The limited appeal of ISIS in the Muslim world
Dubai - The Islamic State (ISIS) is regarded as a heretical group by mainstream followers of Islam, which accounts for an estimated 20% of the global population.
For Muslims, the idea of a caliphate — describing a system of government historically practiced by Islamic states — retains deep sentimental association with the revered earliest political leaders and administrators of the first Islamic state that was established 14 centuries ago. As such, millions of Muslims around the world warm to the idea of a modern-day caliphate without understanding if and to what extent it would have any positive material impact on their lives.
Despite declaring itself the caliphate, however, ISIS is destined to remain a fringe group of jihadists rather than a political force with mainstream support. There are explanations that help us understand, but by no means justify, how and why ISIS has built itself into a brand with global recognition.
First, ISIS is a phenomenon largely drawing support in Syria and Iraq, given the breeding grounds political and humanitarian circumstances have created for militant groups. Second, the tyranny of ISIS and its modus operandi is designed to instil fear in the general populace to coerce them into submission or at least use extreme brutality through graphic public executions to instil fear among people to gain their full obedience.
At a broader level, however, ISIS has used sophisticated information operations to project itself and its ideology among Sunni Muslim communities. For its target audience, the reductionist ideological narrative of ISIS provides uncomplicated, simplifying answers to deep, complex issues, creating the false sense of a political-military force to rival the West, Israel and Iran — whatever sounds most appealing. It is the success of this reductionist ideological narrative that explains the tiny but dangerous pockets of support ISIS has achieved in places such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and in Western Europe.
Unsurprisingly, observers have kept a close eye on the reception ISIS receives in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan, countries that, for different reasons, have been associated with religiously motivated violent extremism for years. For ISIS, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the nucleus of the province of “Khorasan”, which it seeks to position as a base camp for international jihad.
From a distance, many imagine that ISIS would draw great support in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Indeed ISIS has been reaching out to fringe groups and especially hard-line factions to secure allegiance and project its ideology and narrative.
Pakistan has been accused of supporting the Taliban and other groups engaged in jihadist activities — even Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistani territory. Pakistan was a core focus for the US-led “War on Terror” under president George W. Bush and became a country for which people around the world have come to hold consistently unfavourable views, putting it in the same band as countries such as Iran, Israel and Russia. Alternatively, Afghanistan became host to the most studied jihad and jihadis of the modern era, first with the anti-Soviet resistance, then as home to the global leadership of al- Qaeda, and most recently, the place where NATO called an end to its controversial military campaign after a decade of counter-insurgency.
The Afghan government for obvious reasons was fast to react to the potential emergence of ISIS in its country. Strangely, however, the group provides a common enemy for the Afghan government and the Taliban alike. ISIS is a strategic threat to the Taliban’s political identity and focus.
For example, the Taliban has a focused political interest in Afghanistan, especially southern Afghanistan, whereas ISIS has global ambitions. The Taliban is in no mood to again pay the cost of associating with groups such as al-Qaeda, or ISIS in the current context, whose agenda forces far too great costs upon them.
As such, the Taliban has been positioning itself as a bulwark against ISIS penetration into southern Afghanistan if not the entire country.
On the other hand, Pakistan remains engaged in the largest counter-terrorism operation in its history, targeting the Pakistani imitation of the Taliban which Islamabad claims is a proxy controlled by India. Pakistan is going after the existential threat posed by terrorists with full force, and ISIS represents the same heretical, anti-state, and anarchist reactionaries threatening the fabric of society that the Pakistani Taliban does.
At the sub-state level, too, ISIS will struggle to find mainstream support, similarly to the Pakistani Taliban.
The cultural rather than political religiosity that characterises mainstream Pakistani society, combined with the deep influence of Sufi Islam that is anathema to groups such as ISIS not only limits its popular appeal in Pakistan but puts the two into direct confrontation. Hence, ISIS penetration of the theatres in Afghanistan and Pakistan will not be an easy process and will face tough challenges by the domestic extremist groups.