ISIS is Not a Doomsday Cult but Something Far Deadlier

Published November 9th, 2017 - 02:21 GMT
Bullet holes shown in an ISIS logo, AFP/File
Bullet holes shown in an ISIS logo, AFP/File


  • The New York Times released an article and video comparing ISIS to death cults
  • The pieces help to reify a stubborn simplication of the group to be a cult
  • The cult perception also dangerously mystifies ISIS
  • ISIS is in fact, something far more dangerous than a cult--a broad-based ideological movement


By Ty Joplin


After witnessing the brutal rise of ISIS, the only words that seemed to accurately describe the sheer horror of the group’s killing were “death cult” or “doomsday cult.” Many asked themselves what else would explain the constant stream of highly publicized mass killings and executions released on the web by the group.

The New York Times posted a video and accompanying article on Nov. 5 entitled “What Doomsday Cults Can Teach Us About ISIS Today.” The pieces directly compare the people joining ISIS with the people who join Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, the cult that infamously committed mass-suicide by drinking cyanide-laced kool-aid.

With this analysis, The New York Times adds another authoritative stamp to the broad thinking that ISIS is best understood as an apocalyptic doomsday cult.

Others in the cult choir include The Atlantic, Barack Obama, Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and The New Yorker who have all implied or outright said the group is a death cult.

But effective policy responses aren’t informed by gut reactions.

The group is in decline now, but if it is continually viewed as a freakish doomsday cult full of death-worshippers, the world will be woefully under-equipped to handle its next iteration or comparable groups that will inevitably spring up in the future.

Though references to an apocalyptic ‘end of days’ runs through ISIS, framing the group as a doomsday cult oversimplifies it and is ultimately counterproductive to understanding how it  works and what the best ways to fight against it are.

The exact apocalypse ISIS is supposedly trying to enact is laid out in a hadith that says the end of days will come after a battle between Romans (the West) and a Muslim Army near Dabiq, a town in northern Syria. But there is reason to doubt how fundamental this is to ISIS.

Approaching ISIS as an apocalyptic cult also neutralizes crucial contextual factors that account for its rise and success, acting as if it is a naturally occurring chaotic evil for which there cannot be policy solution.

ISIS is rather best understood as an armed non-state actor with a strongly motivating ideology--an admittedly more complicated categorization but one that will produce a more effective policy response.


Calling it a ‘Doomsday Cult’ is too Simple

Matthew Levitt, the Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, argues that calling ISIS a cult is “simplistic… because it’s not a cult, as such.”

Matthew Levitt, Director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, Fromer-Wexler Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (Washington Institute)


Though its propaganda and recruiting methods highlight the excitement of joining a group trying to bring about the end of days, it does not appear central to ISIS’ actual strategy. In other words, they just don’t seem that concerned about actually re-enacting an apocalyptic prophecy.

Barak Mendelsohn, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is fast to point out ISIS’ reaction to losing Dabiq--the key to unlocking its supposed apocalyptic vision: “Just look at the way ISIS brushed aside the loss of Dabiq or how quickly it switched from Dabiq," named after the town, "to Rumiya (its current magazine).”

ISIS gave up Dabiq much easier than it did any of its major cities like Raqqa, Mosul or Deir Ez-Zour, knowing that if they did, they would essentially be giving up their ability to precipitate the end of days.

And when it did lose Dabiq, they simply switched the name of their propaganda magazine from Dabiq, to Rumiya, a subtle disavowal of the primacy of their doomsday vision.


Dr. Barak Mendelsohn, Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (Haverford College)

Many of ISIS’ key decision makers were also former government officials under Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime that were banished from power by the U.S. after it invaded Iraq in 2003. Saddam’s Ba’athist party carried an explicitly secular political ideology that treated salafi jihadism as a national security threat.

““They just want power. They are used to being in power, and they want it back,” a former Syrian rebel and ISIS member told The Washington Post, referring to why former Ba’athist officials joined a movement diametrically opposed to their former political party.


The Danger of Mystifying ISIS

Iraqi Forces carrying ISIS flag upside-down, (AFP)

Calling ISIS a doomsday cult dismisses the myriad reasons why individuals would feel compelled to risk their lives to join the group.

“New members were attracted not so much to the ‘end of days’ but more to the chance to participate in the restoration of the caliphate and building utopian society,” Mendelsohn argues.

Many who defected from ISIS did so not because they were frustrated that the group was not more dedicated to precipitating the end of the world, as the doomsday theory would presume, but because the group was reportedly so inhumane to their fellow Sunni Muslims.

“Looking only at the apocalyptic element leads to neglecting the political,” Mendelsohn tells Al Bawaba.

ISIS’ rise was not built off the back of its mythical cult status, but its successful exploitation of a power vacuum in northern Syria and Iraq. They were presented with a political opportunity to thrive, and used the apocalypse as a calling card to brand themselves as a group that promises to change the world.

Spending time labeling the group as a doomsday cult dismisses its grounded political objectives of creating a supposed homeland for Sunnis--a group that has been viciously targeted by Assad’s regime during the Syrian Civil War.

“It’s more successful and broad-based than doomsday cults, which tended to be small and local,” Levitt explains.


So what is it if not a doomsday cult?

Mendelsohn calls ISIS an “armed non-state actor,” a broad term that better accounts for its political objectives. Though Levitt adds the qualification that ISIS als is “an ideological movement,” meaning it has an ideological identity that relies on specific interpretations of Islam to inform its overall strategy and vision.

But that is nowhere near enough of a base to call it a cult. “If ISIS is a cult, can’t we make similar arguments for any religious group? After all, indoctrination isn’t limited to cuts and the ‘end of days’ is central to all monotheists’ religions,” Mendelsohn concludes.

Until we get past the obsession with labelling ISIS a doomsday cult, true understanding of the group, its members, and its overall objectives will elude governments and policy analysts.

Responses to the group will be limited to combatting one part of its ideology without ever taking account of the darker reality that ISIS inspired thousands to risk their lives not in the hopes to bring the end of days, but to contribute to the building of a supposed homeland for Muslims--a project that killed countless thousands of innocent civilians and will likely be attempted again after ISIS is long gone.

It is this false ‘homeland’ that promises to be far deadlier than any apocalypse vision, because it comes from a intention many know and can empathize with: trying to act on one’s genuinely held moral beliefs.

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