they should dictate because the majority of people in the region are Sunni. And so they their way, they should have the most influence. The Turks who are not Arab have this sort of own view. They have begun over the past, you know, under the ERGIN government of the past decade or so to turn away from Europe and more towards the Middle East and Central Asia. And part of this was simply because they were stymied. I mean, they have been there with NATO members for decades. Right. But they have been stymied in their attempts to join the European Union. And an almost it seemed as if every time they hit one of the you know, you had to do this where we did it. Okay, now you have to do this. And then they did it. Well, now you do this as well. As, you know, this is this is this is no longer fun. So they turn their their attention to other areas. There’s some question as to that the Turks are providing the outlet or oil that ISIS is trying to sell. So there they have their own, you know, issue there that Qatar has had been involved and that’s been widely reported as well. So these charges can writes a book. Yeah, sure. It starts on the Saudis. You know, we’re just supporting the al-Qaida decision, which is sort of like we’re supporting the bad guys, but not the bad guys in Paul Fidalgo. So so the problem that all of these countries now face is that you’ve got smack dab in the middle of the region, a group with a coherent concept of how to order society, how to order governance, how to order religion to some extent, and then how to order the economy who appear to be getting militarily better if they can actually achieve what they want needs of the other people that are running things in the area have to go to some extent. This is this is a negative a fact of what some of the countries in the region have done, which is that they have supported or in some cases domestic political reasons, in other cases for domestic religious reasons and for other cases, simply because this is the only way they can exercise power within the region. They don’t have the military strength to do what they have supported the promotion through in missionary work for lack of a better. Some of you know, some of these just off the edge, just over the edge. Cause of very fundamentalist Islam. The Saudis have their own interests. And the Turks have their interests that the Iranians have their interests, me, Syrians have their interests in the Jordanians and their interests, and the country’s security is in the immoralities and the folks from Abu Dhabi. They all have in the Omanis. They all have their interests. The Israelis have their interests. The Lebanese have their interest. Now, some of those folks are our allies by treaty. In the case of the Turks and some of them, there are allies by statute and some of their clients to certain extent. But at the end of the day, they have their interests and they have to live there. And so they may be on board with us. But the question is, is how far are they? Are they on board with what we need to get done before rubs up against one of their interests that they can’t go beyond? Not because it’s not because it violates one of their their regional. You know, we want to be in this much in charge and location X interest, but because it’s domestic interests can’t be crossed, if you will. You know, there’s there’s a core value or something that that that if they were to provide support, it would breach it and get them in trouble domestically with their own citizenry or subject. So you’ve got all this stuff going on which further complicates the entire theater, if you want to think of it, because there’s violence going on as a theater of operation. You want to think of it as a as a region, this further complications be going on in the area because each of these individual countries, even if they’re partnering with us, they have their own interests. And when we fail to properly account for that in our own planning and our own policies and our own strategic development, then we get ourselves in trouble. And we see this right. We saw this during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The church would not provide us access today, say, or overflight permission. Well, what if you saw that we’ve seen the same problem now in regards to ISIS? Well, the Turks have made some noises and a little bit of movement over the past couple of days indicating that they want to go perhaps in a different direction. Now, maybe they’re feeling threatened a little bit. Maybe it’s time to, you know, stop trying to play the Lady versus the Tiger game and get onboard, if you will. So you have the problem, the saying we have the same thing. You know, we have interests in the region. We also have our own domestic politics. And so the question becomes is, you know, if you were looking to credibly crack down on these folks who were the only people in the area that can credibly help us really crack down to some extent in the Syrian portion, it’s the Assad government to some extent on the Iraq portion, it’s the alliance. But domestically, that’s never going to fly here on us. And that’s not me saying, hey, the Iranians are great people all of a sudden because we have an enemy in common or, you know, Bashar al Assad and the Assad family have not been responsible for terrible atrocities and things like that. 

But the question becomes, you know, if you have achieved a set of interests, what are the constraints that are on you? 

What does this all mean in terms of what the U.S. should be doing about ISIS? ISIS seems to be trying really hard to put focus into doing something, and a lot of people think we should. What do you think the U.S. should be doing in this? 

Well, I mean, the first thing you have to I think, remember, is if I remember back when I was an undergraduate at a political science professor who said that there’s nothing as dangerous as democracy wanted to scare. Now, before any of your listeners go off for purists to go like we have a republic, we don’t have democracy. Right. I got it. But, you know, we we choose our elected officials in a democratic manner, etc., etc.. So the reality of it is, is that we took a as much as as the events of 9/11 were physical blow. And, you know, we lost, you know, just under 3000 people in the attacks. The mental and emotional blow was as significant, if not more so in. And we’ve sort of been decidedly very, very jumpy ever since. I mean, the loathe to sort of take, you know, psychological concepts that the quite the individual and apply them to society. But to to a certain extent, we we’ve got a certain societal level of post-traumatic stress, if you will. Leftover from these events. And, you know, the despite all the tactical successes and operational successes in Iraq and to a certain extent in Afghanistan, you know, when we kind of conform to the the the the lack of a status of forces agreement and what the Bush 43 administration negotiated in 2008, the summer fall of 2008 regarding, you know, how many U.S. troops should stay and what they would do. And then we had to leave, you know, at the strategic theater strategic level in Iraq, we really didn’t have a lot of success that further impacted the sort of societal attitude, stress level, things like that. That also was compounded by the economic crisis, the financial meltdown. What some economists call the long or the Great Recession, et cetera. And so the the events that are going on now sort of ah ah ah pushing all those buttons. The question really becomes for the decision makers is, you know, what is it we really need to do? We need to basically first contain and then degrade and then ultimately diminish to the point of it not being anything more than the occasional nuisance of ISIS. And I suspect that that’s the case. And then the question becomes if that’s what the end should be. How do we do that? What should the ways and the means and wall the between media reporting and the Pontotoc, Recy, and politicians running in mid-term elections or politicians not running, but just like liking to hear and see themselves on TV and radio and in print all the time, you know, running around, freaking out for the weasel thing. 

What do we know about ISIS capacity to strike in the US? They keep saying in their videos, we’re coming for you, we’re coming for you. It’s not just posturing or do they have a real operational component? 

I think a lot of it’s posturing. My understanding what they reported in the media is that the the appropriate agencies in the government have determined that there’s been about a hundred American involved in Syria with the various rebel groups and about twelve specifically involved with ICE. That’s not a tremendously large number in either case. If they knew the numbers, then my I would guess that the people who are tracking us know the specific individuals we flagged are out for their travel anywhere back out of that region. I think the bigger worry is probably somebody seeing something on the Internet or on TV or in print feeling disaffected. I’m feeling the need to take a risk being discriminated against and doing something where their own interpretation of how they’ve been treated, who leads them into or meshes with the extremist theology and ideology. And then you get what is often referred to the sort of lone wolf type of attack. 

So the sign I have brothers might be an example of that. I mean, obviously not with ISIS spent in their own way to a certain extent. 

Yeah. And you don’t see that just with with with with mothers. I mean, the term lone wolf actually came out of the the extreme authoritarian white supremacist Christian Identity, National Alliance neo-Nazi. You will see it was a term that they created or they apply to an older concept of, hey, if you want to do something, do it. Don’t make it really organized. Don’t draw on the rest of the century, because that way, if you get capture before or after the event, you can’t bring everybody else who believes the same way down with the type of bomb. And to a certain extent, the Murrah Federal Building bombings in Oklahoma City done by carrying the day and his couple of coconspirators with a train. But I think that was sort of a lone wolf. There were three or four people involved. It’s highly compartmentalized, that would sort of be a classic example of that prior to September 11th occurring. 

So if we work, if we are going to intervene more in with ISIS, it would be interim in terms of the US’s interests. More about preventing it from spreading and disrupting things in the Middle East than for protecting then protecting ourselves from I. 

I think it’s a combination of both because they’re going to you know, you have Americans all over the world and we have interests all over the world. I mean, one of the things that ISIS threatens is oil production. Well, nobody in the country really likes to talk about. And it’s one of the things that we’re not supposed to talk about is that the reason we get involved in things in the Middle East or one of the reasons we get involved in changing the Middle East is that one of our major issues or interests in the Middle East is that we need the oil to flow. I mean, you know, we do not have tremendous alternate energy options yet. I mean, different companies, different R&D firms. There should governor and money, they’re working on it. But we still, you know, our automobiles run on fossil fuels, even if we don’t get the majority of that anymore from, say, Saudi Arabia or we never got a majority over from Iraq. If you wind up with ISIS in control of the oil fields, that is going to have a hugely negative effect on the oil supply, which can have a huge negative effect on the global economy, which is going to have a huge negative effect on the U.S. and its allies in other places. So in some respect, part of being involved here is, you know, if ISIS is serious about what they want to do. Part of what they do is eventually turn towards Saudi Arabia. And if Saudi Arabia is strategy, this is a huge problem because Saudi Arabia. To a certain extent, takes care of us in their sort of lead role within OPAC is part of the reason we’ve provided protection Saudi Arabia, Jersey during Desert Storm and Desert Shield. Right. They were very worried Saddam Hussein was going to come their way. We put up tremendously large number of troops there and then we kept him there, which is partially what the blood in plain Batea about what was going on in Saudi Arabia is that there were non Muslim military personnel on Saudi soil and Saudi soil was somehow holy or sacred because that’s where Mecca and Medina are. And this the sacredness of those spaces somehow covers the entire kingdom, if you will, in having American troops there was somehow negatively impacting our interests. There are solely well, we don’t want anyone to come back here and do anything. We don’t want anyone to do anything to an American in those places who said, hey, we have allies and in some cases quiet there, but we depend on them to do certain things for us, even if they’re economic or they’re diplomatic. And if ISIS, if they’re, you know, gets cooks in the certain places in the region, it is going to make those things impossible to happen. So, you know, to some extent, you know, sort of level the first stage, of course, that you’ve got to be able to contain it can’t be to keep her from spreading any further. At the same time, you’re trying to degrade it. In other words, you want to take its capacity not only to spread, but to consolidate away. And if you could do those two things and you sort of begin the work on diminishing, which means that they’re never actually able to set up a state and say, look, you know, we are the law in Syria. We’re forming a state and society, and you are going to have to do with us like you do with every other state in society. That is part of where we’re trying to go. The question is, is whether the use of air, both strategically and tactically airpower, is enough to enable our allies to achieve the effects on the ground that we need to be achieved and that the the Kurdish forces from the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army, etc.. That’s the real question, because on some level, this has to be dealt with on the ground, because that’s where ISIS is. It’s on the ground. And that’s where the people that are going to be effective, either positively or negatively by ISIS are OK. And so at some point, the question becomes, is that what point is are we achieving what we want to achieve using the ways and means that we started with? Or do we need to actually start adding other things to it? And that’s really going to at some point be a decisive question, not just for the president, but also hopefully for Congress, because, you know, Congress technically has the warmaking hadn’t officially have the war making power. Right. It’s been covered under the rules for war. Who gets to declare war? That’s a congressional function, but it’s also a question of payment. I mean, if you think about what’s going on, Congress did not today an authorization of force for what we’re doing right now. So the president and the way the rules are written can do certain things for up to about 60 days before it. And they should look. We’ll be with us when we come back from going on leave for the midterm campaign. But what it also meant was, is that other than solving, you know, the continuing resolution with an additional bit of supplemental to it, they didn’t sit out and provide the actual budgeting, the finances to actually cover this. And so the question becomes, who is that? You know, at what point do you come back and say, look, you know, we’re going to have to do X, Y and Z? And that’s what it cost Avión to. And we’re going to have to actually say we will fund A, B and C to the we can do X, Y and Z to achieve a degradation and diminishment and ultimately a defeat of ISIS in the region. 

What we just decided that ISIS was not our problem or that we’d already caused enough trouble. I mean, you’ve written that when we invaded Iraq, we inadvertently fractured Iraqi identity and set off all these sectarian time bombs. I mean, what’s the guarantee that if we go in and do something about ISIS militarily, decisively, that we are going to cause a similar fracturing that’s going to cause similar problems? 

There’s there’s no guarantee. 

I mean, I have explained this at different levels and in briefings and in planning groups and things like that, that it’s easy to break a society. It’s very hard to put one back together. And in some cases, the societies that we’re interacting with, I mean, you know, you have to understand that in the case of Iraq. Part of what was holding Iraq together was that it was being run by a military dictator who had the full power of the state to basically impose his will and that of his senior people on the entire population. And so at that point, it’s a matter of survival. You know, he was you know, Saddam Hussein was not trying to sing the praises of Saddam Hussein. He was staunchly secularist. I mean, he didn’t care if individuals were Sunni or Shia. By and large, or if they went to mosque, it didn’t matter what he did, what was religious influence in the country other than some of the religious extremists that he funded outside of Iraq. He really didn’t tolerate those guys when they popped up in Iraq. You know, they were quickly dealt with. You know, he did try to take on the tribes a couple of times and got his bell rung and just kind of left them alone. But what happened is this is not unlike what we saw in the former Yugoslavia, in the Balkans. At one level of maturity, the authoritarian nature of this, of the state and society was keeping the lid on all these different cells that had been simmering and were being ignored because everybody was in the same crappy situation together mile long. And, you know, the result was, is that you all had to survive. And once that went away, then these other identities could be either manipulated or become important again or things like that. And so the result is, is that, you know, the removal of Saddam Hussein from at least the lid on the pressure. And it did it without a concerted plan or a very good understanding from the people who took the lid off the pressure cooker of what to do with all the steam that was coming out. What were we doing? Events, response. And the result is that you saw because of the nature of the way the system had been and what people had been socialized and acculturated to in terms of their daily lives, that once all that went away and there was nothing to really replace it. Well, especially right away. Well, Secretary Rumsfeld very quickly at a press conference room, was told about looting and rioting. Daphne’s like we’re not there to provide security. You know, one of the first rules of an occupying power is that you’re supposed to provide security. You know, there was clearly no plan. So your question is, can we go back in and make it worse? Sure. The issue is, are we going to make it worse? The question is that if we don’t go in, does it get even worse than what we would do? That’s not a question that can be answered right away. With all of these things, you know, this is always the question or always an issue at this level of policy and strategy, which is that today’s solutions create tomorrow’s problems. We thought we had a solution to one thing. We created a new set of problems. We thought we had a solution to those that produced problems. 

Getting rid of ISIS gives a lot of resources back to Syria. Right. 

If we did give it to ISIS, that’s the paradox that officially our position is that the Assad government has to go. But if you get rid of ISIS, there’s really no credible group out there to get rid of the Assad government in among the groups, whether they’re the so-called moderate rebel groups or other groups. You know, the only thing that these groups agree on is that the Assad government has to go. They don’t agree on what our government should replace it. They don’t agree on who should have what position. They don’t agree on, you know, know, Sunnis should be, you know, should be at level one and society and Teria Christian should be Tu’s and the Druze and the Alawites should be at the civil rights level three. There’s no consensus on any of these questions over what Syria should really look like once Assad goes. The only thing they have an agreement is Assad should go. And so if Assad goes, that doesn’t actually solve anybody’s problem in Syria. 

It just brings a whole new if the Assad government falls, could ISIS or its remnants takeover of Syria? I mean, I think the best, strongest people right now to fill that vacuum if the Assad regime were to collapse from refugees or whenever. 

Well, I think that they’re the most organized in terms of the opposition. I mean, I’m not sure we’ll get the entire country. I would think that the the Alawite community, which is the community that the Assad family comes from, their historical area, is it’s a little shaky. It’s along the coast, the Mediterranean coast. It’s it’s mountainous and hilly. My guess is that their ultimate fallback is to try to pull back to their. And then hold out and basically carve out a safe space for themselves in the high country area. So whether they will get everything, including the coastal strip or not, is another question. The larger question becomes is if the Assad government goes and there’s this huge refugee flow. What does that do to the equation right as Assad goes? There’s a huge refugee flow. You know, you’ve got this problem. Lebanon doesn’t handle refugee populations well. Right. Which is a major contributor factor in the civil war in the 70s and the 80s. We know that this is the ability to stabilize Lebanon. The minute that looks like. Let me ask you to destabilize. There’s going to be a lot of movement in Israel for Israel to move to shore up its borders, to establish buffer zones. Whatever. Well, you know, the same thing. If Lebanon looks shaky, it’s it’s you know, it’s got neighbors north. The Turks are going to have to start doing similar stuff. And so you have this ability where if the Assad government goes and nobody really knows what replaces that, but a lot of ISIS takes over in its place. What does this mean and what are the other countries in the region have to do because their own age? 

Is there any evidence that anyone on the ground wants what the U.S. wants? I mean, in terms of, you know, a pluralistic, democratic society, is there anybody out there that could fill that role or would feel that? 

I’m sure there are some of those folks in Syria. But the problem is, is that even if they want it and they get in charge, the question becomes is can they consolidate it? And then if they consolidate it, can they perpetuate it? Right. Look, a good example would be some of the the color revolution. Every color revolution came about in in Eastern and Central Europe after the fall of the Soviet. All of this started with great large amounts of popular large amounts of Democratic looking Democratic, small d democratic. Right. And the announcement that people were going to vote, you know, very inclusive, you know, etc, etc. and what happens is, is that they overthrew whatever was there or whatever it was, you know, people that were that reside. New government is formed, there’s elections, expectations are raised, and they can’t be met right away for a variety of reasons. And then discontent, Simpson and the governments fall apart and things would go back fully or partially to the way they have been before. And then there’s another attack in another town. You see just to some extent of what’s going on in Egypt. The Egyptian Arab Spring began. Up until the point where the military stepped back into reimpose order. Whether that’s good or bad is another story. Ukraine has gone through this three or four times now, minimal with some of the same players involved. Every time this becomes the same issue, it’s not an issue of, you know, that the Syrians don’t understand what democracy is or aren’t willing to impose it. It takes a long time to work through and unlearn what you’re used to do it very hard, even if you mentally understand a liberal, small, l small liberal democratic system with elections and an openness in political parties and things like that, it’s very hard to actually make that work because you have to at the same time be trying to learn how to be part of that. You’ve got to unlearn all the old stuff. 

And is there any guarantees us being there will make it happen any faster? Couldn’t us being there and pressuring people actually put them off what we’d like them to do? 

Sure, it very much could. And that’s why I said it’s very easy to break the culture in a society. It’s very, very hard to put it back together, especially if you’re working from the outside. 

This isn’t a fascinating discussion. Thank you so much for coming on. Point of inquiry. 

Lots could help. Thank you for having me. 

This has been a point of inquiry. You can follow us on Twitter at point of inquiry. Tune in next week. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.