The cover feature of the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic carries the headline “What ISIS Really Wants.” What ISIS, the group currently occupying a large swath of territory in Syria and Iraq, wants is the End of Days, according to Graeme Wood, the article’s author. That is, ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, is a millenarian movement whose aim is nothing less than a quicker apocalypse, rather than the profane act of continuous mass violence. Wood’s reporting offers ample evidence of the group’s apocalyptic vision. Much of the piece revolves around the ideas and activities of Robert “Musa” Cerantonio, an Australian man with a “bookish demeanor” whom both researchers and the Islamic State’s fellow travelers describe as one of the group’s leading ideologues. Cerantonio’s millenarian teachings are a selective mix of existing Sunni Islamic thought and novel speculation, according to Wood’s description:
“[His visions] include the belief that there will be only 12 legitimate caliphs, and [Islamic State leader Abu-Bakr al-]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.”
This is heavy stuff, and heavy stuff worth taking seriously, according to Wood. For Wood, the U.S. officials now engaged in a belated, bumbling, and insufficient battle against the Islamic State are too quick to misinterpret the group’s theology and, therefore, its military and political strategy. The axiom that guides Wood’s argument, that understanding must precede (policy) action, is plainly correct. But understanding the millenarian ideas that underpin the Islamic State’s theology is not enough. That same axiom falls short if we do not also grapple with the historical reasons for millenarianism’s emergence, and the ways in which the apocalyptic idea does–and does not–shape politics, both of the Islamic State and of others.
The principal concern of the apocalyptic idea is time: the shortcomings of the present-day, and the urgency of the future. Millenarianism is a wholesale rejection of the modern, of the ways in which its contemporaneous politics organize and determine the activities of human society. By modern, I refer to a specific mode of thought that has, in recent history, governed the politics of that society. “To be modern,” Marshall Berman writes in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, his wide-ranging investigation of “the experience of modernity,”
“is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world–and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.”
That we associate this phenomenon with our contemporary era is a result of the gradual convergence of these paradoxical forces. The fault lines of economic inequality have sharpened even as the mechanization of industry has made realer the promise of universal prosperity; the quickening pollution of our natural spaces has both accompanied and disrupted the preservation of wilderness. In 1872, the interests of both private American railroad companies, compelled by the promise of tourism, and a nascent environmental movement aligned to midwife the first national U.S. wilderness reserve–Yellowstone National Park, along the northwestern border of Wyoming. The Janus-faced spirit of that first American wilderness persists in the character of the contemporary U.S. Department of the Interior, which, tasked with both America’s national parks and its natural resources, simultaneously oversees the preservation and exploitation of wilderness. That experience of modernity, the ever-presence of contradiction, is precisely the present-day the apocalyptic idea rejects.
The apocalyptic future is an era in which the contradictions of modernity have fully converged, and in which its imperfections do not exist. Because millenarianism embraces this future, it is tempting to place its followers at a total remove from the modern era. (Set aside, if you can, the peculiar historicism of this argument: by definition, an organization that exists in the year 2015 necessarily bears the stamp, however faint, of its times.) In his article, Wood quibbles with those who elevate the Islamic State’s politics to a modern plane, who portray its gruesome, violent insurgency as anything but “a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment.” Wood describes Musa Cerantonio’s millenarianism along these lines, as “a medieval fantasy novel, only with real blood.” For Wood, the medieval character of the Islamic State emerges from practices that are both essential to and inextricable from the group’s apocalyptic vision for modernity’s destruction: namely, its violence (“medieval-style punishments for moral crimes”) and the apparent oddity of its political culture (“codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned”).
However “medieval” these practices appear, the millenarianism of the Islamic State is also fully a part of its place in modernity. This is not simply a consequence of the networked technologies, like YouTube, the Islamic State uses to communicate its violence. The institutions the Islamic State disavows, like the bureaucracy and borders of its secular state, are precisely the same ones that grant its authority. If these institutions hasten the apocalypse, in their marginal way, they are, first and foremost, concerned with the control and influence of civilians under the Islamic State’s domain. As Colin Dickey argues in his essay on the politics of time, “the notion of the Apocalypse adds an end point to the calendar, a termination date that infuses the present with meaning.” The Islamic State’s secular vision for power, and not its millenarianism, is the primary origin of the group’s mass violence.
The secular function of the apocalyptic idea is common among groups who claim millenarianism’s mantle. Before his public split from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X used a prolific assortment of apocalyptic images to proselytize the Nation’s vision of black liberation. These images followed an existing lineage, dating to Reconstruction-era slave narratives, of prophetic themes used to advance the slow-moving cause of black freedom. Malcolm’s radical eschatology, however, failed to keep pace with the demands of marginalized black communities in cities across the United States. It was Malcolm’s secular vision for political and economic equality, and his ability to organize communities to that end, that secured the preacher’s authority in the years preceding his assassination in 1965.