ISIS and the instrumental rationality of its Apocalypse

capdeath_Chang Park

What is that sound high in the air

Murmur of maternal lamentation

Who are those hooded hordes swarming

Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth

Ringed by the flat horizon only

What is the city over the mountains

Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air

Falling towers

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria

Vienna London

Unreal–The Waste Land, Eliot

The martyrdom of man is here reflective of a greater torture, more widespread, one embracing the general economy of Life.

It arises from the age-old martyrdom of Earth.–Rebellion in the Backlands, Euclides da Cunha

by Sanjay Perera

When will it end? ISIS (the Islamic State) has claimed responsibility for the recent murderous attacks in Paris. From the Charlie Hebdo killings earlier this year, to the equally cold blooded ones this November, the link has been drawn between them and what many regard as an extremist interpretation of certain aspects of Islam. The perpetrators say they are jihadists and insist they are true followers of Islam. They are the actual followers in a radical way in that they are obeying strictly to the letter, it seems, what is stated in holy texts regarding teachings, certain practices in the history of Islam and Islamic eschatology, in particular. There is, of course, disagreement that has led to ISIS punishing and killing many Muslims regarded as apostates and anyone who may hinder them in enacting their version of what the divine plan entails.

Notwithstanding its murderous nature, there is tremendous historical baggage in the evolvement of ISIS and what it stands for; no amount of well-meaning pontification and scholarly punditry can hope to entirely elucidate its existence. But it is clear that the West in its attempts to stop the menace of ISIS by trying to destroy it through military action focused on the Middle East is doomed to failure. For a start as more commentators are beginning to realize, the governments of the day do not seem to understand what is driving ISIS. Those who want to have some insight into why ISIS is trying to escalate global violence need to understand the apocalyptic narrative underpinning its thinking.

ISIS believes it is assisting the divine plan by hastening the ‘end of times’ scenario via its acts of calculated violence, executions, crucifixions and slavery. It rationalizes its operations, beheading and international murders by citing evidence from Islamic texts and Islamic history. While many Muslims and Islamic scholars may disagree with what ISIS is doing, it is difficult to deny that it does have textual and historical grounds for making its claims. What ISIS has done is to take an almost literal interpretation of Islamic texts to justify itself and its actions, while those who disagree with them do so also on the basis of an interpretation of texts. In any case, it is not claimed here that the vast majority of people and Muslims are not objecting to ISIS on moral grounds as well, for instance, how can anyone justify acts of mindless violence against people who have not done them (ISIS) any harm.


However, not to simplify a difficult and controversial situation that is costing lives even as this is written: ISIS and arguably any group intent on promoting extremism in which people are inevitably harmed, tend to gravitate towards a literal and one-dimensional reading of a document or text. One only needs to see how the right to bear arms in the US is seen as an edict for not having gun control. We need only see the angry reactions of neoliberals and those who espouse so-called democracy to the Charlie Hebdo killings to note that what they demand for in freedom of expression is unmitigated freedom to hurt others and what they may hold dear. This is justified by some as the kind of freedom of speech and use of the media as a ‘sophisticated’ form of verbal violence concomitant with a divergence and diversity in views which is supposedly better than the use of physical violence.

Sadly, for all sides, those who believe in physical violence have a divergence of view with an unsettling addition to diversity in opinion, for they see disagreement through bloodletting as a legitimate means of expressing grievance and making a statement. To those who insist this is a terrible way to talk about divergence and diversity etc.: welcome to the world we have helped co-create.

Similarly, when violence does ensue as a result of this untrammeled ‘freedom of expression’ there is equally strong support for state sponsored violence against the perpetrators real and imagined at home and abroad. And so many ‘freedom of speech’ activists and believers are quite comfortable with physical retaliation against murderers and would-be killers.

The less than sophisticated argument deployed in support of this being that when force is used against divergent views by those who do not appreciate ‘freedom of expression’ and diversity, then physical retaliation is the only language certain types seem to understand.

An eye for an eye seems a universally understood and accepted form of international communication.[1]


But this unfortunately also plays right into the hands of ISIS. In giving in to physical violence in declaring war and rushing off to bomb ISIS bases and call for a war on terror etc. (a hangover from the September 11th tragedy in the US) France or anyone else thinking they are doing what people expect them to do are following the script that ISIS is helping to direct in creating what is hoped to be a spectacle of violence literally of Biblical proportions.

It is the linearity and predictability of responses from those they attack that help ISIS push its enemies onto the path that may draw them in some form to the northern Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo, and allow them to fulfill the prophecy of dying as martyrs in the final hour for the greater good of all. We must remember that ISIS is adopting its strategy of violence in order to hasten the ‘end of times’ and bring about the fulfillment of the divine plan. It sees itself as making genuine sacrifices in submitting its members to certain death to bring about the end of a corrupt world and see the arising of a glorious new and blessed one (although some may be forgiven for calling this a ‘new world order’).

It is such stuff as millenarian dreams are made on.[2]

This Ragnarök finale that ISIS is hung up on is in effect exemplary in its utilitarian approach of the ends justifies the means thinking that underlies the rationality of its Apocalypse. Indeed, ISIS seems not only to be trying to act out an apocalyptic scenario with total fidelity but is apparently doing so for the good of the greatest number (the damned will have what is coming to them anyway) and is sparing everyone in this sense a prolonged suffering in a world of moral decay, political corruption, unbridled greed and extravagant injustice to say the least. Why prolong this drama that is painfully and destructively playing itself out when ultimate divine regeneration can be sought through death wherever it can be created especially if it is honed towards precipitating final and total liberation. End the tragic human drama with a bang (not a whimper) and let the divine take over at long last.

But what is it in the apocalyptic narrative of ISIS which is based on Islamic texts that has caused so much tragedy? The hardcore believers in ISIS want to speed up the open reign of the divine by forcing the armies of ‘Rome’ to come and meet them in Dabiq. The showdown involves the Anti-Messiah known as Dajjal who will destroy many of the faithful fighters of the caliphate (ISIS regards itself a caliphate) who will take a last stand in Jerusalem. At this juncture Jesus (who is revered most after the Prophet Muhammad) will return to destroy Dajjal. This is the trigger point for the Apocalypse or End of Days in which the human drama ends and divinity is established on earth; the dead will arise and judgement will be rendered on all.

apo_Jean Cousin

[Credit: Jean Cousin.]

There is, of course, much in common in this apocalyptic narrative with Christian eschatology. Even Marxian thinking opens us up to the end of capitalism and the eventuality of communism. But a careful look at the meaning of the term ‘apocalypse’ will show that it refers to an end of times in which the veil is lifted from that which is hidden and the truth will finally be revealed: hence, the “Book of Revelation.” The apocalypse is an ultimate disclosure of the truth that arises when light dispels darkness and there are no more secrets. This is where there seems to be a fundamental difference in the ISIS interpretation of the Apocalypse and what such an event/process may imply.

In excluding the possibility of the Apocalypse referring to something esoteric as in the rise of spiritual truth which dispels the veil of ignorance, darkness and violence, the ISIS narrative–because it wants to downplay anything other than a literal reading of certain texts–forces an interpretation that necessitates violence in human affairs as the means of liberation which, paradoxically, results in eternal peace due to the establishment of divine grace.

There certainly seems no hope for humanity in the years ahead given such an inflexible and extraordinarily limited reading of sacred texts by ISIS. Their interpretation is almost counterintuitive to any form of progress spiritually or otherwise for humanity. For many Muslims and those of other faiths and spiritual practices would claim that religion and spirituality can still provide humanity a way out its debacle, and this may yet involve the shunning of violence. But this may not be as counterintuitive as it seems at first glance if we consider the instrumentalist nature of the ISIS narrative. It has left out the moral dimension in its quest for literality. It has, unsurprisingly, the same instrumental rationality as our current socio-political-economic paradigm.

The ISIS narrative has an uncanny and disturbing similarity to the utilitarianism and rationality of capitalism in that the linear drive for profit maximization and extraction of value from resources and human beings and all life forms have led to an unsustainable situation which heralds an end of times for us: what else do we call it but an End of Days scientifically guaranteed in terms of not only the unsustainability of fossil fuels but the ever apparent reality of climate change and consequences thereof.

apo_La Bête de la Mer

[Title: La Bête de la Mer.]

The rising sea level is no longer a prediction from the past for it is with us now and a guarantee of an end of times scenario in our future as things stand. The sudden change in weather patterns, the heating up of the planet and burning of forests fuelled by corporate profit margins have resulted in massive environmental degradation. The recent forest fires in Indonesia have not been given the recognition globally that it requires. The destruction of at least two million hectares of land and the devastation of ecosystems and life forms are akin to a form of environmental genocide. The Indonesian people affected directly by these fires have been through great suffering not only due to displacement from their homes but the suffocating haze resulting from the smoke.

The rest of Southeast Asia had the first taste of what hell may be like without the tortures of the damned, yet. Anyone who has respiratory difficulties and had to live through the transboundary haze will know what a punishment it is, and no one’s life expectancy can be heightened through continual exposure to such pollutants in the air. In fact, large quantities of smoke are one of the many signs that Islamic texts highlight as signaling the End of Days. Given much of what is happening in the world it is not hard to see that anyone who is still thinking would be asking where exactly are we headed as a species and what good can there be left for us given the worsening status quo.

And given the economic paradigm of global capitalism and the apocalyptic finale it is engendering what is it precisely that the world and the West is offering those going through upheaval in the Middle East and who live in despair as refugees. Is the offer of an unsustainable paradigm of haves-and-have-nots that justify the dominance of the ultra wealthy in the Middle East, or forms of despotic governance, meant to lure young men and women away from ISIS and its narrative? Can the celebrity culture of the US and the violence of the police against minorities there and the uber surveillance states arising in the West be sufficient an attraction to seduce people away from ISIS?

We will not even go into imperialism, the constant intervention of the US in Middle Eastern affairs, the state of tension that is never allowed to subside there, the gulf wars, the torture chambers of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, and the Islamophobia that is a defining characteristic of many western states. What in any of this can be used to convince younger generations of Muslims that they should jump up and condemn ISIS and point to the pleasant nature, wisdom, sense of fair play and compassion of America and the West?

Lest there be any misunderstanding, it is not claimed that the flaws or faults of the West alone should be cited to justify why some people will go through great trouble to reach and join ISIS. But a sense of alienation, meaninglessness and creeping nihilism arising from a materially obsessed world being chewed mercilessly in the maws of capitalism can push some into the pit of ISIS.

It should be stated again: that Muslims do criticise ISIS and it tends to be on moral grounds and that the entity does not speak and act for them, nor is it representative of their faith. ISIS has a death drive that does not resonate with many who are doing their best to just be human beings.


[Credit: allthingsapocalypse.]

What complicates matters further and certainly does not help any anti-ISIS cause is that due to the violence of ISIS, which has unstintingly killed fellow Muslims accused of apostasy, Muslims in general are being asked to own up for acts and atrocities they never sanctioned and are trying to come to grips with like so many others the world over.

Where are the global calls for ownership by Americans for what their government and country has been doing to others and to so many of its own people, especially the young, the vulnerable and the poor? It is the US that dropped two atomic devices on Japan using the utilitarian narrative that it was needed to prevent more lives being lost if war continued–so it is better to destroy civilians and cities and cause radioactive illnesses for so many as long as some form of peace is attained, no matter how temporary (the world has hardly been at peace since).

apo_Christian Charisius-Reuters

[Credit: Christian Charisius/Reuters.]

The other utilitarian excuse that sprung up in the use of nuclear weapons by the US is that it was meant as a warning to the USSR not to monkey around too much; but it certainly helped cause the cold war and that sense of ‘mutually assured destruction’ that was to haunt us for decades.

The nuclear gambit of America only led to the nuclear race and proliferation of such weaponised technology by other states using the same instrumentality in reasoning that it is a means of deterrence. The nuclear holocaust narrative that hung over the world forged by the US and USSR fits neatly with the older apocalyptic narrative that ISIS is dragging up for all of us to face up to again in dramatic terms.

Let us also not forget what the US did in Vietnam. The world needs reminding of the napalm it dropped which slaughtered people in horrendous ways and made a casualty of the land; the continual conventional bombing by the US to hit Việt Cộng targets was much more than acts of war—it was a punishment on life forms and the earth itself.

Apo_ Victor Vasnetsov

[Credit: Victor Vasnetsov.]

Incidentally, America is still carrying out its practice of punishing the earth and life forms to this day. In recent times, the US has indulged in fracking which does no good to anyone and can harm human life. Fortunately, there are some Americans who are standing up against this nefarious activity and are driven to do so by a sense of what is right.

The continued spate of violence by police against youth and minorities in the US is only testament that many people there are still reasonably comfortable with the tasering, shooting and strangling of fellow Americans and placing choke-holds on youth. Still, it is heartening to see that not all Americans remain quiet and that some do stand up against injustice and official violence; these are brave souls who show more discipline than security forces through their non-violent protest against such atrocities.

The US is a state that is death driven in much of its practices from the targeted assassinations of its drone wars to its support for capital punishment, and the violence of lone gunmen unleashed in schools and communities. When the world’s supposedly foremost democracy succumbs to becoming a death machine it is not surprising that to some it is a sign that the end is nigh.

At the moment disbanding ISIS through the very violence it seeks is as likely as those responsible for crimes against humanity and the earth in America being charged and taken to trial at international courts of justice.

Is it a surprise that the death drive of ISIS and that of capitalism and the US are coming together into an unhappy confluence in our time which is starting to merge into the narrative of the much anticipated denouement on the plains of Dabiq? ISIS is the perfect alter ego to America–with its death driven politics, economics, social brutality and gun culture. The ISIS narrative further segues cleanly with the zero-sum game of world destroying theories gifted to us via neoclassical economics; it showcases a violent aesthetic with dreams of ultra Peckinpah-Tarantino-like bloodbaths of its own that dovetails with the abject failure of secularism and the scientism that has defined our times.


The question we need to ask is where has secularism led us? Given the eager willingness of secular states to indulge in war, ultra surveillance and brutality by security forces against fellow citizens, what is it that secularism offers that has taken us away from our increasing death driven velocity with or without the help of ISIS? Even without the horrors of ISIS we are doing quite well killing ourselves and others with environmental obliteration, austerity measures, debt-ridden economies, the rise of billionaires, the continued and heightened immiseration of millions, the formation of a precariat class in the ‘developed world,’ and the supremacy of the corporate-banking cartel which uses laws to maintain its superiority over human beings and the well-being of the planet.

There is only one martyr here and it is planet Earth.

The existence of ISIS is the symbol of the complete historical failure of secularism.

The other question that should be asked is where does the advent of ISIS and the failure of secularism leave so many others who subscribe to spiritual values, ideas and traditions: those who may have eschatological teachings in their faiths that overlap with Islamic eschatology: but are only too aware that free will and moral action can still change the destiny of humanity and bring about a better and happier world without wars and socio-economic violence.

apo_John Shakespeare

[Credit: John Shakespeare.]

Have ISIS and those supporting it behind the scenes managed to successfully corner the market by pushing out of public discourse the discussion of spiritual truths? Moreover, there is also the probability that any attempt to do so will raise the hackles of secularists. And is the tottering secular state–which is ineffective in dealing with ‘terrorism’ and managing a faltering world economy; and that can only prop itself up through flawed economic thinking, resources expended on war and security matériel, and keeping its citizens in line with due deference to the ultra wealthy–effectively silencing a large number of spiritually inclined people so that they speak up on spiritual matters openly only at home and in hushed corridors or only within the private space of the church, temple, mosque or synagogue; or, when attending a funeral?

If those who believe in the divine and other spiritual truths are tongue-tied in public or have chosen to be so and think that all that is happening is after all ‘God’s will’ then they should stop being appalled by ISIS for those extremists ardently seem to be on the same page where divine determinism is concerned.

We have placed ourselves in a vice-like grip between ISIS, capitalism and secularism. And we can guess by now that the ending of this narrative is not good. What has happened to all the others who know that a better world is possible and have clear and strong spiritual and religious ideas but have chosen to remain silent and wait for others and politicians to solve things?

Perhaps they are busy praying for a miracle.

End notes:

[1] Two pieces of mine this year which touched on brutal killings in Paris and the US: Link 1, Link 2

[2] It is interesting in this context to read these lines from Marx’s 1843 letter to Ruge:

Hence, our motto must be: reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but by analysing the mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself, whether it manifests itself in a religious or a political form. It will then become evident that the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality. It will become evident that it is not a question of drawing a great mental dividing line between past and future, but of realising the thoughts of the past. Lastly, it will become evident that mankind is not beginning a new work, but is consciously carrying into effect its old work.

[Lead graphic: Chang Park.]


The writer is the editor of Philosophers for Change.

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