Suzanne Schneider: How the Apocalypticism of the Islamic State Reflects Global Transformations 

In this striking, in-depth conversation, Suzanne Schneider (Brooklyn Institute for Social Research) discusses the modernity of new forms of jihad; shows how the Islamic State’s organizational structure, understanding of the law, and spectacular violence reflect broader contemporary trends; explains why nihilism and apocalypticism can be viewed as responses to liberal triumphalism; and argues that democratic states – much like Santa Claus – have to deliver for belief in them to remain credible.

Ferenc Laczó: The Apocalypse and the End of History is an original and thought-provoking attempt to historicize jihad and contextualize its recent and current appeal. You assert early on that jihad today is “neither the natural heir to its earlier forms nor a phenomenon that can be accounted for within the bounds of Islam alone.” Your book examines in turn ideas about “agency, community, governance, violence, and political transformation that have emerged among mujahideen today.” You explore the type of subject the Islamic State has envisioned and its mode of politics, its constructions of identity and difference, the relationship between its governance and other types of governance prevalent today, as well as its violence targeting civilians in a global frame. A key aim of yours appears to be to understand “the emergence of a particular type of jihad over the last four decades or what its continued salience might teach us about the world as a whole” and to thereby see in high relief what is latent in the West’s own political and social crises. 

More specifically, the book accounts for the rise and continued salience of the Islamic State against the backdrop of state fragmentation, crises of legitimation, and emergent configurations of sovereign and non-sovereign power. At one point, you depict the self-declared Caliphate as a specific manifestation of right-wing, authoritarian populism that critiques institutionalized knowledge rather than power structures and that borrows from modern nationalism while also aiming to supersede it. As a first question, let me ask you what appears to be truly novel about the form jihad has taken in the late 20th and early 21st centuries when we consider it as part of a longer history?

Suzanne Schneider: There is a tendency to regard jihad in an essentialized way, as holy war that stands outside of history and which doesn’t really evolve alongside the broader history of violence or the broader history of warfare. This is an absurd proposition, but it is one that continues to hold a lot of sway particularly in the West, as if jihad was a sort of medieval residue. 

Thus, at the first level, we have to understand that jihad has its own history, which in many ways parallels the broader transformation of violence. In the book, I argue that it is about a broader trend towards privatized violence, violence away from the state. Jihad today is no longer viewed as the prerogative of rulers or of states. It has become an insurrectionist, almost a vigilante tool that can be used against the existing political order. 

It’s also important to note that for most of its history jihad had functioned as the sort of warfare that Muslims are authorized to wage. With that designation came a great deal of legal stipulations over who could be attacked, what weapons could be used, who was obligated to fight. In the classic Sunni legal literature, jihad is considered a collective obligation that’s incumbent upon the community as a whole – it is not something that everyone must perform by themselves, in the same way that a peasant in medieval Europe doesn’t have the capacity to wage war against the neighbouring feudal territory. This makes intuitive sense if we think about those who are called – the mujahideen – as conscripts: they are called up for duty by a recognized ruler, who possesses a great deal of latitude in deciding whether a war is necessary at that time or not. The last time that we saw jihad really operating along these traditional lines was arguably when the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War in 1914 – and even there, there were plenty of novel factors.

For the sake of comparison, we can keep the Ottoman declaration in mind and then jump to the end of the 20thcentury, where you have the self-declared jihad of Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s. A jihad is declared here by a man who is neither the leader of state, nor has any army, nor is he in any possession of real religious credentials that would qualify himself to issue religious rulings. 

Bin Laden is the ideological byproduct of a shift that had actually began several decades earlier with the argument put forth by the Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb that jihad was no longer a collective duty in these days of corrupt and impious rulers but was rather an individual duty that could and should be undertaken by all Muslims everywhere. I think many people miss the real modernity behind Qutb’s repositioning of jihad in this way, which emerged as much from the experience of liberalism, and particularly the liberal critique of absolutism, on the one hand, and the conceptual development of individualism, the individual as a key social and political actor, on the other. 

It is this innovation that paves the way for jihad as we encounter it today: a practice that is associated with non-state actors, so-called lone wolves outside and above the international state system. Once we see this fundamental transformation in the nature of jihad, it becomes easier to create some basis of comparison with movements outside the Islamic frame as well. We can start viewing it not any longer as this instantiation of medieval violence, but as a modern, even a hypermodern phenomenon.

In connection with my previous question, I also wished to ask you how you would situate the views of the Islamic State on democracy, power, and the state alongside other present-day radical, authoritarian, and reactionary movements. What do these movements share and what might make the Islamic State quite specific?

Starting at the most basic level, if we cast aside the view of jihad as ahistorical, as sort of existing outside common world history, then these groups suddenly appear on the threshold of new modes of neoliberal violence wherein the nation-state is no longer the primary wielder of force. We will also have to contend with the generalized breakdown of faith in current systems of political authority – this is one thing that these mobilizations point to, namely a broadly based legitimation crisis. Of course, there are a number of other things that we could point too as well. For instance, the very savvy use of media to produce the politics of spectacle. The creation of new forms of political identity and community that are not necessarily tied to territory. The sense that the slow grinding wheels of democracy are no longer adequate to solve the challenges that are before us and the sense of disenchantment with politics-as-usual and the resulting pivot to anti-democratic means or untraditional pathways for political transformation. These repeated innovations in the name of so-called tradition are a very familiar feature of many of these movements. 

Alongside all that, I would note the elevation of violence as the premier form of civic agency. 

I am very fascinated by the role of violence here as the one thing that people are called upon to do within these anti-democratic movements, because it’s a way of preserving their authoritarian character. It is as if to say that “we do not need you to govern, we only need you to harm.” 

You have the allure of agency, the allure of being able to do something which counteracts the sense paralysis that many people experience within the democratic systems, where the pathways to civic participation feel very flimsy, but what you are called to do is essentially to inflict harm. 

The glorification of violence, the romanticization of the fighter, all the aesthetic sensibility around violence is, I think, quite key to understanding the nature of these kinds of anti-democratic and authoritarian movements. I believe that at this substantive level it is more productive to compare the Islamic State with far-right movements in the West. It’s not that all these people are “terrorists.” The term terrorist in fact tells us very little about how people understand themselves or their communities and why they do the things that they do. But if you look at questions of agency, community, and governance, I do think the parallels are quite striking.

Your book considers the points of commonality between nihilistic and random forms of violence by different actors in various places. At the same time, you point to a deep-seeded desire to differentiate “our” violence – that is to say Western violence or, more specifically, US-based violence – from “theirs” regardless of the actual forms they take. Your book in a sense directly threatens the integrity of prevalent narratives built on the idea of jihad as wholly foreign and exotic to the US and the Western world. Would you be willing to discuss the discursive strategies through which contemporary forms of jihad is made to appear wholly foreign and exotic in the West? And what actual points of commonality you see between its forms of radical violence and those being inflicted in the US and across the globe by other actors?

There certainly still exists a formidable infrastructure in the West that perpetuates this understanding, which is that we are dealing with something fundamentally anti-modern and opposed to modern rationalism and Western values writ large. It’s far more comforting to think that the violence inflicted by jihadi groups represent something antithetical to the West, something that is outside “our history and experience,” and wholly distinct from it in ontological terms. 

Conversely, when you see the Islamic State urging its followers to exploit the easy availability of weapons in the US as a means of carrying out mass shootings, or admitting that the purpose of such missions is not to achieve a practical political goal but to inflict carnage and attract media attention, you see the contours of something else: this is not necessarily a cosmic showdown between “our” modernity and “their” fundamentalism. 

There is something rotten within this modernity itself, which no one truly stands outside of any more than anyone stands outside of a global force like capital.

Taking this proposition seriously means there can be no reassurance that “Islam is the problem.” This forces a much more reflexive look at these crises and forces us to ask what it is about our very modern and very globalized world that is generative of so many far right and reactionary movements – movements that register an enormous amount of malaise with the status quo, on the one hand, and offer no real alternative to it besides destruction and violence, on the other.

Regarding the second part of your question of where we see this overlap in cultures of violence, we could reflect about a few things. Cosplaying, for instance, is a very noted feature of many of these movements; the sense of hyperreality, of living within this social media ecosystem. One of the things I am interested in on the ethical plane is the abandonment of any appeals to guilt or innocence to justify violence, to justify killing, which is largely randomized – as it was the case in killing US aid workers by the Islamic State in “retaliation” for American airstrikes. It is very interesting to read through the statements of the Islamic State to justify the killing of someone like James Foley: the latter did not commit to any sort of personal wrongdoing. There is this media spectacle that is then broadcasted worldwide as to inflict some sort of psychological harm on the West, which can be far greater than the material wound they would be capable of inflicting. If you consider all that, you also have to ask what role the victim plays in these spectacles. And what you will see is that they are primarily props – they are means to an end and the end is spectacle. The logic of this is not dissimilar, I believe, to the logic of the mass shootings that we see in the West. 

It really does gesture at this world in which questions of guilt or innocence and personal responsibility are becoming quite obscure, and human beings themselves are becoming instrumental means in the production of some sort of politics of spectacle.

You make two truly remarkable observations in the book. You argue that “if we have to locate the Islamic State’s networked version of political community within known models, it is the modern corporation that yields the most family resemblance” and that by understanding sharia as a ready-made system of law requiring little in the way of human interpretation, “the Islamic State stands at the fore-front of a trend that hopes to transform government into management—politics into mere administration.” I believe these claims might strike your readers as intriguing ideas in need of further elucidation. In what ways does the Islamic State resemble a modern corporation in its operation and why do you say in the book that it has ambitioned to transform politics into mere administration? How can we observe these tendencies?

Here I really have to acknowledge and thank the work of some predecessors who were very influential in helping me develop these arguments, like Faisal Devji and Philip Bobbitt, who were writing about the corporate structure of Al Qaeda when I was still an undergraduate! The idea might sound a little bit outlandish at first but let us consider the way in which the Islamic State is organized. 

It has a truly global field of operations with franchises in different countries all loosely tied to each other but coordinating with and reporting up to some sort of central headquarters. For all its territorial ambitions, the Islamic State is this fascinating glimpse of a political organization that both mimics and supersedes the nation state. I do think it’s like the modern multinational corporation: the latter is its closest cousin. 

In my book, I compare the Islamic State with a multinational corporation called Glencore, which has numerous branches across different countries and hundreds of thousands of employees that are all controlled, at least nominally, by the executive team back in Switzerland. To me this structure looks much more similar to what the Islamic State is trying to build than the traditional nation-state.

These groups are interesting because they all exercise power that technically is not sovereign anywhere, but it is nonetheless existent everywhere. Whether we want to call this non-sovereign power or super-sovereign power, it’s clear that this power is not bound by the international state system, and it scoffs at countries’ claims to be the masters of their own affairs. This is true under jihadi groups that control large swathes of territory that are nominally claimed by existing nation-states, but it’s also true for people working in extractive industries, like mining or oil, in many contexts in the global South – where state structures are essentially doing the bidding of these large corporations and capital more broadly.

Beyond the structure, what about the governance? You mentioned this argument of mine about transforming politics into administration. This is one of the most unexpected things that I have discovered when delving into these sources. Here we have to consider not only Sayyid Qutb’s contributions from the middle of the 20thcentury but also those of his South Asian predecessor from a few decades earlier, Abul A’la Maududi, who wrote extensively about Islamic governance and its relationship to democracy. Broadly speaking, for both of these men any sort of democratic deliberation on the law itself was unnecessary. 

They operated under the assumption that the law in the form of sharia had already been given in a perfected form, and that all that really remains for human hands is to administer it. Qutb, especially, denied the role of human agency in determining what the law is to begin with. These men discarded the fact that there was no single Islamic law, but a system of complex opinions and interpretations. 

More recently, the Islamic State claims that it is not articulating one version of Islam, but that its version is the only one that is appropriate; the only one pure and true. The law is seen as something as clear as day. 

Even when the Islamic State is adopting positions that are really opposed to the stance of the majority of Sunni jurists, past and present, such as executions of aid workers or journalists, there is always a sense that these disputes are beyond the pale, and that whatever they’re doing is pure application of the law in its unadulterated and unmediated fashion. 

It is not a matter of coming together in a political field to decide what type of society we want to build, but only about administering a law that is supposedly already given and beyond contestation. As I was thinking about this, I was struck by how much this discourse mirrored the neoliberal one that was being developed in the second half of the 20th century by figures like Milton Friedman who also aimed at the elimination of the political as the site of substantive contestation. 

Friedman has this great quote from Capitalism and Freedom that says “what the market does is to reduce greatly the range of issues that must be decided through political means, and thereby to minimize the extent to which government need participate directly in the game.” I read this and I perceived it as the other side of this denial of the political. On the one hand, we have this depoliticized space that is completely subject to market forces that are supposedly beyond human control or comprehension. On the other, we have this depoliticized space that is subject to religious precepts that are also supposedly beyond any sort of human control.

I am really interested in this particular type of power that derives its efficacy from claiming to exist beyond human agency, beyond interpretation, beyond any sort of public debate. It’s a form of power that is always trying to cover its own tracks. 

In an earlier work, I developed the idea of a politics of denial, and I think that this coinage works here as well to describe this type of power whose constitutive trait is to deny its own social construction. However strangely it might appear to put Milton Friedman in conversation with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, they come to articulate strikingly similar views of a hollowed out political space that can merely be administered and managed because the work of lawgiving has been rendered basically irrelevant.

You view the Islamic State as a nihilist response and a clear sign of the collapse of political imagination. In this context, you assert that – and I am quoting – “there are good reasons to consider the rise and proliferation of contemporary jihadist movements as products of the precise triumph of liberalism that Fukuyama celebrates” and that contemporary jihad is not so much the heir to the radical leftist tradition, but rather “a symptom of its decline.” Would you care to elaborate on these two assertions? In what ways is contemporary jihad a product of liberalism’s triumph and a symptom of the decline of the radical left?

One way of answering this question is to tell you how I came to think about this as someone who is trained as a historian. When I was starting to delve into these sources on the Islamic State, I was compelled to ask what is giving their apocalyptic vision particular appeal in our own time. There is Graeme Wood’s response, which was featured in a very influential essay that he published in The Atlantic under the title “What ISIS Really Wants,” according to which the group is reviving an authentic religious sensibility from medieval times. But then why now? Why do these things work in the early 2000s in a way that they did not in 1960 or even the 1980s?

I believe it’s a lot more helpful to situate this apocalyptic turn alongside our own foretold end of history and to ask what happens when you come to believe that the work of thinking, of political imagination and world making, is over, when you think that there really is no alternative, particularly when the world as it exists is so untenable for many people. I believe it is nihilism that is the other side of this liberal triumphalism. 

If we are repeatedly told that there is no alternative, that a better life is not possible here on earth, it should not be all that surprising that one possible response is anticipating the end of the world – whereby a better life is available only after death. 

I believe this provides space to the right, because they have been the only ones to offer an alternative to the status quo, the only ones to really recognize how untenable the status quo is – this is something that mainstream liberalism is having a quite difficult time really doing. If you place that in the context of the Middle East and, more generally, the Global South, since the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of any sort of patronage for left movements, the assaults of neoliberalism on the state’s institutions, and an absolute hollowing out of the Arab left and of the left more broadly in the global South—with few and notable exceptions in South America—we see the energy has certainly moved rightward in much of the Middle East and Central Asia, as the only real alternative to the absolutely corrupt and untenable status quo.

When I think about that vis-à-vis what’s happening here in the West, and particularly in the US, with the far right, certain things come into view. 

For instance, like their counterparts, the Islamic State fighters, the Western far right desires agency in the face of these interlocking systems of control. They desire some sort of community in the face of atomization, action in lieu of mere deliberation. They desire the reassurance that maybe there is someone in charge of this mess, which might be undone through some sort of concerted effort by this brave and elect group of warriors. And in a world in which the pathways for civic participation are mostly hollowed out, and where material conditions render genuine communities increasingly rare, I don’t think it’s any wonder that organizations that offer some semblance of agency and community can attract adherents. 

If this energy is not really present on the left, the right gets more space to attract people looking for it.

Of course, there is something tragic in this picture I am painting. The alternative that is being offered on the far right is not really an alternative that is going to lead to broad-based human flourishing. There is not really an alternative here: it may certainly lead to the destruction of the status quo, but it heralds something that is even worse. I believe this is a very dangerous place to be: we see this rightward drift towards some sort of authoritarian capitalism with very little counteraction on the left.

Let us perhaps close our conversation today by exploring the broader Framework of Interpretation you present in the book. You describe neoliberalism “as a process of institutional capture wherein the state, including its regulatory agencies, is recalibrated and redeployed to serve the needs of capital” and argue that one should in fact expect that “the undermining of democratic control over warfare” to accompany “the triumph of factional interests over the public good.” At the same time, you are interested in the bi-directional circulation of ideas and practices and approach neoliberalism as a form of colonial blowback, in which populations in the global West and North are subjected to the same types of degradation that long typified colonial rule in Asia, Africa, and South America. In other words, you see the Global South not as the secondary market for Western politics but as a key site of their emergence. Would you care to elaborate on this broader interpretation of modern and contemporary history and how it can help us grasp the ways in which neoliberalism – neoliberalism in the sense we have just defined it – has emerged hegemonic? Would you therefore also say that the Islamic state has foreshadowed a potential global political future and, if so, what should we do to make sure that potential future does not actually become our actual future?

I believe that most people who work within the realm of political theory are using Western case studies as templates, thereby attracting the criticism that these very Eurocentric frameworks might not be able to explain, to model, or to make predictions about the rest of the world. My approach is indeed quite different. I have been trained as a historian of the colonial world and the Middle East, more particularly. I am using different sources not necessarily to substitute the Eurocentric perspective with one centered exclusively on the Global South, but to really see these things in some sort of relation with one another, in some sort of circularity, and to grasp trends emerging dialectically. 

As for the question you asked about neoliberalism being conceptualized as a form of colonial blowback, this really comes from considering the relationship between the state with its violent arms and punitive machinery, on the one hand, and capital and the populace, on the other. For instance, in the high period of colonialism, you see the state is chiefly a tool to be mobilized for the protection and preservation of private profit, and to put down any democratic rebellion or popular resentment to this accord. Therefore, when I see major corporations in the US lured through these multibillion-dollar tax relief packages, it is really clear who is gaining the upper hand here. Multinational corporations can easily shift capital and profits from one jurisdiction to another because of the global structure of neoliberal finance and the state does not necessarily have the upper hand. It has to lure capital in a race to the bottom. 

This in turn creates all those conditions which authoritarian alternatives to democracy are so dependent on. We can see some of this in clear relief by looking to the Global South, by looking at examples in the Middle East. 

There, the process of state fragmentation, the crisis of legitimation, and the real hollowing out of the state in terms of being able to serve the public good, are in many ways more advanced. Are we sure this is some sort of past? Is this not closer to a possible future? 

I believe these are versions at what happens when the state is a vehicle for serving private interests, which recalls, in a way, the attempted recalibration of the state in the West.

When it comes to what the future will look like, I always say that historians have fuzzy crystal balls, but it does seem likely that some sort of authoritarian capitalist future is coming toward us with a real chance of genuine civic fragmentation and violence. In terms of how we would prevent that, I don’t think there is any way other than through revitalizing democracy, and not just in a purely ideological fashion. 

People talk about declining faith in democracy, as if they are just supposed to believe in democracy the way that they believe in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus has got something to give – there are presents under the tree. 

And if you have your democracy reduced to just voting every few years for someone who doesn’t actually represent your interests in any meaningful way, why are you going to believe in democracy? Perhaps you will think that the military can do a much better and more efficient job running the show…

I believe that there is a tendency, particularly among liberals, to view the decline of faith in democracy as purely a matter of belief. This interpretation is detached from the material circumstances that make democracies compelling to begin with. Therefore, one of the answers is that the democracies we want to build have to govern in ways that really show their material benefits to people’s lives; only then we can talk about whether or not people believe in democracy in an ideological fashion. Frankly, a lot of this governing is not particularly exciting, for it’s the quotidian act of governing at every single level – local, state, and federal in the US. 

The aim should be to make the advantages of a state that can serve the actual public good apparent in people’s lives in ways that I don’t think has been done for quite a long time.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Giancarlo Grignaschi.

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