It's inherent in group psychology that in proportion to the weaknesses of social and sociological legitimacy, mystifications, symbols and metaphysical references are needed to hold a group together. Again, the more irrational the pursued political goal of the group, the more emphasis is laid on metaphysical references. We might add another dimension to this: The more despicable the methods of a group in the eyes of ordinary people, the greater the need to cling to metaphysical symbols and discourses.
The illegitimacy of the methods employed and social and political goals pursued by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have a quite strong effect on its rough usage of such symbols and values as "Islamic state," "caliphate," "Allah" and "Muhammad," which are sacred for more than a billion Muslims. They probably think their barbarity can be covered only with such a thick veneer. So, the degree of emphasis they are laying on sacred values, in a sense, can give a direct indication of the degree of their barbarity.
That ISIS treats not only Christians, Yazidis, and Shiites but also Sunnis with the same barbarity and inhumanity attests to the fact that it just doesn't have a political goal like the one expressed in its discourse. The ongoing use of Islamic references to cover such barbarity can indicate that its political goal is not an Islamic state or caliphate. It's a very attractive and destructive combination in which blind faith and barbarity become resonant.
This attraction allows the group to feed on two different sources of radicalism. Those groups that cannot generate a rational method of struggle against Western hegemony can easily fall for such popular ideologies. On the other hand, for those Muslim youths in the West who cannot adapt to the society they live in, who can express themselves more through violence upon exclusion and who become radicalized and nurture hate for the Western society they live in, such groups provide an opportunity for self-definition and give meaning to their lives.
Equally clear is that it also serves those refined Islamophobic efforts to shift every kind of responsibility onto Muslims without questioning themselves. For those elements in the Middle East not wanting democracy, probably there has never been another group that provided a better alibi than ISIS has. Egypt's top religious authority, Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam, condemned ISIS by saying, "An extremist and bloody group such as this poses a danger to Islam and Muslims, tarnishing its image as well as shedding blood and spreading corruption." However, since this statement reflects more of the "what would Westerners think about us?" worry, it cannot gladden hearts. For, in the presence of issues such as the analysis of the emergence of a structure like ISIS that continuously commits "crimes against humanity," analysis of its behavioral modalities and political goals and of what kind of effects its emergence has created in the Middle East, it is likely that the problem of image in the eyes of Westerns takes a back seat.
However, for a religious authority like al-Azhar, which legitimized the military coup in Egypt, to concern itself with these questions may disturb the peace. After all, all the radical elements that have gained a place in the Middle East proliferate in the quagmire created by dictatorship, pro-coup mindsets, Baathism, patrimonialism and Western hegemony that see no harm in allying with all of these. The structures that proliferate in this quagmire are shaped by irrationality, blind faith and a loser psychology can only use Islam. But their being structurally irrational allows them to be used by other elements in turn.
If they don't build democracy in this region, neither the West nor Egypt nor Islamic society as a whole has the right to complain about it. The legitimacy gaps of power groups that emerge in undemocratic countries are never bridged. Unless it is bridged, the outcome doesn't change. When ISIS is in question, it's good to stay away from conformism.
About the author
Osman Can is a Law Professor and Reporting Judge at the Turkish Constitutional Court. He holds a PhD from the University of Cologne, Germany.