A life on the surface

How to give an account of ISIS? Faisal Devji argues that it is through the movement’s superficiality, rather than any hidden depth, that it can be best understood

Our accounts of ISIS, and in particular the brutality of its practices, tend to be structured as efforts to plumb the movement’s depths. These efforts can be defined historically, when we trace its militancy to recent or far-off events like the invasion of Iraq or the Ottoman Empire’s defeat and dismemberment after the First World War. They may also be described sociologically, by looking at the age, class and social prospects of ISIS supporters. And most commonly, of course, this search for hidden depths is conducted as an inquiry into militant ideology, which in some cases can reach back as far as the founding of Islam. Yet what if it isn’t depth but surface that proves the more important factor in understanding ISIS?

Certainly the unparalleled rapidity of its fighters’ radicalisation, especially when it occurs in largely stable personal and social backgrounds, and outside the Middle East, seems to give the lie to sociological narratives about ISIS, whose militants appear to fit no social profile. The equally rapid reversion of some among these radicals to non-militant forms of belief, the unprecedented number of converts to Islam who are involved, and the ignorance of Muslim tradition and theology among many fighters (illustrated by the two British men who purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies on Amazon before setting off to fight in Syria) also appear to cast doubt on accounts relying upon the historical and ideological depth of such militancy.

To focus on surface rather than depth in understanding ISIS is not to suggest that it is superficial. Instead, the brutal rhetoric and practices of its militants can only occur as the detached and impersonal fulfillment of a purely external duty. This is why their propaganda films depart from the impassioned denunciations of earlier terrorists, to showcase figures unperturbed and even laughing at the violence they unleash – and from which they appear to be entirely disconnected. ISIS is in fact dominated by a hatred of all historical, sociological and ideological depth, which is what justifies its destruction not only of pre-Islamic monuments, but also of all “traditional”, “heretical” or “infidel” sites and those associated with them.  

Tankaut 15_53ISIS’ online magazine, Dabiq, is “full of the most quotidian and even anodyne stories about the opening of schools or regulation of trade in the marketplace”, as well as further evidence of their much-publicised brutality.

But even more important is their destruction of the militant’s own inner life, and the attempt to create a subject who lives on the surface as a transparent being – one who therefore doesn’t bother to conceal even his most brutal acts. While this might seem an extreme attitude, I would like to suggest that it proceeds from rather banal forms of reasoning. An example is the accusation of double standards that has become a mainstay not only of militant reasoning, but of that of many others, whether Muslim or not. The double standards of the West in upholding freedom, democracy and human rights, then, is seen as a crime so heinous as to render any analysis, let alone criticism of the principles it betrays irrelevant.

In other words, it is not the content of the West’s principles that is put in question, or even seriously considered in such accusations, but simply its hypocrisy that inspires horror by revealing the existence of hidden depths. It is possible to conceive of a situation in which the West’s critics are satisfied with the genuine universalisation of its principles, which amounts to a curiously old-fashioned demand for sincerity. But the contrary is also true, that one can set up one’s own principles and strive to live sincerely by them. Yet even here the content of these principles, say those of the sacred law, is not as important as the absence of hypocrisy in living by them. In both cases it is a life lived on the surface that takes precedence.

Our impulse to look for the secret wellsprings of ISIS violence itself constitutes a rhetorical gesture, in which such acts of terror are seen as possessing a certain kind of authenticity and so a deep existential truth, whether of a sociological, historical or ideological kind. But this way of thinking about violence is a relatively recent and even literary one, as the critic Lionel Trilling made clear in his book Sincerity and Authenticity (1971). Authenticity, Trilling argued, was a category that emerged in the second half of the 19th century, to name an existential truth coming from deep within society to break its moral, aesthetic or political norms. This is what allowed the criminal to become a literary subject, with Trilling identifying Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as its most extreme example.

Sincerity, on the other hand, had become an important moral category in the 17th century, naming the overwhelming and sometimes even violent desire to bring one’s inner life into harmony with its outward norms or surface appearance. Of this Trilling offers Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther as a remarkably popular illustration, in which the hero’s failure to live sincerely leads to his suicide. Even if only by way of analogy, then, it should be clear that militant narratives, with their sacrificial imperative to have one’s life conform to a vision of the sacred law seen as a set of outward observances, are far more congruent with sincerity and its focus on the surface than with authenticity and its language of depth.  

Tankaut 15_54.1Left: Dabiq, issue 10, page 49. 'Zakah' refers to alms. Right: Dabiq, issue 7, page 40

Truth in the mirror

What I am calling militancy’s life on the surface doesn’t define ISIS alone. For al-Qaeda’s distinctiveness was also of an entirely surface kind, residing in the deliberately archaic locution, visible appearance and ritual violence of its representatives. And of this it was fully conscious, for the movement disclaimed any other kind of originality, arguing that all it was doing was holding the mirror up to the actions of Islam’s enemies. This claim was made so obsessively that Osama bin Laden argued that he got the idea to bring down the World Trade Center’s twin towers when he saw televised images of the Israeli air force destroying high-rise buildings in Beirut during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.1

Whatever scriptural sanction was sought for al-Qaeda’s acts, these were justified as reflections of those practiced by the West – which was therefore the true agent of both. This mirroring was evident in the rhetorical move by which militants stated, “We kill your civilians, women, children and elderly, as you do ours.” Interesting about this logic is the way in which it signalled al-Qaeda’s attempt not only to resign all responsibility and therefore sovereignty to its enemies, but in the process also to deprive itself of any alternative reality. In fact, bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, claimed to be on terms of the utmost familiarity with the world and vision of their enemies, quite unlike these latter, for whom al-Qaeda remained opaque, exotic and wholly different.

The enemy’s transparency, it should be noted, was not simply illustrated by his manifestly evil intentions, for al-Qaeda also enjoyed another kind of intimacy with him. This had to do with the virtues of the West, including its wealth, technology and scientific prowess, all of which al-Qaeda felt free to claim as part of an originally Islamic inheritance, one these enemies had not only plundered but also deprived Muslims from developing – principally by effecting their political and, more importantly, intellectual colonisation.2 This piece of apologetic reasoning goes back to the 19th century, when it was commonly deployed by Hindus and Buddhists as much as Muslims, to account for European power while at the same time learning from or sharing in it.

Important about these narratives of intimacy with the enemy is that they require one to claim or recover one’s own self from him. But this process is politically as ambiguous as it is morally, so that such a recovery can be about amity with the West, as it was among many Muslim modernisers from the 19th century, or about enmity with it. For al-Qaeda, then, the problem posed by such intimacy was that it didn’t permit militancy to possess a reality of its own. Indeed the only distinction it claimed for itself was that of sacrifice, which was why the suicide bomber became the movement’s icon. Seen as an act that represented the one exception to its logic of mirroring, or rather that broke through this mirror, suicide bombing constituted al-Qaeda’s only claim to sovereignty.

Of course suicide bombing was also an act of negation and disappearance, and so while it might exit the logic of mirroring, was hardly capable of creating a reality alternative to that of the West. Not that al-Qaeda was particularly keen on this, given its steadfast refusal to claim the caliphate or even establish a state. Whether or not it was for strategic reasons, Osama bin Laden had never countenanced the setting up of an Islamic state, and broke with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who would inspire the founding of ISIS, at least in part because he tried to do so. Zawahiri’s response to the latter’s declaration of a caliphate also scorned the setting up of an Islamic utopia which Muslims around the world would then be invited to defend. Instead he called for the global dispersal of Muslim militancy, particularly outside the Middle East, as if to emphasise its non-territorial and unfixed character.3

By trying to localise its war with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US and its coalition partners had sought to render it a traditional military conflict. And the emergence of ISIS in the Levant might signal this strategy’s paradoxical success. For in addition to localising its struggle by declaring a caliphate, the Islamic State has also curtailed al-Qaeda’s rhetoric of mirrors. This now survives in fragments, when ISIS victims are dressed in the orange overalls that comprise the uniform of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. Or when one such prisoner, the American journalist Jim Foley, was subjected to waterboarding before being beheaded in 2014. This was an act performed in imitation of what the U.S. does to terrorist suspects, since ISIS sought to extract no information from Foley by waterboarding him.

But does the Islamic State’s rejection of al-Qaeda and declaration of a caliphate indicate its return to conventional forms of Muslim politics? These had characterised the fundamentalist (or Islamist, as they are now known) movements that emerged between the 1920s and 1970s, and particularly during the Cold War years. Whether represented by the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East or the Jamat-e Islami in the Indian subcontinent, such groups had been dedicated to setting up Islamic versions of the kind of ideological states then popular around the world. Like its communist and fascist peers, the states envisioned by fundamentalists were ideological in that they were highly rational systems for the production of values such as justice, all of which were to be elucidated through the sacred law.

Because fundamentalism was motivated by the desire to limit or roll back the power of profane rulers, and the colonial or secular state in particular, it was, with a few exceptions, unable to conceptualise sovereignty as a power whose reach extended beyond the law. Iran is the only Islamic polity whose leader is permitted to override and even abrogate the sacred law for the strictly political reason of expediency. By reserving it for God, fundamentalists of the Sunni persuasion refused to recognise sovereignty either of the popular kind, one that could found or change the law, or as that manifested in the power of kings and dictators. Its engagement with politics thus tended to be contradictory and opportunistic, because while inevitably engaged with sovereign power, fundamentalism was unable to institutionalise it.

Apart from its hostility to fundamentalist groups like Hamas and the Taliban, ISIS also rejects their ideological interpretation of the sacred law. Like al-Qaeda, the Islamic State does not explain the purpose of law systematically, as fundamentalists do, by arguing that it is best equipped to institute economic equality or social justice. Instead the law must be applied and obeyed just because it exists, and not by any process of rationalisation. Similarly, while fundamentalists located their ideal society in the Prophet’s rule over Medina, by declaring a caliphate or successor to Muhammad’s state, ISIS situates itself in the period after his death. It therefore possesses no utopia embodied in some imagined past, and while ranging through Islamic history for legal precedents is curiously devoid of narrative content. 

Tankaut 15_54.2Dabiq issue 8, page 28. 'Shirk' refers to idolatory or polytheism; Dabiq issue 8, page 29

Holding hypocrisy at bay

The Islamic State’s obsession with transparency, visibility and sincerity demonstrates a fear of all that is secret, hidden and profound. Remarkable about the ISIS lexicon of blame, for instance, is that it is dominated by sins like hypocrisy, dissimulation and even sorcery, all examples of hiddenness. Yet such an anxiety about depth is no longer part of al-Qaeda’s problem, that of identifying the militant’s sovereignty in a situation where it is difficult to tell the difference between him and the enemy. So in an address from September 2014, called “Indeed your Lord is ever watchful”, the Islamic State’s chief propagandist Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani ash-Shami describes his Western enemies in the following way:

They dispute by using sorcery, falsifying events, altering realities and duping people. They deceive, incite, mobilise and amass against the people of truth. They display the people of falsehood in every guise of strength, ability, force and fierceness, in desperate and failed attempts to invalidate the truth, scare its followers and defeat them.4 

His description of the Shia “heretics” (rafidah) deploys the same reasoning. Indeed the Shia, who, because of their esoteric forms of religion, have traditionally been accused of dissembling in Sunni polemics, simply represent hypocrisy’s purest form and are not otherwise distinguished from the Islamic State’s other enemies:  

O Sunnis of Iraq, the time has come for you to learn from the lessons of the past, and to learn that nothing will work with the rāfidah other than slicing their throats and striking their necks. They make themselves out to be helpless so that they can take power, they conceal their hatred, enmity and rage towards Sunnis, they plot and conspire against them, and they trick and deceive them. They display false affection towards them and flatter them as long as Sunnis are strong.5 

Naturally the deception identified in the enemy can also be found in oneself, which is why it might need to be so ferociously externalised. So Adnani warns the Islamic State’s troops: 

Thereafter know that a trial, sifting and selection are necessary between one period and another, for some people have entered your ranks who are not of you and are only claimants. And thus some disorder has occurred. So it has become necessary for a trial to come, expel the filth and purify the ranks.6 

There is something puzzling about the fact that an apparently minor vice like hypocrisy should become the Islamic State’s chief object of fear. The hypocrite (munafiq) was of course an important figure in the Quran, serving as the name for those who only pretended to follow Muhammad. But even there – to say nothing about later Muslim texts and societies – he by no means represented Islam’s greatest enemy. In Europe’s more recent history, however, and for apparently the first time, hypocrisy did become a significant political category. This happened during the French Revolution, though as Trilling points out, hypocrisy had been seen as a threat to the operation of sincerity in Europe for over a century before.

In her book On Revolution (1977), the philosopher Hannah Arendt writes about how men like Robespierre sought to unmask the hidden motives of those he considered France’s enemies.8 This he did to destroy the hypocrisy, now increasingly secretive, upon which the old regime’s decadent and corrupt society had been founded. In her consideration of hypocrisy’s 20th-century afterlife, Arendt went on to argue that in fascist and communist states its unmasking took on a teleological character, where the race or class enemy appeared according to the logic of history and had to be periodically unmasked. She suggests that show trials and forced confessions in these states were used by those who held power not simply to dispose of defeated rivals, but because such unmasking was required and so legitimised by the laws of history.

Given its rejection of history and ideology, it seems unlikely that the Islamic State’s anxiety about hypocrisy and its desire for sincerity can be identified with any of the cases Arendt considered. Instead its obsession with transparency and will to live entirely on the surface is manifested in ISIS by the requirement that all action must be rendered visible as law – itself conceived in an unsystematic and merely arithmetical rather than ideological way. Unlike al-Qaeda, then, which didn’t have to justify its acts legally if they were simply mirroring those of an enemy, ISIS has to give all its practices the name of law. This includes even those bizarre forms of murder, such as throwing people off buildings, setting them alight or drowning them, for which it is difficult to find textual or traditional justification.

The absent sovereign

Now the sovereignty of the state, like that of the Deity upon which it is modeled, cannot be constrained by the law it is responsible for founding or protecting. According to the jurist Carl Schmitt, then, sovereignty is a theological category because while being lawful it nevertheless transcends the law, exemplified by the sovereign’s paradoxical right to suspend it in exceptional circumstances.7 In the American case such transcendent power resides in the president’s right to launch nuclear weapons without consultation (the famous red button), or to suspend legal process in places like Guantanamo Bay. More common is the open secret by which such acts are known, as illustrated in the routine of extra-legal practices of the police, army or intelligence services.8

By exposing even their most brutal acts to public scrutiny, ISIS not only means them to inspire fear or attract recruits, but in addition, to refuse the open secret of sovereign power. Indeed the Islamic State seems to lack the kind of extra-legal force that defines sovereignty as a form of transcendence – traditionally characterising mystics and messiahs as much as kings. So its most horrific acts are performed, at least on film, smilingly and without any recognition of their exceptionality. Even al-Qaeda, in this respect following its terrorist predecessors, used to accompany its violence with expressions of regret, justifying them as an unfortunate necessity. But the way in which ISIS conducts itself demonstrates that by subordinating all action to the law, it is unable to behave in a sovereign or transcendent manner. The suicide bomber is no longer its iconic representative.

If ISIS has no sense of political transcendence, it curiously doesn’t possess one of a religious kind either. Its caliph is not endowed with any special power or charisma, while even the apocalyptic visions for which the Islamic State is known appear to be of a banal and ritualistic kind. So its online magazine, Dabiq, named for the Syrian town in which the messiah is meant to appear, is full of the most quotidian and even anodyne stories about the opening of schools or regulation of trade in the marketplace. Here, too, the language of the law triumphs over any belief or practice that would serve as a form of exception to it, with apocalypse providing the only way to imagine sovereignty as a kind of transcendence – but only as one that is yet to come.

If there is a genuinely apocalyptic element in the Islamic State’s rhetoric, it has to do with the caliphate conceived of as Islam’s last stand. By announcing the institution’s reappearance, something no other Islamic movement had done since its abolition by Turkey in 1924, the Islamic State in the same movement resigned its own room for manoeuvre as well. Once it falls, therefore, the caliphate should never rise again, since all attempts to institute it subsequently would have to account for its ISIS version. In this way the movement seems deliberately to be claiming Islamic categories in such a way as to either institute them in the form it prefers, or be destroyed forever. The Islamic State may thus represent a point of no return for Muslim militancy in general, which could also explain the sheer brutality of its violence – upon which it would be difficult for any successor to improve.

The apocalypse, in other words, is in some sense peculiar to Islam, with ISIS propagandists drawing upon a theme made popular in the early 20th century, when Muslims were warned that if they didn’t remain true to the faith God would reject them for their enemies – at that time Europe’s colonial powers. As we have seen, such relations with the enemy were politically ambiguous, so this threat was deployed both by those who urged Muslims to draw closer to the West, as well as by those who counseled the opposite. Here is how the ISIS spokesman Adnani describes this last stand, in the now familiar vocabulary of anxiety about the threat of deception, and the corresponding desire (expressed by a quotation from the Quran) for truth made visible so that life can be lived on the surface: 

O soldiers of the Islamic State, be ready for the final campaign of the crusaders. Yes, by Allah’s will, it will be the final one. Thereafter, we will raid them by Allah’s permission and they will not raid us. Be ready, for by Allah’s permission you are befitting for it. The crusaders have returned with a new campaign. They have come so that the dust clears, the fog disappears and the masks fall, and thereby the hoax of falsehood is exposed and the truth becomes clearly visible, {That those who perished [through disbelief] would perish upon evidence and those who lived [in faith] would live upon evidence} [Al-Anfāl: 42].9 

Arendt argued that in its 20th-century forms, forced confessions and show trials, the politics of sincerity had sought to unmask hypocrisy in a mechanical way. That is to say, hypocrites needed to be unmasked in order to fulfill the laws of history, which meant that ideology in communist and fascist states worked as a kind of infernal machine, requiring the periodic revelation of treachery for its justification. Of course liberal democracies, too, rely upon the periodic occurrence of scandals that serve to correct and so legitimise them. Such revelations, however, are personal in nature and made by the private media, with the secrets exposed those of financial or sexual impropriety. It is this that makes liberal hypocrisy what the philosopher Judith Shklar called an ordinary vice.10

In the case of ISIS, unmasking hypocrisy is no longer crucial, since its supporters already know who these sectarian, religious and other enemies are, and so need only guard against their own susceptibility to being deceived by them. By destroying these enemies, then, they are in some sense rhetorically externalising and eliminating their own inner selves in the effort to live entirely on the surface – not least in the ability to endure their own violence without any apparent effect.

And this requires that all their actions must be rendered visible in the form of law, even those whose brutality was earlier seen as breaking all legal convention. It is not the laws of history, then, that make ISIS rhetoric into an infernal machine, but the attempt to bring all action under the authority of law, by searching out the hypocrisy that would conceal any extra-legal desire.  
Tank _isisAssassin’s Creed: Revelations

In some ways it is as if the militant subject has been reduced to the virtual self in video games like “Assassin’s Creed”, itself gesturing towards a medieval Muslim history and, perhaps not accidentally, popular among some of the Islamic State’s followers. Like ISIS propaganda, “Assassin’s Creed” is also filled with apocalyptic references that gesture to a sovereignty and transcendence yet to come.

The video game’s virtual player, of course, is placed within a received narrative where all enemies and obstacles are known, and his task is to surmount and defeat them only by the use of skill. More interesting than its virtual reality, however, is the possibility that this militant figure is meant to instantiate the legal subject, hitherto simply an abstraction or mask – a persona, as Arendt would say.11

On the one hand, ISIS is dominated by the desire to destroy all religious, institutional and other forms of mediation between the believer and God as a figure of sovereignty and transcendence. Thus the now familiar gesture used by its fighters, who point to the skies as if to justify their acts by direct reference to the Deity. Or the suitably archaic-looking image of the Prophet’s seal that is impressed upon the ISIS flag, as if Muhammad had himself validated its followers. But on the other hand this transcendent power is made to disappear within the law. Eliminating sovereignty in this way, by repeatedly absorbing and making it visible within the law, can even be said to represent the Islamic State’s principle of movement – by which the law devours everything including its own limits and therefore its very possibility. §


[1] “God knows it did not cross our minds to attack the towers”, The Guardian, Oct. 30, 2004

[2] See for example “Selected questions and answers from Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri – part 2 released on: April 17, 2008”, The Nefa Foundation, p.8

[3] See for example “Al-Qaeda disavows any ties with radical Islamist ISIS group in Syria, Iraq”, The Washington Post, Feb. 3, 2014

[4, 5, 6] Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani ash-Shami, “Indeed your Lord is ever watchful”, worldanalysis.net

[7] See especially Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (2006)

[8] See Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (2012)

[9] Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani ash-Shami, “Indeed your Lord is ever watchful”

[10] Judith N. Shklar, Ordinary Vices (1985)

[11] Arendt thought that figures like Robespierre and his communist or fascist successors wanted to destroy the persona and expose the inner depths of life to public view, an impossible desire that would end by eliminating its subject. My argument is that ISIS wants to destroy this depth altogether and reduce the subject to its mask or legal persona.


Leah Beeferman, Strong force (chromodynamics 5), 2013. Courtesy of the artist

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