Driving around last night, I caught some of John Loughlin‘s discussion, while filling in for Matt Allen on 99.7FM/630AM WPRO, of an article by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic titled, “What ISIS Really Wants.” From what I heard, John was focusing on this part of the article:
For certain true believers—the kind who long for epic good-versus-evil battles—visions of apocalyptic bloodbaths fulfill a deep psychological need. Of the Islamic State supporters I met, Musa Cerantonio, the Australian, expressed the deepest interest in the apocalypse and how the remaining days of the Islamic State—and the world—might look. Parts of that prediction are original to him, and do not yet have the status of doctrine. But other parts are based on mainstream Sunni sources and appear all over the Islamic State’s propaganda. These include the belief that there will be only 12 legitimate caliphs, and Baghdadi is the eighth; that the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria; and that Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest.
The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. It named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains. It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam.
Explicitly and implicitly, much of the rest of the article details the widening circles acceptance of ISIS’s claims. Obviously, there are those, like Cerantonio, who believe that ISIS is the foretold caliphate to which they must pledge allegiance and, if possible, join. Some others believe the prophecies, but aren’t sold on ISIS’s claim to be fulfilling them. Another ring of the circle, notably those whom Wood calls “Quietist Salafis” believe that Allah will make it abundantly clear when the “khalifa” appears, but they hold it as critical that the Muslim world not be divisive internally.
No doubt, the circle expands out from there.
John’s concern was that attacking ISIS in Syria would appear to be a fulfillment of the next stage of the prophecy and convince some not-insignificant number of the Muslims spread throughout the world that the time has come to throw off their inwardly focused Islamic moderation. Personally, I think that concern inherently (even if inadvertently) gives credence to the prophecy. After all, it’s critical that the “armies of Rome” be defeated in Syria for ISIS to support its claims. That just means that the West has to win, and in the meantime, it seems likely that more radical Muslims would be drawn to the local battle, not to engage in their own skirmishes in Western countries.
Putting the military question aside, though, those who share John’s concerns — and a lot of people on both sides of the West’s ideological divide are voicing “this is what ISIS wants” warnings — should be even more wary of Muslim immigration. Ultimately, their fears amount to a belief that there really aren’t as many “moderate Muslims” as they tend to believe. How moderate could they be if our defending ourselves against an openly barbaric cult army would flip a not-so-moderate switch and radicalize them?
I’m not presuming to draw lines around what moderate Muslims believe or to assign proportions, but every concern contains assumptions that should be followed to their end if we’re going to heed the warning. And we have a responsibility to think about our nation’s strategy. We have to balance the costs of different strategies. That is, the risks and expenses of our escalation in Syria have to be balanced against the risks and expenses of ISIS’s escalation of its attempts to provoke us.
Like President Obama’s naive “ISIS is contained” statement, Wood’s Atlantic article came before the attack in Paris. If ISIS really does need to goad the West into war in order to maintain its credibility, we can expect its attacks to multiply. At some point, that becomes a war on our own soil and prophecy or no, the radicalization of our neighbors could happen either way.