Islamic State and the Crisis of Modernity

Written by Stephen Gray.

In recent months, Islamic State (known also as IS, ISIS or ISIL) burst open the doors on the world stage and screamed into common parlance. This organisation, growing out of the Iraqi Al-Qaeda group in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion, seeks to establish a united and purified Islamic caliphate—a theocratic state—to govern a broad stretch of the Middle East, and fights for these aims with uncompromising brutality and violence.

IS’s publicity so far—reminiscent of the Taliban rhetoric to which we were exposed during the war in Iraq—has been a heady mix of religion and politics, combined with footage of beheadings and a relentless expansionist stance. The image we are presented with is positively medieval.

Ideologically, this sense of medievalism strikes us in the West as heretical. Our social and intellectual history, for the past three or four hundred years, has been a purging of feudalism and a disentanglement of religion from the political sphere. We have seen what religious politics can do, and are, with good reason, averse to the prospect.

Our immediate repulsion from IS, then, can be seen as the psychological reaction to a confrontation with a history we are continuously struggling to escape. Despite this, many foreigners are drawn to IS and other radical Islamic militant groups in the Middle East; estimates hold that up to 12,000 foreigners have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the conflict, and anywhere between 1,000 and 3,000 come from Western countries (1). Up to 200 recruits have come from Australia alone (2).

I should note, here, that this should not be read as a spouting of the colonialist belief that we in the West have culturally advanced beyond the archaic duumvirate of Church and State, while those in the Arab world remain stuck in the Dark Ages. Quite the opposite: it seems that those drawn to IS are, understandably, disillusioned with the narrative of the West, i.e. that it is our right and our duty to bring to ‘inferior’ nations and cultures the torch of modern civilisation and all that entails. Again and again, we’ve been responsible for foisting our principles on other cultures which are considered less ‘developed’ or ‘democratic’—we saw it in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria. Our mentality, which causes us to shudder in horror at the executions committed by IS, but lend our support (or at least indifference) to military airstrikes, drone attacks and carpet bombings carried out by our own governments, comes from the belief that IS’s claim to political authority over the Levant is illegitimate.

But what is it that makes their claim invalid? Most obviously, it would seem that IS’s violent tactics immediately nullify any legitimacy they purport to hold. This is a view that was put forward by twentieth century political theorist Hannah Arendt, who, in her essay ‘What is Authority?’ suggested that ‘power’ and ‘authority’ were two very different things—the former being the simple ability to enforce what one wanted through violence, whilst the latter implies a moral validity regarding a ruling body’s claims (3). It’s clear enough that IS holds power, but what about authority?

For Arendt, ensuring the obedience of subjects or citizens through violence and coercion undermines one’s claim to authority (4). Violence is more than evident in the modus operandi of IS but the organisation itself emerged in direct reaction to the violence committed by the US and its allies following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In fact, every government throughout history has carried out violence and coercion in order to supplement their rule—the fear of imprisonment, financial loss or (in some cases) death is the very basis of any legal system. We can see this clearly enough at home in Australia with the recent anti-terrorism police raids on the homes of Melbourne residents—the use and threat of force in those circumstances has in no way publicly delegitimated the authority of the government.

So, if all states garnish their authority with power, this alone cannot be a delegitimating factor for IS. Arendt goes on to say that the source of authority for a given government must transcend the state itself, otherwise the state will become self-justifying and therefore tyrannical (5). Historically, tradition and religion provided this source for earthly powers by granting the ‘divine right of kings’ (6). In other words, a king’s rule was legitimate because it was ordained by God. However, with the separation of Church and State during the Enlightenment, that source of authority was lost. As the infamous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche controversially proclaimed, ‘God is dead […] and we have killed him’ (7).

Contrary to popular belief, Nietzsche’s dictum is not an exultation of atheism or a celebration of the victory of scientific knowledge over centuries of religious control. Though staunchly irreligious, Nietzsche understood Christianity in the West to have been a culturally unifying force, allowing the various strata of society to understand their roles and purposes as part of a greater, divine order. In the aftermath of the gradual (though necessary) breakdown of the power of the Church, there was no entity holding the necessary political, cultural and social authority ready to step up and take on its role in providing social cohesion, unified morality and a shared purpose. ‘[H]ow much must collapse that was built on this faith, leaned on it, had grown into it[?]’ (8).

Instead, we have descended into fractured individualism, losing all sense of community. The upshot of this, according to Arendt, is that Western governments since then have struggled to stake their claim in legitimate authority—in a secular society without a strong sense of historical tradition, there is no transcendent authority to provide a stamp of approval for a government’s exercise of power (9). Herein lies our problem.

What IS holds as its most dangerously tantalising draw is the sense of social and cultural unity which we in the West have lost, and have all but destroyed for locals in the war-torn Middle East. As Robert Zaretsky and David Mikics wrote in their article ‘Is ISIS an army of nihilists? Just the opposite’ in The Boston Globe in September, IS’s methods are a brutally extreme attempt to repudiate the nihilism resulting from God’s cultural death, by bringing about a regional—and ultimately global—caliphate (10).

Zaretsky and Mikics suggest that ‘Many of Al Qaeda’s and ISIS’s recruits are disaffected young men glad to turn to a thrilling new belief system that walls them off from the danger of nihilism.’ In appealing to the disenfranchised, ostracised and marginalised, IS recruits members by feeding off an already existent disenchantment with the emptiness of Western society.

Amne Alrifai recently published an article on the Mamamia current affairs website in which she points out how ‘We talk about Muslim youth becoming radicalised, but we never discuss what pushes them out to the fringes: the Western world that tells us we’re “ethnics”, and the ethnic world that tells us we’re westernised – both used as insults.

‘No one looks to see the effect that this has on the minds and hearts of these young Muslims, who are barely able to hold on to who they are as humans. These factors make a mind more vulnerable and receptive to messages of hatred’ (11).

To the downtrodden and impressionable, a sense of belonging and purpose trumps any misgivings about reprehensible methods, particularly when one is tired of those utilised by our own ‘civilised’ governments. Belonging to a group and following a goal which is bigger than oneself is extraordinarily powerful.

This is why it is important that we look inward if we are to overcome this situation. We must build for ourselves a stronger sense of community, of social cohesion. We must find for ourselves a more robust type of legitimacy, one in which the authority of our own elected governments does not rely on coercion and violence, but on a strong and unifying democratic vision which does not exclude or demonise outsiders, but lights the way forward. Most of all, we need to provide the support and sense of purpose to those who would otherwise seek it elsewhere, to their own and our detriment.


  1. <;.
  2. <;.
  3. H Arendt, 1954, accessed online at <;, pp. 1-2.
  4. Arendt, p. 2.
  5. Arendt, p. 4.
  6. <;
  7. F Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008, p. 120.
  8. Nietzsche, p. 199.
  9. Arendt, pp. 2-3, 21.
  10. <;.
  11. <;.

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