The Rolex Caliph

We wish all our readers and especially the commenters a peaceful and fulfilling 2015.

In some parts of the world such wishes would be a cruel fantasy. That includes the swathes of disintegrating Syria and Iraq under the control of Islamic State and its charismatic leader, the Rolex-toting and self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.


Photo source

US officials are baffled how to fight this new kind of enemy. Al-Qaeda had a bizarre and fantastical goal, the restoration of a purified Caliphate of all Muslims, and a too-clever bank shot strategy, attacking the “far enemy” American sponsor rather than the corrupt governments of Muslim states directly. But its structure and methods were straight out of the 150-year-old manual for conspiratorial violent revolutionaries, and would have been familiar to the Fenians, the Black Hand, or Carlos Marighella – and to the governments who fought them. Islamic State has similarly crazy ambitions, but it rules a territory, and possesses a useful army and a Twitter account.

The NYT reports on the puzzlement.

Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, commander of American Special Operations forces in the Middle East, sought help this summer in solving an urgent problem for the American military: What makes the Islamic State so dangerous?

Trying to decipher this complex enemy — a hybrid terrorist organization and a conventional army — is such a conundrum that General Nagata assembled an unofficial brain trust outside the traditional realms of expertise within the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence agencies, in search of fresh ideas and inspiration. Business professors, for example, are examining the Islamic State’s marketing and branding strategies.

“We do not understand the movement, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it,” he said, according to the confidential minutes of a conference call he held with the experts. “We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.”

The general has not cast his net wide enough. The article does not mention scholars of history, comparative religion or the psychology of cults. I am none of these, but in the weeks following 9/11 I tried to remind my colleagues in the Council of Europe of salient facts about religious terrorism. Nobody took any notice, so I felt free to publish the memo on my vanity website later. More important, the line of inquiry I proposed has SFIK been little explored. This was a mistake.

Most of the cultural discussion about jihadism in general and al-Qaeda in particular has treated them as perversions of Islam in particular. What is there in mainstream Islam that could enable these deformations? It looks a fair question, but the approach is biased and incomplete. I was quickly able, even in pre-Wikipedia days, to identify parallel movements that have from time to time emerged from almost all of the main world religions.

My short list was:

  • The Assassins (out of Shia Islam), 13th-century Persia and Syria
  • Millenarians (out of Christianity), 1200-1550
  • Sicarii (out of Judaism), 1st century Judaea
  • Thugs (out of Hinduism), India, ?? – 1840
  • Jarnail Singh Bindranwale (out of Sikhism), Punjab, 1980-1984
  • The Taiping Rebellion (out of Asiatic syncretism), South China, 1840-1864
  • Aum Shinri Kyo (out of Asiatic syncretism), Japan, 1984 to present

It’s easy to see from this that violent cults are a perversion of religion in general, not merely Islam.

You may fairly object that my list mixes up movements of very different types. Fair enough, but the “terrorism” posed in 2001 as the problem was not then, and still is not, a clear analytic concept. Even where the objectives differ, the cult psychology may be parallel and worth study. This holds for the Assassins, who sought political influence in self-defence not power, and the Thugs, whose Kali-worship was basically a licence for banditry.

Let’s narrow the list to the cults that sought political power, dropping these two, plus Aum Shinri Kyo which seems purely nihilist. That still leaves four, representing four different religious traditions. I am deliberately laving out the much more common exploitation of religion by established authority, or a side in a civil war.

A comparative frame is far better for addressing Nagata’s questions – how do movements like Islamic State arise and grow, and how do you destroy them?

Two obvious preconditions for emergence are a charismatic unhinged leader to brainwash followers, and a willingness to read the sacred texts in a highly selective and creative way. Christian millenarians for instance concentrated on the two apocalyptic books, Daniel and Revelations; curiously ignoring the prosaically genocidal Joshua. One cult, the Adamites in Bohemia during the Hussite wars, were so bloodthirsty as to make Islamic State and bin Laden look positively moderate. Cohn: “Blood, they declared, must flood the world to the depth of a horse’s head; and despite their small number they did their best to achieve this aim.” Buddhism alone seems relatively immune, perhaps immunised by Gautama’s radical pacifism. There are no doubt Buddhist traces in the Taiping and Aum Shinri Kyo, but very remote from the origin.

The social conditions were well tackled by the late Norman Cohn in his great study of mediaeval Christian cults, The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957, revised 1970).  Cohn points to the social disruptions of mediaeval proto-capitalism in Flanders, the Rhine and Northern Italy as enablers, along with a long mystical and apocalyptic tradition in the Christian mainstream. The millenarian map does not correlate at all with the later witch craze, rooted in stable rural backwaters like Scotland and Bavaria. Social insecurity leads to psychological insecurity, and an openness to radical messages. This seems to fit the Taiping, Islamic State’s success in recruiting second-generation young Muslim immigrants in Europe, and – outside our frame but within Cohn’s – the rise of Nazism.

How do these movements end? Generally, in blood. Only Aum Shinri Kyo seems to have just faded. The strength of the commitment that religious cults can generate, and the complete unacceptability of their ambitions, makes war with the surrounding society inevitable. An irrelevant exception here is the Assassins, but their political objectives within the Muslim world were so limited as to be negotiable. It was their bad luck that they came up against the overwhelming force and limitless brutality of the Mongols.

So Nagata has to capture, kill, or (as with the entirely pacific Jewish “Messiah” Sabbatai Zevi) discredit al-Baghdadi. Go with the Rolex, not the red-hot irons inflicted on another Messiah, Jan of Leiden, in Munster in 1536. The iron cage in which his body was exposed still hangs from the church steeple. You can take “heritage” too far.


Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

15 thoughts on “The Rolex Caliph”

  1. I think that your post is rather hysterical. Read The War Nerd, who (as far as I can tell) is much more reliable.

    In short, ISIS is a movement which grew in power vacuums and moves into them.

    BTW, they have been pretty much stopped in Iraq – that state is not 'disintigrating'; at most the remaining Sunni part is no longer under central control.

    1. Sure, IS’s success is opportunistic. That holds for all even temporarily successful rebels. The question is: what kind of movement is it? Kleptocratic warlord? Secular nationalist? Utopian socialist? No, they are quite patently religious nutters. It’s worth looking at others of the same type.

  2. James

    Always a pleasure to read your erudite analyses of the issues of the day. This was utterly fascinating.

    I agree with you that this cultishness is not unique to Islam. I would suggest that it may not even be used to religion. I have a colleague who studies musical cults. Artists as diverse as U2 and Barry Manilow have a subgroup of rabid fans who collect their memorabilia, study their songs as if they were religious and make up quasi-religious stories about them. They define themselves as the true, pure fans who are there to keep the legacy alive in the face of all the fallen fans who have missed the true message.
    More darkly, secular political movements like the Nazis and the Bolsheviks had subgroups who defined themselves as the true keepers of the movement, tried to purify the movement of internal enemies by any means necessary and of course to impose their vision on the broader world.
    In short, a tendency to this type of behavior may just be one of the unappealing traits of our species.

    1. Clearly the mechanisms behind cults are not exclusive to religion. Nor is violence intrinsic to the pattern: neither Elvis Presley, Joseph Smith, nor Jesus preached violence, and the cults they inspired reflected this. Also, violent cults can be secular: the Tamil Tigers, the SLA, and the Baader-Meinhof gang were cultish. Contrast the cult-free IRA, which was able to negotiate an exit from terrorism. The violence in a cult comes from outside the cult mechanism. In Christianity and Islam, it's easy to identify the mainstream sources, in apocalyptic texts and the doctrine of jihad respectively.

      I’m not so sure that the predisposition to cultish bahaviour is all negative. Identifying and trusting a leader you decide is wiser than you is often a reasonable strategy, and must have been adaptive in our long evolutionary history in bands of hunter-gatherers. It has enabled astonishing feats of self-sacrifice, as well as great crimes and follies: think of de Gaulle and William the Silent, as well as Hitler and Mao.

  3. No doubt you are right about much of this, but imo General Nagata is making a huge error in his assumption that *we* (the US, or NATO, or whoever in the West) should be the ones to confront IS. (Question: does it deserve an article? "the IS….?" I say no!)

    Don't we make IS bigger by giving them so much attention? As you say, it is inevitable that IS' neighbors will have no choice but to militarily confront it. Let's let them. I'm fine with giving such aid as we can give without making a big fuss, but … let's let them shoulder the weight. It is their job, not ours. We have done enough damage in that part of the world. I am surprised that Nagata's view is going so unchallenged. Remember 2003, anyone? Haven't we seen this one before?

    1. I have no clear view to offer on this. General Nagata is a soldier following orders. I was simply running with his assumptions. Clearly, somebody has to destroy the cult, and it won't be peaceful.

      1. I hope I didn't seem dismissive. I think both you and Nagata are doing something extremely important — trying to understand the other person's point of view.

        From my seat in the bleachers, I think the issues you point to of psychological identity and economic wellbeing are probably central, plus a big dose of testosterone (in that, ime, if we don't give young men positive things to do, they will do negative ones instead. Whereas, women mostly self-destruct, which is also bad of course. Also we play a role in what men choose, to varying degrees.)

        Having said that, this also seems like very much an intra-Arab thing — Sunni v. Shia. And again, I don't see a useful role for the US. What we really ought to do — besides trying to understand, which is always worth doing — is look at our own behavior. If we are feeding conflict, we should try to stop.

  4. Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 and Bali in 1965-66 took on religious fervor, among mostly Buddhist demographics. You can examine the anti-communism of Bali or the pro-communism of Cambodia under various lights, but to say Buddhists are immune from bloodlust belies any probity with regard to the underlying social conditions that spawn such massive fratricides. I think you nailed it with "social insecurity leads to psychological insecurity". If the West denies Islam a middle class, this is the price to pay.

    1. I don't have a clear view to offer on this. Nagata is a soldier following orders. I was simply working within his assumptions.

    2. You misread me. In my original memo, I noted that Buddhist and Confucian societies are certainly capable of great violence. I do question whether it springs from or is legitimized by the religion. You really can't blame Buddhism for Pol Pot's pop-Marxist genocide.

      PS: Bali is Hindu, with 0.5% Buddhists according to Wikipedia. In any case the massacre of “Communists” was organised by the military, in Muslim Java and Hindu Bali alike, drawing – in classic pogrom style – on ethnic resentments against the Chinese minority to make it look spontaneous. You would need to supply much stronger evidence to convince me of a significant component of religious fanaticism. Religious/ethnic identity alone is irrelevant to my case.

  5. Much news coverage suggests that the "Rolex" is actually a much cheaper "Al Fajr". With the limited image resolution, I believe it could easily be a $10 repro. Any reliance at all on something this flimsy weakens the argument. For good measure, I am not sure what it proves if the leader of ISIS really does have a nice watch.

    1. Interesting point. If it's a repro, then it doesn't matter. If it is a Rolex, there is a connection with the lavish lifestyle of other cult leaders: see Jan of Leiden and the Taiping. That would be a vulnerability.

      Ridicule is a powerful weapon. The man claims to be a Caliph, the supreme political and religious leader of all Muslims. Emperor doesn't go far enough. The Byzantine basileus and Russian tsar come closest. Normally you only claim such titles after you have achieved power. IS’ black flag is clearly intended as an echo of the black banners of the successful Abbasid revolt in the eighth century. But the first Abbasid caliph, As-Saffah, only assumed the title after defeating the Umayyad incumbent at the battle of the Zab. The same holds I think for pretenders to kingship, like Henry Tudor. You say "the incumbent is an usurper, and I am the rightful king"; but you only truly become the king if and when you win the battle and get crowned.

  6. Gen Nagata is thinking like an MBA. There's no useful generic rules about cults; each is specific to the situation. In the Daesh case, they draw their inspiration from the ghazi tradition, couple it with disaffected Sunni populations in Syria and Iraq – in turn feeding off economic, political and religious grievances and have a core of Chechens (and others) as a battle-hardened leading edge. A bit like Germany 1630s: Protestant vs Catholic, a slew of mercenary exiles, weak states…

    Thing is, they have come to the end of easy victories. The Shia militias are just as motivated and much more numerous, the Kurds likewise, Damascus has managed consolidate its grip on the main urban centres, Iran can back the Kurds and Shia, the Kurds and Shia can form alliances with the minorities (Yazidi, Christian etc) as Daesh cannot, and they lack the resources to ameliorate most of the grievances that led them to power. The Chechens are tied down in Kobane, the Shia making progress towards Kirkuk, the Kurds into Sinjar and above Mosul, Damscus is fighting for Aleppo.

    The US needs to be thinking about how it will deal with an Iraqi Shia/Kurd/Alawi/Iran alliance across Iraq and Syria.

  7. Thank you for your post. It's a really interesting take on IS. I think we can all see parallels to historical situations and experiences.
    Personally I was reminded of the Hun and Mongol expansions myself, sudden expansion, attracting young men to join and promising an opportunity of visiting unimaginable violence of the vanquished. I also agree with PeterdET about the comparison with the Thirty Year war situation (which in some areas left 90 percent of the population dead).
    I suspect viewing IS as a cult will be a useful place to start, because it allows us to view containing it as a normal social necessity, rather than the religious war it sees itself as conducting
    One minor nitpick: Considering the plight of the Rohingya who are persecuted by Buddhists in Burma because of their religion, I would hesitate to absolve any religion from being able to inspire horrific violence. I suspect that it is more often a lack of opportunity, than lack of possibility if any religion is more rarely involved in spawning cultish movements.

    1. On Buddhism: see my reply to AnBheal above. My argument is limited to the ability of a religion to inspire a violent revolutionary cult, and does not exclude conventional political or inter-ethnic violence. Nobody has offered a counter-example. There are plenty of examples of violence by Buddhists of the conventional type. Thailand and Cambodia engaged in wars. The civil war in Sri Lanka was between Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese, who controlled the government. The Tamil Tigers were by all accounts much worse the government forces, but the latter committed their share of brutalities.

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