Small Wars Journal

Why Reasoning with ISIS is a Useless Concept

Sun, 09/14/2014 - 12:06pm

Why Reasoning with ISIS is a Useless Concept

Steve Thomas

I’ve seen a couple of angry letters addressed to ISIS on social media, promising to destroy them in place or on American soil, wherever the terror group rears its head. You might as well save your breath, your 140 characters or whatever your preferred mode of communication. You can’t scare them and you can’t reason with them. Their lexicon precludes either of those things.

First, the scaring aspect. For most people, if death isn’t the most terrifying thing they can consider, it’s certainly up there near the top of the list. For ISIS, it is the culminating act of a bizarre inversion that they believe brings glory to God. Any mention of defeating them militarily or causing them individual pain and suffering only provides further fodder for the narrative that they are making a noble sacrifice.

As for the reasoning part, Muslim scholars have long sought to resolve or at least understand the dynamic tension between human reason and revelation. Avicenna and Averroes, two 12th century Muslim scholars, are largely responsible for reintroducing the modern world to Aristotle. They had an enormously difficult time reconciling the fact that Aristotle had used rigorous logic and his given human reason to derive truths that they had previously thought were only available after the revelation as transmitted by the Prophet Mohammed.

In the modern western mind, most people obey the law of the country they live in due to what amounts to a social contract. These are the rules that everyone has chosen to live by. For those with more classical political leanings, there is an understanding that there is a split between the laws of men (the world as we see it), the natural law (the way the world really is and is ordered) and the Divine Law (the way God governs it with actual justice).

Even for Western atheists and agnostics, it is understood that the laws of men are imperfect but are at least aiming at a higher good. An example of this would be the idea of universal human rights and their declaration by the United Nations. Even without an agreed-upon ordering principle (i.e. the Christian God, Allah, Yahweh), the nations of the world have decided upon, defined and have sworn to protect what is seen as inherent human dignity.

(As an aside, it is my firm belief that if you don’t have a defined system of moral absolutes that are guiding your behavior and that you are willing to defend, then you have no business in conversations about national security or foreign affairs. The reality of the world is that, in order to counter extreme or distorted visions, well-reasoned morality must be carried into the dirty, dangerous parts of the globe by people who are willing to have their faith in those moral systems tested. If you’re not willing live it, don’t bother posting about it.)

Islam is a religion that, interpreted in the manner of the Islamists, prescribes a way of life not only as a code of personal conduct but also as a normative political system.[i] Thus, you hear the Taliban, ISIS and even some more moderate Arab countries speak of Islamic law, God’s law and political system on earth as described in the Koran. Fr. James Schall describes Islam as a religion in which “God is pure will who can make anything right or wrong such that religion means simply ‘obedience’ to whatever is proposed no matter how lethal.”[ii] Schall goes on to say, “We obviously have the suicide bombers clearly in sight here. We have the jihad here. Can such things be God's will? Can killing oneself along with innocent others be an act of ‘martyrdom?’”[iii] The answer for most of us is a resounding “no.” And why not? Because these acts do not pass any test of logic or reason; they are simply acts of lunacy from every angle except the one employed by those seeking the pure will of a God they have not bothered to examine.

For ISIS, any talk of “reasoning” is antithetical to their brand of Islam. Reason is replaced by an iron-clad belief in the complete truth and literal interpretation of the Koran. How can they justify, for instance, the violence and wanton destruction they have wrought in Syria and Iraq? It’s simple, as long as there is a passage in the Koran that parallels the current narrative they are selling. But ultimately, we can’t reason or hold a dialogue with ISIS because we’re not using terms from the same dictionary.

The great classical example of this redefinition of terms is the way that Machiavelli redefined the word “virtue.” Previously, it had meant a habitual action that moved you closer to human flourishing and happiness; virtue was aimed at a person fulfilling his rightful end. This was a well-reasoned definition, supported most prominently by Aristotle. For Machiavelli, virtú was a term he used in The Prince that described using any means available, including horrible violence, to maintain political power. And, startlingly, he didn’t bother to refute the earlier definition; he just chose to ignore it. It was a philosophically barren concept, but Machiavelli didn’t realize that what he was doing would change the nature of political and social discourse. Indeed, he employed virtú as a political expedient; modern Islamists employ it in the same manner, but bolster it with what they believe is an irrefutable theological truth. That is to say, they don’t bother to refute the classical idea of virtue because they conflate “human flourishing” with both violent political expediency and a wish for death that results in martyrdom.

And so it is with ISIS. Whatever your definition of justice, if it’s not the one found in their Koran, you will forever be at odds. The suggestion of using the human mind to its full capacity, to question, judge and decide independently, is anathema to the code of conduct and political system they espouse. They have no interest in your definitions or hand-wringing, because ultimately they believe the entire Western worldview is morally and intellectually bankrupt. If you can’t even agree on the definitions of the terms in the argument, chances are there isn’t much of dialogue worth having.

So if we are unable to reason with them, what are the options? Our options are based on the reasons for the popularity and resilience of the ISIS ideology (and to a lesser degree, Islamism in general). It appears that people typically believe in an ideology for one of three reasons: logic, passion or coercion. If we can understand which of these reasons we can address, perhaps there is hope that there is a solution beyond the realm of mere tactical and operational destruction.

The first reason people believe in an ideology is that it is logical and reasonable. It provides a comprehensive worldview which, even when probed on its most complex and seemingly tenuous principles, manages to provide skeptics with a feasible answer. I would point to St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Augustine as examples of this type of the “logical ideology” principle. You may disagree with the conclusions of Thomas Aquinas, but you can’t honestly say that, after reading the Summa Theologica, the man left many stones unturned or many counterarguments unanswered.

We have already ruled logic out as a primary reason for the seeming popularity of ISIS. Their head-long dash for martyrdom defies any kind of sound evolutionary principle and their wanton destruction certainly falls outside the moral bounds of any faithful, reasonable practitioner of the major faiths.

The second reason is passion. Almost by definition, passion is ungoverned by reason. There a numerous underlying reasons (poverty, lack of education, general disaffection) that would lead to stirring passion in young men when they hear someone speak powerfully about why they are in their current condition. As Nawaz writes, “The most often touted narrative that Islamists cling to — regardless of their creed — is that there is a war against Islam, and that Muslim victimhood across the world is a direct result of a ‘Crusader’ conspiracy against the ummah. Ultimately, the response to the ideas peddled by such narratives is to fight back, to engage in jihad. It is not difficult to see why this might be appealing to the young and disenfranchised.”[iv] It is the passion of the plea and not necessarily its logical outcome that drives the adherents and new recruits.

If we believe that passion is a reason for joining the ISIS cause, perhaps there is a counter-narrative that can be deployed. Information is powerful, especially given the efficacy of social media. But it must be coupled with tangible change. The best solution is the solution that is particularly elusive in such cases: good governance that provides basic services to a large segment of the population. The comfort and general well-being of the citizenry is an excellent way to undercut passionate appeals for jihad.

The final reason for adherence to ideology is coercion. This technique has certainly been on graphic display with ISIS, though it is also prevalent in even some allied nations. The harsh punishments for theft in Saudi Arabia are an example of this in a “moderate Arab nation.” In the case of ISIS, their ability to coerce the populace is due in part to the availability of ungoverned space and in part due to their military capability. In both cases, they can coerce people because there is no one that can stop them from physically harming those who refuse.

If it is true that ISIS cannot be reasoned with, but that most members were driven to membership by passion or coercion, there are several steps that can be taken. The first is an information campaign that appeals to that same passion and encourages the disaffected in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere to not take up arms with ISIS. I do not recommend that there is an appeal to join the government side, as that makes the issue a question of political loyalty as opposed to personal passion. Rather, the appeal must be to basic things all people hope to preserve: home, family and a semblance of normalcy.

The second thing that can be done, but must be done very carefully, is to attempt to remove the opportunities for coercion. Indeed, the number of sources and theories on how best to intervene politically and militarily is so massive that I couldn’t hope to parse a decent theory here. But there must be a reduction in military capacity that provides people with a modicum of security from coercion.

End Notes

[i] Nawaz, Maajid, “Why Islamists Beat Liberals in the Middle East,”, Accessed 30 August 2014

[ii] Schall, James V., “The Regensburg Lecture: Thinking Rightly About God and Man,”, Accessed 30 August 2014

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Nawaz, Maajid, “Why Islamists Beat Liberals in the Middle East,”, Accessed 30 August 2014


About the Author(s)

Steve Thomas served as an Armor officer from 2008-2012, including a rotation to Khost Province, Afghanistan with 3rd BCT, 101st Airborne Division. He currently works in the private sector conducting strategic planning for the Marine Corps.


Stug Guts

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 10:17pm

I suggest that the Islam culture, based in 1400 years of inculcation of Koran, Sira, Hadith, Sharia, and jihadic violent victories over dozens of other nations and civilizations, has produced a culture that must be completely uprooted and replaced.
For the religious Muslim, death as a martyr is supreme victory.

The long term effect must be demotion of the Koran by philologists/ linguists and historians. For example, it is not widely known or accepted among Muslims that the Koran is not written completely in Arabic and that it is a patchwork [some still incomprehensible to scholars] of multi-ethnic sources. This factual information is anathema to the Salafist fundamentalists. Such information can be pounded home in an organized, coherent, simple manner. Summaries of this approach are numerous at and other websites. Ibn Warraq, Raymond Ibrahim, Robert Spencer, and others have detailed many of the flaws in Islam's doctrine texts. Where's the followup?
Similar discrepancies are admitted to by Muslim scholars re authenticity of Sira and Hadith. These flaws in the really brittle nature of Islamic theory and derived practices are waiting to be exposed and exploited to uproot the murderous culture that festers and erupts every few hundred years.
If we were serious we'd have a campaign to eliminate the funders of Islam's hate-filled, murder-promoting madrasas, their instruction staff, mullahs, imams, community and tribal leaders bent on promoting death to non-Muslims. There is plenty of internecine warfare now among Muslims of various beliefs, both within and between Sunni and Shia factions, such that offering bounties for the assassination of leaders would accelerate and be welcomed by the slayer players. After the first 5000 assassinations we should expect the start of a reassessment of Muslim culture by most Muslims. The 2nd wave of 5000 transfers to Paradise should convince the doubters to reconsider Allah's reality and to explore saner, peaceful ways of living. This is similar in approach to what was accomplished in Japan and Germany at the end of WW2, where demigod Hirohito was demoted and Hitler took his own life. Islam is a much tougher case, but if we have our why, we will find an effective way.