Theology in Foreign Policy: ISIS in Context

(Foreign Affairs) Jacob Olidort - ISIS is different from the other Islamic groups in its drive to create a global caliphate. Its claims to statehood and the caliphate are part of its propaganda. Its appeal to potential recruits lies principally in its distinct apocalyptic narrative and in its promise of a purist Salafi utopia. ISIS is driven first and foremost by theology rather than state-oriented priorities. It is also important to remember that ISIS' statehood is an aspiration, not a reality. The West should try to halt ISIS' progression toward statehood through physical stresses on its territorial project (cutting its access to resources and cash flows, stopping its expansion and its recruitment efforts), as well as bringing together a broad array of local and regional actors to not only fight ISIS, but to help in the rebuilding of their countries. By doing so, we not only stop the territorial expansion, but also invalidate the theological narrative ISIS promotes. From a foreign policy perspective, it is highly instructive to understand the theological literature on which ISIS draws, as this could guide policymakers in understanding the group's territorial ambitions. The term "ideology" is a holdover from the Cold War and is not the same as "theology." Theology has a clear spiritual aspect to it and it can exert influence beyond political and economic frameworks associated with ideology. Failure to appreciate the uniquely spiritual claims promoted by theologically-oriented groups like ISIS risks underestimating the religious hold that ISIS has over its recruits. It is much more than, say, the tenuous hold that the Communist ideology had over citizens of the Soviet Union. To stop ISIS from building a state, the West must stick to breaking its hold on swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, areas central to the group's apocalyptic narrative. To invalidate the group's theological cause, the West must engage with a broad array of actors across the ethnic and religious spectrum to not only help them fight ISIS, but also reclaim and rebuild their land. The writer is a Soref Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

2016-03-30 00:00:00

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