Why the Islamic State is attractive to recruits

Article published in Secular World, Second Quarter 2015 (Atheist Alliance International)

Many people, including Islamic apologists, express doubt as to whether the behavior and methods of the Islamic State are a true reflection of Islamic doctrine. They suggest that the violence and repression of IS are merely an extremist interpretation, an aberration of the true 'religion of peace'. They are mistaken. The Islamic State is attractive to recruits for the very reason that it is authentic to the history and doctrines of Islam. It represents a historic revival of the military campaigns that first established the religion.

Islam was established and spread by the sword in the 7th century by the Prophet Muhammad. That is why the Islamic State and Saudi Arabia have a sword on their flags. After his exile from Mecca to Medina, the Prophet launched an insurrection, attacking and robbing the Meccan caravans. After a series of battles, he triumphantly conquered Mecca, and thereafter all of Arabia, forcing all to convert to Islam.

Muslims have a disingenuous attitude to this part of their history. Rather than a self-serving aggressor and warlord, they publicly portray their founder as a paragon of virtue, a selfless individual who unwillingly was forced to do his best to serve Allah. From Islamic historical sources, however, we can see Muhammad in an entirely different light. The earliest biography, by Ibn Ishaq, was written more than a hundred years after Muhammad's death, but nevertheless is very detailed. It depicts Muhammad as ruthless and violent.

The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics describes Muhammad's depiction as 'exceedingly unfavourable'. As well as being expedient and unscrupulous, "He organizes assassinations and wholesale massacres. His career as tyrant of Medina is that of a robber chief, whose political economy consists in securing and dividing plunder."

Beheading is mandated in the Koran as a punishment for infidels. It is also no coincidence that the Islamic State, and others, engage in mass beheading, since the Prophet himself did just that. The unflattering nature of Muhammad's biography tends to add to its credibility; however its authenticity is not as important as the fact that it is what Muslims believe. It is the religious duty of all Muslims to follow the example of the Prophet.

In what is seen as a historic opportunity, many young Muslims are trying to do just that. Travel, adventure and idealism are prerogatives of the young, but religious fervour is the main motivation. Joining the Islamic State is a fulfillment of an apocalyptic vision. Whatever the apologists say, young Islamists have the means to identify what is authentic in their religion, and the Islamic State fills the bill.

We should not underestimate the nature of the rise in global Islamism, which has been largely instigated by the development Saudi-funded Islamic schools around the world. This has fostered an ideology that is anti-democratic, anti-secular and inimical to universal human rights. The rise in adherence to this ideology is progressively bringing chaos and mayhem to every country where it has influence. The number of Islamic 'failed states' is multiplying rapidly.

It is an enormous humanitarian problem: I would argue that Islam is the greatest cause of human suffering in the world today. Famines and natural disasters may occur with a certain frequency, but the calamity of Islam is persistent, pervasive and becoming endemic. There is no relief in sight, only the prospect of worse to come.

Yet many, including many of my atheist friends, seek to deny the scale and cause of the problem. Of course, most Muslims are not bad. They want to believe the 'religion of peace' argument that is pushed by their apologists. Hence some atheists say we should side with and encourage these 'moderates'.

This is a hopeless strategy. 'Religion of peace' advocates are doubly deluded: firstly in thinking Islam is true; secondly in (wishfully) thinking it is peaceful. It should be the job of atheists and secularists to dissuade people from their delusions, not encourage them.

There is no possibility of 'reform' of Islam via an 'Islamic Enlightenment'. There have been centuries of battles over ideology and doctrine in Islam, between the Kkarjiites, Mutazilites, Asharites, and later Wahabists, Salafists etc. Reformation has been attempted in Islam, and the reformers have lost. The reason is that it is impossible in Islam to deny the Koran or reject the deeds of the Prophet. And those deeds, although not well known even to many Muslims, include armed insurrection, mass beheadings, and enforced submission to the will of Allah.

And yet my 'Islamic apologist' atheist friends continue to argue that other religions are just as bad; the Bible contains heaps of violence; all religions have extremists; we mustn't focus on Islam etc. In response I ask them: How bad must things become before you will accept that there is a problem with Islam? Do you not have any compassion for the victims of Islam? How can siding with, and promoting, the views of (many admittedly well-meaning) apologists be a solution? Is that not a betrayal of atheism, humanism and secularism?

As atheists, we have a grave responsibility. We need, of course, to draw the attention of our fellow citizens to this issue. But we must do this in a way that does not target Muslims. We need to portray religion as the problem, to which secularism is the solution. After hundreds of years of religious wars in Europe, secularism was invented specifically to counter this problem.

John Perkins


Secular Party of Australia