What Drew So Many Muslims to ISIS (Daesh)?

Not knowing exactly where to go next, I decided to get dropped off at the town at the turn off to Wadi Rum. This way I could either continue south to Aqaba and then pass into Israel or I could change my mind and do what I longed to do–a spiritual trip into the desert surrounding Wadi Rum. I can’t stand the culture surrounding areas of tourism, where any visitor is seen as a source of income rather than as a person (this was SO prevalent in Petra). So going to Wadi Rum was problematic at best, but I still hadn’t written it off.

Ar-Rashdiyya is a Bedouin town that stands at the crossroads between the roads to Wadi Rum to the east and Al-Aqaba to the south. The town itself is not visually appealing in the least, and the blistering late-May heat made it even less-desirable, but it was the last town I could stop at before having to make a decision.

It was worth it.

I was offered hospitality by a number of different people, the most interesting of which was a man who’d been a guide for tourists in Wadi Rum for over 15 years. (He was now a security guard for the last 2 years–I presumed he changed professions once the fighting broke out in Syria and tourism fell.) He told me a number of things about why a lot of good people went to join Daesh (ISIS) when it first started. He gave the implication that these were men he knew, not mere statistics on a media report or a sensationalized news story. And while much of what he said can be found in some of the more detailed Western reports of ISIS, the was the first time I ever felt it internally.

What you may or may not know is that, like Christianity and Judaism, Islam is hugely motivated by prophecy–specifically about the end times. The prophecies that refer to any kind of “deliverance” of the Muslim people are especially important and have been prayed for hundreds of years (not unlike the Jews returning to Israel). One prophecy in particular from the Prophet Muhammad explains how religious authority will become increasingly secular and abusive over the years until the Caliphate will finally be restored. This Caliphate

“would join together Muslims from all over the world — from all origins, nations, and ethnicities. This Caliphate would be the ultimate defense of Islam against all opposition, and under its authority Islam would prevail.” (Achraf Issam)

It would fulfill the Prophet Muhammad’s prophecy and revive Islam.

Muslims today see a world where Islam is falling into disarray, where there is much separation between fellow Muslims, and where governing bodies are consumed by corruption. All of this is according to prophecy and the cure–which is dear to the hearts of every Muslim–is a united Caliphate.

ISIS/ Daesh flag

I have to say, in writing this I’m painfully aware that I’m not doing it justice…I’m starting to sound like just another Westerner reporting on the situation rather than feeling it. If you’ve never been a part of a religion, then it will be especially difficult to understand how the promise of something you and you’re people have collectively longed for can be intensely compelling. How it can set a fire to the blood. Such intense longings–especially when combined with extreme difficulty and/or disillusionment–are behind the rank and file’s passion for the Crusades, Zionism, and much, much more.

While it’s true that prophesies such as these are often used to manipulated the average believer, that doesn’t stop them from being compelling. The promise of a caliphate–of The Caliphate–has been utilized by many different Islamic groups over the years to get folks to join their ranks. It’s quite possible that many people knew this. But the quick victories of Daesh (probably combined with its social media campaigns) convinced many of today’s Muslims that Daesh might actually be doing it–for real. At the same time, to many Muslims the modern world seems to adequately reflect the time of prophesy slated to occur right before the Caliphate gets restored. As a result, for better or for worse, many good people (from Jordan I’m imagining, as this is told from my host’s point of view) went off to join Daesh when it was first created.

It wasn’t until later that they found that its leaders were corrupt: that they were only manipulating the masses. In fact, most of the Muslims I talk to today think that Daesh performs acts that are forbidden in the Qu’ran (though I just read some modern scholarly Western articles that say this is bullshit–that Daesh is playing it by the book, so to speak). Once they discovered the corruption of the leadership and became disillusioned, many of these same good men tried to return to their homeland. Some successfully. Some were killed. Some decided to stay for whatever reason.

My host went on to say how he believed that the leadership of Daesh was created by Israel and the United States. As far as he’s concerned, Israel and the United States are responsible for this monster that everyone is now fighting (surprisingly, he didn’t seem to think the Saudis were a factor).

He also said a number of other things that many good standing citizens would call a conspiracy theory. That Bin Laden wasn’t killed by the U.S.–that he’d been sick for a long time and died of illness. (Why didn’t the U.S. show his body if they’d really captured/killed him–the way they did with Saddam Hussein? And it was a well known fact that he was already dying.) That 9/11 was an inside job orchestrated by Bush. That there have been a lot more killings in Iraq and Afghanistan than have been reported. But what struck me more than any thing was the fact that Muslims have been praying for hundreds of years for one thing: to have a single Muslim Caliphate where the sanctity of Islam will be restored, and how similar this is to the way Jews had been praying for the Israel to be restored. Both signify the coming of end times and a “Messiah.” And while most Muslims now believe that Daesh has little to do with that ultimate Caliphate, they still dream for that prophecy to be fulfilled. Just as many religious Jews are praying for the ultimate reunification of the entirety of Israel (i.e. for the West Bank and Gaza to finally be returned to the state of Israel) so that the Moshiach will return.

A soldier with the Daesh flag

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