At first glance the title of this article sounds like a pulp fantasy novel or bloodfest of a video game. That isn’t altogether incorrect, in fact it reflects the hyperreality that is 21st century terrorism. The organization known as ISIS, also mockingly dubbed Daesh, is the paragon of Islamic extremism in the postmodern age.
What must be emphasized is this is not the radical ideologies and leftist revolutionaries studied in history class. This is not the 20th century Cultural Revolution in China, or the Shining Path in Peru, nor is it the crude combat of the Soviet-Afghan War. Present day terrorism has adapted to globalism, has melded with technology, indeed it has taken the most useful aspects of Silicon Valley and media propaganda for the sake of advancing its extremist reactionary objectives. It is a misnomer to use the term reactionary in regards to ISIS, as it is not attempting to ‘return to the past’, rather it is aspiring to a radically alternative future. Neither a development in capitalism nor socialism, but an alternative route driving toward a future that can only be described as apocalyptic. It is a will-to-apocalypse, it is grand cosmic salvation through relentless annihilation.
Apocalypse is a heavy term, the original definition means an ‘unveiling of the hidden’, but is most often used in our language to signify the final destruction of the world as foretold by revelation. It is a question worth pondering if this means the literal destruction of the world or simply the destruction of the world ‘as we know it’. Before continuing I want to make clear I am no expert in theology, and am far from an expert in Islam. I am not attempting to present myself as one, only to voice my own observations and contemplation on the matter. That being said, it seems ISIS has taken it upon itself to accelerate the approaching ‘end time’, to be a servant of God for the sole purpose of fulfilling the Will of God. The common consensus is that it is not for man to willfully assist in the fulfilling of revelations, and downright blasphemous to think one can. It will unfold as God sees fit. It is not man’s duty, and is quite egomaniacal for a man to take it upon himself. Needless to say ISIS interprets it differently. They feel it is their duty to fulfill the prophecy, to support the rising authentic global caliphate, to essentially manifest a one world Islamic kingdom here on earth. Those whom do not accept their interpretation will either be executed or enslaved. Eventually, no matter how many deaths it takes, without a doubt they know the kingdom will be made manifest. The relentlessness is what separates extremists such as ISIS from any other political extremists or political ideologies. This relentlessness will underlie every detail discussed.
The strangeness of ISIS, what makes it ‘Other’ is that it practices only absolutes. That is precisely why it is difficult for the common person to comprehend the fantacism of ISIS members. The certainty of a zealot is absolute. Indeed, it is a degree of absolute most people cannot conceive of, and I for one am glad few can achieve such absolute thought. It is difficult to grasp, but when zealots commit atrocities ending with their own demise it is out of absolute certainty it is for the greater cosmic good. Indeed it is absolute certainty that salvation will come through annihilation. If the cult must annihilate 3/4s of the planet’s population in order to bring about a world wide khilafah then it will be done with absolute certainty. One may say this is merely ends justifying the means, alas it is deeper than that. If the ends is considered the Will of God, it not only justifies the means, it vindicates the means in the most transcendent sense. Of course to a non-believer this appears atrocious, but to a zealous believer it is vindicated, it is blessed, it is righteous. The profanity of the acts becomes ordained by God if it is in accordance with the Will of God. It is a non-issue as to how it appears in the eyes of the non-believer. The zealots are not of this world, even if they live in it. This is a significant detail. What is death to one who does not consider themselves a part of this world to begin with? What are multiple deaths if it is not measured by earthly moral standards? The judgment made by man means nothing to those whom look elsewhere for decree.
Only in the postmodern age could there be an extremist organization that is both radically reactionist and completely embracing of modern technology and postmodern discourse. It is paradoxical to see such an organization advertise on Twitter while simultaneously advocating fundamentalist Sharia law in the most crass application. It reflects their vision of an alternative future when there is a high gloss digital, widely available ISIS magazine while simultaneously throwing homosexuals off of roofs to their death. Many of the members appear young, well groomed, educated, and overall suave. Indeed, the postmodern terrorist is as much part of the simulacrum as the pop artist. The terrorist symbolizes literal annihilation, as seen in the barbarous execution videos, as well as symbolic annihilation. Signs are mixed causing confusion and disruption. The suave and educated aesthetic aware of technology, a signifier, ceases to signify liberal progressive values and consumerism. The terrorists themselves are insignificant, it is the images manipulated and broadcasted across the globe that gives them power. ISIS is a product. It is the shadow cast by secular globalism and America as a superpower. It is the inversion of this, an inversion that attempts to turn back upon the West — upon consumerism, upon secularism — with the goal of causing an implosion.
If the system can be turned against itself, sign against sign, conflict against conflict, then in due time the system will collapse into itself or at least be rendered convoluted and confused. Unlike the average war of nation against nation for the sake of resources or territorial disputes, Jihadism is a relentless one direction drive to worldwide collapse and worldwide redesign. There is no surrender, even in desperation the drive to annihilation persists. The defeated will never cease despite being defeated. The term terrorism is a misnomer at times. Inciting terror is not the goal, nor is slaughter for the sake of slaughter. The goal is absolute interruption and forced inconsistency. What better way to achieve this than have a member enter the social structure, become a unit of it, and then self-destruct? What better way to achieve this than by using social media and technology to present a religion-affirming, alternative grand narrative to the often vapid secularist one? ISIS lives in the belly of postmodernism alongside us, paradoxically utilizing the postmodern discourse to its own extreme fundamentalist ends.
The recruitment achieved by the ISIS has been a strange phenomenon. Numbers continually increase in the West, from those of varying ethnicity and religious backgrounds who have defected. With the infiltration into mainstream culture, and adaptation to its simulacrum, such results are almost to be expected. The vaccuum left by the decline of Christianity and lack of existential meaning is an aching need easily exploited by extremist organizations pretending to provide. With Christianity faded from public view, rampant materialism reigns, and secular humanism proves a poor attempt at compensation. It is no mystery why absolute certainty in a transcendent cause appeals to those living with an incessant nihilistic materialism. Recruitment methods do not rely upon ruthless conscription but upon the manipulation of signs and images, preying upon the emptiness festering behind the spectacle.
Though ISIS may believe wholly in its apocalyptic vision and sacred mission, it appears little more than a hyperreality run amok, a virus spun from hegemonic expansion, empty technology, and regressive secularism. Picture the world as we know it today: global consumerism, endless streaming of images, secularization and pervasively intrusive noise. If we think of it as a massive operating system, ISIS reveals itself to be simply a byproduct, a virus or bug in the system. No system is without bugs, those disruptive and unintended, often unexpected results from overlooked errors. In truth ISIS has no metaphysical objective, no divine election nor prophetic destiny. Its apocalyptic rambling is but an incoherent line in programming, a failure of segregation not unlike a forgotten semicolon or missing end-bracket. Left unchecked it yields increasing detriment over time, though even worse would be to treat it seriously as if it contained anything legitimate. An incoherent glitch requires correction or removal, not attribution of place or meaning. ISIS craves validation from a failure of sentience, a refusal to recognize itself merely a bug in the greater software. It seeks legitimization from the overall system itself and the authorities therein. The argument has even been made that ISIS is not terrorist but rather a pseudo-state actor—or at least attempts to be one. This definition certainly compliments the above observations, and is one with which I agree.
As mentioned previously the adjective relentless is at the heart of ISIS ideology. It is not an entity which has a static objective to be reached, such as imperialism or territorial dispute. This is what we expect of war when using a modern lens of perception. Even war has changed drastically in our postmodern age. Whether it be the remoteness between citizen and active military, the censoring of war coverage, the increased use of drones, there is also a seemingly absent objective in present conflict. Whether refugees be accepted in hospitality or not, whether Islam is treated fairly or with prejudice, whether ISIS resources are bombed into dust and fatalities outnumber recruitment…the relentlessness of the ideology is what makes the ideology. This is not meant to praise or portray the ideology as never-ending. It is only meant to point out the unique nature of the postmodern condition in this situation. It lacks the essence often seen in past conflicts; a beginning and an end. It is a perpetual process without a core. It is only process. For a period this was discussed as what separated terrorism from classical warfare, though I believe it goes much deeper than that. Again I am certainly no expert, only that it seems the phenomena observed today is not quite humdrum terrorism nor is it classical warfare. It is a strange amalgam of the two, being more substantial than past terrorism (such as al-Qaeda) and yet not solidified or legitimate enough to be war between states (WWI, WWII, etc). Perhaps I am not saying anything new or novel, I doubt I am, nonetheless it is intriguing how global conflict today has became more inclined to process ontology than substance ontology. Instantaneous information, communication, social media propaganda, manipulation of metanarrative, and global transportation has changed the underlying foundation (if there be one) of near any subject imaginable.
By confronting process or flux, we are facing an intangible rather than a static solid. At this point I am unsure if we know how to resolve this form of conflict. Terrorist studies have gained tremendous ground and continue to do so. I have faith in time there will be improved countermeasures that can neutralize this ‘incoherent bug’ in the system, but only momentarily. If we see it as one metanarrative versus another—secular humanism versus Islamic, or secular humanism versus Jihadism—then it is easy to see that secular humanism will inevitably fail due to its vacuous and superficial nature.
This sounds fatalist, I do not disagree with that assessment, but I do hold out hope that a better and more promising metanarrative that we have yet to witness will prevail in the end.