Reflections on the psychology of ISIL

Reflections on the psychology of ISIL

The so-called “Islamic State” that has conquered large parts of Iraq and Syria continues to shock large audiences across the world. Many people, not just in the Western, but also in the Muslim world, find the group’s zeal and bloodlust unfathomable. But it is important to try to understand the ideology of this self-declared “Caliphate” and the psychology of those who fight for it, because otherwise we will not be able to find ways to diminish its appeal.

A good documentary by Vice News titled, “The Islamic State,” might be a good beginner for this effort. Shot mostly in Raqqa, the Syrian city that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) now has as its capital, the film shows how people join ISIL, how they get indoctrinated by its message, and how they simply love it.

These people include young boys, who are educated by their fathers or tutors to devote themselves to ISIL and fight “the infidels and apostates.” Apparently these “infidels and apostates” include most us, as several members of ISIL explicitly point to “the Americans,” “Europeans,” “America’s allies,” “secular Arabs,” and even the “apostate Turkish government.”

But why does ISIL hate the “infidels?” It is reiterated that “they are the enemies of God,” so there is certainly a theological base to it. But it is also reiterated, “They kill Muslims,” which reflects a political anger against Western military adventures in the Middle East that indeed have destroyed many Muslim lives.

One of the ISIL militants is more explicit about this, swearing, “We are going to invade you as you invaded us.” He adds, “We will orphan your children as you orphaned our children.” He is probably referring to what the West (and Israel) politely calls, “collateral damage” – such as the hundreds of children who get killed in Gaza in every wave of the “war on terror.”

In other words, the militancy of ISIL – and al-Qaeda and others –  is partly a reaction to the suffering of Muslims. Western (and Israeli) policy makers should understand this very well. Otherwise, they will only be counter-productive by causing more “collateral damage” and thus provoking more revenge.

But there is more to ISIL then a mere reaction to the West. There is also the psychology of turning from nobody and becoming glorified hero overnight. You can observe this in some of the ISIL militants in the Vice News documentary. One guy tells to the camera how he will take revenge for all Muslims and then he gets really emotional. “We are living in a joy that I cannot describe my brothers,” he says, before bursting into tears. He cries not out of pain, but really joy.

This joy should really be understood, and criticized, from a Muslim point of view. It seems like a religious joy, but it is a bit different than that, if by “religion,” we mean man’s connection to God. This joy rather comes from man’s place among other men. Rather than being an insignificant individual, perhaps in a slum in an unfriendly European city, ISIL makes you an honorable soldier of a very noble cause – the one and only righteous “Caliphate” in an evil world. It makes you feel cool.

No wonder an ISIL militant who is high on joy brags about how he left the “sweet women” of Europe and came to Syria to fight. Then he declares with excitement: “The mujahedeen [jihadists] come after the prophets!” By this, however, he is not venerating the prophets, let alone God. He is venerating himself.