What do we really know about ISIL, the rising insurgent group in Iraq whose violent methods have generated so much fear and anger around the world in the last few months? After violently establishing control of Sunni territories between Syria and northwest Iraq, they've provoked international outrage by beheading an American journalist named James Foley, and by releasing statements threatening vast new acts of terror around the world.
We must think we know something about ISIL here in the USA, because we've been saying a lot about them. Some American journalists, politicians and commentators are now urging a new war to fight the threat (though others like me are concerned that we don't have a better grasp on the real situation in Iraq than we had when we last invaded in 2003). At times like this, we can discover a lot by applying Occam's Razor to the case.
Occam's Razor, the famous philosophical principle we discussed last week, states that the simplest answer to a difficult question is probably the best one. We may think that we naturally gravitate to simple answers, but often we don't, which is why Occam's Razor can produce amazing results when applied systematically. If we examine ISIL with a strict focus on verifiable facts and obvious conclusions, we may discover that the opposite of everything we thought we believed is true..
So, what do we think we know about ISIL? Based on the media coverage and public conversations I've observed in recent weeks, two of the most popular answers would be:
1) They are fanatic religious fundamentalists, intent on jihad and sharia on behalf of Sunni Islam.
2) They are a powerful military force that will carry out evil acts of murder, abuse and terrorism until they are stopped by a stronger force.
Neither statement, it turns out, survives its first bout with Occam's Razor.
First, are the leaders or supporters of ISIL really motivated by religion? I continue to be amazed at the gullibility of otherwise smart people who fail to see the opportunistic phoniness of military leaders who claim to be religious. When new world leaders make themselves well known through acts of violence or terror, why are we always so eager to give them the gift of complete credulity? Why do we accept their statements of religious belief or ideological purity on face value?
ISIL appears to be led by an Iraqi named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The only thing we know for sure about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is that he is a successful military leader in a region of the world where religion is a strong indicator of ethnic identity and economic status. Because religion has so much cultural and social significance in Iraq, it is obvious that a person who wishes to be a successful military leader in Iraq will claim to be a religious Muslim.
It's nearly impossible to imagine an insurgent military leader in Iraq who does not claim to be a religious Muslim. Similarly, it would be impossible to imagine a successful male conservative Republican politician in the United States (say, a Senator or a Congressman) who does not claim to be heterosexual and happily married to a woman. So does this prove that every successful male conservative Republican politician in the USA is heterosexual and happily married to a woman?
Of course it does not. If an optional personal characteristic is a necessary requirement for acceptance in any field, and if the personal characteristic can be easily faked, then a successful application of Occam's Razor will always shave the belief in the sincerity of this personal characteristic away. The characteristic might exist, but in these circumstances there is no reason to believe that it exists.
We know that an insurgent military force must profess to be religious to gather support in Iraq, and we know that ISIL is an insurgent military force that has gathered support in Iraq. We cannot conclude from this that the militants who lead ISIL have any sincere interest in religion at all. It seems more likely that they are primarily interested in carrying out successful military operations.
I've brought up this important (and often widely neglected) point before, when I suggested in 2011 that Osama bin Laden could very well be a closet atheist. There is no good reason to ever grant credulity to a successful politician or military leader who professes to have personal, spiritual or ideological beliefs that are implicitly required for the roles they choose to play. Occam's Razor says: it's probably part of the act.
The only characteristic that most successful politicians or military leaders share is a strong appetite for power. Once we realize this, we can start to notice the ways in which appetite for power explains their actions. So, is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi actually a religious Muslim? We have no way to know, but we do know that he would have to claim to be a religious Muslim in order to succeed in his chosen role. Do we know if ISIL's ranks are filled with devout Muslims, or even that its wider circle of followers includes many devout Muslims? Again, we really don't know. In an area where religion denotes cultural identity and economic status, it's much easier to believe that large populations are motivated by cultural identity and economic status than by devout interest in religion itself.
So, the first thing we thought we knew about ISIL -- that the group and its followers are motivated by religious fundamentalism, doesn't survive the razor. The second statement above -- that ISIL is a powerful military force that will not stop committing acts of evil until it is stopped by a stronger force -- also performs poorly under close examination.
It's clear from its activities that ISIL is media-savvy, that its leaders are highly aware of the power of publicity. It has been provoking outrage in Iraq and around the world, and it has been gaining strength through its publicity efforts. This is not how a group that wants to be left alone behaves. It's how a group that wants to be attacked by a stronger force behaves.
There is, it turns out, very little reason to think that ISIL will suffer if it is attacked by a stronger force. It's a guerrilla group, after all. A strong and overt military response would give the greatest possible benefit to ISIL's violent and hateful mission, and would ensure its continuing growth. ISIL's Shiite victims in Iraq would be the first to suffer greatly if the current insurgency were escalated to a direct global conflict against the USA. There's no telling how far the damage would go.
ISIL's strategy is to distinguish itself by shocking and frightening its enemies. That's why they put a lot of effort into making and distributing a beheading video. Does anybody think the James Foley video was released by mistake? ISIL made the video to outrage their enemies, to provoke a response. Their greatest dream is that the USA would invade Iraq again.
If we are ever foolish enough to oblige, it would greatly strengthen ISIL's fame, its fundraising, its strategic opportunities and even its perceived moral position within Iraq and all over the world.
This is why I'm really appalled to learn that even some of my smarter friends think a strong show of American-led military strength in Iraq would harm ISIL. This is, of course, the very same amateur's mistake that President George W. Bush made in response to Osama bin Laden's provocation in 2001. At least we currently have a President and commander-in-chief who has probably heard of Occam's Razor. There's at least reasonable grounds for hope that Obama is smart enough to use it at times like this, when so much is at stake.