Just over a decade after the US-led invasion of Iraq overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraq faces a crisis. On 29 June, rebel Sunni groups declared the establishment of a Caliphate – an Islamic state with a single religious/political leader – covering those parts of Iraq and Syria already under their control, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at the head, to be known as ‘Caliph Ibrahim’. The main jihadist group, al-Baghdadi’s ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or simply ‘Islamic State’), only formed in April 2013 and yet, in little over a year, it has managed to take control of regions, towns and cities as well as oil fields in Iraq and Syria despite opposition from the governments and armed forces of those countries. Iraq’s government has asked for American help, specifically air strikes, to stem the wave of ISIS successes whilst Iran has sent military advisers to assist Prime Minister Maliki’s government.
ISIS is an offshoot of Osama Bin Laden’s international al-Qaeda network but its focus is on the creation of an Islamic state rather than attacking Western targets around the world. Relations between the ISIS and al-Qaeda leaderships are said to be strained and it is the militaristic intent of ISIS that has proved most attractive to thousands of foreign supporters who have travelled to Syria and Iraq to train and fight for the jihadist cause. Estimates are that around 500 British nationals and several thousand from the USA and elsewhere in Europe have moved to Syria and Iraq to fight, with governments concerned about their possible return. However, the harsh regimes and brutal actions of ISIS fighters, such as crucifixions and summary executions of Shia soldiers and civilians (which have led to reprisals against Sunni communities), are unlikely to attract mass civilian support in Iraq or elsewhere.
For sociologists, religious movements such as these have long posed problems. Are religious movements best seen as cults or sects rather than ‘movements’? Does their faith-based character make them different from secular social movements? If so, does that mean we should avoid analysing them using conventional theories and concepts? I don’t think it does. For instance, there is no compelling reason that an international movement network like al-Qaeda cannot be studied as a ‘new’ social movement, albeit with an ideology rooted in a radical interpretation of Islam. One reason why ISIS and al-Qaeda have proved attractive is their stated aim of washing away the ‘shame and disgrace’ that they argue should be felt by Muslims at the weakness of majority-Muslim countries and the corruption and complicity of their leaders. The reinvention of radical jihadist forms of Islam demonstrates that sociology’s long-standing ‘end of ideology’ thesis does not travel well. Daniel Bell’s (1960) early version spoke to the post-WWII political consensus in many Western democracies, though even today there is truth in the central claim that sharp, class-based ideological differences have been eroded in contemporary democratic politics in the West. Yet ISIS (and al-Qaeda) propounds a form of populist ideology which diverges radically from mainstream political cleavages around the world. Ideology is very much alive in the 21st century, it’s just not the kind of left- or right-wing forms that Western academics intimately understand. By turning to what they perceive to be fundamentals of the faith – such as the establishment of sharia as the legal basis for society – these groups offer both an alternative ideology and practice.
In most respects, al-Qaeda’s profile ‘fits’ the broad sociological concept of a new social movement (Sutton and Vertigans 2006). It organizes internationally and adopts a networked structure with relatively autonomous ‘cells’, its ideology is not materialistic, the group seeks to practise in the present some of the changes it wants to bring about in future, it tends to attract middle-class activists and it focuses on producing symbolic direct actions that carry messages for both supporters and opponents. However, al-Qaeda’s symbolic actions have taken the form of violent attacks on Western targets such as the World Trade Center in the USA to show that the giant superpower remains vulnerable. ISIS continues this trend, though it has evolved into something more akin to an armed forces organization today.
Social movement theory also tells us that movements are not merely sets of ideological or interest-based collectivities. They have to garner resources of various kinds if they are to be successful, including activists, supporters, links to political influence, financial backers, compelling ideologies, premises to work from, administrative facilities, expertise in communications, weapons and more. This is one aspect of movement activity that ISIS seems to have grasped very quickly, partly as a result of its military excursions. It is estimated that ISIS is the wealthiest of all movements with reported assets of around US$2 billion gleaned from wealthy individuals, sales of oil from oil fields under its control in Syria and a reported raid on the Iraqi central bank in Mosul when fighters took over the city this year. ISIS has also shown a developed capacity to use social media and new technology to spread its message via recruitment videos on YouTube as well as using Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and an app – The Dawn of Glad Tidings – to keep supporters updated on the latest news.
In terms of mobilizing resources, the ISIS campaign has been extraordinarily effective in a relatively short time. It has also adopted some of the characteristics and tactics of the West European new social movements and embraces new communications technology and social media. However, its ideology and morality remain rooted in a particular interpretation of traditional beliefs and practices, which make it appear incongruous, even contradictory to conventional sociology. Scholars of social movements don’t have to reinvent the wheel to study such religious movements, but they do have to test their theories and concepts against evidence from beyond the familiar frame of Western party politics.
Bell, D. (1960) The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (Glencoe, Ill: The Free Press).
Sutton, P.W. and Vertigans, S. (2006) ‘Islamic “New Social Movements”? Radical Islam, Al-Qa’ida and Social Movement Theory’, Mobilization: An International Journal, 11(1): 101-16.
Chapter 22 is a good place to start, especially pp. 994-1006 on social movements. Concepts used in the study of religious movements can be found on pp. 739-43, whilst contrasting forms of war and terrorism are discussed on pp. 1036-46.
In Sociology: Introductory Readings, Readings 50 (Kaldor), 51 (Meyer and Tarrow) and 52 Laqueur) cover the subject of social movements in a global age.