How Islamic is the Islamic State?

The nature of the Islamic State (IS) gives rise to various and often conflicting approaches among scholars and other observers monitoring its development. In an article published in Terrorism and Political Violence (Nov.-Dec. 2015), Jeffrey Kaplan (University of Wisconsin Oshkosh) and Christopher P. Costa (Department of the Navy) approach it as an instance of a “new tribalism” and claim that it has actually become a sectarian group of its own, separate from the Islamic Ummah while attracting support from Muslims around the world. Like several other authors, Kaplan and Costa emphasize the millennial nature of IS and stress that feelings of living in times leading to the Day of Judgment are widely spread in a number of Muslim countries—in the context of “constant waves” of “messianic fervor or eschatological desperation” in the Islamic world. While millennial beliefs in all religions of the “People of the Book” are often benign, they can also turn into antinomianism, leading followers to commit actions that would otherwise be reproved.


The authors note a disturbing trend in rhetoric in IS publications that selectively retrieve elements from the Islamic heritage. But similarly to what happened in other cases of confrontations with messianic groups, Western war planners tend to dismiss such rhetoric as “nonsensical.” But this millennial language is actually what makes IS dangerous: a perception of living in the Last Days, “freeing them from the normal constraints of Islamic law and simple human decency.” Rightly, the authors note that this tendency is not unknown in the history of apocalyptic movements. Moreover, they identify IS as a case of a “new tribalism,” following a theoretical model originally developed by Kaplan in 2010. Distinct from “ascriptive” tribalism (i.e. a group into which one is born), IS belongs to the type of “aspirational” tribalism (i.e. tribes “coalesc[ing] as a tightly knit supportive milieu that is forged by deep currents of belief”). The authors claim that this pattern should not be overlooked by a focus only on radicalized religion.

Jihadism is not limited to IS, and several well-known French authors, such as Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy, have for years developed widely read analyses of such phenomena. In an overview of recent French publications on the topic published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (Jan. 21), Marc Zitzmann shows that interpretations differ among those scholars. Roy and Farhad Khosrokhavar—an expert on radicalization as well as on jihadists in jails—attribute limited significance to religious beliefs as a source of radical views, while Kepel or Jean Birnbaum see it as crucial. Moreover, according to Kepel, jihadists follow the blueprint elaborated by bu Musab al-Suri in his 1600 page book The Global Islamic Resistance Call, made available online in the mid-2000s. So-called “lone wolves” may not be part of an organization, but they are part of the system, and the ultimate purpose is to provoke a “civil war” in Europe. Either complementary or contradictory, those different approaches by various authors attempt to make sense of what is more than merely a security threat. Also at stake are the perceptions of immigrant communities in the West as well as the controversial issue of relations between jihadist appeal and specific currents of contemporary Islam.

(Terrorism and Political Violence,