Nightmares And Dreams: The Islamic State’s Mysterious Revolution – Analysis


By Hillel Fradkin and Lewis Libby*

It was little more than a year ago that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), took the pulpit in the recently-captured great mosque of Mosul in northern Iraq. There he proclaimed the establishment of the “Islamic State,” and the re-founding of the Islamic Caliphate, the most ancient office and title of Islamic rule abolished to the dismay of the devout in 1924. In so doing, Baghdadi declared himself Caliph not just of Iraq and the Levant, but of all Muslims. To unattuned Western ears, his claim seemed grandiose. But Baghdadi had launched a revolution in the Islamist world.

Baghdadi’s revolution draws on, and indeed is surpassing, the two major revolutions in modern Islamist thought that preceded it. To explain ISIL’S rise, the West weighs the weapons in its hands and condemns the political rot in the states opposing ISIL. The West should look as well to how Baghdadi captured the dreams that fueled his rise. In that lies the coming course of Islamic radicalism.

Baghdadi strode to that pulpit on the crest of ISIL’s rapid and extensive conquests in Syria and Iraq, especially the drive to Mosul in spring, 2014. For the West, the new state and its success appeared almost to come from nowhere, or, given its particularly gruesome methods, out of a sudden and unexpected nightmare. The speed of its onset led many to believe, or at least hope, that it would just as swiftly dissipate and return to the demented void from whence it appeared to have so suddenly sprung.

Indeed, but a few months before, in January of 2014, Pres. Obama had described ISIL – then mostly huddled in Syria — as a “junior varsity” version of Al Qaeda. According to the president, this junior varsity lacked “stars” analogous to Kobe Bryant, such as Osama bin Laden had been. So Al Qaeda remained the declared focus of US efforts to counter terrorist threats.

But today the Islamic State is, in Sunni jihadi terms, not only clearly of “varsity” quality, but the “all star team.” For the moment, it is eclipsing Al Qaeda, and may yet supplant it altogether. The only other “all stars” to rival it in terrorist clout come from the Shiite side of the Islamic sectarian divide and are fostered by Iran: Hezbollah, a whole host of other Shiite militias, and, above all, Iran’s Quds force.

After first mocking ISIL, the Obama Administration then estimated that it would take three years to defeat it. But most recently, the president declared that the struggle will be “generational.” Thus, for the West, the nightmare will rage a long while.

But for many Islamists, the Islamic State is not a nightmare, but a dream come true. More particularly, a dream finally come true — a glorious dream, which represents for them the fulfillment of the Islamist movement’s whole, tortuous history. Thus Baghdadi’s simple declaration of the Islamic State is a great source of its strength. The dream resonates. Invoking it, empowers.

Indeed, for many Islamists, Baghdadi advances not a new dream, but the ancient dream, of return to the original Arab Caliphate born in blood and faith, in the heroic days of the Salaf As-Salih, the Virtuous Ancestors, Muhammad’s companions and successors. Since Islam’s political and military decline relative to the West first became too pronounced to ignore owing to defeats suffered by the seventeenth century Ottoman Caliphate, Islamic scholars blamed defeat on falling away from the good old ways, whether Islamic or Ottoman. The proposed remedy, to return to such ways, resonates through the centuries. Today, many Islamist radicals propound it. But Baghdadi’s declared State embraces a more direct return to Islam’s origins than the approaches of his modern Islamist rivals. Centuries of Ottoman overlay are abandoned for the truer Arab origins. Islam will not build on the ruins of existing states; rather, a wave of Islamic conquest will become a state, as it did in the lifetime of Islam’s Arab founder, Mohammed – Islam’s model prophet, ruler, soldier, and conqueror – and his great successors.

Baghdadi would rule, then, in the most ancient tradition. He would carve his way to authority, ruling, as said by the ancient and revered Islamic Scholar Ibn Qutayba, in the ancient way: “Islam, the ruler, and the people are like the tent, the pole, the ropes and the pegs. The tent is Islam, the pole is the ruler, the ropes and pegs are the people. None can thrive without the others.” Baghdadi’s rise would be the pole upon which all depends.

Of dreams, Ibn Qutaybah, would write: “There is nothing in … the different sciences that is more obscure, delicate, exalted, noble, difficult and problematic than dreams, because they are a type of revelation and type of Prophethood.” Baghdadi’s Caliphate hopes to evoke the power of such dreams. The much discussed millennial and apocalyptic rhetoric of his movement enhances that.

To outside observers, nothing about the rise of the Islamic State – or its ascendancy over its rivals — was inevitable. ISIL might have been destroyed early on, in Iraq, where its origins in a branch of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) lie. In fact AQI nearly was destroyed in the American surge of 2006-2008. Its resurrection and ISIL’s success has been attributed to a variety of special circumstances. The outbreak of the Arab revolts of 2011, and in particular the Syrian civil war, first gave AQI an opening to reconstitute itself as a champion of Syria’s Sunnis against the murderous Iranian-aligned regime of Bashar al Assad. The sectarian and corrupt Iraqi administration of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki both alienated Iraq’s Sunnis and enhanced ISIL’s Sunni base with the professional expertise of former Saddamist officers. The degraded Iraqi army fled at the first blow in June 2014, leaving behind the lifeblood of further conquest – cash and weapons. Weak, vacillating, and mistaken American policy not only failed to anticipate, intervene and prevent the Syrian and Iraqi dynamics, but sped them, most notably by Obama’s underestimation of his enemy and his decision to embrace a precipitous 2011 withdrawal from a position of strength in Iraq.

All these and other circumstances have been important, and had they not obtained the Islamic State might never have enjoyed the success it now does.

Nevertheless, neither is its success simply the accidental product of Middle East dysfunction and chaos, accelerated by American error. Rather it represents, and self-consciously so, the latest evolution of the modern Islamist movement, now some 90 years old. For the foundation of the Islamic State and the re-founding of the Caliphate, draw upon the declared goals of the Islamist movement from the 1920’s on, when it first adopted an institutional mode in the form of the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In the intervening years, the Islamist movement had developed a diverse variety of strands. Yet similar goals — the restoration of an Arab Caliphate that directly confronts the West — have remained in force for all of them.

Baghdadi’s declaration of the “Islamic State” amounts to proclaiming that those goals are at hand. The long era of waiting and longing is now over. Whatever his other calculations, he knew this claim would electrify the Islamist movement and accelerate his success. And it has.

In making this claim, the Islamic State need not and does not simply dismiss the contributions of earlier phases of the Islamist movement and the diversity that displayed. That diversity did not arise from disagreements about the goals, but rather about the proper strategy and tactics in pursuing them. Roughly speaking the various groups divided into two camps: the Brotherhood on the one hand; the jihadis or Salafi Jihadis on the other.

While the Brotherhood did not reject jihad – it affirms it in the most famous slogan of its founder, Hassan al-Banna – it believed that the first tasks were to build — or more accurately rebuild — “Islamic Society” from the ground up. It would do so through a mass organization, complemented by a host of social and economic organizations providing a variety of services. This so-called “gradualist” approach had significant success. But by the 1970’s, several Islamists, usually veterans of the Brotherhood, declared that this approach was not working and that the main emphasis should be on jihad, “the forgotten duty.”

This new direction in Islamist thought was immensely encouraged by the advent in the 1980’s of the so-called Afghan jihad. Combatting the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan provided an immediate outlet for this duty by fighting one of the two global forces which Islamism defined as its enemies. Of course, the Afghan Jihad ultimately gave birth to Al Qaeda, the most successful of the jihadi groups, and a host of others which often operated in its orbit. For Al Qaeda, the first requirement was to continue to prosecute jihad against Islam’s other great enemy, America; the formation of a new society could come later.

The Islamic State implicitly claims to be the proper successor to both these strands, to be the fruit of the long experience of the Islamist movement, of both its successes and failures. It claims not so much to reject these strands as to synthesize and transcend them. Its character embodies that. On the one hand, and most clearly, it is committed to a most vigorous prosecution of jihad. On the other, it is proceeding to establish the legal, administrative, social and economic institutions which belong to a state and which are necessary to expand and consolidate its base. Its media present not only its brutal violence, but images of the Islamic utopia it claims to have established.

If this reflects its vision for the new Muslim order and follows from it, it also addresses its vulnerabilities. Of particular importance is its creation of a new system of education for children under its rule. Given a few years, this will produce a cadre of people formed in its image and loyal to its rule. Such inductees provide a hedge against the shock of future battlefield and geopolitical challenges and reversals.

In proceeding in this fashion, whether by design or de facto, the Islamic State lays claim to represent the proper evolution of the Islamist movement and its culmination. If grateful for the hard work that went before, it asserts that the time for alternative efforts is past; they are no longer necessary. It is time for other Islamists to recognize that, celebrate that, and join this new venture, the new and final norm of the Islamist movement. The Islamic State thus offers itself as “an advanced model” of the movement, as the well-known journalist Abdulrahman al Rasheed put it in Al-Arabiya. Many Islamist radicals have embraced it in that spirit.

Of course, not all of its Islamist rivals have accepted the Islamic State’s embrace; for example Al Qaeda. In a recent, lengthy, and remarkable interview in the British paper, The Guardian, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the most important spiritual and intellectual Islamist authority in the world, especially for its jihadi branch, reaffirmed his support of Al Qaeda and his rejection of the Islamic State. (For his own audience, he had already done so with a long tract published last June.) He was joined in the interview, and his views, by Abu Qatada, another important spiritual and intellectual authority. But their critique was tinged with fear that Al Qaeda was indeed in decline, even terminally so. Though still loyal to Aymen al Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s current leader, they described him as “isolated” and far removed from the main theater of jihadi action. As Munif Samara, another party to the interview put it, young Islamists “are waiting for al-Qaida to do something and al- Qaida is doing nothing.” By contrast, the Islamic State presents a “delicious meal {that} looks delicious and tempting.”

These dedicated Islamists even wondered whether Al Qaeda’s original strategy had helped to bring it to this pass. Maqdisi now thinks Al Qaeda unwisely neglected building a societal base and the institutions and the geographic base that implies. He urged that Al Qaeda should now do so. “That kind of enabling jihad will establish our Islamic State.” (Emphasis added.) This line of thought leads in the direction of the Islamic State’s new norm.

Of course the Islamic State claims to already embody that. Maqdisi and Qatada vehemently jeer at such claims, calling Baghdadi’s Islamic State: a meal of “dirt and filth;” “a cancerous growth; ”a mafia group;” a ruin for the “whole Ummah.” But for those familiar with the experience of the Communist movement, the tone of their remarks might suggest a qualified analogy to the case of the Trotsykites and their ultimately futile critique of the “really existing socialism” of Stalin.

For its part, the Brotherhood side of the movement has also experienced a massive failure of its approach and influence. This is most obvious in the case of Egypt, the place of its founding and home of its most important branch. The revolt of 2011 against Mubarak’s rule finally brought the Brotherhood to power, partially through the support of a sympathetic society and the indulgence of Mubarak rivals within the Egyptian military. But the Brotherhood promptly squandered that support through its strategy of authoritarian governance, put in place late in 2012; and its regime was soon overthrown. The Brotherhood’s failure was not simply accidental. In an important speech in 2011, its Deputy Guide, Khairat al Shater, proclaimed that its long gradualist approach had finally reached its goal, and that its vision of the state was at hand. It could therefore afford to be, indeed was required to be, more aggressive. The subsequent demise of its rule has undercut the Brotherhood’s approach.

Another Brotherhood loser of the Arab revolts has been the Syrian branch. With the support of Turkey, it sought to dominate the Syrian revolt. As Turkish columnist Burak Bekdil has put it, then Prime Minister Erdogan thought that “the Sunni majority would set up in Damascus a Muslim Brotherhood type of regime that would be subservient to Ankara.” It would be an extension and partner of ‘the Muslim Brotherhood type regime’ that Erdogan was progressively building in Turkey itself. But the Syrian Brotherhood is now effectively marginal to the civil war, dominated by the Islamic State, by Al Qaeda’s affiliate, al Nusra, and by other factions, both Islamist and more secular. Erdogan has sometimes found it convenient to support some of these groups, including the Islamic State. Even Erdogan’s own program for Turkey is somewhat in doubt, as a result of the losses in this June’s Turkish elections. To reverse his course, Erdogan has called for new elections, to be held in November, using violence and repression, in Turkey and around it, as his core strategy to reclaim his ascension.

Might the Brotherhood, too, move in the direction of the Islamic State model? This would mean a more vigorous embrace of jihad to augment its previous “societal’ model. After its overthrow in Egypt in 2013, the senior leadership of the Brotherhood continued to affirm a non-jihadi approach. But its massive failure in Egypt has produced dissent in the younger ranks. Some now incline toward pursuing a violent strategy. Most recently and strikingly, a group of distinguished pro-Muslim Brotherhood clerics from around the world issued a statement calling for the overthrow of the Egyptian government by all necessary means. Amr Darrag, a minister in the Brotherhood government, reflecting on its fall, has said, “The main lesson I learned is that gradual change will not work.” If these new trends continue, the Brotherhood will come ever closer to the new Islamic State’s violent norm.

At all events, for the foreseeable future the Islamic State, the Islamic Caliphate, will be the colossus of the Sunni Islamist movement. It will generate a strong gravitational pull on other Islamists.

Of course, the Islamic State faces obstacles on the road to further success. It has many enemies. Some are in the skies above in the form of the allied air campaign against it. No doubt it would prefer not to have to face allied bombing, but it has adapted to it. In this and other respects, the Islamic State has thus far proven to be strategically and tactically adept. It continues to consolidate its position, for example, through its capture of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, this year.

On the ground, the enemies the Islamic State faces are diverse: other Islamist groups in Syria, the Kurds, and Shiite forces led by Iran. The enmity of the last would seem especially grievous, given their strength. Nevertheless, the Islamic State’s hostility to Shiism as a centuries-old, heretical betrayal of true Islam is well known and exceeds that of all other Islamist groups. After the capture of Mosul, the Islamic State spokesman announced its further ambition to capture and desecrate the Shiite holy cities of Kerbela and Najaf. It might appear imprudent to provoke such a powerful enemy. In fact, the leaders of Al Qaeda decried such imprudence, going back to its origins under the leadership of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In Iraq in 2014 it produced a large Shiite mobilization that enhanced the influence of Iran.

Still, this enmity cuts more than one way, and in some respects strengthens the Islamic State. The current aggressiveness of Iran and its Shiite empire has raised the sectarian conflict of Sunnis and Shiites to be the defining conflict within the Middle East. This leads to the hope among Sunnis that a champion of their own will arise to do battle with Iran. The Islamic State presents itself as that champion, and an especially pure one, precisely because it appears so uncompromising. In this respect, its celebration of violence and brutality is a “plus,” rather than the “minus” outsiders suppose. It is a declaration that ISIL really “means business” in a way that evokes more ancient and glorious days. ISIL’s narrative has been and continues to be especially preoccupied by the founding generation of Islam and its presumed glories, glories which are contested in principle by Shiites. This has and may further enhance its status among Sunni Islamists

But it has also attracted no small amount of sympathy among Sunnis generally who are hardly impressed by the strength of their traditional rulers in the struggle with Iran and its Shiite revolution. Indeed, although the rulers themselves know they are threatened by the Islamic State, in principle and practice, they may quietly welcome the Islamic State the longer the struggle with Iran goes on.

The net result, for the present, bodes well for the Islamic State. It does not bode well for the Middle East if the dominant forces prove to be its empire and that of the Shiites led by Iran.

President Obama has suggested that eventually an equilibrium will come to pass among the contending forces. Perhaps. But the road to it will be drenched in blood, and it cannot be ruled out that some of it may be our own. Indeed, harming Americans may be the new coin of the realm in the competition among Islamists for funds and broader support. For despite their rivalry, there is one thing on which Iran, the Islamic State, and its Sunni Islamist rivals can agree: enmity towards us and doing us harm. Iran and Al Qaeda already have; the Islamic State is beginning to enter that competition with the winds of its new leadership of the Islamist movement at its back.

*About the authors:
Hillel Fradkin
, Director, Center on Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World

Lewis Libby, Senior Vice President

This article was published by the Hudson Institute.

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI ( is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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