Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, theology has been intimately tied to modern Middle East politics. In Iran, the doctrine of the “governance of the jurist,” which calls for theocratic rule under sharia law, paved the way for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to take power in February of that year. Throughout the 1980s, during the Soviet–Afghan war, various Islamist groups considered the Soviet Union an oppressor of Muslims in Afghanistan. They used this narrative to rally various Islamists to organize jihad on behalf of their Afghan brethren. In 1991, during the Gulf War, Islamists in Saudi Arabia protested the presence of U.S. troops on Saudi soil. They were enraged that the Saudi monarchy was hosting them, partnering with a non-Muslim power, and thus reneging on its commitment to uphold Islam. Meanwhile, for the past two decades, another competing theology, Salafism, has spurred al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) in their quest for global jihad.

And yet, theology has been incidental to U.S. policy in the Middle East. At each of these momentous turns, the United States failed to acknowledge their possible theological underpinnings. Eight months after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the U.S. embassy in Tehran reassured Washington that the political turn merely involved vocal “moderate groups who favor a more balanced society resembling a Western social-democracy.” Washington also celebrated the Arab Islamist involvement in Afghanistan, regarding it as another front against communism. In doing so, it missed signs that the seeds of what would become al Qaeda were planted in that very battle. And, as scholar Stephen Chan pointed out, the U.S. government saw its participation in the First Gulf War as one of the first tests after the fall of the Soviet Union, of democracy’s triumph over communism. President George H.W. Bush called the success of the war, a “victory of liberalism.” In short, the near-term political gains—such as the possibility of democracy in Iran, the rollback of Soviet influence in Afghanistan, and the liberation of Kuwait—muted the theological stirrings at the time, which were seen as inconsequential to foreign policy.

An Islamic State (ISIS) fighter holds an ISIS flag on a street in the city of Mosul, Iraq, June 23, 2014.

The United States responded to 9/11 by making counterterrorism a top national security priority. On a practical level, this involved building a sophisticated global law-enforcement enterprise rather than reassessing the role of theology in driving sub-state movements. In a speech at West Point in June 2002, which became the basis of the Bush Doctrine, President George W. Bush explained his strategy: “We must uncover terrorist cells in 60 or more countries using every tool of finance, intelligence, and law enforcement.” In the same speech, he called the war on terror, as it came to be known, “a conflict between good and evil.” Although “evil” is certainly an appropriate word to describe what led to 9/11, it did not go far enough in explaining how terrorist networks adapted their theological frameworks in response to U.S. foreign policy. For example, shortly after the U.S. entered Iraq in 2003, al Qaeda strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri published his 1,600-page tome, “The Call to Global Islamic Resistance,” in which he detailed his vision for how the global jihadist movement should proceed. Al-Suri included a nearly 100-page appendix of hadith reports—statements of the Prophet Muhammad—that describe the coming of the apocalypse, which later became useful to ISIS as it crafted its narrative. This oversight continued to be a huge blind spot in the 2003 War in Iraq. During that time, al Qaeda in Iraq, which later rebranded itself as ISIS, began developing a strategy to execute its apocalyptic vision. The administration’s line of thinking during the Iraq War, which involved training its Middle East partners to police terrorist activity within their borders, and arguably did serve our immediate security needs, failed to also take stock of these threats emanating from peripheral, non-state actors. In this case, the decision to focus on terrorism exclusively as a bilateral security priority rather than as a regional foreign policy issue meant that Washington might have overlooked significant and deadly transformations taking place outside of the formal political structures.


The latest terrorist menace, ISIS, is different from the others in its drive to create a global Caliphate.

Analysts thus rushed to characterize ISIS as a state the moment it began exhibiting state-like behavior such as territorial expansion, taxation, and management of resources and finances. Indeed, ISIS does govern, and its claims to statehood and the Caliphate are part of its propaganda. However, its appeal to potential recruits lies principally in its distinct apocalyptic narrative and in its promise of a purist Salafi utopia. Treating ISIS as a hostile state simply does not work. Rogue states, for example, respond to geopolitical pressures and various kinds of diplomatic leverage. In the case of ISIS, Washington must remember that it is driven first and foremost by theology rather than state-oriented priorities, making it more flexible than a state. ISIS will find ways of adjusting and evolving in response to U.S. attacks in ways that traditional states cannot.

It is also important to remember that ISIS’ statehood is an aspiration, not a reality. In Syria, al Nusra Front and Ahrar al Sham, too, have been explicit about their intentions to build Salafi states and have established judiciary systems and other attributes that we might associate with governance, but the West does not consider them as states. By taking ISIS’ claims at face value, the West risks validating the group’s project. The West should try instead to halt ISIS’ progression toward statehood through physical stresses on its territorial project (cutting its access to resources and cash flows, stopping its expansion, and its recruitment efforts), as well as bringing together a broad array of local and regional actors to not only fight ISIS, as we so often hear, but to help in the rebuilding of their countries. By doing so, we not only stop the territorial expansion, but also invalidate the theological narrative ISIS promotes: The Middle East’s regional crises are part of an apocalyptic sectarian war, for which ISIS’ Sunni utopia is the antidote.

A man checks an apartment on a damaged building in Hatay province, near the Turkish-Syrian border, May 13, 2013.
Umit Bektas / Reuters

Another theological misunderstanding hinges on ISIS’ Islamic credentials. Since the publication of the influential Atlantic article, “What ISIS Really Wants” exactly a year ago, which documented the ways the group’s members act on particular beliefs, the academic and policy communities have debated the group’s Islamic status. Some argue that ISIS does not represent Islam and others argue that it does, or at least draws on Islamic texts and concepts. The administration of President Barack Obama even weighed in on this debate, with Secretary of State John Kerry calling the group’s members “apostates.” It is important to understand how the group uses Islamic texts to shape its apocryphal message. (Indeed, from a foreign policy perspective, it is highly instructive to understand the theological literature on which ISIS draws, as this could guide policymakers in understanding the group’s territorial ambitions.) But it is not useful to get mired in a nuanced debate about whether to label it as Islamic or not.

There is also the insistence on using the word “ideology to explain ISIS, or any kind of terrorist group. The term is a holdover from the Cold War and is not the same as “theology.” The former is typically used to refer to a set of ideas underlying political and economic structures or groups. Theology has a clear spiritual aspect to it and it can exert influence beyond political and economic frameworks. Moreover, failure to appreciate the uniquely spiritual claims promoted by theologically-oriented groups like ISIS risks underestimating the religious hold that ISIS has over its recruits. It is much more than say, the tenuous hold that the Communist ideology had over citizens of the Soviet Union. And yet, policymakers use the word “ideology” indiscriminately, irrespective of how politically organized or systematic the ideas of those groups actually are. “We are fighting an ideology, not a regime,” Kerry said of the group in 2014. A year later, in the aftermath of the shootings in San Bernardino, Obama also failed to mention the unique apocalyptic theology that drives lone wolf attacks on behalf of ISIS and, instead, brought up lax gun laws. He also explained that “our intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, no matter how effective they are, cannot identify every would-be mass shooter, whether that individual was motivated by ISIL or some other hateful ideology.” But there are nuanced differences between these groups’ ideas (theology, citation of texts, personal connections, and narrative), and lumping jihadist groups together, and moreover, treating attacks as instances of gun violence, leads to ineffectual policies on how to stop them.


That said, the solution is not to “speak” ISIS’ language. Washington lacks both the credibility and the institutions for challenging a conservative theological worldview. There is an awkward sense of cooptation when U.S. government officials shift from using English words to Arabic ones, as the administration recently did in its adoption of the Arabic acronym for ISIS, “Daesh,” and using theological language, as Kerry recently did in calling ISIS “apostates.”

To stop ISIS from building a state, the West must stick to breaking its hold on swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, the geographic areas central to the group’s apocalyptic narrative. To invalidate the group’s theological cause, the West must engage with a broad array of actors across the ethnic and religious spectrum to not only help them fight ISIS, but also reclaim and rebuild their land. Right now, it is ISIS that is paving roads and providing vaccinations to children, or so the group depicts in its propaganda.

Washington’s diplomacy toolbox, which includes traditional elements such as soft and hard power, could also benefit from the addition of “image power,” in which it considers how U.S. actions (both soft and hard) are perceived and reinterpreted within local populations, particularly through theological narratives. This requires calculating the costs and benefits of U.S. actions not only on the basis of short-term gains and on a bilateral level, but also the potential long-term effects of U.S. actions on groups that respond to prophetic perspectives rather than political pressures. Although the hard power approach to stopping ISIS could very well short circuit its state-building project, it also has the potential to embolden its followers further. Similarly, although soft power, which involves greater local social and economic inclusion, could reduce the alienation of potential foreign fighters, it is ultimately no match for the theological pull of the ISIS narrative. It is crucial that U.S. policymakers address the distinctly new challenge of how theologically-oriented non-state groups have evolved in the new Middle East and have spread their beliefs throughout the West.

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  • JACOB OLIDORT is a Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an adjunct professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.
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