The ‘War of the Imagination’ at the Heart of the Struggle Against ISIS

The Temple of Bel before its recent destruction by Islamic State militants.

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The Temple of Bel before its recent destruction by Islamic State militants.

The true theater of war for the Islamic State is not on earth, but in the heavens, argues popular and controversial scholar of religion, Reza Aslan.

How do you defeat ISIL?

I recently asked Reza Aslan, the popular and controversial scholar of religion and best-selling author, to try to answer this simple question.

So far, the international community appears stymied in their efforts. A US-led international coalition has carried out approximately 6,500 strikes against ISIL since last August, yet despite the bombardment ISIL continues its march of terror through Iraq and Syria. In May, ISIL executed close to 250 people as it took control of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. Recently, extremists blew up Palmyra’s 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel.

Aslan told Quartz that it’s not surprising that efforts to defeat ISIL with traditional military and weapons are proving difficult. ISIL, according to Aslan, is “engaged in is a different kind of war—a war of the imagination.”

Indeed, according to Aslan the true theater of war for ISIL is not on earth, but in the heavens. “It’s not about armies and nations. It’s about the demons of darkness and the angels of light. In these kinds of conflict there is no grey area.”

This simplistic binary of “good versus evil”—sanctioned by a perverse interpretation of religion —explains how ISIL’s barbaric violence has captured the attention of individuals like 24-year-old Saif al-Deen al-Rezgui, who killed 38 people and wounded 39 others in a brazen attack on a Tunisian seaside resort in June. Aslan believes extremists like al-Rezgui can “slaughter women, children, babies, because as far as they are concerned there are only two sides to this conflict: you are either on the side of God, (or) if you’re not on the side of God, then by definition, you’re on the side of the devil… and anything goes.”

This “anything goes” philosophy of mass carnage includes targeted killings of religious minorities, especially Shia Muslims. In late June, a week after Kuwaiti authorities apprehended a cell of 12 ISIL terrorists, a bomb blast at a Kuwait City mosque killed 28 Shia worshippers during Friday prayers. However, Aslan cautions against labeling this a purely sectarian conflict. “Don’t think of it as sectarianism, think of it as a kind of radical extremist puritanism that has run amok,” he urges.

ISIL “wants to return to some kind of pure, unadulterated and frankly totally imaginary past. So obviously, the Shia is the most recognizable community that rejects this kind of Sunni Wahhabist puritanism. But it’s not just the Shia, it’s Sufis. It’s essentially any kind Muslim that does not share this kind of puritanical worldview. All of them are considered enemy.”

The problem then, is whether anyone—including the US—can truly win a cosmic war. The answer, according to Aslan, is no.

“That’s the problem. If the war is about the fight between good and evil, if it’s about your very sense of self in an indeterminate world—those kinds of stakes are unlosable. You can’t lose a conflict when what’s at stake is your very sense of self. But you also can’t win a conflict like that because what you’re fighting for is the triumph of good over evil—that isn’t happening in our lifetime. Which is why we have to remember it’s not about land for these guys. Even calling them the Islamic State is a misnomer, because they aren’t interested in statehood, they aren’t interested in nationality, they have no interest in borders.”

Despite the challenges, Aslan does believe the US military has a responsibility to put a stop to ISIL’s “genocidal campaign across the Middle East.” However, Aslan says the US cannot win by engaging in an ideological battle. For this reason, Aslan applauds American president Barack Obama for ignoring the calls of many conservative politicians to label the fight against ISIL as a fight against “radical Islam.” But, Aslan adds, “[ISIL’s fighters] are actually Muslims.”

Even though most practicing Muslims take great offense to comparisons between ISIL’s form of Islam and their own religion, Aslan himself defines a Muslim as “anyone who says he is a Muslim. That might make you uncomfortable, but it is also a fact. They say they are acting in the name of Islam, and we can’t ignore that. We have to take that seriously … They are a cancer in our midst and you can’t ignore a cancer.”

At the same time, however, precision of language is required when labeling terrorists, something Aslan says America has repeatedly struggled with. “Look, if we haven’t figured this out already, terrorism is a meaningless word,” says Aslan. “The word ‘terrorist’ says much more about the person using the word than the person being described. At this point, it’s become very clear that it’s just become a word about ideology”—and Muslims.

Aslan can effortlessly rattle off examples of white men whose crimes fit the definition but were not branded terrorists in the US, from Andrew Joseph Stack, who flew his plane into an IRS building, to white supremacist Wade Michael Page, who killed six worshippers at a Sikh temple. Most notable recently of course is Dylan Roof, who killed nine black churchgoers at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in July 2015.

The reluctance by some Americans to acknowledge Roof’s act as an act of terror signifies a “serious problem,” according to Aslan. “The problem is we are just racist. We are a country full of racists.” For further proof, Aslan points to the case of Robert Doggart, a Christian pastor from Tennessee, who was indicted in July for allegedly plotting to massacre Muslims in New York State. Doggart had initially been released from jail and put on house arrest. An incredulous Aslan offers a thought experiment: “Let’s pretend he’s not a Christian pastor from Tennessee trying to kill Muslims in New York. Let’s pretend he’s a Muslim imam from New York City trying to kill Christians in Tennessee. It would be the sole topic of conversation in this country. And yet—have you heard of Robert Doggart?”

For sake of fairness and uniformity (and because I, in fact, had heard of Doggart), I pressed Aslan to create a modern definition of terrorism, something that would apply regardless of skin color.

“Any individual, institution, organization or state that haphazardly targets civilians is accused of, stands accused of terrorism,” Aslan said. “That includes Hamas, it includes the State of Israel, it includes the United States, it includes Dylan Roof, it includes ISIL. Any individual, organization or state that haphazardly targets civilians—period—is accused of terrorism. It’s as simple as that.”

If only it were that simple.

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