The Walking Dead And The Metaphysics of ISIS


Further to my previous post, So Europe, Paris; America: What Now? there was part of the underlying idea that I set aside for later; i.e., for now.

It’s a conflation of our ethics with their metaphysics. Recall from your general understanding of philosophy, if you have one, that the hierarchy flows from metaphysics (the study of the given; reality), to epistemology (the study of knowledge of reality), to ethics (the study of moral right & wrong), and then finally to politics (the study of man’s social organization). There’s also esthetics (the study of art, which is basically an integrated reflection of the foregoing branches), but let’s just deal with that latter branch by noting how ISIS has been busy destroying ancient cultural artifacts and art. This should count as a clue, because art generally reflects a philosophy that in various ways celebrates the value of life and the many corollary values that humanity pursues towards it being a happy and fulfilled life.

My heightened awareness came about when, in a short comment thread with Billy Beck in the aftermath of the previous evening’s Paris massacre, he drew an important distinction that sent me down rabbit holes of reflection. The idea is that suicide in a military context (e.g., Kamikaze) is a matter for ethical analysis in that context whereas, the actions by ISIS and other sects or organization of Muslims are not applicable to anything resembling our ethics, since their ethics are based upon an entirely different metaphysics (see foregoing paragraph). As I quoted him yesterday:

These animals are acting from flagrantly anti-human metaphysics: even more evil than socialists of all stripes. At least the socialists make a claim to valuing human betterment, even so horrible as they are at it. These vermin are not like that: all their values lie beyond death.

They will not be demoralized by their own deaths, that of their families or anyone else. Death itself, is the value to them.

Their “worldview,” if you will, is so different from ours (literally, as you’ll see: apocalyptic; death, end of days) that the bounds we place upon ourselves are simply inapplicable to them. We pursue life, they pursue the end of the world, indeed believing that they are hastening it via their actions. It’s apples and oranges. Commenter Peter gets it.

I can understand why many people react to something like what has happened and ask the question, why are they doing this, what have we done wrong to them. Many people cannot wrap their head around genuinely bad people existing. They believe surely people can be reasoned with, if we be reasonable with them. They just don’t get that it’s possible for people to have heinous and ridiculous beliefs that will cause them to want to kill you for not holding those beliefs. As a result they grasp for answers to explain it in a way that is logical, that fits the mold of “they’ve only done this to us because we did this to them”.

I think it was about a year ago when I found myself in front of the TV while a nephew was watching an episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead. It was well into the series, I’d heard of it, but have never been a zombie film fan (I did like Brad Pitt’s World War Z) so never paid attention. But I had to admit that what I was seeing was intriguing, so I ended up marathon watching the whole damn series to date via Netflix.

In the early episodes and seasons of the series, there is quite a lot of the same sort of misplaced ethical calculation I’m addressing in this post. That was perhaps best typified by Hershel Greene, the veterinarian who, with his family, had been rounding up walkers, keeping them fed and locked in a barn in anticipation of a cure someday. In many conversations with Rick, he’d say things like, “these are people, Rick!”

And that’s where he was wrong. He was applying his sense of ethics, an ethics applicable to the living, an ethics that sets boundaries for the living and their pursuit of happiness in a social context, to a metaphysics of the dead, The Walking Dead. So, think of ISIS and other violent sectarian actors as The Walking Dead for a spell. See how it fits, if it has a certain ring to it, given the juxtaposition of their apocalyptic metaphysics with our ethics for the living, the lovers of life.

… There’s one more point I need to make, and that is in regard to my politics of anarchism I’m so fond of espousing. In this context, I’ve come to realize that I have to set that aside. Anarchy is a politics corresponding to an ethics for the living. Anarchy, as an ethical-political system, is no more applicable to an apocalypse cult than it is to pre-civilization hunter-gatherers.

Now, let’s move on to my basis for all of this. It turns out that what I have described is a reasonable assessment and is very different from the typical narrative from the left, or libertarian left/right, that tends to blame the West in general, America in particular, and if we just left them alone, all would become hunky dory. No, the value they seek, that they are acting for, is not for us to “leave them alone.” The value they seek, that they are acting for is our utter destruction. There is emphatically not room for both of us, something’s gotta give. I have now become convinced of this and accordingly, I must change the way I regard potential interventions and solutions, even if carried out by an infinitely less oppressive State.

… There was an earth-shattering cover piece in The Atlantic last March, written by Graeme Wood: What ISIS Really Wants – The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.

The importance of reading the whole thing is perhaps best summed up in this exchange between Sam Harris and Wood.

Harris: So you’ve spent a fair amount of time in the region as a journalist. And the most recent product of these labors is the current cover story in The Atlantic on the Islamic State. Congratulations on producing such a fine piece. I must say it came as a relief to finally read the plain truth in print, which is a strange thing to say, given how horrible the truth is. But your article meets a need that was just not being fulfilled. Almost no one in the media has been willing to draw a straight line between the religious ideology that members of the Islamic State espouse and their barbaric behavior—which, while absolutely shocking in its details, isn’t remotely surprising, given what they believe. I recommend that our readers immediately read your Atlantic essay as background to this conversation, if they haven’t already.

How has the article been received?

Wood: I’m pleased to see that it has baffled a lot of people. Much of the initial wave of reaction has come from people who desperately wanted it to say one thing or another, and who reacted by assuming that it fell into their predetermined classifications of pieces about politics, Islam, or terrorism. It is gratifying to write a story so resistant to classification that people have to pretend it says things it doesn’t just so that it fits in their mental categories.

While everyone really ought to read both The Atlantic piece and subsequent interview (both are quite lengthy), for the TL;DR crowd and clarity in terms of my foregoing thesis, let me summarize some of the article’s important points.


On the imperative for ISIS to capture and hold territory in order to fully implement Sharia Law.

Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.

On the imperative for ISIS to remain consistent to their ancient doctrines to the letter.

We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature. Peter Bergen, who produced the first interview with bin Laden in 1997, titled his first book Holy War, Inc. in part to acknowledge bin Laden as a creature of the modern secular world. Bin Laden corporatized terror and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia. His foot soldiers navigated the modern world confidently. On Mohamed Atta’s last full day of life, he shopped at Walmart and ate dinner at Pizza Hut.

There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam. […]

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

I. Devotion

On how very serious they are, to essentially turn back the clock to the 7th Century.

…But the split between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State has been long in the making, and begins to explain, at least in part, the outsize bloodlust of the latter.

Zawahiri’s companion in isolation is a Jordanian cleric named Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, 55, who has a fair claim to being al-Qaeda’s intellectual architect and the most important jihadist unknown to the average American newspaper reader. On most matters of doctrine, Maqdisi and the Islamic State agree. Both are closely identified with the jihadist wing of a branch of Sunnism called Salafism, after the Arabic al salaf al salih, the “pious forefathers.” These forefathers are the Prophet himself and his earliest adherents, whom Salafis honor and emulate as the models for all behavior, including warfare, couture, family life, even dentistry. […]

Denying the holiness of the Koran or the prophecies of Muhammad is straightforward apostasy. But Zarqawi and the state he spawned take the position that many other acts can remove a Muslim from Islam. These include, in certain cases, selling alcohol or drugs, wearing Western clothes or shaving one’s beard, voting in an election—even for a Muslim candidate—and being lax about calling other people apostates. Being a Shiite, as most Iraqi Arabs are, meets the standard as well, because the Islamic State regards Shiism as innovation, and to innovate on the Koran is to deny its initial perfection. (The Islamic State claims that common Shiite practices, such as worship at the graves of imams and public self-flagellation, have no basis in the Koran or in the example of the Prophet.) That means roughly 200 million Shia are marked for death. So too are the heads of state of every Muslim country, who have elevated man-made law above Sharia by running for office or enforcing laws not made by God.

Following takfiri doctrine, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from the region suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims. Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government. Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as the jizya, and acknowledge their subjugation. The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute.

Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes. Hence, perhaps, the incredulity and denial with which Westerners have greeted news of the theology and practices of the Islamic State. Many refuse to believe that this group is as devout as it claims to be, or as backward-looking or apocalyptic as its actions and statements suggest.

On how they are the real thing.

But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

Every academic I asked about the Islamic State’s ideology sent me to Haykel. […]

According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

II. Territory

On immigration, which I find very interesting.

Tens of thousands of foreign Muslims are thought to have immigrated to the Islamic State. Recruits hail from France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Australia, Indonesia, the United States, and many other places. Many have come to fight, and many intend to die.

Peter R. Neumann, a professor at King’s College London, told me that online voices have been essential to spreading propaganda and ensuring that newcomers know what to believe. Online recruitment has also widened the demographics of the jihadist community, by allowing conservative Muslim women—physically isolated in their homes—to reach out to recruiters, radicalize, and arrange passage to Syria. Through its appeals to both genders, the Islamic State hopes to build a complete society.

On the palpable excitement of having their own primitive “society.”

The last caliphate was the Ottoman empire, which reached its peak in the 16th century and then experienced a long decline, until the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, euthanized it in 1924. But Cerantonio, like many supporters of the Islamic State, doesn’t acknowledge that caliphate as legitimate, because it didn’t fully enforce Islamic law, which requires stonings and slavery and amputations, and because its caliphs were not descended from the tribe of the Prophet, the Quraysh.

Baghdadi spoke at length of the importance of the caliphate in his Mosul sermon. He said that to revive the institution of the caliphate—which had not functioned except in name for about 1,000 years—was a communal obligation. He and his loyalists had “hastened to declare the caliphate and place an imam” at its head, he said. “This is a duty upon the Muslims—a duty that has been lost for centuries … The Muslims sin by losing it, and they must always seek to establish it.”

On how salvation requires by scripture the establishment of a caliphate (a territorial, religious State).

The caliphate, Cerantonio told me, is not just a political entity but also a vehicle for salvation. Islamic State propaganda regularly reports the pledges of baya’a(allegiance) rolling in from jihadist groups across the Muslim world. Cerantonio quoted a Prophetic saying, that to die without pledging allegiance is to die jahil (ignorant) and therefore die a “death of disbelief.” Consider how Muslims (or, for that matter, Christians) imagine God deals with the souls of people who die without learning about the one true religion. They are neither obviously saved nor definitively condemned. Similarly, Cerantonio said, the Muslim who acknowledges one omnipotent god and prays, but who dies without pledging himself to a valid caliph and incurring the obligations of that oath, has failed to live a fully Islamic life.

On how Muslims wherever they may be, are obliged to recognize their leader and emigrate to his territory.

Before the caliphate, “maybe 85 percent of the Sharia was absent from our lives,” Choudary told me. “These laws are in abeyance until we have khilafa”—a caliphate—“and now we have one.” Without a caliphate, for example, individual vigilantes are not obliged to amputate the hands of thieves they catch in the act. But create a caliphate, and this law, along with a huge body of other jurisprudence, suddenly awakens. In theory, all Muslims are obliged to immigrate to the territory where the caliph is applying these laws.

On how Islam is socialist.

Choudary said Sharia has been misunderstood because of its incomplete application by regimes such as Saudi Arabia, which does behead murderers and cut off thieves’ hands. “The problem,” he explained, “is that when places like Saudi Arabia just implement the penal code, and don’t provide the social and economic justice of the Sharia—the whole package—they simply engender hatred toward the Sharia.” That whole package, he said, would include free housing, food, and clothing for all, though of course anyone who wished to enrich himself with work could do so.

III. The Apocalypse

On the value they pursue and their belief that their actions constitute the quickening.

… The Islamic State differs from nearly every other current jihadist movement in believing that it is written into God’s script as a central character. It is in this casting that the Islamic State is most boldly distinctive from its predecessors, and clearest in the religious nature of its mission.

In broad strokes, al-Qaeda acts like an underground political movement, with worldly goals in sight at all times—the expulsion of non-Muslims from the Arabian peninsula, the abolishment of the state of Israel, the end of support for dictatorships in Muslim lands. The Islamic State has its share of worldly concerns (including, in the places it controls, collecting garbage and keeping the water running), but the End of Days is a leitmotif of its propaganda. Bin Laden rarely mentioned the apocalypse, and when he did, he seemed to presume that he would be long dead when the glorious moment of divine comeuppance finally arrived. “Bin Laden and Zawahiri are from elite Sunni families who look down on this kind of speculation and think it’s something the masses engage in,” says Will McCants of the Brookings Institution, who is writing a book about the Islamic State’s apocalyptic thought.

During the last years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Islamic State’s immediate founding fathers, by contrast, saw signs of the end times everywhere. They were anticipating, within a year, the arrival of the Mahdi—a messianic figure destined to lead the Muslims to victory before the end of the world.

On their own version of the Christian Armageddon, which, living under Western political institutions, all are free to dismiss. Ridicule, even.

For certain true believers—the kind who long for epic good-versus-evil battles—visions of apocalyptic bloodbaths fulfill a deep psychological need. Of the Islamic State supporters I met, Musa Cerantonio, the Australian, expressed the deepest interest in the apocalypse and how the remaining days of the Islamic State—and the world—might look. Parts of that prediction are original to him, and do not yet have the status of doctrine. But other parts are based on mainstream Sunni sources and appear all over the Islamic State’s propaganda. These include the belief that there will be only 12 legitimate caliphs, and Baghdadi is the eighth; that the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria; and that Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest.

The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. It named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains. It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam.

“Dabiq is basically all farmland,” one Islamic State supporter recently tweeted. “You could imagine large battles taking place there.” The Islamic State’s propagandists drool with anticipation of this event, and constantly imply that it will come soon. The state’s magazine quotes Zarqawi as saying, “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify … until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.” A recent propaganda video shows clips from Hollywood war movies set in medieval times—perhaps because many of the prophecies specify that the armies will be on horseback or carrying ancient weapons.

Now that it has taken Dabiq, the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse. Western media frequently miss references to Dabiq in the Islamic State’s videos, and focus instead on lurid scenes of beheading. “Here we are, burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive,” said a masked executioner in a November video, showing the severed head of Peter (Abdul Rahman) Kassig, the aid worker who’d been held captive for more than a year. During fighting in Iraq in December, after mujahideen (perhaps inaccurately) reported having seen American soldiers in battle, Islamic State Twitter accounts erupted in spasms of pleasure, like overenthusiastic hosts or hostesses upon the arrival of the first guests at a party.

IV. The Fight

On how their own faith-based, cock-suredness is the underlying means of their marginalization and self-defeat.

The ideological purity of the Islamic State has one compensating virtue: it allows us to predict some of the group’s actions. Osama bin Laden was seldom predictable. He ended his first television interview cryptically. CNN’s Peter Arnett asked him, “What are your future plans?” Bin Laden replied, “You’ll see them and hear about them in the media, God willing.” By contrast, the Islamic State boasts openly about its plans—not all of them, but enough so that by listening carefully, we can deduce how it intends to govern and expand.

In London, Choudary and his students provided detailed descriptions of how the Islamic State must conduct its foreign policy, now that it is a caliphate. It has already taken up what Islamic law refers to as “offensive jihad,” the forcible expansion into countries that are ruled by non-Muslims. “Hitherto, we were just defending ourselves,” Choudary said; without a caliphate, offensive jihad is an inapplicable concept. But the waging of war to expand the caliphate is an essential duty of the caliph.

Choudary took pains to present the laws of war under which the Islamic State operates as policies of mercy rather than of brutality. He told me the state has an obligation to terrorize its enemies—a holy order to scare the shit out of them with beheadings and crucifixions and enslavement of women and children, because doing so hastens victory and avoids prolonged conflict. […]

One comparison to the Islamic State is the Khmer Rouge, which killed about a third of the population of Cambodia. But the Khmer Rouge occupied Cambodia’s seat at the United Nations. “This is not permitted,” Abu Baraa said. “To send an ambassador to the UN is to recognize an authority other than God’s.” This form of diplomacy is shirk, or polytheism, he argued, and would be immediate cause to hereticize and replace Baghdadi. Even to hasten the arrival of a caliphate by democratic means—for example by voting for political candidates who favor a caliphate—is shirk.

It’s hard to overstate how hamstrung the Islamic State will be by its radicalism. […]

The United States and its allies have reacted to the Islamic State belatedly and in an apparent daze. The group’s ambitions and rough strategic blueprints were evident in its pronouncements and in social-media chatter as far back as 2011, when it was just one of many terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq and hadn’t yet committed mass atrocities. Adnani, the spokesman, told followers then that the group’s ambition was to “restore the Islamic caliphate,” and he evoked the apocalypse, saying, “There are but a few days left.” Baghdadi had already styled himself “commander of the faithful,” a title ordinarily reserved for caliphs, in 2011. In April 2013, Adnani declared the movement “ready to redraw the world upon the Prophetic methodology of the caliphate.” […]

Our failure to appreciate the split between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and the essential differences between the two, has led to dangerous decisions.

The section goes on to outline several avenues of intervention. Since I’ll have no say in the matter, I only wish to speak to the ethics, which I’ll do in my conclusion. For my money, ISIS itself has already readily drawn the roadmap to its own destruction (not that variants may not pop up later). They are so bound by their own fanatical devotion that just a modicum of understanding ought to light a path for intervention that’s effective.

V. Dissuasion

On the validity of ISIS’ interpretation of the scriptures upon which they act.

It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State “a problem with Islam.” The religion allows many interpretations, and Islamic State supporters are morally on the hook for the one they choose. And yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them.

Muslims can say that slavery is not legitimate now, and that crucifixion is wrong at this historical juncture. Many say precisely this. But they cannot condemn slavery or crucifixion outright without contradicting the Koran and the example of the Prophet. “The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid,” Bernard Haykel says. That really would be an act of apostasy.

The Islamic State’s ideology exerts powerful sway over a certain subset of the population. Life’s hypocrisies and inconsistencies vanish in its face. Musa Cerantonio and the Salafis I met in London are unstumpable: no question I posed left them stuttering. They lectured me garrulously and, if one accepts their premises, convincingly. To call them un-Islamic appears, to me, to invite them into an argument that they would win. If they had been froth-spewing maniacs, I might be able to predict that their movement would burn out as the psychopaths detonated themselves or became drone-splats, one by one. But these men spoke with an academic precision that put me in mind of a good graduate seminar. I even enjoyed their company, and that frightened me as much as anything else.

Not every strict Muslim fundamentalist seeks destruction of the West in the here & now. Like Christian fundamentalists, they leave final, apocalyptic judgment in God’s hands.

There is, however, another strand of Islam that offers a hard-line alternative to the Islamic State—just as uncompromising, but with opposite conclusions. This strand has proved appealing to many Muslims cursed or blessed with a psychological longing to see every jot and tittle of the holy texts implemented as they were in the earliest days of Islam. Islamic State supporters know how to react to Muslims who ignore parts of the Koran: with takfir and ridicule. But they also know that some other Muslims read the Koran as assiduously as they do, and pose a real ideological threat.

The section goes on to outline some elements and examples of that, but it’s beyond the scope of my specific theme, here. His final paragraph:

That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.

In terms of my own conclusions, I’m reminded of my own Christian fundamentalist upbringing from the age of 10, in the Baptist variation. As I was reading portions of this article, it reminded me of my own exposure in church, particularly this, I’ll re-quote:

…They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam. […]

According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.

Indeed. In a fundamentalist Baptist sect in America, it gets like that. It becomes a language unto itself, where the faithful, in the normal course of conversation, make chronological-historical references like, “when we got saved,” and they don’t mean from a burning building. They speak of The Second Coming all the time, along with its concomitant Rapture of the “saved”—those who have professed exclusive faith in the sacrifice of Jesus for their sins and not any good or wholesome or heroic works they have done (they are as “filthy rags” in the eyes of God).

As ridiculous as all of that was, I never ever heard a single call to harm anyone. Ever. I know there are a fringe few who have killed abortion doctors. It’s not, and never was any kind of movement supported by the fundamentalists I grew up with who do, indeed, consider abortion to be murder of innocent “babies.” But that’s God’s job in their eyes and they are ever faithful that there will be eventual and final judgment at the hand of God himself.

This is their true salvation, in my view. Their doctrines are malleable enough that they can be fundamentally adherent to them, and still embrace a system of ethics that can commune even with those of atheists, like me, most of the time and when it’s most important to be able to do so. Add a socio-political system that contemplates those ethics, and everyone is free to dismiss them, even ridicule them, and we have what we refer to as civilization.

It’s what we nonchalantly call civilization, but I hope you get a glimpse into what a precious value it is. Whether you’re interested in the war ISIS wants to bring to your front door or not, it is interested in you.

And it’s not interested in your ethics. It has its own. Your ethics are derived from a metaphysics of The Living. Theirs are derived from a metaphysics of The Walking Dead, and there is no reconcilliation.

… There are those who would advocate giving the entire or some of the  Middle East the “Porcelain Treatment.” But don’t you see? That’s just a reverse. It’s applying their ethics to our metaphysics. Nope, our metaphysics of life and love for it, demand that we embrace our derivative ethics and we just have to do it the hard way.

Civilization would be no fun at all if it wasn’t always the ethical hard way, every day.

Update: This article has now been posted to both and Medium. If you like it, please help spread the word via those avenues as well as this.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More


  1. Doug on November 16, 2015 at 04:06

    Amazing piece of writing. Well done.

  2. Tim on November 16, 2015 at 07:26

    It’s really sad reading what their beliefs are because if true, there’s really only one solution. We need to give them their battle at Dabiq and let them all come and do their duty in fighting against Rome. We can be really nice and help them reach their destination in the next world. Then when they are left with under 5000 people, hopefully those remaining will see that they have been following a false ideology and stop it. Hopefully we have enough bombs and bullets.

    But unfortunately that would probably turn the vast majority of moderate Muslims into Muslims seeking vengeance and we might end up with a bigger problem.

    The best thing to happen would be for ISIS to first attack more moderate Muslims so that these Muslims could then be motivated into destroying ISIS themselves. But the problem is that there are probably at least 10% radicals in any given Muslim country and this is enough to intimidate the moderates into keeping quiet. For most people, it takes having nothing left to lose before you take a stand. But by then it’s too late.

    • GTR on November 16, 2015 at 12:37

      “The best thing to happen would be for ISIS to first attack more moderate Muslims so that these Muslims could then be motivated into destroying ISIS themselves.” – isn’t ISIS attacking Assad forces? But the West wold like Assad rather than victorious for many reasons – one being that he is a close ally of Russia.

      • Richard Nikoley on November 16, 2015 at 15:39

        Astute, GTR. You’re not bad when you get off your racist bullshit.

        See, what GTR is briefly exposing here is that we have almost as big a problem with ISIS killing “apostate” Muslims far and wide as we do with them killing us, due the alliances and bedfellows we keep.

    • gabkad on November 17, 2015 at 11:45

      Okay, so I’m probably S-L-O-W, but this is my understanding:

      I read almost all of the Atlantic article. It seems that everything is based on the existence of the caliphate which = territory. So long as they ‘possess’ territory, there is a caliphate. If they are bombed into a postage stamp and then the postage stamp is eliminated, the caliphate is eliminated. Once that happens, there is no caliph and the alliegance sworn by members is null and void.

      Many innocent people will die but too many have already died at the hands of ISIS. They have left no choice to the U.K., Russians, French, and Americans —- the bombings will continue until morale improves….. or there’s no one left to have any sort of morale. I hope, considering the bombings in Turkey, that the Turkish government will tighten up its border.

      • Richard Nikoley on November 17, 2015 at 11:54

        Yep, you basically have it. This is what makes it distinctive and relatively easy to kill. Doesn’t mean it halts terrorism, but it at least eliminates this particular manifestation of it.

        They are literally hamstrung by their own devotion to absolte literal interpretation.

  3. Jackie D on November 16, 2015 at 11:07

    There’s no surer way to get me to roll my eyes than to let me hear someone say, “At the end of the day, people everywhere are the same. We all want the same things and feel the same feelings about the people we love.”

    • Richard Nikoley on November 16, 2015 at 15:21

      Jackie, you mean Facebook? 😉

  4. Jim on November 16, 2015 at 12:21

    Excellent post. I read the Atlantic article when it first came out, but it had mostly fallen off my radar until people started reposting it today.

    I’ve not seen the Walking Dead, but I know enough about the plot etc. to follow along with your metaphor. One of the things that I think is a hurdle for most people to get across, as it certainly was for me, is in the existence of evil. Sometimes there are just bad people in the world – and you can try to explain it through their upbringing, socioeconomic status, whatever, but it doesn’t change what they are. When I was younger I didn’t believe that anyone was truly that far gone. I grew up, and I think the rest of us are going to have to do the same sooner rather than later.

  5. Amy on November 16, 2015 at 12:32

    I argue that ISIS is more like “The Wolves” in TWD than the actual dead themselves. The dead are only animated by their virus load and do not think; but the Wolves are the basest kind nihilists. Nihilism IMO is the closest ideological equivalent to the cult-like, death-based religious fanaticism of radical Islam.

    I do like the “Radical Islam as TWD” analogy, though. It’s apt (even if not precisely apt in my opinion 😉 ) , and as noted the whole show is basically a dramatized look at the actual and philosophical connotations of what we’re facing in a potential “Islamic Apocalypse”.

    • Richard Nikoley on November 16, 2015 at 15:31

      Fair enough, Amy.

      That bit has been a kinda distraction to me, since it’s incoherent to understand what values they’re acting for. Nihilism is the desruction of values per se, and even the walkers know better than that. 😉

  6. GTR on November 16, 2015 at 12:45

    I think that just defeating ISIS doesn’t constitute a victory. The reason that ISIS, Taliban, Al-quaida etc. exist is islam. Islam generates such movements regularly, they have different names, different violence levels – from high to extreme. Often people in these movements are children of moderates, thus moderates are like a demographics reserve for islam. Only eliminating islam can be called a victory, because only then we are persistently safe from islam-created violence.

    • Amy on November 16, 2015 at 14:13

      I think people who believe things like what GTR just wrote are THE BIGGEST DANGER to human civilizations and cultures. Therefore I advocate that GTR and everyone who thinks like him should be terminated. Immediately. After all, this is just what the Islamists think about us, right?

      Only by terminating people who think like this are we safe from genocide and intolerance. If we get rid of all people who think like GTR, most of our humanity’s cultural struggles are solved.

      Of course that doesn’t deal with the bullies who think it’s okay to stomp around in the sandbox for the express purpose of taking our toys away, but we can deal with them after we’ve dealt with the truly intolerant who think there’s only room in the sandbox for people of the right sort.

      • GTR on November 16, 2015 at 14:32

        So what are the specific claims you disagree with? And your proofs that these are wrong?

      • Amy on November 16, 2015 at 15:12

        Dude, I actually just agreed with you. You and the ISIS fanatics have an awful lot in common with your mindset. Thing is, we have to apply the logic evenly across the board, or it isn’t logic. It’s just an unmethodical, arbitrary thought process.

        If you don’t get the point, I can’t help you.

      • GTR on November 16, 2015 at 15:51

        What specific mindset features do I have with ISIS fanatics according to you? You wrote there are “awful lot” of them, so it shouldn’t be a problem for you to specify like 10 most important of them.

        As of now your writing has a lot of high words mixed together but no actual contents.

        And is there something wrong with you? It must be if after reading about “eliminating islam” (which is an ideology) the first thing you wrote included “genocide”.

    • Richard Nikoley on November 16, 2015 at 15:45

      GTR and Amy,

      Go look up Nassim Nicholas Teleb’s bit on this today, which is something Ive been saying since 9/11. Its’s the Saudis and their Suni religious propaganda contra Shiite. See, they have their own politics of religion to be concerned about, in their own region.

      • Amy on November 16, 2015 at 16:10

        Yes, totally agree. I have thought this for a long while, too. Since I learned about Wahhabism, etc., after 9/11. But does anybody really think we’re going to step to the oil-rich sponsor countries and disrupt their civil structure the way we did in Iraq? This is where I despair, because we do not have the resolve or the ‘nads (maybe also not the money) to do what really needs to be done. Which is take a hard-line, pitiless, disciplinarian-type stance, looooong-term, all the while waging an intense psychological war against extremism. Kind of like raising rebellious teenagers into reasonable, thinking adults. Discipline must be unwavering and consistent. Completely unlike current Western approach. What needs to be done involves a lot of approaches on a lot of different fronts, but the first front is the bedrock philosophy of “Haganah”: overwhelm violence with overwhelming violence. But you don’t necessarily need to “wipe out” the entire religion of Islam to cure the problems there any more than we had to assassinate all Catholics during the Reformation to effect some freedom and changes there, or than we have to assassinate all teenagers to get rid of obnoxious, know-it-all behavior. Although sometimes the latter idea is a bit appealing. ;-p

    • Richard Nikoley on November 16, 2015 at 15:48

      Look, Amy just trolled GTR.

      • gabkad on November 17, 2015 at 11:48

        Amy, wouldn’t implementing your strategy also be a form of extremism?

      • Amy on November 17, 2015 at 13:00

        Gab, not in my opinion. It’s all very complex, of course, but the bottom line is that under-retaliation is as bad as no-retaliation, and this problem has to be dealt with. If we keep on the way we have they will run us, at least in the short term, and that’s unacceptable. I certainly don’t advocate wiping out the cultures that have adopted Islam as their religion, or “bombing them back into the Stone Age”…that is extreme.

        But we have to find some way to let them know that they are not free to impose their religion or values upon us, and that it is not right to do so. This is an expansive jihad, and right now we don’t have a Charlemagne to stop it. IMO, just like dealing with tantrum-prone adolescents (yes, this is paternalistic but the level of reasoning coming from “the other side” isn’t very highly developed, so should be treated accordingly), psychological strategies should ideally play the larger part in the long-term view, but this is only after the short term “dick banging” in which we make it abundantly, irrefutably, and irrevocably clear that we have the bigger, badder “tool”. Sadly, like adolescent bullies, I’ve come to believe that’s the only thing the leaders and drivers of radical Islam will understand. Because that’s the level at which they function. They mistake our rationalizing, dislike of “collateral damage”, and our hyper-civilized antipathy for war as weakness. We have to disabuse them of that notion, somehow. Unfortunately, an extreme response may be what’s needed to get the point across.

        Whether our craven, feckless, ass-covering, tongue-bathing, money-grubbing political class will be able to grasp and act on these facts remains to be seen.

        FWIW, at the ground level in America, I think radical Islamists probably already know we will bring it if they throw down. It’s our official response under the direction of our elected leaders that is the issue. Also our propensity to keep electing such douchebags, but that’s a whole ‘nother rant.

        YMMV. 😉

  7. James N. on November 16, 2015 at 14:14

    I found this article to be an interesting read. Apparently, Islam has a prophecy that forecasts its own self-destruction.

  8. Jed on November 16, 2015 at 16:34

    “Bin Laden corporatized terror and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia.”

    IMO, this was the start of the whole mess. Ten thousand Christian soldiers invade their holy land of Mecca and Medina. Had we pulled our troops, there would have been no 911. (This, from Bin Laden’s own words) If no 911, no invasion of Iraq.

    The middle east went through thousands of years and countless generations to achieve balance and Saddam WAS that balance… until we took him out.

    Maybe this all would have happened eventually, but 911 put events into a tragic overdrive, much to the delight of jihadists.

    • Richard Nikoley on November 16, 2015 at 17:43

      “Maybe this all would have happened eventually,”

      Place your bets.

      Forward thinkers operate with the given, not some dice roll over what might have been.

    • Shameer Mulji on November 18, 2015 at 19:02

      There’s nothing holy about Mecca or Medina. It’s just a f***n city.

  9. Guillaume Ponce on November 17, 2015 at 00:27

    Very interesting.

    Although, not all (the 50000) of them are that “righteous”.

    Inquiries, still in progress, reveal that one of the kamikaze of last friday was the tenant of a beer pub in Belgium. This pub was closed by the Belgian authorities because of drug trafficing.

    Narcotics have also been found by searches of the police at the terrorists’ homes.

    So there are probably some of those illuminati has described in the articles. How many, I (sincerely) don’t know and I don’t want to minimize. But there are also many manipulated empty heads in their ranks.

    But it doesn’t really matter in the end. We still have to destroy them.

  10. FrenchFry on November 17, 2015 at 03:35

    As I see it, islamic extremists which seem to abound in ISIS (or at least, ISIS seems to be a strong magnet and support for such people, who feel comforted in their delusion thanks to a powerful group effect … and abuse of some synthetic drugs, from what I read … ), are no different from the rest of the world but at different times. Extreme religious fervor has not been the sole property of radical Islam. Christian based cultures have evolved and most people today who descend from them have forgotten that such fanatism was rampant some centuries ago. After all, the inquisition (Roman catholic church’s coercion tool) could be seen as a historical equivalent of ISIS, or let’s say that they have quite a lot in common.

    Just in France, no one is here today that can tell us how gory it was during the French revolution. The Terror regime saw the rise in power of fanatics that set the mood of the time. it is not fundamentally different from what ISIS is doing today (in its emulation of a middle-age islamic caliphate, literally borrowing its recommendation of violence in many situations). This is at odds with the christian based cultures which moved on from its early days of daily violence and death at every street corner (public executions, letting corpses rot in the streets, etc). It was not that long ago when you think of it.

    • gabkad on November 17, 2015 at 11:53

      Yes FrenchFry, for some reason and it’s actually not exactly what’s going on, of course, but the Kathars have come to mind along with the inquisition to eliminate them. (of course, bottom line, that was encouraged through property expropriation. There’s always got to be ‘someTHING’ to stimulate people to exercise their violent urges.)

  11. Tim on November 17, 2015 at 19:21

    So it’s just some wacko Muslims who follow the words of the Koran literally? Watch this video.

    Then, a whole stadium of Muslims in Turkey can’t give a moment of silence for he victims of Paris?

    I really don’t care to try to understand these people. I just want them to stay away from me.

    • Richard Nikoley on November 17, 2015 at 19:58


      Worthless soft-turd Dave Narby might accuse you of dehumanizing them.

      • James on November 18, 2015 at 10:30

        People like Dave think they are being noble but what ISIS hears is “Please kill me last.”

      • Richard Nikoley on November 18, 2015 at 11:36

        And a number of other things, James.

        For instance, he emailed me this piece this morning:

        What I Discovered From Interviewing Imprisoned ISIS Fighters

        I posted it to Facebook with this comment:

        “Someone emailed this to me, this morning. Folks, this is the sort of dumb and meaningless psychoanalysis that’s going to be the end of Western Civilization if people don’t wise the fuck up. It’s like reading some piece circa 1940 about how German troops loading Jewish families into boxcars had different levels of conscience and/or motivations for not listening to its voice.

        “It’s impertinent.”

        Now, get a load of this, in the same vein. Brigitte Gabriel absolutely laying waste to that “most Muslims are peaceful” schtick.

        As she shows, in a half dozen or more historical references going back to NAZI Germany, “The peaceful majority was irrelevant.”

        Jesus Christ, already.

        “Those who know history are doomed to watch others repeat it.”

    • FrenchFry on November 18, 2015 at 00:01


      I just watched the video. I found it amusing that the speaker addresses the audience in English LOL

      • Tim on November 18, 2015 at 11:40

        I was wondering that myself. Here is a wikipedia page for the group. I guess in Norway many people speak English and the leader made this video for an English speaking audience.

  12. Palva on November 17, 2015 at 07:04

    Hi Richard,

    I think your main hypothesis is very interesting, where we can not apply our ethics to their metaphysics.

    Have you read The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer? It’s a pretty old book, but spot on with regards to mass movements. While it may seem that every ISIS member wants to subdue every non-believer, they only want to do so as long as they feel part of ISIS. They don’t inherently feel this way, and the most radical of them all are also the ones that will most easily defect and join some other radical group. Every mass movement has its end, ISIS will whittle down eventually.

    Perhaps surprisingly the Nazi’s could far more easily recruit from radical commies than from the more moderate populace. Radical unsatisfied people like to adhere to radical thoughts, in the end it doesn’t matter what these radical thoughts are. so long as they are extremely radical. ISIS will fade away at some point, but if we keep bombing them we give them an easy common enemy.

    • Richard Nikoley on November 17, 2015 at 08:23

      Haven’t read it but sure, there’s probably a lot of bandwagon dynamics in play, here. Fortunately for some of them, once they may move on to other concerns like having productive work and a family, they’ll be in the clear.

      People have the capacity to change their minds and their values.

      • gabkad on November 17, 2015 at 11:56

        I think there’s the nub: productive work and a family. Seems to me these young guys don’t see a conventional future for themselves. Not all of them, of course. But ISIS snags young people at their most insecure teenage time (the girls) and young 20s for the guys.

  13. Dave Narby on November 17, 2015 at 18:29

    After reading and enjoying the vast majority of your posts, you finally dropped a giant turd.

    At least you got to the bullshit right away…

    “”…In many conversations with Rick, he’d say things like, “these are people, Rick!”

    And that’s where he was wrong. He was applying his sense of ethics, an ethics applicable to the living, an ethics that sets boundaries for the living and their pursuit of happiness in a social context, to a metaphysics of the dead, The Walking Dead. So, think of ISIS and other violent sectarian actors as The Walking Dead for a spell.””

    I seem to recall other groups using similar dehumanization tactics on blacks, Jews, gypsies, Native Americans, aborigines, Armenians, Christians, homosexuals, etc., etc., ad nauseum.

    What. The. Fuck.

    Absolutely no mention of how the Western nations had a very active hand in producing chaos and hopelessness in millions of people in that region by supporting friendly dictators and/or bombing the living shit out of them FOR FUCKING GENERATIONS.

    Not exactly a constructive or insightful post, Dick.

    I expect better in the future.

    • Richard Nikoley on November 17, 2015 at 19:43

      “I seem to recall other groups using similar dehumanization tactics”

      Well thanks for exposing yourself as a moron right off, with a complete inability to grasp metaphor, the very essence of human consciiousness.

      “I expect better in the future.”

      You can check my toilet every morning to know what I’m giving in terms of your expectations.

      Go fuck off. Piss off too. I deal in smart people, and I never deal in the entitled with “expectations.”

  14. Craig on November 17, 2015 at 18:44

    Just saw a brief interview with Graeme Wood, the author of the Atlantic piece (it was on MSNBC). He said that the shift to sponsoring/emphasizing spectacular terror attacks abroad was a major shift in tactics for ISIS. He thinks it reflects a deterioration of their fortunes in Syria and Iraq. They have been unable to expand further, and even had some setbacks (like the recent losses to Kurdish forces). They no longer look invincible and inevitable on the battlefield, so they are shifting the focus to the more asymmetrical approach long favored by Al Qaeda.

    I do very much agree with your assessment that ISIS is incomprehensible to liberals, who simply can’t understand how fervent religious beliefs could drive this kind of crazy, sub human behavior. They keep looking for some more rational motive.

    • Richard Nikoley on November 17, 2015 at 19:49

      Yea, Craig, I tend to think that’s probably correct.

      It was pretty clear that their prime focus was a stable Caliphate from which they would primarily subdue other Muslims first and expand by both territory and population.

      So, we’ll see, but either way, there is no better time than to utterly destroy them, and I mean so badly that even a grain of rationality has them questioning their doG.

    • FrenchFry on November 18, 2015 at 00:04

      They reached their peak. The Russian intervention has changed things. They will now return to being a mere radical Islam terrorist group. The caliphate thing was a fantasy and they are waking up to the fact that they can’t go further with that, not in today’s world.

  15. David Seng on November 18, 2015 at 07:55

    This “Dying to Win” presentation presents a different argument – occupation.

    • Hap on November 18, 2015 at 09:42

      Occupation….a well worn word….with implications for infinite regression, sort of like aggression to “micro aggression”….where a perceived grievance and insult is stored in just about any utterance, gesture, habit to the point of complete absurdity.

      I guess we will soon have nano and pico aggressions justifying outrage, protest, upheaval and violence…..with professors culling and categorizing the data to prove the “rationale”.

  16. Another John on November 18, 2015 at 20:02

    Interesting post, I will have to read the full Atlantic article now. The one point I would make is that when ISIS acts as a nation state and holds and manages territory in Syria and Iraq then they are playing to our strength. The difficulty with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was that we were nation building in failed states with an active insurgency. This is a very difficult task for the military to do, as many historical examples support. However, annihilating a nation state is something our military was designed to do. It should be a relatively easy task. Instead for the last year our government has been bombing extraneous low value targets in the desert and sending arms to third parties some of which have clearly made there way to extremist groups like ISIS and Al Nusra Front. Also ISIS has captured advanced weaponry from their victories against a weak Iraqi Army that we trained and equipped. In a years time we should have reduced ISIS to nothing with an aggressive aerial campaign, similar to the initial Iraq invasion. The fact we haven’t it tells me that the strategy is something else entirely. Its patently obvious to me at least that the current administration is focused on taking out Assad. Clearly that is the priority and if ISIS helps in the task than they seem to be ok with it. When the Russians stepped in it seemed to change the dynamic. Now the French want to take the war to ISIS. The US is looking really foolish in the war in Syria, just like in Libya we seem to be targeting the wrong people, and fundamentally unserious about addressing the extremist elements.

    • Richard Nikoley on November 19, 2015 at 08:09

      Nice summation, John.

  17. […] the recent revelations of ISIS intent (see here) should sign their death warrant. I’ll […]

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Follow by Email8k