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Reading Room: The Mind of the Islamic State

23 Oct 2017
Reviewed by Dr Julian Droogan
The Mind of the Islamic State by Robert Manne

In this short but important book, Robert Manne presents a systematic intellectual history of the personalities, texts and, most crucially, the ideas that have shaped the patterns of thought and the worldview of Islamic State.

Manne convincingly argues that the rise and transformation of Salafi Jihadism alongside Islamic State’s savage caliphate-building project represents that most rare of phenomena in the domain of political science, the rise of a new coherent and global religious and political ideology. Manne’s detailed examination of the books, pamphlets, e-zines and letters attributed to key figures, from Sayyid Qutb to Abu Mus’ad Al-Zarqawi, reveals the emergence of a remarkably consistent and coherent political philosophy albeit one that is as much religious and eschatological as it is revolutionary and utopian.

The book masterfully presents chapters charting the key figures and writings that have contributed to the extreme Salafi Jihadism adopted by Al Qaeda and, in a more brutal and apocalyptic manner, Islamic State. The dawn of a new fundamental and potentially militant interpretation of Islam and its relationship with modernity is introduced through a chapter on the Egyptian intellectual Sayyid Qutb, his seminal text Milestones and its influence on the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Islamist revolutionaries.

The progression of jihad from an inner spiritual struggle to an explicit militant obligation is further traced through the writings of Muhammad Faraj and his call for a holy war against the “near enemy” of the Egyptian state. The subsequent popularisation and internationalisation of militant jihadism is followed through the speeches and writings of the charismatic Palestinian scholar Abdullah Azzam and his recruitment of the Mujaheddin to fight the Soviets in faraway Afghanistan.

A chapter detailing the transition of this victory against the Soviets into the global revolutionary ambitions of Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri is followed by a fascinating account of how this jihadist movement was increasingly and deliberately influenced by sectarian and apocalyptic savagery during the Iraqi war; Islamic State being its final manifestation.

Manne’s succinct presentation of the intellectual history of Salafi Jihadist leadership is a welcome contribution to a field that has long had trouble talking about seemingly contrasting concepts: religion and savage violence, politics and faith, Islam and terrorism, and apocalypse and political utopianism. However, it raises many questions that its short length cannot answer: what is the relationship between this abstract and theological intellectual doctrine held by the leadership and the frustrations and dreams of the ofttimes uneducated young followers drawn from around the world who become foreign fighters or lone terrorist actors?

Also, although Manne takes pains to draw explicit parallels between Islamic State’s ideology and established political philosophies such as Marxism and Fascism, it is unclear whether Salafi Jihadism really has crystallised into its final ‘mature’ form or whether it will continue to evolve and mutate into divergent streams now that its central caliphate-building project appears doomed to fail.

Ideas are harder to kill than people and it often takes great wars or revolutions to discredit political philosophies. This does not bode well for the future of Islamic State.

Robert Manne, The Mind of the Islamic State, Redback (Black Inc Books), 2017

Julian Droogan is a senior lecturer in the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University. He is the editor in chief of the ‘Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism’, an international peer-reviewed academic journal published by Routledge.