Addressing the motivations that drive Islamist obscurantists will help defeat them

By Daniel Margrain

Motivation guides behaviors

“The first step to combating Isis is to understand it. We have yet to do so. That failure costs us dear.” (Anthropologist, Scott Atran).

The murder of 85-year-old parish priest, Father Jacques Hamel during morning mass in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray,  northwest of Paris, by two adherents to the religious-based cult ISIS was yet another illustration of not only the depravity that this cult represents, but of the failure of domestic and international strategy of governments to deal with them. The lesson from almost a decade and a half of fighting terror with bombs is that the strategy has been an epic failure.

After the mass killings by ISIS in Paris, each subsequent attack on French soil has been marked by familiar-sounding televised addresses of condemnation of the perpetrators by president, Hollande followed by a determination to defeat them militarily. Meanwhile, French foreign policy in the Middle East continues along the same trajectory, presumably based on the premise that only through fighting fire with fire will the war against ISIS be won.

However, it would appear that with the exception of world leaders like Hollande and Britain’s Theresa May, most rational thinking people believe this eventuality to be an unrealistic proposition. ISIS are not like a traditional army and therefore can’t be fought as though they are one. Indeed, it’s the unpredictability and the random nature of their attacks in an era of globalisation which transcend the limitations associated with the traditional armies embedded within the structure of the nation-state, that sets them apart.

Although repeating the same failed foreign policy objectives undertaken by state actors in order to address the threat posed by an international terror network and ‘lone-wolf’ killers may be regarded as a sign of insanity by most, it nevertheless doesn’t appear to deter those who are motivated by the need to satisfy the financial interests of the lobbyists who profit from war.

Although it is widely understood that bombs and drones are counterproductive, it’s perhaps less understood that the establishment appear to want it that way on the basis, it would seem, that terrorist retaliation justifies the further use of bombs and drones. Ken Livingstone was surely correct in his analysis on BBCs Question Time programme last November when he suggested that bombing Raqqa will play into the hands of ISIS from a propaganda perspective enabling them to bolster their number of recruits on the back of it.

Indeed, it is clear that the aim of the religious-based cultists is to provoke an international bombing campaign precisely in order to achieve this objective. The ‘strategy’ of indiscriminate bombing of transnational ‘targets’ as a means of ending the cycle of terrorism and counter-terrorism is a policy of despair. What is needed is a total rethink that involves, in the first instance, a serious attempt at addressing the ideological motivations that drive ISIS as an organisation as well as the reasons why mainly young people are driven into the hands of this murderous cult.

The motivations seem to be varied and complex, embracing historical, theological, psychological and ideological factors. The first of these relates to the injustices meted out to the people of the region by the imperial powers. These injustices primarily originate from a series of secret meetings during World War 1 in London and Paris between the French diplomat, François Georges-Picot and the British politician, Sir Mark Sykes.

During these meetings, straight lines were drawn on a map of the middle east intended to effectively outline the control of land that was to be divided between the two countries. The French were to get Syria, Lebanon and parts of northern Iraq, while the British decided on southern Iraq, Jordan and Palestine. The idea was that instead of giving independence to the Arabs which was promised following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the imperial powers would run them on their behalf.

The ensuing chaos has largely stemmed from this agreement. What drives ISIS is their need to fill power vacuums in a post-colonial world in which the artificial imperial borders created by Sykes-Picot are collapsing. Robert Fisk made the astute point that the first video ISIS produced was of a bulldozer destroying the border between Syria and Iraq. The camera panned down to a piece of paper with the words “End of Sykes-Picot” written on it.

The wider “Arab Awakening,” as Fisk puts it, represents a rejection of the history of the region since Sykes-Picot during which time the Arabs have been denied freedom, dignity and justice. According to Fisk, ISIS is a weapon that’s not primarily aimed at the West but at the Shia which the Sunni Gulf States’ want to keep at bay. This explains why the funding for ISIS is principally coming from the Sunni states’ of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The possibility of closer U.S-Iranian ties in the future will likely result in pressure being put on these states’ to ‘switch off’ their funding to ISIS which Fisk claims was one of the main topics of discussion at the Geneva nuclear talks between the two countries. A couple of months ago, the goal of ISIS was to maintain the Caliphate, but they now realize that this objective is in jeopardy. Consequently they are attempting to re-organise. This involves them reverting back to a guerilla-style organisational structure. The purpose of directly commanded attacks, is to prove to their followers throughout the world that despite the set-backs described, they still remain a strong fighting force.

French-American anthropologist, Scott Atran, widens the net further by suggesting that the young are motivated more by excitement and a sense of belonging than theology or political ideology:

“When you look at young people like the ones who grew up to blow up trains in Madrid in 2004, carried out the slaughter on the London underground in 2005, hoped to blast airliners out of the sky en route to the United States in 2006 and 2009, and journeyed far to die killing infidels in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia; when you look at whom they idolize, how they organize, what bonds them and what drives them; then you see that what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Koran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that they will never live to enjoy…. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: …fraternal, fast-breaking, thrilling, glorious, and cool.”

Atran posits that the appeal of ISIS seems to be their offering of a Utopian society and the sense of belonging and empowerment that the religious obscurantists claim is lacking in Western society. The narrative is a future of peace and harmony, at least, under their interpretation, but with the recognition that brutality is also needed to get there.

The underlying aspect of this Utopianism is the retreat from the kind of unconditional freedom where many young people feel pressured into certain social actions, towards a different kind of freedom free from ambiguity and ambivalence that, for those concerned, enhances a form of creativity that restraint helps nurture. ISIS exploits this dichotomy by outlining a way towards significance in a society that treats the alienated as insignificant.

Maajid Nawaz depicts ISIS as akin to a brand that in order to be defeated needs to be discredited as part of a long-term strategy. This involves the creation of alternative narratives and the engendering of alternative forms of belonging and identity. Nawaz argues that the mission statement, as part of a generational struggle, has to be that the kind of obscurantist ideology that ISIS adhere to, is made as un-appealing as Stalinism or Hitler fascism is today. “We’ve got to be careful that we don’t become fixated about destroying the organization itself as part of a long-term strategy, but rather to focus on destroying the ISIS brand”, he says.

Irrespective of whether the discourse emanates from either the left or the right of the political spectrum, Nawaz argues that it needs to be more nuanced than has hitherto been the case:

“We seem to focus too much on binary approaches which on the one hand suggest that no problem exist within Islam [the perspective of many within the political left], or on the other, where all Muslims are perceived as the problem [the perspective of the far-right]. I would argue that to address the root problem we need to find a pathway between sensationalism and denialism.”

This approach will surely need to be run alongside a recognition by Western governments that their foreign policy strategies are not working. Instead of spending billions on ineffectual and counterproductive war, the money would be far better spent on effective prevention programmes on the ground. This could involve, as middle east scholar Ed Husain has argued, employing former jihadists to reach out to help educate young people about the dangers of ISIS and other extremists.

At some point, channels of communication will have to be opened up with radical Muslim groups who are willing to engage with experts outside the Muslim world to come to some kind of compromise agreement. This might even involve the formation of an Caliphate-type enclave based on ISIS lines. What is certain is the current path we are on is the wrong one.

The lack of any meaningful attempt to implement an effective strategy to weaken or destroy radical Islamism is self-evident. Ideologies cannot be defeated by bombs. Any U.S insistence that it’s dictatorial regional allies and proxies – Saudi Arabia and Qatar – deplete ISIS of funds, will go a long way to achieving desired short-term goals.

The West might have to come to terms with making a short-term pact with the devil as part of a long-term strategy that undercuts the kind of psychological and ideological motivations that drive young people into the arms of religious obscurantists in the first place.



13 thoughts on “Addressing the motivations that drive Islamist obscurantists will help defeat them

    1. And they worshipped the dragon which gave power unto the beast: Who is able to make war with him? Revelation 13:4(KJV) According to scriptures, people who readily reject truth are destined to receive a “strong delusion” The amount of money the devil’s followers are spending to deceive the elect is staggering. Today’s politicians are the most experienced, skilled, and masterful of liars and hypocrites; they are the vastly more wealthy and deceitful than the most ambitious of used car salesman. For example persons like tony blair and Hilary Clinton and Obama are each working for individual self serving interests, and do their best to sweet talk to the viewing audience about their faith in a loving God while serving their master Lucifer “The light bringer” Christ told of the likes of ISIS the NWO and the Apostasy at the end times. He spoke of being deceived and many being beheaded in his name he also mentioned of his little church in the end times as people fall away. Christians will continue to be persecuted a religion of peace and love as Christ taught 2000 years ago. When he comes back this time he will bring a sword and fire will rain down on earth, Revelation 1 to 11


  1. I find your perspective on certain topics refreshing and I find myself eagerly awaiting your next blog post but I can’t help but think that, notwithstanding the fact that you do make some very good points, your method of “defeating ISIS” is doomed to fail.

    a) Majid Nawaz/Ed Husain – The Muslims that I have conversed with detest, with a passion, those that I will now label the “Quilliam cohort”. Such an organisation, and peoples, are so utterly out of touch with the everyday Muslim that hardly any Muslims would listen to them, let alone go anywhere near them. From being tainted with the Prevent Programme to allegations of jumping on the counter-terrorism funding bandwagon, they have been discredited within the Muslim community.

    b) The Narrative – We are constantly portrayed this narrative that ISIS is a “religious organisation” but in reality it is not. As you referenced Robert Fisk earlier, it is primarily a geo-political organisation intent on abolishing the arbitrarily carved Sykes-Picot borders. The mere fact that it would want it’s laws to be Sharia compliant is a by-product of their activities, not a cause. By using the ISIS narrative that it is a “religious organisation”, credence is given to it’s worldwide audience that they have a duty to fight for an Islamic State, thus attracting foreign fighters into their ranks and attracting homegrown citizens to carry out attacks on it’s behalf.

    It could become another HAMAS, and whilst that may not be the ideal solution to defeating ISIS, it is a step which would curtail it’s activities and be limited to certain geographical area (like the issue of Palestine with HAMAS).

    c) The Origin – Like HAMAS, ISIS came to the fore because of a geo-political situation. With HAMAS, it was a resistance to the continued occupation of Palestinian land by the Settler State but with ISIS, it was a perceived meddling by the Western powers in the affairs of a sovereign state. Essentially, the right of a nation to self-determination was being subverted and funding, planning and executing coups which led to arrival of a autocratic and totalitarian puppet couldn’t have helped matters either. The continued support of Western powers for the eradication of “Islamists” from the political process (see; Egypt/Libya) also does not sit well with the native population.

    As you pointed out, ISIS is resistant to the post-colonial puppet mastery of the Western powers. Defeating ISIS militarily won’t get us anywhere. ISIS is patient 101 and killing the patient won’t kill the disease. Another ISIS will simply appear tomorrow. How long are we going to keep on addressing the symptoms and not disease?

    d) Islamism/Islamist – To many people, Islamism (Islamism being defined here as the participation of Islamic values in the political process) is the disease and our whole narrative, and potential solutions to the crises tries to address that but I put it to you that Islamism is not disease, but a potential solution.

    Why is it that we only see “Islamism” as a problem in the MENA region? Why do we have no issues with secular parties in Indonesia (the most populous Muslim country in the world) or Malaysia enabling devolved powers legislation that allows the capital/corporal punishment to be carried out in certain parts of the country? Why is the term Islamist disliked by Western commentators when it comes to the overthrow of autocratic dictatorships, dictatorships which are incidentally propped up or supported by Western powers?

    The term “Islamist” is bandied about to muddy the waters. It is there to create a false dichotomy between secularism and Islamism. The term secularism is largely alien to Muslim majority countries and is not necessarily a pre-requisite of a democratic nation. In actual fact, there can be no “good (or bad)” democracy because democracy is simply a system of governance.

    The problem in the Middle East can be summarized as the people not being afforded their due rights, whether that be their democratic right, or the rights devised from their holy texts which many consider to be their constitution. ISIS is merely a symptom of that disease.

    e) The Caliphate – This geo-political struggle by ISIS to give people the opportunity to exercise their full rights is portrayed by their foreign fighter make-up (Jordan/Tunisia) where forced secularization was undertaken by their respective governments. Even their own “native force” were subject to brutal secular policies under Saddam and Bashar Al Assad.

    This ISIS call for a Caliphate is a calculated tactic to convert people to their cause (by promising them the opportunity to live their lives according to the values that they subscribe to) as well as unify the MENA region from what they consider to be outside interference.

    – If we want to defeat ISIS, then yes, we should simply focus on their radical ideology but that will simply abate the issue for a decade or so and the next ISIS will rise up. That is not a sustainable solution.

    The only actual workable solution that has a hope of working is the following:

    1) Halt all arms trade to the MENA region (Government or otherwise). This includes both legal and illegal methods of transport.
    2) Confine all military personnel to their barracks and establish a no fly zone.
    3) Set up an MENA Oversight Committee consisting of current leaders.
    4) Redraw the “borders” to take into account ethnic characteristics.
    5) Appoint Governors to administer provinces with wide ranging devolved powers.

    The plan is feasible, depending on our priorities. Do we prioritize ongoing conflict, thus boosting our sales, or do we prioritize non-conflict in the Middle East?


    1. Adam, an extremely informative and lucid contribution. There’s a lot to consider and digest in your post. Thanks very much for taking the time to read the article and commenting.


  2. many other countries in the world outside the Arab region have artificial boundaries too and in any case most of the Sykes – Picot boundaries simply corresponded with Ottoman administrative areas ( which in turn followed traditional tribal / linguistic population areas ). The slogan of the young uprisers in Syria in 2011 was not ‘ Sykes / Picot must fall ‘ , it was ‘ the regime must fall ‘ …..and Saudi Arabia had been softening up it’s population for supporting the removal of Assad via it’s state run newspapers for many years on largeley sectarian grounds. Saudi Arabia does not even recognize the Alawites as even a branch of Islam – but a cult . Articles asking the Saudi people how they can in all conscience stand by while good Muslims in Syria are everyday put upon and mistreated by non Muslims were regular features in the Saudi media for years prior to the war . Yes the dreams of pan Arabism seemed to die somewhere in the late 1980’s – but I’m not sure the post WW 1 history of the region was a given – as you seem to imply . Otherwise another good article .


  3. This is a brilliantly written piece and has linked several disparate subjects I’ve been researching of late, so thank you very much for this.


    1. Para 4:
      , “it nevertheless doesn’t appear to deter those who are motivated by the need to satisfy the financial interests of the lobbyists who profit from war.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s