Will Iran Replace ISIS?

If ISIS is defeated in Iraq and Syria, it’s likely that the Western world will breathe a collective sigh of relief. Many will assume that with the defeat of the supposedly un-Islamic Islamic State, things will return to normal—or, at least, to what passes for normal in the Middle East. As long as the beheadings, crucifixions, sex slavery, and destruction of churches come to a stop, Western citizens—many of them, at least—will be able to convince themselves that the danger is over.

We may soon see how the West will react to the rout of ISIS because the long-awaited boots-on-the-ground are now on the ground. Except that they’re Iranian boots. Well, to be exact, Shiite militia and Iraqi troops led by Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders.

If the Iranian-led forces succeed in ridding Iraq and Syria of the Islamic State, what then? So much energy has been invested in the idea that ISIS is an evil aberration—a perversion of true Islam—that many will assume that moderate, mainstream Islam is back in the saddle. The fact that ISIS will have been defeated by other Muslims will reinforce the notion that most Muslims are just as opposed to jihad violence as are its victims.

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After 1400 years of jihad warfare, many—including most of the West’s opinion makers—still don’t get it. The main problem is not ISIS or Boko Haram or al-Qaeda, but the Islamic doctrine of warfare. ISIS may not be the most powerful military force around, but it embodies a powerful idea. Much of its attraction hinges on its claim to be faithful to the original doctrine of jihad. So a battlefield defeat of ISIS does not necessarily mean the end of ISIS. ISIS might re-establish itself in Jordan or the Sinai or in Libya. Or it could shift its focus to terrorist strikes in the Mid-East, Europe, and America.

Even if ISIS were to disappear completely, the basic problem would remain. The obligation to engage in jihad warfare is a main pillar of Islam. If it’s not included in the well-known five pillars of Islam, that’s because it’s considered a communal obligation, not an individual one. But it is, nevertheless, of the essence of Islam.

The foundation of jihad doctrine is the distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim, more precisely between the “house of Islam” (dar-al-Islam) and the “house of war” (dar al-harb). The purpose of jihad is to bring the “house of war”—non-Muslim territories—under the control of the “house of Islam.” Thus, jihad is a perpetual obligation that remains in force until the non-Muslim world submits to the Muslim world.

This is not ancient history, it’s modern mainstream Islam. For instance, the influential scholar and popular television personality Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, speaking at a 2003 Islamic conference in Sweden, said, “It has been determined by Islamic law that the blood and property of people of dar-al-harb … is not protected.”

This means that anyone living in the war zone, no matter how peaceful he may be, can be killed. For what? For the crime of being an unbeliever. Islamic war doctrine in its simplest form boils down to this: the Islamic community is obliged to make war on non-believers.

There are, however, a number of exceptions and qualifications. For instance, if the unbeliever converts to Islam or if he submits to the authority of the Islamic ruler and agrees to pay the jizya tax, his life will be spared. Indeed there are many “ifs,” “ands,” and “buts” surrounding the rules of jihad warfare. And these qualifications often serve to provide comfort to potential victims of jihad, even if it’s only a false comfort. Islamic apologists often say that jihad can only be defensive, that it can never be directed toward civilians, and that Islam forbids the taking of innocent life. That’s all very reassuring—until you realize that the terms “defensive,” “civilians,” and “innocent” are understood differently in Islamic and Western societies. A close reading of Islamic law books reveals that only Muslims are innocent. As Anjem Choudary, a UK lawyer and Islamic activist, explained to an interviewer following the 2005 train and bus bombings in London:

When we say “innocent people,” we mean Muslims. As far as non-Muslims are concerned, they have not accepted Islam. As far as we are concerned, that is a crime against God.

Whereas the term “innocent” is defined rather narrowly by Muslim jurists, the term “defensive” is construed in a broad sense. Indeed, the term is so elastic that it includes its opposite. Thus, offensive operations are often deemed to be defensive. For example, most of the many battles fought by Muhammad were battles that he initiated. Yet in the looking-glass world of Islamic jurisprudence, Muhammad was merely defending himself and Allah. Against whom? Against anyone who failed to acknowledge that Allah is the one God and Muhammad is his prophet.

In other words, anyone who fails to accept Islam is ipso facto an aggressor. Perhaps the most frequently repeated phrase in the Koran is “woe to the unbeliever” (or some variation thereof), followed by a warning that said unbeliever will be punished both in the next world and in this one. Difficult as it may be for the Western mind to grasp, in Islam mere unbelief is considered to be an act of aggression.

But how about Muslim-on-Muslim violence? None of the above seems to justify the frequent aggressions committed by Muslims against other Muslims. Muslims know that they are not supposed to wage war against other Muslims, but they do have a way around the prohibition. By the simple expedient of pronouncing your opponent a non-Muslim, you can presto-change-o transform him into an unbeliever and proceed with his execution. This is known as pronouncing takfir—an accusation of unbelief that can be roughly translated as “excommunication.” ISIS, for example, has pronounced takfir on other Muslim groups, and various Islamic authorities have, in turn, pronounced takfir on ISIS.

Even though Muslims may find it expedient to call other Muslims “un-Islamic,” the main thing to understand is that there is a remarkable consensus among Islamic scholars and jurists about the importance of putting non-Muslims in their place. If ISIS is defeated, the situation for Christians, Yazidis, and other non-Muslim minorities in Iraq and Syria may well improve. But it should be kept in mind that even before the advent of ISIS, Christians were persecuted in Iraq. Between the fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of ISIS, approximately three quarters of Iraq’s Christians had fled the country.

Still, for the Christian residents of Iraq, the defeat of ISIS by Shiite forces will most probably constitute a change for the better. From the perspective of global security, however, the replacement of ISIS with Iran will likely turn out to be a frying-pan-into-the-fire type of scenario. An Iranian-led victory will greatly increase the strength and prestige of Iran in the Middle East and also on the world stage. Not that Iran is currently lacking in power and influence. ISIS may seem more frightening, but Iran is immeasurably more dangerous. Tehran is already in effective control of four major capitals in the Mid-East—Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, and Sana. In addition, Iran possesses medium- and long-range missiles and is on the verge of producing nuclear weapons.

What’s more, the Iranian government is just as firmly committed to jihad as is the Islamic State. That the religion of Allah should be the religion of the whole world, by force if necessary, is an uncontroversial idea among Iran’s mullahs, generals, and government officials. The only disagreements are over timing. After all, it was the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that re-introduced militant Islam to the world. And the Islamic Republic of Iran has done more to export terrorism than any other Muslim nation.

The other feature Iran shares with ISIS is an apocalyptic mindset. This makes it doubly dangerous. More than any other Islamic state, Iran is governed by leaders who believe that the end times are imminent—leaders who seem anxious, moreover, to do what they can to shorten the wait. Like many Christians, Iranians believe in a second coming. Unlike most Christians, they believe it is just around the corner. Along with Christians, Shiite Muslims think that the end times will bring the return of Jesus to earth, although he won’t be the Jesus that Christians expect. The Muslim Jesus, however, won’t be the main attraction. That honor is reserved for the Mahdi—the Twelfth Imam who, according to Shia beliefs, has been in a state of occultation in the celestial cities of Hurqalya and Jabulsa since the ninth century. When he returns, the Mahdi will lead a revolution to establish Islamic rule and a reign of peace throughout the world. Then jihad can cease. The problem is, Iran’s leaders believe he can be woken from his trance state only by cataclysmic events.

What sort of cataclysmic events? How about a nuclear attack on the Little Satan (Israel), followed by the detonation of an EMP device over the capital of the Big Satan (America)?

Sounds crazy? To the Western ear, perhaps, but according to Denis MacEoin, a scholar who has contributed to the major encyclopedias on Islam and Iran, the yearning for the Mahdi’s triumphant return “runs through the veins of all [Shia] believers.”

Against MacEoin’s informed analysis of the Iranians’ apocalyptic bent, we have President Obama’s assurance that according to their Supreme Leader, “it would be contrary to their faith to obtain a nuclear weapon.” Oh, well then, that’s all right. No need to worry, after all. As the administration sees it, the Iranian leaders are pragmatic, rational actors who can be counted on to do the reasonable thing.

But what if they’re wrong? Those who think that the defeat of ISIS will bring an end to the Islamic “troubles” may soon discover that the troubles are just beginning.

(Photo credit: Reuters / Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Sept. 22, 2011)


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