When Prophecy Succeeds?: The Islamic State Problem as an Imaginary Reality

The main point of this essay is that the Islamic State’s beliefs are so entrenched in its adherents’ identities that defeating them is all but an exercise in futility. There is no way to put the genie back in the bottle. Not diplomacy nor military counteraction nor anything else will stop the spread of barbarity, at least not in our generation. Because the Islamic State’s (IS) beliefs are proscriptive in terms of violence, its normative statements are also in terms of violence. Violence constructs and fulfills its own prophecies. The fulfillment of these prophecies drives IS towards more acts of violence in the quest to herald in the unfulfilled prophecies.

First, note that to make my argument I want to first look at these prophecies.

IS believes that the Mahdi will arrive and defeat the Antichrist after the restoration of the Caliphate. Because IS has created a so-called Caliphate, they believe the prophecy has been fulfilled, and the arrival of the Mahdi is imminent. Second, IS made prophecy that the restoration of Sharia over Dabiq would herald a coalition of Western non-believing invaders. IS captured Dabiq, fulfilling its prophecy. On the other hand IS appears oblivious to its role in self-fulfilling these prophecies. Nonetheless, these prophecies serve to reinforce knowledge that their beliefs are true.

IS has made other prophecies, which have not yet come true:

  • Adherents to movement will spread the Caliphate by killing nonbelievers
  • Mahdi and followers will sack Istanbul
  • Antichrist will arrive in Jerusalem
  • Jesus will return
  • Final battle between good and evil in Dabiq (likely with NATO)
  • This battle will result in IS victory, but at a great cost (only a few thousand remain)
  • Jesus will kill the Antichrist
  • Jesus will convert remaining nonbelievers
  • Creation of global Islamic utopia

Second, note the first prophecy, which argues that physical violence against non-believers is proscribed by prophecy. Without it the Caliphate cannot spread. Because IS believes this is a literal battle between good and evil, battlefield morality does not apply. This makes it incredibly difficult to predict IS behavior outside general ideas of violence.

Third, IS has been subjected to a slew of various criticisms: from military counteraction, Western media reports, and Sunni and Shia denunciation. This compels members to violence to prove their beliefs are not only valid, but also true. This becomes even easier when prophecy explicitly calls for violence against nonbelievers.

In this case the prophecy is violence; by hewing more to their beliefs, the adherent will respond to criticism that elucidates their cognitive dissonance by seeking to fulfill one of the above prophecies. Because most are contingent on supernatural phenomena outside the adherent’s abilities, and one is contingent on foreign armies, he will likely seek to spread the Caliphate by killing nonbelievers. By doing so he believes he is fulfilling prophecy, thus reinforcing his own beliefs.

In other words, IS has made predictions about the current and future state of the world. Its members wholeheartedly believe these predictions, and they are willing to use violence to defend them for two reasons: 1) the prophecies explicitly call for violence and 2) the world is full of condemnation against their beliefs and actions, creating cognitive discomfort; proving the prophecies true cures that discomfort.

Therefore—if I am correct—it would require an extraordinary amount of time and effort to change these beliefs. Perhaps building societies in terms of infrastructure, economies, access to health care, and legitimization of the Iraqi and Syrian states (by providing the former) will draw people away from IS and back to civilized society. I make no prescriptions because even that will require an astronomical amount of resources. Furthermore, determining what is in no way tells us what should be.

Finally, I will confess some problems with my argument. First, it assumes all members are in the group because they believe the prophecies. Some, particularly Baathists who joined its predecessor in Iraq (al Qaeda in Iraq), joined not for fame, glory, or religion; they joined because Prime Minister Maliki disenfranchised the Sunni population, leaving many of them removed from their official posts and unemployed. With nowhere else to turn many were forced into the Islamist group. This problem might be remedied with the idea I present in the previous paragraph; however, as I’ve stated, it’s almost impossible. Second, terrorist groups generally do not survive longer than a generation. With IS being ~15 years old (give or take), it could naturally self destruct in another decade in a half. This is supported in the literature.

Regardless, it’s my position that even if the group ceases to be in name, its ideas will live on, and people will be conducting terror missions on behalf of its prophecies for years to come.

I’ve drawn ideas for this essay from the following sources:

  • David Campbell – Writing Security: United States foreign policy and the politics of identity (1998)
  • David Hume – A Treatise of Human Nature (1739)
  • Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart – Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (2011)
  • Leon Festinger – When Prophecy Fails: a social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world (1956)
  • Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger – ISIS: The Terror State (2014)
  • William McCants – The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (2015).

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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