Reading and Misreading ISIS

An excerpt from Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou’s latest book


What prompted you to write A Theory of ISIS – Political Violence and the Transformation of the Global Order?

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou (MMM): Intellectual dissatisfaction with the nature of the existing scholarship on the Islamic State, notably its overwhelmingly descriptive, mostly unscientific and largely Orientalist declamatory nature.

What makes your treatment of the subject different from the contributions of other writers on this topic?

MMM: This is the first book to attempt a historicised comparative conceptualisation of the Islamic State.

Can you sum up, in one or two sentences, the argument you make?

MMM: The book analyses ISIS as the open-ended historical manifestation of political violence grounded in colonialism, globalisation, and modernity, not religion. It argues that in the next phase the Islamic State is likely to increasingly play out as a Western metropolis-located hybrid form of post-modern terrorism; i.e., A Clockwork Orange meets Blade Runner meets Lawrence of Arabia, all sonically influenced by hip-hop and visually by globalized new media.

What were your major challenges in writing this book?

MMM: Deciphering the larger meaning of ISIS’s trajectory and systematizing the nascent sampling of its violence without being deterministic.

What do you hope the book will achieve/change/influence?

MMM: The absence of thorough academic work on the Islamic State beyond policy-making, the non-Western-centric theorizing of contemporary political violence as embodied in the materialization of this armed group, and the historicized linking of this story to the one of Al Qaeda and imagining what future violence both have birthed.

On March 29th, 2018, Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou will give a talk entitled “Conceptualizing the Islamic State” in the Sociology Lecture Series of The New School.


Excerpt from Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou’s
A Theory of ISIS – Political Violence and the Transformation of the Global Order

Limited use only. Carried out with the permission of the publishers.

This book examines the history and the historiography of the organization of the Islamic State. It argues that the IS phenomenon takes place as neo-colonialism continued to define lastingly the setting in which the group appeared in Iraq, globalization deepened worldwide offering further opportunities for the organization to beam its violence internationally and modernity accelerated bringing North and South into an ever-closer interface with individual actors on both sides experiencing related, but not similar, radical insurgent and violent rebellious urges. It is offered that, above and beyond the important domestic and regional story of the evolution of radical Islamism, the Islamic State is more importantly the manifestation of the persistent dystrophies long playing out politically between the West and the Middle East (and, beyond, the Islamic world), and that, today, the path embarked on in facing up the group in the name of the defense of democracy has fueled paradoxically authoritarian patterns in the West itself, as the effect of old lingering colonial strategies and more recent interventionist outlooks used to control distant lands are echoed corruptively in the heart of the Western metropolis. These nascent but possibly lasting dimensions are playing out in largely unexamined ways as relates to the discussion of IS. For the majority of commentators, the problematic has remained however one of ‘terrorism and counter-terrorism’, ‘them against us’, ‘Middle East strife’ (a region given only in terms of ‘unreadability’, ‘enigma’ and ‘riddle’) and ‘Islam and its problem’. The actual political archaeology of the group has been side-lined, displaced by a Pravda-like focus on religion and rah-rah presentism that is emptying the historical context of its crucial backdrop and pinpointable consequences. The radical Islamist group – as the titles of most books devoted to it denote in their echoing of the policy phraseology – is apprehended as a ‘phoenix’ ‘cult’ of ‘strangers’ that has ‘madness and methodology’ in an ‘empire of fear’, setting a ‘trap’, with a ‘doomsday vision’ whose ‘brutal’ ‘rise’ is a ‘new threat’ that ‘can’t be ignored’ and must be ‘defeated’ in this ‘great war of our time’. The larger setting of this call-and-response is the absence of a dispassionate, intelligent framework to understand the question of contemporary terrorism and its permutations away from a unilateral, state-centric and de-politicized stance. Such work has had a direct relationship with the contemporary practice of power and the projection of force in increasingly-culturalized and long-skewed international relations (see below). In effect, the uncritical and unreflective mobilization of prestidigitator expertise on terror is today a political process featuring officialdom, journalism and their networks. However problematic, that is nonetheless of lesser concern here, as it remains a matter or prerogative (including in the case of the media per editorial choices). What matters more to academic analysis seeking to conceptualize the Islamic State is that such practice has resulted in an un-nuanced under-theorization of one of the most important developments of our times, and which, as a result, remained captive to a simplified twofold narrative about apocalyptic terrorism and theology readings. That horizon-closing narrative has not so much found its ways in institutions of higher learning as it has stunned them into emollience since it has not yet been debunked – and also because its power derives from the fact that it is the product of a mostly Western-based uncritical understanding of societies that are not Western but which are beholden to that reading (Malian newspapers circa 2012 calling reflexively Paris-based terrorism experts to seek enlightenment on what was happening up north in their own country with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was a tell-tale sign of such withdrawal from self-representation and intellectual dependence on the former colonial power.)

The wider discussion that has not been tapped into and was indeed kept at bay when it comes to understanding the origins of the contemporary transnational violence of the Islamic State and before it Al Qaeda concerns two important ongoing phenomena of our times that have been termed respectively the ‘decolonization of international relations’ and the ‘decolonizing of war’. As concerns the new breed of non-state armed groups, these ongoing shifts imply, I argue here, primarily a transnational repositioning of violence – precisely what Al Qaeda introduced in the 1990s and 2000s and what the Islamic State deepened in the 2010s. Grammatically, colonial war was international. Post-colonial conflict is, for its part, eminently transnational. Both connect in the martial nature of that encounter between actors, times and spaces, and if, as Isabel Hull summed it up, imperialism was war, so too are then Al Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s actions essentially military. Yet, but for military studies and philosophical works at both end of the spectrum, the revolutionary cross-pollination of these strands has not been researched with a view to decipher it in relation to its historically intertwined dual Muslim and Western context. Instead, starting in autumn 2014, the emergence of IS led to the publication of a number of works on the group telling its inside story in isolation of those histories and contexts. As the (self-standing) ‘problem of ISIS’ took shape thus, the military-academic network was expanded to the military-academic-terrorism-expert on this issue and, just as it had been the case a decade earlier with Al Qaeda, the discussion remained explicitly about mapping the defeat of a repellent entity bent on the annihilation of the West. When present in the analysis, the entanglement of domestic and foreign was confined to matters of ‘failed policies’ (in Washington or in Baghdad) or of dangers of the spill-over of these actors (coming to attack Fortress West or returning as ‘foreign fighters’). Commentators on Western mainstream media oscillated between the appearance of objectivity and the knowingness of the corporate-driven culture of sensationalism, and moved ever closely to solely giving voice to the sentiments of an irate and frightened public rather than offering sober and contextualized analysis, while all the time stressing the religion of the assailants. In time the problem emerged thus: to understand Western terrorists of the 1970s such as the German Red Army Faction or the Italian Red Brigades, one is invited to examine the societal conditions of post-war Germany and Italy, the ambient malaise in these countries twenty-five years after Nazism and fascism and their relationship with their rebellious youth; to make sense of Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, one is asked to read the Qur’an.

Such voluntary matriculating in a school for the blind, as Tennessee Williams once put it poetically, is arresting and deserves emphasis as it is in effect a component of the problem at the root of the question of contemporary political violence. The public deployment of tokenism expertise on IS is itself a symptom of this lost analysis with at least four trends dominating the discourse on IS: impatient journalistic accounts, one-dimensional security expertise, ethereal Islamism exegesis and short-term think-tank analysis. To varying degrees, these approaches share the following: the evidence used for the analysis is taken unquestionably from often unverifiable governmental statements; boastful statements by IS itself or documents ‘found’ are accepted at face value (one can only be amazed at the proclivity of these non-documenting-inclined groups to produce compulsively and lose regularly such materials, and indeed at the luck of the counter-terrorists in recovering systematically readable self-explanatory materials); emotionalism is worn on the sleeve by the analyst expected to be detached; sensationalism is the mode of communication; and analysis knows only two directions, that of rise or fall, victory or defeat, new or old. Who’s-up-and-who’s-down scorekeeping accounts of the rise of IS are, however, not sufficient to make sense of the incubating, asynchronous and dysrhythmic transformation of terrorism taking place at the hands of this group. Such ‘rise’ talk also locates explanation of violence in the stance of the Western observer who, atop the hill, scans the landscape for threats to his dominion. Can the subaltern re-strategize his or her violence? If he or she actually does and visits it upon the Westerner’s living room, as IS did in the extreme, then surely that larger shift in meaning is happening factually. Yet, time and again, wily-nily, analysts and experts take us down the self-satisfied road of elevation of religious theatrics or demonization of identity, with the ways of the homo islamicus observed with a magnifying glass, from Raqqa to the French suburbs. What matters is solely the materialization of a religion- and identity-driven problem that needs to be seen as disappearing as soon as possible. The more this story proceeded monotonically, the more its intellectual contradictions became visible as a matter of political violence dealt with by minimally and peripherally by historians, political scientists and sociologists. In effect, media vigilantism, terrorism expert pronouncements and condescending interrogations of Islam and its long-awaited aggiornamento have joined hands to produce a non-history of one of the dominant forms of contemporary non-state violence.

Locating uncritically the violence of IS in the religious mantle of the movement was the first and often only choice made by many observers. However much facts piled up to demonstrate the political nature of the violence and the relevance of wider contexts (colonialism, post-colonialism, interventionism, authoritarianism, rebellion, armed conflicts), Muslim studies or rather studies of Muslims remained invariably the preferred locus of alleged explanation. This rising Muslimology (often with roots in works such as Raphael Patai’s racist 1973 book The Arab Mind) took Orientalism to new dimensions. Beyond the imagined Muslim and the extrapolated ins-and-outs of Islamist jurisprudence (what Irfan Ahmad calls ‘an over-legalization of Islam and Shari’a’) came now two new categories: the reformed Muslim and the faux Muslim (and so inevitably too the Uncle Tom Muslim). Stunned in this way or allowing themselves to be, international scholars were made to understand that thinking on AQ and IS should be limited to those exercises of dutifully, one-dimensionally compiling information and data demonstrating the group’s violence, irrationality and dangerousness. Any effort to map the groups’ historical significance beyond those confines ran the risk of being depicted as an exercise in political thinking – a peculiar value-judgment, we should note, seldom applied to work on other questions of international affairs. Engagement with the issue beyond these given narrative is, as it were, often near-unrecognizable to many mainstream journalists (who need to translate it in the by-now-familiar vernacular of reporting on these entities variably ‘on the rise’, ‘on the retreat’, ‘adopting new tactics’, ‘developing new ways to finance themselves’, ‘kidnapping sexual slaves’, ‘using human shields’, ‘expanding foothold’…) stigmatized intellectually or deemed controversial. Soon enough colored as ‘angry’ (particularly if it is voiced from the South), critical analyses are next asked to offer solutions, lest their usefulness be lessened. Skip the diagnosis (we know it), solutions please. Indeed, if formulated – justice, state-building, international reciprocity – these are dismissed as unrealistic; the religion of pragmatism overtaking the discussion. Yet such side-stepping pronouncements are precisely the reproduction of a controlled process emptying the violence of its meaning and therefore enabling its circularity. Evidently ethnocentric and a sleigh-of-hand, such disciplining of terrorism and of Muslims travels paradigmatically as a world religion becomes then regarded as being held by predicaments; trapped, it has to reconcile so as to exit its violence and backwardness, or so goes the reading. The narrative becomes next a self-fulfilling reality and watching stories about Muslims and their ‘inclination to terrorism’ unpacked by talk show hosts (such as Bill Maher), citizens start taking matters into their vigilante-like hands and ordering flight attendants to de-board individuals deemed ‘suspicious’ or because they feel ‘ill at ease’ sitting next to them. As these dispositions are endorsed ultimately in official and private business regulations, as they were with the Donald Trump administration 2017 Muslim Ban, the international system drifts into irrationality, perpetuating injustice and fueling the very violence it seeks to end. In that context, work on IS is expected to be solely of the technocratically-niched terrorism expertise kind. Such disciplining of political violence away from its political anchoring and into terrorism per se has, as noted, produced a form of anti-knowledge. Consequently, any political militancy or social dissidence that turns violent runs the risk of earning the label of terrorism; becoming an open-and-shut matter of de-legitimation as the assignment of that term ensures the non-discussion of the issues raised by the given group.

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou is Professor of International History and Chair of the International History Department at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and teaches as well at the Doctoral School at Sciences Po Paris. 

A Theory of ISIS – Political Violence and the Transformation of the Global Order is distributed in the United States by the University of Chicago Press.

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