On the Future of ISIS


November 2, 2017

What exactly has been defeated in the recent battles against ISIS? The relative success of ISIS in recent years has been made possible largely by the failure of its opponents to understand what it is. Its military successes in the Near East and in the worldwide turmoil caused by frequent suicide bombings, shootings, and truck crashings (as we saw in New York this week) can hardly be unknown anyplace in the world. ISIS is often said to be a “terrorist” organization unrelated to or not identified with Islam. Once it is isolated and neutralized, the theory goes, everything can return to normal.

The current military defeats of ISIS will test this thesis. One school of thought maintains that the threat will now largely disappear. Peaceful Muslims will be in charge in what are called their own lands. The other school thinks that ISIS is now free to pursue a more lethal and worldwide expansion in the vast new areas in which the Muslim presence is now being rapidly established. A morally decadent West, in its own areas, will find itself unable to cope with the zeal of this, to it, strange new religion now encamped in its midst.

The Trump administration has been more systematic than that of Obama. It has paid careful military attention to the once-thought triumphant ISIS arms, with its trucks, tommy guns, and black uniforms. Most of its strongholds, now largely in ruins, have been retaken. Millions of locals have fled the area, usually for Europe. A concentrated persecution of Christians and other non-Muslim groups has decimated many of the most famous cities and areas in Iraq, Syria, and Palestine. The White House has just recognized the bias against persecuted Christians when refugee services relied solely on United Nations agencies.

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Under this more centered military attack, ISIS leaders were killed or placed under constant threat. Recruits have begun to surrender. These men have been responsible for some of the worst crimes against innocent civilian populations in human history. Their practice of beheading their enemies on TV has left a deep, sickening impression, as it was intended to do. In their own minds, no doubt, ISIS members carried out these atrocities under a religious motivation. Sufficient justification exists in Islamic texts and its military traditions for their zeal and methods.

It has been a major failure of intelligence in dealing with ISIS and its affiliates to classify them as members of a group that enjoyed killing for the sake of killing. ISIS fighters, however, conceive themselves as loyal troops doing a work that Allah willed. This mission to convert the world to Allah fires the soul of anyone who takes the Qur’an seriously.

A modern man finds it difficult to believe that a project that began some twelve centuries ago in far-off Arabia could still be reinvigorated and remain a constant threat in century after century since then. But many Muslims have no trouble in understanding this abiding mission, which, if it is defeated or fails in one era, will reappear in another, inspired by the same sources.

But the defeat of self-proclaimed Muslim arms is not worthless. Islam is a religion that sees itself under the will of Allah. If their religiously inspired jihad is set back or stopped by superior military force at a given time or place, a Tours or a Vienna, it is looked upon as a defeat for Allah. Hence, they begin to doubt their mission.

But the thinkers who inspire the expansion of Islam are also hard realists. They know that the refugee/immigration of millions of Muslims into Europe and America represents an opportunity for them unparalleled in their recent history. They are already on the ground of the nations that they want next to conquer, nations that once blunted their thrusts into Europe. They are often welcomed there and given the privileges of citizenship.

Their new hosts often think that they will be able to change this violent Islam into peaceful ways through association with the so-called modern secular world. All Islam needs to do is rid itself of any aspiration to reestablish its own law and customs.

What is happening, however, is the realization that Islam does not assimilate. It re-creates its own enclaves, laws, mosques, dress, dietary, and familial customs wherever a sufficient number of new peoples are present. In addition, its birth rate is considerably higher so that often the most frequent numbers of children seen in a European city today are Muslim children.

As a result of the ISIS experience, two things became clear to many Muslim thinkers. One is that terror, at least in the short run, works. Even the crashing of a truck into a mob of citizens at a market or along a bike path becomes an international incident. Modern armies, while effective against ISIS in an open field, are not so useful when it comes to this random city chaos that such bombings and shootings can cause. The defeat of ISIS in the Near East may well result in an increase elsewhere of this sort of arbitrary chaos.

The other alternative is the Islamization of new cities and countries by taking advantage of the laws and protections of the societies in which they find themselves. Once this tactic is embraced—it need not presuppose the cessation of random violence—gradually, step by step, Muslim laws will come to rule in larger areas as a result of what are called democratic processes. In the end, we can expect 1) that few non-Muslims will remain in traditional Muslim lands and 2) that more and more areas will be subject to the laws and customs of Islam, now updated through the recent ISIS lessons.

(Photo credit: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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