ISIS is driven by a fringe Muslim theology featuring conspiracy theories about UFOs, the Antichrist and the Jews. And the breakdown of the Caliphate won't stop its indiscriminate violence
When probing the shocking violence perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State, many commentators have pointed out that the foreign fighters flocking to Syria seem to lack all serious religiosity and claimed that ISIS's connection to Islam is tenuous or non-existent.
Many of the group's recruits may indeed be young losers who seek some kind of absurd meaning in war and death, as pointed out by French scholar Olivier Roy. But it is a mistake to see ISIS itself as divorced from religion. An important element in the groups' violent world view is a fringe, apocalyptic theology, fueled by the instability and change that are convulsing the Middle East.
In 2014 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of the Caliphate with himself as Caliph, i.e. political and religious leader to the Muslims of the world. This is part of the inspiration for people who have travelled to Syria since then. Where Osama bin Laden touted an anti-imperialist and primarily political message, and used language meant to unite Muslims in a long war against the U.S. and its allies (mainly secular Arab leaderships), ISIS has focused on the war in Syria as the beginning of the end of time.
The 2014 Declaration provides us with an insight into this worldview. The self-proclaimed Caliph said that the Muslims will prevail in the final battle and rule the world until the Hour of Judgment. The same idea about religious war is also present in social media and in magazines published by ISIS, like Dabiq and Rumiyah, both of which are named after places with particular significance in the apocalyptic visions.
An important element in this worldview, then, is an eschatology (i.e. a teaching about the end of the world and the destiny of mankind) which is apocalyptic. This worldview is presented in the 2015 book “The ISIS Apocalypse” by William McCants.
In our view, it is not really possible to understand these Islamic visions of the end of time and of the destiny of mankind without placing them in the wider context of Jewish and Christian eschatology. Throughout history the three Abrahamic religions have shared concepts about God and time. For instance, the Prophet Jesus is a key figure in the apocalyptic tradition of Islam.
But in addition to the deep historical links, contemporary Muslim apocalypticism is directly influenced by modern Western religious traditions.
As a result, some authors attempt to interpret contemporary political events or actors in the light of diverse and perhaps unexpected sources, like the Apocalypse of John and UFO-religion. For example, a 1992 book in this genre showed how the Antichrist and his Jewish servants were about to conquer the world using the Bermuda triangle as their home base.
Some later writers have developed these conspiratorial and pseudo-scientific themes, and the Antichrist and the Jews are often popular subjects. This literature is discussed by the American scholar David Cook in his “Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature.”
There is a large dose of conspiracy theory mixed into Muslim apocalypticism and many of the most important writers have adopted anti-Semitic ideas wholesale from Western sources, like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Although the readership and reception of this literature is hard to measure, it seems that the Arab world has seen an increase in the volume of apocalyptic literature since the 1990s. ISIS clearly taps into this genre in some of its publications.
To ISIS, the meaning of history is obvious, because the movement has a closed religious worldview where everything that happens can be interpreted a sign of the end times and confirmations of prophecies.
We humans live between two events of enormous religious significance: Revelation and Judgment. The day of judgment will come soon. Its realness cannot be debated. The big question is what to do in the time between these two events, and what role one should play in this drama as a human being.
ISIS' answer is that a good Muslim sacrifices his or her life to the Caliphate not simply because it is an ideal religious state, but because the world needs to be prepared for the last days. The establishment of the Caliphate is an element in the sequence of events leading to Judgment Day. The Caliphate, in its unrelenting strictness, is a mechanism that prepares the world for Judgment. Under the Caliphate, the “hypocrisy” of human power is proven to be false, as the Caliphate exercises only the word of God.
But the Caliphate itself is not the ultimate prize. Its subjects learn to rid themselves of the pretension that they are in charge of their own ultimate destiny. When Judgment Day arrives, they will be truly prepared to accept their punishment or reward.
Many scholars agree that apocalyptic movements tend to arise in periods of insecurity and rapid change. These movements have appeared numerous times among Muslims, Christians and Jews. Sometimes they have been revolutionary and violent, but many of them have, rather, worked to isolate themselves against what they see as an ungodly society.
The French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu claimed in 2008 (“Apocalypse in Islam”) that new forms of apocalypticism are spreading in the Middle East in response to violent political upheavals. Filiu points to Muslim kitsch literature in Arabic where Christian fantasies about the end of the world are woven together with contemporary political events. The 9/11 attacks were often discussed in such terms while the breakdown of Iraq and Syria, with unfathomable human suffering, has created fertile ground for theological fantasies about the end of times.
There is reason to assume that modern apocalypticism spreads in some Muslim diasporic milieus in the West as well. Ideas and expectations about the end times can be nourished by a sense of exclusion and humiliation. We suggest that the more unrooted and excluded a religious or national minority feels in a new homeland, the more vulnerable the members will be to apocalyptic narratives, which can promise comfort with stories of a glorious past and future deliverance.
But the end of the world has not arrived, even if visions of the end time are visibly present in contemporary popular culture and religion. The would-be Caliphate is about to be destroyed by superior military power. We could note that the arch-enemy of ISIS – Iran and its Shia militias – have their own apocalyptic and messianic traditions, which are being activated in today's conflict. So does the breakdown of ISIS as a proto-state mean an end to the apocalyptic fantasies of its members? This is, most likely, not the case.
We do not know all that much about how Muslims react, as individuals or groups, when apocalyptic predictions fail. However, modern Christian apocalyptic groups are the subject of a lively research field.
In 1956 the psychologist Leon Festinger wrote “When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World.” It was about the reactions of members of an apocalyptic group in the U.S. when the end of the world failed to materialize.
The book tried to explain why apocalyptic movements do not fade away when their predictions are proved wrong by facts. In fact, many apocalyptic groups become more convinced about their cause and more zealous in their mission to convince others when doomsday eludes them.
It is hard to speculate about the future of ISIS, and the similarities with Christian groups have obvious limitations, but if we are to trust psychological research there is no inherent reason to expect ISIS zeal to abate, or their motivation to use indiscriminate violence to diminish, simply because their religious hopes for the end of the world are disappointed.
It is significant that modern apocalypticism in Islam is constituted, by and large, by religious fantasies created and consumed by lay people, as is the case among American charismatic Christians, where the genre has its roots. Mainstream Sunni Islam, as it is communicated by leaders trained in traditional schools of learning, has less patience for these fantasies and is generally very skeptical about applying this kind of religiosity in politics.
But we are living in times of great turmoil and insecurity, not least in the Middle East. Contemporary visions of the end times, blended with dangerous conspiracy theories, are destructive to society, whether in the Middle East or in the West. Religious leaders – whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish – need to unequivocally reject such apocalyptic narratives and the fringe ideologies that tap into them.