A day after the slaughter in Paris, Fusion.net blogger Manu Saadia lamented that the Isis murderers had added insult to injury by concentrating their attacks on neighborhoods where “young and hip Parisians gather to drink and socialize.” Struggling to understand the politics of the massacre, Saadia deployed every buzzword in the liberal handbook. He was indignant that neither “tolerant, progressive” views nor the amulet of political correctness had protected these “hipster socialists” against the violence. As if to chastise Isis for its gory faux pas, Saadia pointed to the “ethnically mixed” neighborhoods themselves, which had retained the “authenticity” of their “proletarian” origins.
Moreover, Saadia added, these PC quartiers of Paris had helped elect “a female socialist mayor”—a granddaughter of Spanish republican immigrants, no less. The trendy district also supported “a slew of Green Party candidates, even as the rest of the country voted for the more conservative and anti-immigration parties on the Right.” The killers, Saadia complained, had even “targeted the greatest monument to France’s multi-ethnic, pluralistic success: the hallowed ground of the Stade de France.” Saadia concluded that the assailants, “whomever they may be and whatever their motives, went after the heart of progressive Paris. They did not attack the more touristy Champs-Elysées or Notre Dame, or the more bourgeois and conservative left bank, where most of the government ministries are located.”
A year ago, Saadia’s bewilderment about the goals and inner workings of Isis was shared by millions. No one was really sure what Isis was trying to accomplish, or what drove its fanatical quest for blood. In March of this year, however, The Atlantic published Graeme Wood’s article, “What Isis Really Wants.” Judging by post-Paris comments across the blogosphere, few remember Wood’s detailed peek behind the Isis veil. Manu Saadia, and others who missed Wood’s article, would be well advised to read it.
Wood revealed that Isis is not a political organization. Its politics are obscure because Isis doesn’t have political objectives, at least not as that term is understood in the West. Isis is not an al-Qaida imitator, using Islam to motivate its followers. Instead, Isis is a religious reform movement, a fundamentalist Sunni sect that seeks to purify the Muslim faith through killing.
Isis proclaims itself to be the caliphate, a purely Islamic state under full Sharia law, led by a caliph who rules as a successor to the Prophet Muhammed. As such, Isis isn’t interested in the political analyses that fascinate Western observers. It scoffs at partisan pieties and heartfelt appeals to Western values. Isis makes no distinction between liberal hipsters and crusty conservatives. Isis doesn’t care that you’re upset by their macroaggressions. It doesn’t care that people from 19 countries were among the dead and injured in Paris. Isis doesn’t care that you’re shocked by its advocacy of slavery, crucifixion, child marriage, and rape, which it justifies by citing Koranic texts. For good measure, Isis scorns diplomacy and political feuds. It ridicules global warming and international borders. It ignores the United Nations, sneers at presidential primaries, and laughs at the University of Missouri. To one and all, the Isis caliphate sends an egalitarian message: convert to Islam, pay tribute, or die.
There is, however, something Isis does want. If its leadership deliberately chose liberal targets such as Charlie Hebdo, the Stade de France, and progressive hotspots on the right bank, perhaps it’s because mainstream French media, like their counterparts in America, are sympathetic to liberal culture. Attacks against the Left would thus be more likely to get the media’s full attention. And front-page coverage is something that Isis—which relies heavily on the Internet and social media for recruiting and agitprop—desperately needs.
“Jihadi John,” for example, could have beheaded his victims in private. Instead, he did his dirty work online. Why? What advantage is there in sparking global outrage by committing murder in public? And why did Isis parade 21 Egyptian Christians in front of the cameras before cutting off their heads? Did Isis really need to videotape its mass murder of 1,700 Iraqi soldiers? Why infuriate the nation of Jordan by burning one of its pilots alive?
Wood provides unsettling answers that many in the West have chosen to ignore. Isis doesn’t fear retribution. It doesn’t tremble when French president François Hollande promises “merciless” French reprisals for Paris. Isis adherents understand that you think they were crazy to provoke Vladimir Putin by blowing up a Russian airliner over the Sinai. But baiting Putin, Hollande, and other Western leaders by filling their newspapers with horror stories is part of the Isis strategy, as is goading Obama and committing atrocities against Christians. Isis isn’t afraid of a Franco-Russo-American invasion. Isis wants its enemies to invade—and quickly. To the leaders and believers of Isis, the tread of infidel boots on caliphate ground will mark the beginning of a long-prophesized Battle of Dabiq—an Islamic version of Armageddon, a decisive clash between Muslim forces and the evil armies of “Rome.” It’s not clear which invading countries will play the part of Rome, but many in Isis fervently believe that Americans, Russians, French, Britons, and anyone else sent against them, will fill the bill. Best of all, the defeat of Rome will prepare the way for the Apocalypse and the End of Days, both of which appear in Isis writings.
Wood thinks that bombing Isis is probably a good idea, but a ground attack would give Isis the Dabiq battle it is frantically trying to provoke. A more certain strategy is simply to prevent Isis from expanding. Because a true caliphate cannot be confined, Isis must conquer or die. Failure to overpower nearby countries will cause Isis to lose credibility in the eyes of the faithful.
Meanwhile, Manu Saadia’s attempt to cozy up to the caliphate with displays of political correctness will not succeed. Isis remains what it’s been from the start—an Islamic doomsday sect that has taken upon itself many of the normal functions of government. In its Indiana-sized homeland, Isis repairs roads, collects garbage, runs a consumer protection office, and—to help hasten the End of Days—works hard to bring on the Battle of Dabiq by killing people wherever it can, most recently in Paris.