One Ring to Bind them: Reading the Lord of the Rings to defeat ISIL

By Akil N Awan | (The Conversation) | – –

The wave of recent attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and Turkey, all apparently linked to Islamic State in some way, have reinforced the spectre of the unstoppable “Daesh death cult” whose tentacles of terror can reach deep into every corner of the globe

The omnipresence of the group has precipitated something of an identity crisis in the Muslim world. Many assumed IS would vanish as quickly as it had appeared. Airstrikes from above and local disillusionment from below would be its rapid undoing. But the stubborn persistence of IS, has put paid to any such wishful thinking.

The staying power of this atavistic throwback to the dark ages, which positively revels in barbaric savagery and violence, all while shrouded in the language and regalia of Islamic caliphs and religious piety, has prompted a great deal of renewed soul searching in the Muslim world.

A flurry of uncomfortable questions has exposed this existential crisis. How Islamic is Islamic State? What does a legitimate Caliphate look like in the 21st century? Why are young Muslims from every corner of the globe flocking to its standard? And perhaps, the most difficult question: if IS is so reviled, why on earth is it still winning?

A difficult truth

It is safe to state that the Muslim world, through varying degrees of denial, apathy and self-interest, has largely failed to respond to the challenge posed by IS with any sort of coherence.

It is of course unfair to speak of the Muslim world in these monolithic terms, but perhaps the only body that might claim to speak as the collective voice of the Muslim world with some modicum of legitimacy is the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). It is the second largest inter-governmental organisation in the world, with 57 sovereign member states from across the Muslim world. So on the rare occasions when it manages to speak with a unified voice, we would perhaps be wise to sit up and listen.

At the 42nd summit of the OIC, which took place in June in Kuwait, assembled foreign ministers collectively committed to a laudable shared vision for the Muslim world. It should promote tolerance, strengthen civil society, address socio-economic inequalities and target vitriolic hate speech and extremist thought. All are important counterweights to the appeal of extremism and IS.

Days later, the OIC met again in Jeddah in pursuit of the so-called Istanbul Process – the implementation of a UN resolution on religious intolerance and hate speech. Considering how damaging these last two factors have been in fomenting sectarianism and nurturing fundamentalism in many Muslim majority countries, the significance of these initiatives should not be underestimated.

All the more surprising then, that they have been almost universally neglected by the Western press. Perhaps this is partly understandable. A steady stream of earlier initiatives, from condemnations and fatwas against terrorism, to de-radicalisation programmes, proved themselves to be almost entirely impotent in the past.

Those sceptical of these sorts of projects (and I count myself among them) might be forgiven for doubting that change can somehow materialise from within the very bowels of moribund autocracies, authoritarian regimes, and conservative fiefdoms. After all, many of the ruling despots of the Muslim world, now railing against Islamic State’s moral bankruptcy and flagrant violation of Muslim cultural or ethical norms, have at some point either shared similar views or behaved in similarly abhorrent ways.

Enter Frodo

Discussing the OIC summit with a very senior Muslim political figure, I mentioned my apprehension over these seemingly hollow calls for reform. Was this not just another talking shop, aimed at assuaging their own cognitive dissonance?

His response was quite remarkable. I half expected him to defend the record of the countries present, or argue that now was a time for unity in the face of adversity, rather than internal criticism.

He did neither. Instead, he cited The Lord of the Rings. Sensing my bafflement, he continued by explaining that just as the One Ring could only be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom, where it had originally been forged by the Dark Lord Sauron, Islamic State too could only be destroyed within the very heart of the Muslim world where it had been forged.

When I mentioned that I was writing this article, and wanted to attribute his unorthodox but rather clever analogy, he paled and refused point blank. An understandable response – which respected intellectual would wish to be seen trivialising the most serious political issues of our time by drawing parallels with fairy tales about hobbits and orcs? And so he shall remain nameless.

But what he said makes sense. IS and its predecessor al-Qaeda are born of problems inherent in the Muslim world. Leaders have not just failed their people with authoritarianism, poor governance and neglect. They have also peddled sectarian rivalries and promoted intolerant, puritanical creeds as distractions from their own political mismanagement and illegitimacy.

Of course, that is not to deny that the outside world is culpable too. We cannot understand the rise of IS without understanding the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq; or the wanton destruction of its infrastructure; or the dismantlement of its security apparatus; or the instatement of a divisive sectarian political administration in Baghdad. Nor should we forget the broader context of decades of Western support for Middle Eastern despots and dictators at the expense of their people.

Stretching the Lord of the Rings analogy further still, when Sauron created the One Ring, he concentrated a great part of his own inherent power and self within it. Thus, Sauron’s fate became bound to that of the Ring, and when it was destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom, so was he.

The legitimacy and appeal of Islamic State lies in its bastardised religious and political ideology. When Islamic State falls, and it will surely fall, the worldview that gave rise to it will also be exposed for the hollow sham that it was.

There has been a seismic shift in the Muslim world of late, which was reflected in the refreshing honesty in the language at these recent summits. The West would be unwise to reject the unique role the Muslim world can, and indeed must, play in discrediting extremist ideology from within.

The Arab Spring was one such sign of a burgeoning organic secular revolt from within. It deserved genuine support and solidarity from Western states, but sadly received neither. Save for the fragile Tunisian case, the Arab Spring is now well and truly dead. But, let us prepare to be part of the next Spring.

The Conversation

Akil N Awan is Associate Professor in Modern History, Political Violence and Terrorism at Royal Holloway.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Akil N Awan is Associate Professor in Modern History, Political Violence and Terrorism at Royal Holloway

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Wall Street Journal: “The Fall of Ramadi: How ISIS Seized a Key Iraqi City”

7 Responses

  1. ISIL claims that it is acting in the original, pure manner of the religion, i.e., the rituals, customs, practices, mores and discipline demanded by Allah, as revealed by His messengers. I don’t see any push back on whether this is a crock, or whether it is Islam in its purist form. Not being an adherent to the Islamic faith, and not being a scholar of the Qur’an, the whole movement is puzzling to me.

    • Studying the role of the khawarij sect within that “whole movement”, as well as thinking about whether those who were (just 10 years ago) ardent baathists…can now all of a sudden claim to act in a pure manner as rulers of an Islamic state – will help with your understanding.

  2. Jeff Crook

    That is a remarkable analogy. Too bad he wouldn’t stand by it publically. Might have shaken the councils of the wise.

  3. I have read and re-read (that’s how helpful it has been) Khaled Abou El-Fadl’s The Great Threat: Wrestling Islam From The Extremists. . . and urge readers to do likewise. It will add immensely to the conversation described in this article. . . and perhaps will give us all a starting point by defining words we use but not always in the same way. If I am in conversation, it’s helpful to have us all agreeing on the meaning (if only for the sake of our conversation) words such as: puritan, fundamentalist, extremist, etc. Abou El-Fadl’s are not exactly how I would have defined them. ..but that’s the point, if we can agree upon their meanings for the sake of our conversation. . . then we can have a conversation.

    • We can’t agree on the meaning of those terms. That is why it is best not to use them.

  4. Absolutely incorrect. I don’t mind making an analogy between a fairy tale like Lord of the Rings, and present-day events. However, the author has everything backwards here.

    A better comparison between the ring forged by Sauron in “Lord of the Rings” would be modern-day capitalism. Or even deeper, love and attachment to this worldly life. ISIL, despite all their crimes and transgressions, cannot be accused of representing this. Only if you look at things superficially would you consider an unjust beheading or misguided slave market to be worse than unjust sanctions or misguided wars of aggression and aerial bombardment. The problem is that in the case of the latter, the consequences and tragedies that result are not filmed or boasted about (as is the case of the former). Thus, how easy is it to be fooled and deceived into getting this situation so backwards!

    The author did mention some of the root causes and transgressions that I’m talking about…such as authoritarian regimes and illegal wars of occupation. ISIS and other groups are but a response and reaction to these crimes. Yet, the focus of this article is primarily on that reaction with only a paragraph here or there on the root causes (which come much closer to be a representation of that ring) of current events! In actuality, those underlying causes go well beyond just current events. They extend back to centuries of colonization and the aftermath of that (but I won’t get into that here).

    So why focus so much on the consequence of a problem rather than the root of it? In “Lord of the Rings” – the ring used by Sauron was the actual root of the problem and the center of evil in that fictional world. It became extremely powerful and it corrupted the hearts of all those who came into contact with it. Without a doubt, the world today is moving towards a very dark place where moral and financial corruption is the center of worldly power post-WW2. Information regulated by corporatocracy and entertainment influenced by the occult are prominent! Western democracies are supporting and sustaining monstrous dictatorships in the Muslim world and extended third world. At the same time, technology is becoming an ever-more powerful tool to empower these democracies that act in the interest of corrupt elites (or the so-called “1%” – which is just an expression as opposed to a mathematically accurate percentage). That technology then is given to or sold to the tyrannies and police states of the eastern world. The end result is a global orwellian/panopticon surveillance society where death or abduction can come at any time from secret police, drones, or shadow operators. Are you really going to minimize this reach and power and instead, focus on something like ISIS?

    Those who are empowered today then decide who is or is not a terrorist, and who to bomb or not to bomb. And this form of “magic” or this power (like the power wielded by Sauron) is exactly what the author has fallen for by writing the piece above! Who is it that the author is concentrating on as “barbaric” and “evil”? Is it the root cause of the problem (which would be the better comparison to the one ring), or a mere consequence and result from the missteps of that root cause?

    The author should recall or research the experience of the GLA in Algeria, as there are many similarities between it and ISIS. Yet, the eventual fall of the GLA did not end “the worldview that gave rise to it”…rather, that worldview has only continued to expand and expand (and most likely, the fall of ISIS will be seen as a great relief for that worldview i.e. for the Islamist movement and project to restore a unified Khalifah).

    The Ottoman Khalifah lasted centuries and conquered so much territory – and it is something similar to it that the Muslim world could potentially unite upon and use as a counterweight to the instability of oppressive and failed states. However, I don’t think that the author of this article would care to support that. What the citizens of the Muslim world want is not the same as what the citizens of the western world want. It is important to live in reality and pay attention to the streets and to the average people. If the author of this article does that, then he would not equate al-Qaidah with ISIS as they have become two very different things; nor is al-Qaidah necessarily the only component of the global Islamist movement and Khalifate project; nor would he analyze the “Arab Spring” as he has done here; nor would he ever state that the OIC is any sort of real representative of the Muslim world; And so forth.

    Everything that has happened over the last few decades within the Muslim world has continued to expose various forms of nationalism as well as secular humanism (which may well be the true perspective that this author is coming from) as “the hollow sham” that it is. If everything outside of secular humanism is to be considered “radical/extreme” by the author’s standards…then I’m sorry to say that he will not find what he is looking for. Islam in its most austere form is the last line of defense against a secular world order. And it is that secular order and those who rule over it that have the monopoly on atrocity, barbarity, destruction, sanctions, slavery, prison camps, exploitation, corruption, power, materialism, and worldly desires and interests. So again, what really represents the ring of power from Tolkien’s fictional world…in today’s real world?

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