Thursday, 16 June 2016

The ISIS Apocalypse - William McCants

This review has been provided to British Army Review.

Title: The ISIS Apocalypse
Author: William McCants
ISBN: 978-1-250-08090-5
Publisher: St Martin’s Press
Year: 2015
Pages: 242
Photos/Maps: 0

The War on Terror has prompted the drafting of hundred’s of books covering all facets of the cause and personalities surrounding ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban etc; however, one area that has received little to no ‘accessible – to the layman’ interpretation has been a religious analysis of the driving doctrine behind the various groups. McCant’s book covers the background and history of ISIS but he also pays a significant amount of attention to the Islamic canon, drawing upon his expertise in Islamic religious studies (he has a PhD in Near Eastern Studies and speaks and reads Arabic fluently).

Islam as a religion is an extremely complex and confusing faith; subject to interpretation by scholars going back hundreds of years. As McCants points out if you want to find text promoting peaceful co-existence you will find it just as you will find text advocating violent extremism against non-believers. The author’s primary strength lies in his ability to quote primary-source Arabic text to assist in his explanation of this to the layman. Further, his talent at presenting this text within the context of the greater narrative in such a way as to facilitate easy interpretation lends both credence and accessibility to his account.

The challenge of dealing with the myriad of organizations that make up the adversaries in the War on Terror,  is exacerbated by the underlying motivators that drive them and set the tone for their conduct and goals. Thus it is that the extremists are not a homogeneous organization but deeply fractured and, as often as not, fighting one another rather than secular forces. McCants goes to great lengths in explaining this and underlying the fact that the goals and methods of ISIS are neither condoned nor in common with those of Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden. This is critical to understand because the West tends to lump these organizations together in error as their means and methods are fundamentally different.

He also goes on to explain how the population of the Middle East’s perspective on the war has changed over the course of the conflict. Many secular Muslims who initially viewed the war in terms of power politics have now come to see the conflict in terms of the religious interpretation of the Islamic “End Times” prophecy. The significant upheavals of the last decade combined with the deep divide between Shia and Sunni as well as the ongoing role of the “New Crusaders” have heralded, for many, the coming apocalypse. This message resonates with the international Muslim community as well as locals due the violence and tyranny in the very regions prophesized in the Muslim texts.

McCants book fills a void missing in many of the narratives on ISIS and its rise: that of the religious underpinnings justifying its actions and the connection this has with the local population. His book is reasoned and balanced. His deep understanding of Islam combined with his third person perspective make for a book well worth the time to read and ponder.

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