What ISIS Really Wants

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What ISIS Really Wants


In his article “What ISIS Really Wants,” Graeme Woods examines and discusses the origins and motivations of ISIS. He reveals that the group has more to it than what many people and governments think. From the article, it becomes clear that the jihadist group is concerned with more than politics and worldly affairs. Instead, it is driven by its religious beliefs. Woods observes that ISIS is more of a religious group than a political one. The members are driven by their beliefs on the need to practice Islam as it was practiced during the early days of the religion. During the time of the prophet Muhammad, practices and acts of slavery and war were common. The group believes that such practices should continue.

The article notes that many governments and individuals have misunderstood the group since its origin. This has had serious effects for some. For instance, Woods notes that America’s misunderstanding of the group and its ideologies have been a constant cause of failure. It has caused America great losses. There has been a tendency to consider ISIS in the same capacity as other jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda, without considering its motivations and drive. This has contributed to the wrong strategies being used. Those who think that they can contain the group, prevent its expansion, and possibly end it altogether have failed to identify the appropriate approach to do so because they have ignored the religious background and motivation of the group.

Woods notes that there have been divisions among Muslims about the group. He notes that many Muslims have been reluctant to identify with the group and that they do not relate to some of its principles. In this particular discussion, he highlights the wide rift between the Sunni and the Shiite Muslims. The Muslims who support ISIS belong to the Sunni and they object to the Shiite because they do not consider them true Muslims. According to ISIS, Shiites are an innovation and the Koran rejects such innovations. Consequently, such should be executed because they commit apostasy. Many of the Salafi reject ISIS practices as well, despite the caliphate being a Salafi. They are more concerned with religious observance and personal purification, and they believe these should be the main concerns for practicing Muslims. The main goal for the group is to purify the world and this would involve killing everybody who does not practice Islam as identified in the Koran according to the Sunni

Woods does offer a way out for those who are interested in ending the group or in slowing it down. The group has existed because its followers have a caliphate that they recognize as the true leader. One of the conditions of a caliphate is that he has to have a territory, which would enable him to exercise his authority. Without such a territory, it will not be possible for the caliphate to continue. The requirement of a territory is one of the major distinguishing factors between ISIS and al-Qaeda. While al-Qaeda can operate underground, ISIS cannot use the same approach since it has different beliefs.

From Woods’ observations, it becomes clear that there is a difference between ISIS beliefs and practices of Islam and the beliefs of the religion as practiced by many modern day Muslims. This has led to the rejection of the group by many Muslims yet at the same time, the strict observance of ancient practices of Islam has appealed to many people who continue to join it. Many of the leaders and supporters of the group are well versed in traditional texts and they have a great understanding of Islam, and this makes it hard to identify and the group as non-Islamic


Mandeville discusses the concept of radical Islamism and this enables one to have a different understanding of it. He notes that radical psalmists use extreme politics and methods, and this distinguishes them from mainstream Muslims. Many of the mainstream Muslims are opposed to radical Islam and they often condemn their activities. This would explain why ISIS has not been able to penetrate many of the nations where Islam remains the popular and major religion. Radical Islamism is characterized by a vision of Islamic political order, which opposes the legitimacy of the modern day understanding of the nation-state and, which strives to establish a pan-Islamic polity and a renewed caliphate. This seems to be the main objective of forming ISIS based on their urgent need to establish a caliphate. This kind of Islamism is also characterized by an emphasis on violent struggle as the legitimate method to achieve political change. Woods’ description of ISIS fits into this characterization.

Mandeville continues to observe that many Muslims seek to make progress towards political change through political processes such as the formation of legislation, the election process, and power sharing. Some of the regions engage in social means such as using civil societies and informal networking. According to Woods, the acceptance of these processes and institutions is contrary to ISIS beliefs. The group does not believe in formal processes such as voting, which some Muslim countries have come to accept.

Mandeville cautions that the different understanding of jihad should make one careful about generalizing every person who engages and supports Islamic radicalism. Radicalism does not mean that every person who engages in it has abandoned all sense of morality and adopted a belief of using any means available to conduct political violence. Indeed, Woods highlights that some of the Muslim leaders, especially the Salafi, are more concerned with the personal nature of the religion and not on its radical violent approach, hence their decision not to support the caliphate or ISIS. Some of the members of jihadist groups have broken off ties with other members of the same group because they have disagreed on matters of principle. For this reason, it is important not to view radicalism as a monolithic category. Like other areas of life, those engaged in radicalism will often argue, debate, criticize, and disagree. There are often tensions among the members because of the strong convictions that each of them has. Despite the disagreements, every person is often convinced that he is right and he can find the basis and grounds for his beliefs

Religion is definitely important to many practicing Muslims. Many Sunni Muslims do not have the concept of separating the church and the state, and they consider this a largely western idea. However, as Mandeville observes, religion does not always constitute the main political identity of some Muslims. In some cases, national, tribal, and ethnic claims are placed above religion. Moreover, Islam has penetrated and it is now in many regions and cultures and this has diversified the understanding of the religion among the adherents. There is a great variance of the social and political significance of Islam in different settings. Islam is a dynamic tradition in the way it is interpreted and reinterpreted as it moves from one region to another. Despite the differences in understanding of Islam, it has a common origin, which is rooted in tradition. All Muslims are aware of the religion’s origin and traditions and they use this as a common ground. The need to go back to this religion has drawn some of the followers to groups such as ISIS since they can find authenticity in their beliefs.

The importance of the religion can only be seen by the teachings and life of Muhammad. Those who have decided to go back to the traditions examine the life of Muhammad, his principles, and beliefs, as the way as his relations with other people of the faith and those of other faiths. Muhammad was not only a Muslim prophet and teacher, but he was also a leader of the people and a soldier. As Lewis notes, there is a belief among many Muslims that they are fighting for God in their quest. Therefore, there is a conviction that those who are not for them are against them and hence are considered enemies of God. The prophet and the caliphs are seen as God’s vicegerents and God is the sovereign commander of the armies. Consequently, anyone fighting against the caliphs is fighting against God’s army. Muslims have expressed their desire to reassert Islamic values and restore the greatness of their religion (Lewis). With this understanding, it follows that there will be violence as long as those who practice radical Islamism believe that they are fighting God’s cause with his enemies.

It is blasphemous and unnatural for misbelievers to rule over true believers and the true believers are opposed to this. They believe that it leads to corruption of religion and morality and to the destruction of God’s law. The rise and continued existence of Islamic fundamentalism have given an aim to what was once an aimless and formless resentment and anger of the Muslim masses. They are now angry at the forces that have continued to devalue their traditional values and loyalists as well as those who have contributed towards robbing Muslims of their beliefs and their dignity (Lewis).

Clearly, it is indeed true that there has been a failure by western governments, leaders, and other individuals to understand ISIS. Without a clear understanding of their motivation, it will not be possible to understand how to deal with the group. Woods presents a different way of understanding ISIS. The group is not just composed of radicals and fanatics who have no basis for their beliefs. Many of those who follow the group and support it are knowledgeable and convinced of its teachings and beliefs. They have a deep understanding of their beliefs and convictions. The group is not just composed of terrorists. Any act they do including beheading and slavery is rooted in ancient understanding and practices of Islam. There is a contrast of beliefs between mainstream Islam and radical Islamism. The two groups have different motivations. However, one of the most important things to understand is that Islam varies according to the region. It is influenced by cultures and other external influences.

Works Cited

Lewis, Bernard. ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage.’ The Atlantic

Mandeville, Peter. Islam and Politics. Routledge, 2014

Woods, Graeme. “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic. www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/, Accessed 14 May 2018.


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