ISIS & the Enigma of Modernity

Turning the Clock Back 1,400 Years

When 45-year-old Sally Jones left her home in Kent, England, to join the terrorist group ISIS, her friends and neighbors were stunned. Once established in Syria, the white mother of two began tweeting about wanting to torture Christians, while pictures were posted on Twitter of her wearing a burka and holding an assault rifle.

Those of us living in the modern West find it hard to understand what drives terrorists in the Middle East. But we find it even more difficult to understand why so many ordinary Western citizens like Sally Jones have chosen to join ISIS's terrorist playpen in Syria and Iraq. Sally, and others like her, are not the sort of people we normally expect to become terrorists. The former rock band member was not from a Muslim family, yet she was quickly converted and radicalized online by Junaid Hussain, a convicted computer hacker twenty-five years her junior, who is now her husband in Syria.

Other examples could be multiplied. ISIS already boasts over 2,000 foreign fighters—a number that is growing daily. There has been a flurry of news reports about people from civilized neighborhoods suddenly showing up as ISIS beheaders and terrorists. When their family members and former neighbors are interviewed, they typically express shock and utter puzzlement at how a seemingly normal person could go that route.

The Enigma of ISIS

One could explain the rise of ISIS by simply saying that "Islam is a religion of violence" and leaving it at that. But while it is true that Islam has a long tradition of violent jihad stretching back to its very inception, this does not help us understand the particular attraction ISIS holds for so many purely nominal Muslims and recent converts. Nor does it explain why someone like Sally Jones, with no background in Islam, would want to leave everything to start a new life wearing a burka and holding a machine gun.

Back when the main front of Islamic terrorism was al-Qaeda, the picture was more straightforward, if also somewhat simplistic, to Western observers. Al-Qaeda grew out of the Islamic revival of the last century and, murderous as it was, it provided a platform for devout Wahhabi Muslims to prove their piety through acts of sacrifice. But the profile of an ISIS terrorist is very different. We are now dealing with people like Sally Jones, whose exposure to Islam has been shallow, superficial, and brief.

I suggest that the key to unlocking this mystery lies in recognizing that the current jihad, despite its ancient roots, is also a distinctly modern phenomenon. ISIS offers an alternative to the individualism, isolation, and fragmentation of the modern world while at the same time exemplifying and embodying those conditions.

ISIS as an Alternative to Modernity

The ways in which ISIS is an alternative to modernity become clear by looking again at Sally Jones. Her life was paradigmatic of the isolation and fragmentation that has left so many people in modern society feeling adrift. She lived on state benefits all her life and had rocky relationships with those nearest to her; by any measurement, her life was a failure.

ISIS offers people like Jones a version of Islam that promises to sanctify their anger and anti-social tendencies while requiring little serious religious commitment in return. As such, it functions as a melting pot for socially marginalized individuals, offering an escape route to those caught in the disintegration, disorientation, and ambiguities of modern Western society. It offers salvation from the complexities of modern life by putting everything in black-and-white terms, defining the world sharply along Manichean lines.

ISIS as Paradigmatic of Modernity

But ISIS is only an alternative to modernity in a superficial sense. When we peer beneath the surface, we find that it is actually paradigmatic of modernity in many ways. The most obvious instance is the way ISIS's propaganda machine has perfected the use of social technologies. This became clear when the Quilliam Foundation recently reported on the exodus of European girls, mostly aged 13-26, who have chosen to travel to the Middle East to become the wives of jihadists. The London-based think tank found that these girls are being recruited by friends in the Middle East via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social networks. ISIS apologists are remarkably sophisticated at exploiting the latest technologies to find those in the West who are ready to embrace its alternative. They have even developed their own smart-phone apps and online messaging system. According to the Quilliam Foundation report, ISIS's masterly use of the internet for recruitment "marks a clear departure from the al-Qaeda norm."1

But there is an even deeper way in which ISIS shows its affinity with modernity. ISIS offers the type of limited-commitment, individualist religion that has become a predominant feature of the modern age. It entices those who are only superficially Muslim with a decontextualized, Twittered version of Islam, which offers enough religion to sanctify a person's sense of grievance towards the world while only skirting the edges of genuine Islamic devotion. It offers meaning, community, and purpose to its followers but only in a very shallow sense.

Accordingly, the Westerners who travel to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS are not acting out a commitment to the community of historical Islam; rather, they are acting as isolated individuals on a solitary quest to find personal meaning. The only thing that unites them into a single ideological community is their sense of anger at the complex world. The type of Islam they embrace is a fragmented one, patched together out of the remnants of the larger meta-narrative, on which it is parasitic.

This is, of course, a very modern approach to religion. We see it in Christianity as well, in the tendency of certain individuals to extract only those aspects of the faith they find personally meaningful, detaching them from the historical ecclesial structures in which those aspects are properly situated. In the case of ISIS, this de-historicized approach to religion depends on a utopian ideology that can never be realized in the real world. As British MP Daniel Hannan observed, speaking of the implicit worldview of ISIS:

Like communism, fascism and every other -ism that promises a new dawn, it makes no concessions, either to past tradition or to human nature. It holds out a vision of something so pure that it can, in practice, never be achieved. This purity is precisely what appeals to a certain type of youngster.2

A Religion for Criminals

The typical Westerner who joins ISIS is not a religious zealot who has turned to crime, but a petty criminal who has turned to superficial religion. A leaked MI5 report on the profile of British jihadists noted that, "far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practice their faith regularly."3 Why would someone who is not serious about his religion want to kill for it, let alone die for it? The answer is that ISIS terrorists are not killing and dying for religion but for themselves. ISIS offers malcontents the chance to channel their pathologies into a cause that appears unselfish and constructive, just as it appears to offer confused girls an escape from the perplexities of modern life. As Hannan explains, when discussing males who join ISIS,

. . . one observation made by almost all the experts who have studied Western-born Islamic militants is that they fit the classic profile of the terrorist down the ages: male, typically in their twenties or early thirties, with some education, narcissistic, lacking in empathy, lonely, unsuccessful with women, often with a history of petty crime.

What makes a terrorist different from other bellicose young men is that he has found a cause that validates his anti-social tendencies—a doctrine that teaches him that he is angry, not because there's something wrong with him, but because there's something wrong with everyone else.4

ISIS & the Spiritual Pioneer

If ISIS appeals to criminals, it also appeals to spiritual pioneers. A recurring hero in modern cultural folklore is the spiritual traveler who, absolved by modernity from the need for a religion with historical and structural integrity, arrives at an eclectic "personal" religion (sometimes so personal that no one else has ever shared it). The countless films that portray this theme deliver the same message: inwardly engaging spirituality can offer absolute spiritual clarity amid confusing social realities. A prime example is the film Eat, Pray, Love, as well as the book upon which it is based.

I was first alerted to the idea that Islamic terrorism may have something to do with spiritual pioneering after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, when I read a piece by Wilson Brissett and Patton Dodd in The Atlantic. The authors pointed out that the Tsarnaev brothers, far from being genuine Islamic warriors, were in fact

the latest incarnation of a figure as old as the United States itself: the isolated individual lost in the social and cultural whirlwind that is secular American modernity, who sees salvation in the absolute moral clarity of an idiosyncratic collection of beliefs, and decides that he would rather resort to violence than countenance any concession to a complicated, ambiguous social reality.5

It is precisely people like the Tsarnaev brothers whom ISIS has been reaching through social media. While packaging itself as an alternative to the disorder and fragmentation of the modern world, ISIS champions a de-contextualized and fragmented version of Islam that embodies modern spiritual pathology. But this is precisely what makes it appealing to those who care little for the deeper aspects of faith.

This profile has been confirmed by Dr. Max Abrahms, a student of the psychology of terrorism. Dr. Abrahms told the Business Times that ISIS is mostly made up of "ignorant people with respect to religion and they are generally the newest members to the religion." He added, "They would probably fail the most basic test on Islam."6

Significantly, when terrorists Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed were apprehended on their way to Syria and pleaded guilty to terrorism offenses, authorities discovered that they had purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. ISIS is not the epitome of genuine Islam, but of dumb Islam.

The Challenge of ISIS

Admittedly, this way of looking at ISIS is less than reassuring. We'd like to be able to convince ourselves that we are dealing with an anachronism in the modern world, a movement that gives expression to perennial impulses that are only prevalent among those who have not been reached by secular modernity. In this view, the ultimate solution to terrorism is to bring modernity to the Middle East in the form of education, democracy, and so forth. But this view is just as hopelessly naïve as supposing that terrorists will be willing to lay down their arms once we have rounded up enough moderate Muslim scholars to educate them about what the Koran "really" teaches.

Of course, a strong case can be made that a more historically grounded Islam is just as violent as ISIS because of the many statements in the Koran that seem to teach violence towards nonbelievers. Drawing on this violent strain of Koranic teaching, fundamentalist Muslim preachers are able to convince criminally minded people that they are the true reformers, the ones returning to the authentic teachings of the Koran. On one level, however, such historical questions are beside the point, since the average ISIS terrorist has very little interest in historical integrity. ISIS will not go away because some people become convinced about the viability of moderate forms of Islamic piety, because those who join ISIS care as little about religious piety as they do about historic integrity. Neither will it go away with more modernization, because ISIS is itself a symptom of modernism.

At the same time, however, it is precisely these aspects of ISIS that make it potentially unstable. As a collection of isolated individuals who are united only by their anger at how life has gone for them, ISIS is remarkably effective at overthrowing established structures. However, its soldiers will likely prove inept at creating a new civilization. If the Caliphate is established, it is probable that its former warriors will begin to fight among themselves and fracture into disunity.

Of course, by then, hundreds of thousands of people will be dead. Thus, it is necessary for the West to have a policy for effectively dealing with the ISIS killing machine. I am not a policy analyst and have no easy answers. But it seems that a good place to start would be to educate ourselves about the psychology of terrorism, and thereby gain some understanding of the attraction ISIS holds for so many throughout the West. 

has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023). He operates a blog at

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #32, Spring 2015 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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