The Islamic State atrocities have descended like distant nightmares upon the numbed conscious of the world. The first beheadings of Americans had the power to shock, but since then there has been a steady barrage of inhumanity: mass executions of Christians and others, throwing gay men from rooftops, the destruction of ancient archaeological treasures, the routine use of poison gas.
Even the recent reports in The Times about the Islamic State’s highly structured rape program have produced shock but barely a ripple of action.
And yet something bigger is going on. It’s as if some secret wormhole into a different historical epoch has been discovered and the knowledge of centuries is being unlearned.
This is happening in the moral sphere. State-sponsored slavery seemed like a thing of the past, but now the Islamic State is an unapologetic slave state. Yazidi women are carefully cataloged, warehoused and bid upon.
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The rapes are theocratized. The rapists pray devoutly before and after the act. The religious leader’s handbook governing the rape program has a handy Frequently Asked Questions section for the young rapists:
“Question 12: May a man kiss the female slave of another, with the owner’s permission?
“A man may not kiss the female slave of another, for kissing (involves) pleasure, and pleasure is prohibited unless (the man) owns (the slave) exclusively.
“Question 13: Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who hasn’t reached puberty?
“It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse; however, if she is not fit for intercourse it is enough to enjoy her without intercourse.”
This wasn’t supposed to happen in the 21st century. Western experts have stared the thing in the face, trying to figure out the cause and significance of the moral disaster we are witnessing. There was a very fine essay in The New York Review of Books by a veteran Middle East expert who chose to remain anonymous and who more or less threw up his hands.
“The clearest evidence that we do not understand this phenomenon is our consistent inability to predict - still less control - these developments,” the author writes. Every time we think the Islamic State has appalled the world and sabotaged itself, it holds its own or gains strength.
Writing in The National Interest, Ross Harrison shows how the Islamic State wormhole into a different moral epoch is accompanied by a political wormhole designed to take the Middle East into a different geostrategic epoch. For the past many decades the Middle East has been defined by nation-states and the Arab mind has been influenced by nationalism. But these nation-states have been weakened (Egypt) or destroyed (Iraq and Syria). Nationalism no longer mobilizes popular passion or provides a convincing historical narrative.
The Islamic State has arisen, Harrison argues, to bury nationalism and to destroy the Arab nation-state.
“It is tapping into a belief that the pre-nationalist Islamic era represents the glorious halcyon days for the Arab world, while the later era in which secular nationalism flourished was one of decline and foreign domination,” he writes.
The Islamic State consistently tries to destroy the borders between nation-states. It undermines, confuses or smashes national identities. It eliminates national and pre-caliphate memories.
Meanwhile, it offers a confident vision of the future: a unified caliphate. It fills the vacuum left by decaying nationalist ideologies. As Harrison puts it, “ISIS has cut off almost all pathways to a future other than its self-proclaimed caliphate. The intent is to use this as a wedge with which to expand beyond its base in Iraq and Syria and weaken secular nationalist bonds in Lebanon, Jordan and in even more innately nationalist countries like Egypt.”
President Barack Obama has said that the Islamic State stands for nothing but savagery. That’s clearly incorrect. Our military leaders speak of the struggle against the Islamic State as an attempt to kill as many Islamic State leaders and soldiers as possible. But this is a war about a vision of history. Islamic State ideas have legitimacy because it controls territory and has a place to enact them.
So far the response to the Islamic State has been pathetic. The United States pledged $500 million to train and equip Syrian moderates, hoping to create 15,000 fighters. After three years we turned out a grand total of 60 fighters, of whom a third were immediately captured.
It’s time to stop underestimating this force as some group of self-discrediting madmen. The Islamic State is a moral and political threat to the fragile and ugly stability that exists in what’s left in the Middle East. The Islamic State will thrive and spread its ideas for as long as it has its land.
We are looking into a future with a resurgent Iran, a contagious Islamic State and a collapsing state order. If this isn’t a cause for alarm and reappraisal, I don’t know what is.