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A 2015 New Yorker review of jihadi poetry reminds us of crucial elements of ISIS ideology as the world begins to respond to thousands of applications for national repatriation from the defeated. Here’s the heart of the matter:

At the center of jihadist politics is a rejection of the nation-state. The map of much of the modern Middle East, established by Britain and France at the end of the First World War, is an enduring source of bitterness. One of ISIS’s most striking videos shows jihadis destroying the border crossing between Iraq and Syria, a line established by the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement, in 1916. Other videos feature the burning of passports and national I.D.s. The “holy warriors” find a home only in failed states such as Afghanistan—or, now, eastern Syria—so the poetry of jihad promulgates a new political geography. This geography rejects the boundaries set by foreign powers and is, instead, organized around sites of militancy and Muslim suffering. … These moments of internationalist ecstasy are common in jihadi verse. 

If suffering and ecstasy seem to you at odds, you haven’t been paying attention. It pleases Allah and emotionally transports you for you to burn up inside a three-layer cloth coffin (and your three year old daughter! Look at the footage coming out of Baghouz.), for your husbands to be martyred, and for your children to be reared as martyrs-to-be. (Meet Umm.) Radical Muslims weren’t the first to discover masochism-unto-death-as-religion but they’ve certainly taken the concept and run with it. What they call the ecstasy of internationalism the rest of us would call the curse of statelessness; but it’s important to take suicide bombers at their word.

In March, 2014, the kingdom of Bahrain declared that all subjects fighting in Syria had two weeks to return home or be stripped of their citizenship. Turki al-Bin‘ali, a prominent ISIS ideologue and a former Bahraini subject, responded with “A Denunciation of Nationality,” a short poem that thumbs its nose at the royals and ridicules the very idea of the nation-state. “Tell them we put their nationality under our heel, just like their royal decrees,” he writes. For the jihadis, new frontiers beckon: “Do you really think we would return, when we are here in Syria, land of epic battles and the outposts of war?” … Having renounced their nationalities, the militants must invent an identity of their own. 

To ISIS women in particular has gone the task of promulgating and enforcing this ideology:

ISIS has made a point of putting women on the front lines of the propaganda war. It has also created a female morality police, a shadowy group called the al-Khansa’ Brigades, who insure proper deportment in ISIS-held towns. Although media accounts of ISIS’s female recruits typically cast them as naïfs signing up for sexual slavery, it is a fact that no other Islamist militant group has been as successful in attracting women.

In the most recent issue of Dabiq, ISIS’s English-language magazine, a female writer encourages women to emigrate to “the lands of the Islamic State” even if it means travelling without a male companion, a shocking breach of traditional Islamic law. This may be a cynical ploy—a lure for runaways. But it is in keeping with the jihadists’ attack on parental authority and its emphasis on individual empowerment, including the power of female believers to renounce families they do not view as authentically Muslim.

Having been crushed, militants now toss empowerment, internationalism, and family/nation-state renunciation aside with the same ease they tossed decapitated heads into baskets. (It’s the rare jihadi woman who displays Dorothée Maquere’s sense of principle: “I don’t want to return to France because the French state used its arms to kill my children and my husband and I know if I return I’ll be put in prison.” As queen bee nihilist – her husband famously killed over a hundred Parisians – Maquere will presumably live out her life in the camp, lording it over lesser nihilists.) They present themselves at our borders as gullible patriots and daddy’s girls — girls for whom daddy now bankrupts the family as he litigates to get Baby back in the pink bedroom they’ve been keeping for her.

Were they playing at their bloody sport? Apparently so, or they’d be packing their bags for New ISIS, Libya.

It might all have been Outward Bound with mucho procreative bouncy bouncy for the caliphate for them; but for us their game is and remains an existential threat. For again the real name of the game, as Hosham Dawod argues, gazing at the ruins of a mosque ISIS destroyed, is world destruction, nihilism sans frontieres: ISIS is “a model of cultural and civilizational nihilism.” Olivier Roy elaborates:

Though Isis proclaims its mission to restore the caliphate, its nihilism makes it impossible to reach a political solution, engage in any form of negotiation, or achieve any stable society within recognised borders.

… The systematic association with death is one of the keys to understanding today’s radicalisation: the nihilist dimension is central. What seduces and fascinates is the idea of pure revolt. Violence is not a means. It is an end in itself. [‘(I)nstead of fighting imperial “crusaders,” the group spent most of its time killing other Muslims and local minority communities …’] [(Isis is) not like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or even Al Qaeda under bin Laden, but akin to “the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.”]

… [T]hose who volunteer to die – the disturbed, the vulnerable, the rebel without a cause – have little to do with the movement,but are prepared to declare allegiance to Isis so that their suicidal acts become part of a global narrative.

… [L]iving in an Islamic society does not interest jihadis: they do not go to the Middle East to live, but to die. That is the paradox: these young radicals are not utopians, they are nihilists. [As in, you know, what the hell… When you run out of other people to kill…]

It is a huge fantasy, like all millenarian ideologies.

 … Isis’s pretension to establish a global caliphate is a delusion – that is why it draws in violent youngsters who have delusions of grandeur.


Look at these

hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only

and marvel at the nihilism they have achieved, and that many of them will go on achieving, wherever they move or are moved in their placeless world.

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