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Why Do Iraq's Rebels Have So Many Different Names?

The ghastly semantics of the Islamic State


Have you noticed that, in the press, the jihadi insurgents are variously called "the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria," "the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria," and "the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant"? Plus there is "the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham"? I understand why, in the first three instances, journalists want to present the insurgency's name in a bland and familiar English, but I also see why none of the names has entirely caught on. To call the insurgency "the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" suggests that, at some level, the jihadis are operating within the normal parameters of modern states. But everyone knows that jihadis are anti-normal. The names "Greater Syria" and "the Levant" (which President Obama seems to favor) have the virtue at least of suggesting that something in the jihadi program reaches beyond the state borders. But "Greater Syria" is a Syrian nationalist idea from the mid-twentieth century, and "the Levant" is a French name for the eastern Mediterranean.

"Sham," though, is ancient, and it is Arabic. In the early centuries of Islam, "Sham" meant Damascus and surrounding territories, from which some of the early caliphs ruled their enormous Islamic empire. And the name "Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham," unlike any of its more reader-friendly alternatives, brings us to the heart of the jihadi doctrine, which is precisely the idea of resurrecting those ancient times. And why resurrect? A still earlier name of the same jihadi movement answers this question.

The earlier name, back when the movement was led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, was "Tawhid and Jihad"—which is usually translated as "Monotheism and Jihad." Only, this translation, too, by extracting the exotic part, flattens the meaning. "Tawhid" means "Oneness," as in the "Oneness" of God, from whom has emanated the whole of existence. The idea of the One and its emanations is Plotinus's, and it has lent itself to any number of creative adaptations over the millennia: Islamic, Jewish, Christian, and post-Christian philosophical. The variation currently in front of us comes from the Islamist theoreticians of modern times, and it is religious and semi-political both. In the Islamist interpretation, God's emanations descend into the details of daily life, as mandated by the Koran and the scriptures. The original Islamic State of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions, back in the seventh century, was a perfect society because it observed and enforced those divine and detailed mandates. And the reason to resurrect the ancient state is to resume a strict observation and enforcement and, in that fashion, to bring about the reign of Oneness. When the jihadis of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham go marching triumphantly in the streets, little boys on the sidelines triumphantly hold up their forefingers, and those childish fingers waving in the air are a mystical and Plotinian sign of Oneness.

The words "Sham" and "Tawhid" shed a light on the jihadi army that is right now darkly advancing through Iraq. The invocation of "Sham," with its echo of the universal caliphate, ought to remind us that the Islamic State of Syria and al-Sham is a universal movement, and not anything local. The Islamic State seeks to conquer Rome. It seeks to burn down the White House, "the filthiest house." And the universal goals confer on it the ability to summon supporters from around the world. This we have seen before. During the last few decades, the perfect society of the seventh century has repeatedly gone into bloom, whenever some part of the Muslim world has fallen into chaos: in post-Soviet Afghanistan; in Sudan; in parts of Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam; in Yemen during a period of turmoil; in northern Mali during a civil war; and in parts of Syria. To watch it sprouting up yet again ought not to shock us. (Still, we are shocked, which is shocking.) And, in each case, the seventh century has blossomed because, no matter how few and marginal may be its champions in any given country, their comrades in other parts of the world, the knights of jihad, can be counted on to volunteer their services. They rush to enlist because they are waging a sort of world war on a protracted basis, and they know they are doing so—and their lucidity on this point gives them an advantage over some of their foggy-headed enemies, the non-mystics, who expect missions to be accomplished.

As for "Tawhid," this word ought to tell us something about the jihad. The propaganda of the Islamic State of Syria and al-Sham, which you can find on YouTube and other places, puts a bizarre and horrifying emphasis on beheadings, crucifixions, and the cadavers of young men, and it does this because Oneness extends into the realms of cruelty and of death, which is the zone of the eternal. The history of atrocities by this organization is beyond belief. Chiefly its victims have been Shiite Muslims, murdered randomly at mosques and funerals and markets. But it is a mistake to regard these attacks as events within a Sunni-Shia war. The massacres may have a strategic purpose, but slaughter is also a goal. Naturally the Islamic State would like to slaughter other populations, too—the Jews, for instance, as announced in a recent video.

Suicide is likewise a goal. Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad in the past, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham in the present, have been militarily formidable because, with the military collaboration of Baathist army officers, they have known how to wield the terrifying weapon of suicide-bombing. In the United States years ago, when we first encountered suicide warriors, we told ourselves that terror of this sort could not go on forever because not too many people will agree to kill themselves. But, as we have discovered, a large chunk of the world's population consists of extremely vulnerable people, the young and the impressionable, who can be sent marching in every direction, including to the cemetery, if somebody skilled and powerful wishes to make them do it. And there is the grim reality of religious charities that, in effect, pay for suicide by guaranteeing support, post-martyrdom, for the martyrs' families. 

The mystery about suicide terror has always been the recruiters—the people who are not going to commit suicide themselves, and are typically a bit older. These people are the creepiest people on earth. There do seem to be a lot of them. And yet, who are these people, finally, the recruiters and officers of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham? They are the inebriates of Ibn Taymiyyah, the medieval philosopher. They are lost in the throes of a fundamentalist mania. They are the enemies of Iraq and Syria and the human race. But they believe themselves to be knights of the holy war, and right now they are experiencing ecstatic and morbid spasms of other-worldly joy that will keep them going for decades.