Best Defense

A view from Pakistan: ISIS and the U.S. look the same to me, both thinking they enjoy a form of divine exceptionalism

By Faqir Hamim Masoom Best Defense guest columnist The U.S. military response to the ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) threat may have just as much to do with sanctity and God as the terror group’s aim of Muslim revivalism through establishing a global caliphate. From where I sit, in Pakistan, ISIS’s staunch ...

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By Faqir Hamim Masoom

Best Defense guest columnist

The U.S. military response to the ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) threat may have just as much to do with sanctity and God as the terror group’s aim of Muslim revivalism through establishing a global caliphate.

From where I sit, in Pakistan, ISIS’s staunch anti-Western and sectarian ideology can be seen as a direct response to America’s long-standing religious wars in the region. Convoys of white pick-up trucks, masked gunmen and knife-wielding born-again Muslims have all become synonymous with the glaring black-and-white flag. ISIS’s marauding conquest has left behind a trail of murder, massacre, and ethnic cleansing. All seem to be compatible with the group’s extremist interpretation of Islamic principles.

Though ISIS’s views are shared by only a few beleaguered zealots, all Muslims agree with the Arabic scripture on the ISIS’s flag — it is simply the first part of a ubiquitous statement of Shahada (or faith) that we all revere. But note that the flag contextualizes the group’s claim that it exists as a direct manifestation of "Allah’s will." In other words, if you disagree with them, you are contesting not just them but Allah. 

And what about the Americans? President Obama has launched a military response to a political problem. And he has characterized that impetuous response an "enduring burden" that results from "endless blessings" bestowed upon America. In doing so, he has highlighted the role of religious discourse in the continuation of American foreign policy’s hegemonic posture.

Moral behavior is still highly associated with religious belief and participation among the U.S. population. Over 90 percent of Americans profess their belief in God. Thus, actions to liberate or protect foreign populations from despotic forces tend to be framed in terms of religion. Theocentric arguments make American foreign policy more palatable to the people. And so in every war the people are lead into, God seems to be on America’s side.

But remember that ISIS holds very similar religious convictions. This makes compromise impossible, and a prolonged fight inevitable. In seeking to validate U.S. action against ISIS, Obama stated, "America is better positioned today to seize the future than any other nation on earth." Such claims of divine righteousness lead to a need to enhance military capacity as the keystone of American foreign policy. Exceptionalism clears out everything in its path. Plausible alternatives, strategic wisdom and simply careful judgment are all clouded by the divine right of the collective American endeavor, favored by God and so confident of its exceptional role in the world. 

Seen this way, the shared value of "liberty for all" becomes the power base for U.S. foreign policy. And in just the same way, the highly conservative societies of the Middle East perceive Western liberal values as an insulting infringement on their cultural and religious identity. ISIS’s volatile nature, amassing transnational allegiance, can be seen as a direct response to the external threat of exported liberty. Both sides are attempting to draw a line between "us and them," between internal righteousness and extreme external immorality.

High levels of religiosity have constructed America’s destiny, obligating it to play a distinct role in the global arena. America’s repeated engagements in Iraq and more recently Syria have favored and bolstered one sectarian faction over the other. The United States has done this in a region where sectarian fault lines long have threatened societal stability.  Influenced by what it sees as moral obligations to intervene, America has waged religious wars in the Middle East that further aggravated sectarian divides. This in turn motivated armed militant groups to lead a campaign of cleansing of faith. For example, ISIS has constructed a dual religious extremist agenda: denouncing Western influence in the region and enhancing its sectarian supremacy through ethnic cleansing.

America’s self-perception of mission and ISIS’s extremist principles are both about preserving their respective identities. Religious connotations assist in legitimizing a cause and course of action. Resorting to the same brand of chest thumping, both sides are ready to die for what they believe to be an incontrovertible divine right.

Faqir Hamim Masoom recently completed his master’s degree in international relations at the National Defence University (NDU) in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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