In the new issue of ISIS’ English-language propaganda magazine Dabiq, the group makes its position on the role of Western foreign policy in the Middle East abundantly clear: it is a "secondary" factor.
In a piece entitled “Why We Hate You & Why We Fight You,” the group sets out six points explaining the justifications for their hatred of the West. It mentions, in order, the West’s disbelief in Islam, the prevalence of secularism, atheism, ‘transgressions’ against Islam, military operations, and territorial incursions.
While this ordering alone spells out what ISIS considers the most significant reasons for its actions, the group insists it is “important to understand” that “foreign policies” occupy only a secondary position. “The fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam,” the article says.
As such, even a complete withdrawal of troops, resources, advisers, and cutting support to allies in the region as a means of stopping the group would not be enough to stop the violence; ISIS’ principle objectives are driven by a desire for theological and ideological dominance. So long as the world remains opposed to ISIS’ worldview, and whether military action against the group is taken or not, ISIS will still have its sights on all of those that disagree with its vision and understanding of Islam.
Western foreign policy in the region is often presented as the root cause of the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq and for the increase in attacks linked to the group. Not only does this take agency and responsibility away from the group but, as this latest edition of Dabiq illustrates, it ignores the centrality of religious ideology to ISIS’ worldview. This emphasis on ideology is ever-present in ISIS’ propaganda, but the latest issue of its English-language magazine goes to great lengths, adopting a number of approaches, to spell out its disparagement of the West and of Christianity.
In true propaganda fashion, the issue features interviews with Christian converts to ISIS’ vision of Islam, all of whom wax lyrical about the so-called caliphate and its activities. With separate interviews with an American, a Trinidadian, and a female Finnish convert, the magazine appears to be striving to forge a deep wedge between Muslims and Christians in the West.
The focal point of the magazine is a lengthy piece titled ‘Break the Cross,’ also the cover story. Beyond demonstrating the group’s attitudes towards Christianity and Christians, the heading is linked with the coming of the messiah and the apocalyptic worldview that ISIS espouses. According to a hadith tradition narrated by al-Bukhari, one of the primary collectors of sayings attributed to the Prophet, the final days would not commence until Jesus would ‘break the cross.’
The article itself is an extraordinary reminder for those who describe ISIS simply as a ‘death cult.’ In it, ISIS uses verses from the Quran, as well as the Bible and the Torah, to put forward linguistic and historical arguments to undermine and ideologically challenge the Christian faith. From biblical criticism to accusations against Saint Paul, the article finishes with an invitation to adopt ISIS’ vision of Islam.
These dialectical efforts cannot, of course, be isolated from the violence that the group has become synonymous with. However, the approach indicates a conscious effort by ISIS to go beyond radicalising and recruiting young Muslims in the West, and attempting to convert non-Muslims too. There are historical accounts of the Prophet Mohammad extending invitations to Christian rulers to convert to Islam in his time. However, ISIS’ approach, which fundamentally enforces enmity, animosity, and violence should people not embrace the group’s worldview, is incongruent with those put forward in the Quran. The group's repeated references in this issue of the magazine to the "pagan Christians" is a further step away from the Quranic references to Christians as "people of the book."
With over two billion Christians and around one-and-a-half billion Muslims in the world, ISIS’ efforts to create divisions between adherents of the two faiths is clearly an attempt to ignite a fire that reaches far beyond the borders of the Middle East. The cold-blooded murder of a Catholic priest at a French church last week is an tragic reminder that the anti-Christian sentiments of ISIS are manifesting themselves on European soil.
To succeed in the fight against ISIS and all other religious groups that promote a hate-fuelled, intolerant, and divisive worldview requires understanding that this is a battle of ideas. Discriminatory policies that risk disenfranchising ordinary Muslims will only play into ISIS’ hands in creating divisions. Where ISIS desires division, we must show unity.