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The Recent Development of the Islamic State: Territorial Control, Theological Responses and Online Activities


  January 8th 2021

Photo source: voxpol.eu

On December 2, 2020, the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) and the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS) held the online Wednesday forum with the topic “The Recent Development of the Islamic State: Territorial Control, Theological Responses, and Online Activities”. The speaker was Prof. Rudiger Lohlker. He is a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Vienna, Austria. Lohlker taught at several other universities before and worked as a database consultant in Rabat (Morocco) on a project on Arabic manuscripts. His research focuses on the history of Islamic thought, especially Sufism, Islam and sciences, Salafism, Jihadism, and Islamic/Arabic online communication. The moderator of this event was CRCS staff Azis Anwar Fachrudin. In this presentation, Prof. Lohlker focused on three aspects. First was the reconfiguration of the Islamic States (IS) after the loss of territorial control in Syria and Iraq. Consequently, it changed to a war of attrition (harb intizaf), a kind of guerrilla warfare at a global level and it became one reason that Prof. Lohlker called them Islamic State or IS rather than ISIS. Second, the theological dimensions of IS in which Prof. Lohlker gave an overview of the theological developments of IS, especially referring to the strategies of the new leadership. Third, the online activities of IS, especially regarding the reconfiguration of online communication, structures, and new phenomena.

Prof. Lohlker began his presentation by referring to Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi historian, researcher on security and strategic affairs and extremist groups, specialist on matters of the Islamic State and its supporters, and who also serves as an adviser to the Iraqi government on countering terrorism. Related to the recent developments of the Islamic State, Lohlker agrees with Hashimi who argues that, new leaders served as some of the most important middle and field commanders during the organization's emergence and theological evolution between 2010 and 2014. Their roles and efficacy were demonstrated in the conflict zones in Iraq and Syria. The men who spent several years operationalizing the strategic guidance from above now constitute the apex leadership and underscores a significant level of institutionalization of the transnational Jihadist movement. Because of the loss of territory in Iraq and Syria now, the war then changes from gaining territory to a war of attrition. Therefore, IS has established several strategic plans:  ensuring that the organization is theologically connected to al Zarqawi or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of the Islamic militant group Al-Qaeda in Iraq; focusing on anti-Semitic rhetoric; expanding its battleground; engaging in reconciliation with Sunni communities and presenting that IS is the only way forward; continuing the war of attrition to undermine stability; imposing religious rule and virtue following IS theology; adopting a more open outreach strategy (as long as IS theology is respected); utilizing media, especially internet to spread the theology of IS; and lastly, IS produced ammunition and other military devices with help of “blue-collar Jihadis” and technical abilities. The latest strategies and progress were stressed by IS in a recent film on Mosul footage of sophisticated weapons and missile laboratories and facilities.

Furthermore, the important question which suddenly emerges regarding those strategic plans is how to respond? Lohlker argues that related to the massive member recruitment of IS, the intervention toward it should be done at the individual level (by family, friends, and other institutions). Moreover, the strategic plan of IS also should be analyzed. To do so, we need to understand communication in Arabic. In accordance with that, interrupting links especially links of funding and knowledge flows are also very important because these two aspects allow IS to exist and get stronger from time to time. Toward the ex-members of IS, a serious de-radicalization program is very pivotal to breaking the link between them and IS, whether or not they are in the prison, a de-radicalization program should be applied toward them.

Related to the theology of IS, Lohlker explains some main principles of IS and their theological claims. Principles of theology of IS are: first, al-wala' wa'l-bara' (association and dissociation), meaning that if people join IS, they are perceived as part of the true Islam, true believers and must distance themselves from all other humans. They claim IS as true Islam because of its fighting activities. They believe that the IS-caliph is the leader of Islam because he is fighting others. Second, takfir (charge of unbelief) accusing somebody not to follow IS. Third, bay'a (pledge of allegiance). Fourth, tawhid (professing the unity of God) following the encompassing worldview of IS. Thus, if you follow all these principles, then you are pure. Hence, IS claims to organize daily life through an active Fatwa service (online as part of the al-bayan platforms) according to its strategies. In IS, slavery was perceived as a sign of the last days. However, according to Lohlker there are some surprising facts about IS theology: (1) there is a lack of veneration of the prophet in the caliphate following the method of prophethood; (2) there is no kalam, no talk about God, only quotes from the Qur'an; (3) IS left its Salafi/Wahabi roots behind.

Aligned with that. Lohlker also explains that in building their theology, IS prefers text to other experiences. However, they like to do textual atomism, in which they take sentences and verses as distinct, isolated items, through a kind of textual archeology to support their goal. This is also known as textual intentional-ism wherein they force certain intentions into the text, for example only the Jihadi meaning. Therefore, they refuse to elaborate their way of argumentation as presented in Islamic traditional knowledge and they like to excavate the truth that IS is an Islamic source. In accordance with that, Prof. Lohlker suggests some responses toward IS theology and their theological claim, such as promoting inclusion, not exclusion (pluralism and diversity also should be promoted), accepting tradition and not erasing it, contextualization also very important, and the most important principle is to counter the violence of IS by remembering that ‘we are here on earth for life not for death.’

Finally, regarding with IS online activities, it is clear that online activists or media mujahidin are also an important part of IS because all strategies discussed above are promoted through an online campaign which is also perceived as an online battlefield. IS has around three hundred thousand pages of Islamic discussion online. Furthermore, the characteristic of IS online is very flexible, through many platforms like webpages, blogs, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, messengers, Tumblers, telegram, dark web, and all platforms operate interconnectedly to publish their video, audio, periodically weekly journal, and many other publications. A recent video online that they published is a video on the battle on Mosul, to construct their own history. However, it is not all about IS, but there are other dimensions related to the Salafi/Wahabi-Jihadi nexus, a historically global dimension. IS also (re-)publishes, cites, re-brands, embeds ultra-conservative writings by contemporary and historical authors especially from Saudi Arabia for instance many writings by Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab seen as "actionable theology.” Operationalized applied practice based on theological parameters in IS videos is the starting point for developing its own brand of the theology of violence. By referring to the writings of Kamel Daoud entitled ‘Saudi Arabia, an ISIS That Has Made It’, Prof. Lohlker explains that IS was born from the mother which is the invasion of Iraq, and a father, Saudi Arabia with its religious-industrial complex. Until that point is understood, battles may be won, but the war will be lost. Jihadists will be killed, only to be reborn again in future generations and raised on the same books. The attacks in Paris have exposed this contradiction again, but as happened after 9/11, it risks being erased from our analyses and our consciences. IS came as a non-disrupted cycle with missionary operations reaching deep into global societies. Their objective is to replace local Sunni Islamic methodology, creed, and traditions with authoritative Wahhabi theology. IS is also backed by a lot of money and soft-power influence by financing Western academia, tight-knitted lobbyist financing, economic dependence, and being great customers for the weapons industries.