The self-styled Islamic State has killed thousands in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, and states and media outlets around the world continue to decry its brutal tactics, which include a penchant for public decapitations, the mass slaughter of unarmed prisoners, and the sexual enslavement of women and girls.
Still, if Western history is any guide, the Islamic State could well be on its way to global legitimacy.
History assures us that the commission of mass atrocities is no bar to future success. During the “reign of terror” that followed the French Revolution, France’s revolutionary government publicly beheaded an estimated 30,000-40,000 people — all in the name of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. In the early 1790s, at least 150,000 other unfortunate French citoyens were shot, burned to death, hacked to pieces, or deliberately drowned in France’s Vendée region. “I crushed the children under the feet of the horses,” French Gen. François Joseph Westermann is said to have written after one particularly brutal campaign. “[I] massacred the women who, at least for these, will not give birth to any more brigands…. I have exterminated all. The roads are sown with corpses.” Well, tant pis! “Mercy,” Westermann concluded, “is not a revolutionary sentiment.”
It doesn’t make for pleasant reading, but it was all so long ago. Today, France is a significant European power and major U.S. ally.
Too many years ago to count? Alright, consider Turkey. Between 1915 and 1918, Ottoman authorities killed more than a million Armenians in what pretty much everyone except the Turkish state now calls a genocide. But a hundred years have gone by, and today, Turkey’s a vital NATO ally.
Ancient history? Fast forward to the 1940s. The death toll from the Holocaust was some 11 million civilians, most of them Jews. But today, Germany is our bester Freund in the European Union. No worries, Angela Merkel, all is forgiven!
State formation — and the consolidation of power more generally — has always been a bloody business. Historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists know this well, but the rest of us tend to ignore it — or just edit it out of our history books. Still, pick a successful, “enlightened” modern nation state and embark on some historical excavations: It won’t take long before you start digging up bodies.
The Thirty Years’ War, which leveled large swaths of Europe and killed off nearly a third of the population in several regions, is often viewed by scholars as having given rise to the European nation state. In the four centuries since then, European state consolidation has killed off many millions more. “It is not by speeches and majority resolutions that the great questions of the time are decided … but by iron and blood,” Otto von Bismarck, the architect of German unification, observed in 1862.
As it happens, the United States was learning — or relearning — the same lesson, even as Bismarck gave his famous speech. Between 1861 and 1865, hundreds of thousands of Americans fought for the “right” to enslave almost 4 million other Americans, and hundreds of thousands died before the issue was resolved, leaving the U.S. central government more powerful than ever before.
And that’s just the West and just a few snapshots from the last few hundred years. Throw in the rest of the world, and it’s more of the same. Beheadings? Check. Torture? Check. Massacres of unarmed civilians? Check, check, check.
None of this excuses the present-day atrocities of the Islamic State or makes them any less horrifying, particularly in this era of nearly universal acknowledgment of basic human rights. But if we ignore the historical continuities between the current behavior of the Islamic State and the past behavior of dozens of other states we now consider exemplary global actors, we risk misunderstanding the logic behind the group’s seemingly senseless violence — and we risk increasing the odds that current U.S. efforts to end its reign of terror will fail.
For one thing, failing to see the Islamic State’s actions in a historical context allows us to sustain the comforting but false illusion that the Islamic State is just “insane” — or, as U.S. President Barack Obama put it in 2014, that it “has no vision other than … slaughter” and, in 2015, that “it can never possibly win [anyone] over by its ideas or its ideology — because it offers nothing.”
Don’t make the mistake of believing this. Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may be responsible for thousands of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but he’s no fool: As Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger note in their recent book on the Islamic State, his thinking has been greatly influenced by the work of Abu Bakr Naji, whose short book, The Management of Savagery, urged the calculated use of ritualized and well-publicized brutality as a means of sowing respect and fear among both enemies and supporters of radical Islam. Yes, the Islamic State is brutal, but it surely has a vision that goes well beyond slaughter — and notwithstanding Obama’s dismissive words, it’s a vision that has amply demonstrated its power to win over thousands of young recruits from around the globe.
It’s probably wise to assume that the leadership of the Islamic State understands the pitiless lessons of history. Time softens the edges of even the most brutal crimes: Let a few decades go by, and every atrocity can be forgiven by the international community. As Turkey demonstrates, you don’t even have to say you’re sorry (at any rate, you can wait 100 years to apologize, and halfhearted condolences are apparently fine).
The United States is particularly infamous for its short memory and its inability to take the long view: We’re a nation fixated on the “now” and increasingly incapable of developing or sustaining a consistent strategic vision that lasts for more than a few years. But I wouldn’t bet on the Islamic State being the same. Its leaders presumably understand perfectly well that their current level of brutality guarantees international enmity — but they may be gambling that if they can consolidate Islamic State control over enough oil fields, ports, and other sources of wealth, as well as scale down the atrocities, then they can sit back and wait for international forgiveness to follow.
If this is the logic behind the Islamic State’s current actions (and admittedly, that’s a big “if” — see below), the international community might be able to induce the Islamic State to abandon its more egregious forms of violence more quickly — through the simple expedient of leaving it alone.
So far, the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State appears to have achieved few positive results: Although U.S. officials say the campaign has killed more than 10,000 Islamic State fighters, intelligence sources have reportedly concluded that the Islamic State has not been fundamentally weakened. At best, we are probably prolonging the status quo. The U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State isn’t enough to defeat or destroy the jihadi group, but it’s certainly enough to increase the Islamic State’s enmity against the West. (In fact, there is some reason to believe that the military campaign has increased the Islamic State’s global reach and boosted its recruiting efforts.)
But if Islamic State leaders aspire to eventually form a “real” state, one acknowledged as such — however reluctantly — by other global powers, we might do better to shift to a containment strategy instead of continuing our current ineffectual attempts to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group.
Yes, this is a depressing thought — but if we stop bombing the Islamic State, perhaps it might tame itself faster than we can tame it. Or, less depressingly, perhaps the Islamic State leaders will find, like so many brutal regimes before them, that atrocities eventually generate internal disorder and rebellion.
Of course, maybe Baghdadi and his inner circle have no intention of ever scaling back the violence. Maybe they intend to continue their current level of brutality indefinitely — and maybe they have no interest in exercising permanent control over any physical territory.
And why should they? For much of human history, religion or blood loyalty was a more important political organizing principle than control of fixed territories (consider the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire), and recent geopolitical changes are once again making nonterritorial forms of allegiance, power, and control seem potentially viable. The Islamic State’s leaders may not care whether or not they’re eventually pushed out of Iraq or out of Syria, as long as they can gain new adherents — and new sources of wealth and power — in other places, even if those places are changing and noncontiguous. Indeed, Islamic State rhetoric suggests as much.
Regardless, recent events suggest that the Islamic State won’t necessarily need to abandon its brutal tactics in order to persist and gain legitimacy.
Consider the Taliban. From 1996 to 2001, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was isolated both diplomatically and economically; from 2001 to the present, the Taliban has been targeted for destruction by the U.S. military and intelligence communities. But though U.S. officials have long condemned Taliban brutality in much the same terms they now use to condemn the Islamic State, Washington is currently offering at least tacit support to negotiations with Taliban leaders. Continued rumors suggest that U.S. officials may in fact be participating directly in such negotiations.
From this, Islamic State leaders can draw the obvious conclusion: As everyone from Mao to Kissinger is said to have said, insurgents don’t need to “win” in order to succeed; they just need to not lose. Stick around long enough, like the Taliban, and it doesn’t much matter how brutal you are; eventually your opponents will tire of fighting, and they’ll either give up and leave, or give up and negotiate. If they opt for negotiations, they’ll satisfy their own need to save face by pretending to forget about all those atrocities, or by claiming to be focusing only on negotiations with “moderates” or “reconcilables.” (As far as I can tell, the definition of a “reconcilable” Taliban leader is “a Taliban leader with whom we feel the need to negotiate.”)
In other words: The Islamic State can keep right on beheading people, and if we can’t destroy the Islamic State, perhaps we’ll eventually tire of fighting them and decide to cut deals with them. And then, let a few decades pass, and presto! The Islamic State will have a seat at the U.N. — if the U.N. still exists — either as a new state or as a globally acknowledged non-state something or other, and all those terrible atrocities will be politely ignored.
Needless to say, although history suggests that the commission of horrific and widespread atrocities is no bar to entry into polite global society, history also suggests that nothing is inevitable. Plenty of brutal insurgencies and regimes have lived to see their crimes whitewashed and forgotten, but plenty of others have gone down in flames.
When it comes to predicting the future of the Islamic State, there are lots of wild cards. The 24/7 global media environment is quite new, and it’s impossible to say how this — or the universalization of human rights — will affect the Islamic State’s longer-term ability to sustain itself or the international community’s determination to defeat the group. State sovereignty is changing in complex ways, and it’s hard to know what forms global, political, and military power will take 10, 20, or 50 years from now. Elections in the United States may change American military dynamics; China or Russia or any of a dozen other states could decide to cut deals of their own with the Islamic State. Finally, the group remains relatively opaque to outsiders; internal dynamics could also alter its trajectory.
Even so: If I were a bookie, I’d put long odds on the Islamic State being defeated by the United States. The White House can issue as many statements as it wants claiming to have “made considerable progress in our effort to degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, but I suspect the group will still be going strong five or 10 years from now. (I’m less sure about that seat at the U.N., but give it a few more decades; you never know.)
I hope I’m wrong.
Photo illustration by FP