Omer Aziz is a JD candidate at Yale Law School. Follow him on Twitter @omeraziz12.
For the West, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) is the latest incarnation of a terrorist group to be targeted from the sky. If NATO could spend more than a decade fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and if the U.S. still has its drones buzzing high over the skies of Pakistan, one can imagine the scope of the fight about to begin. For the Muslim world – the same world the presumptuously self-declared Islamic State claims to represent – IS raises another vexing question: How can this powerful group of bearded beheaders, enslavers, and rapists claim to be Muslim?
The leaders of the Islamic State interpret the holy text of Islam literally. They have turned the Quran into a political program, excising verses that sound too gentle and highlighting those that inflame their grievances. There is no private sphere in the Islamic State, nor is there space for free thought and science, the hallmarks of an Islamic golden age that was centered in Baghdad at the House of Wisdom. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may claim to be caliph, but when the caliph al-Ma'mun reigned in the 9th century (the same century Baghdadi apparently wants to return to), scholars in Baghdad opened new vistas of knowledge in mathematics, medicine, and the humanities, even translating the works of Plato and Aristotle.
Today, the Rolex-wearing Baghdadi has banned the study of math and science in his republic of terror.
Despite its totalitarian ideology, however, young Muslims men are joining IS as though it were a popular street gang. Estimates put the group's numbers at between 20,000 and 31,500 militants, with 15,000 foreign fighters from across the Middle East but also Europe and North America. Think about this. Young men, disillusioned and isolated, and not speaking Arabic or being very knowledgeable about Islam themselves, have flocked to become religious gangsters thousands of miles away. In this respect, they are more like the countless men in the West who, without a coherent identity or productive participation in society, end up in gangs and drug clans, or commit mass shootings against children and women.
Renowned Scholar of Islam Olivier Roy has argued that these alienated jihadists "go for the action" because carrying big guns with a group of thugs is sexier than actually educating oneself about faith. Imams themselves often do not know who the disaffected would-be jihadists are because these men are engaged in anti-social activity, learning about bombs and terrorist groups on the Internet. The soon-to-be jihadist is rarely a religious fundamentalist; he is rather consumed by fear and hatred, has fallen through society's cracks, and has a mind sullied with ignorance and poisoned by violent fantasy. In order words, the perfect sheep.
Of course, the story of IS cannot end with this individualist narrative. The destruction of Iraq's security forces, the lack of postwar planning, Iranian influence, and the outbreak of the Syrian civil war created the perfect space for al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia to transmogrify into IS. Through this period, pro-Western regimes in the Gulf led by Saudi Arabia were financing jihadists and exporting their doctrines across the Middle East and South Asia. In fact, everywhere there is extremism, there is some link to Saudi Arabia. It was not some uninformed conspiracy theorist but Richard Dearlove, the former head of British intelligence, who recently said that the Saudis are "deeply attracted towards any militancy which can effectively challenge Shia-dom."
To this day, 28 pages of the 9/11 Joint Congressional Inquiry, purportedly documenting Saudi Arabia's role, remain classified. Absolute monarchies in the Gulf, under the guise of Islam, helped tear apart the Middle East without thinking about the future. Well, the future has arrived and it is draped in a black flag.
The question then is twofold: How to stop the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria and what to do about IS. On the second question, the Islamic State can only be destroyed by force. It is not a militant group like Hamas or the Afghan Taliban that can be negotiated with, precisely because its only language is violence. Antiwar activists must contend with the fact that sometimes, violence must be met with violence, and that not all parties to a conflict are moral equals.
On the first question, Western nations must confront Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Emirates over the sources of the Islamic State's donors. This game of ignoring the wealthy financiers of jihad because they are strategic allies with oil cannot endure – it is a policy that engenders so much hatred at our hypocrisy and claims to promote democracy. Secondly, Western nations must empower community leaders to fight the influence of radical ideology. This means engaging locally here at home, but also thinking about long-term socioeconomic development in the Middle East. IS provides these young men with jobs, additional stipends and sometimes cars. Arab governments will need to provide greater economic opportunities or they will be locked in an unending war not with Islamists, but with the anger that grows out of impoverishment.
This is an ambitious project, but for once there must be a long-term plan for the Middle East rather than empty ballots and American bullets. Otherwise, the region will continue to crumble, more black flags will be seen sputtering across the Levant, and once again, history will rhyme.