The self-labeled Islamic State has always been a mystery to Americans. The group has built itself into a vicious warfighting machine, but from the beginning, the joy its fighters take in beheading hostages, prisoners, and captured civilians has been incomprehensible. Do the group’s leaders and fighters have no sense of pity, or of mercy? Do they not see that they and their own families might also become victims of some other group – their wives enslaved, their children stolen? As is the case in analyzing any human behavior, one must begin by understanding the Islamic State, or ISIS, as its leaders and fighters understand themselves.

Looking back

A year after ISIS emerged out of the chaos of Syria’s civil war, some perspective is possible. ISIS is basically new wine in an old bottle. Its savagery issues from an apocalyptic “End of Days” mentality – a self-righteous belief in one’s own truth combined with a ferocious will to power. ISIS conceives its struggle as a historic fight of Truth against Error; in this case, their version of Islam, pitted against the world. The Islamic State’s first enemies are, unexpectedly, not the United States or even Israel. Theirs is a war against other Muslim sects for total absorption. Sunnis who resist (including al Qaeda), and all Shiite Muslims, are their primary target, with Iran obviously first of all. They care nothing for the rules of war, whether those be informal historic codes, or norms codified in international law.

War is always hell, but war properly defined is waged with a sense of limits – goals and methods of fighting. War is a “civilized” human activity in the sense that it is common in human history, it is fought within constraints, and combatants wage war with the goal of achieving peace, whether that be in victory, defeat, or sometimes mutual exhaustion. Annihilating the enemy is not a goal of war properly defined. Civilized war defines honorable and dishonorable ideas of combat. For example, don’t harm prisoners of war, and, today, don’t use weapons of mass destruction. Against this background, the Islamic State straddles the boundary between war and barbarism.

As a movement with a plan for organizing a redeemed, perfected society, the Islamic State offers just the latest form of totalitarianism, and as with each previous version, it finds its own justification. Earlier forms included Nazism, based on the idea of a master race, and Communism, based on the idea of a historically predestined social class, the Proletariat. The Islamic State uses religion to justify its totalitarianism. Genocide, which is not war but a massacre of innocents, can be the methodical work of a totalitarian state (the Jews massacred by the Third Reich) or it can come of ethnic or religious hatred that erupts in an orgy of bloodletting (Rwanda in 1994). Examples of savagery used as a method of battle include the practices of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan, or of some groups in Africa during the blood-diamond years, and of Boko Haram today.

Unleashing hell for the sake of utopia

The ideology of a perfected society is also nothing new. The Islamic State’s “caliphate,” headed by a caliph (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who in 2014 proclaimed himself “Caliph Ibrahim,” i.e. Caliph Abraham), is based on an idea that reaches a long way back. The caliphate was an essential feature of Islamic empire, beginning with the Prophet Mohammed’s successors in the 7thth century. Muslim caliphs were never so powerful as Hitler or Stalin, neither within their own government nor across national boundaries. The last caliphate, based in the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, was abolished by the secular Kemal Ataturk in 1924 after he declared the Turkish Republic. The caliph is a lesser figure compared to the major historical prophets of “religions of the book:” Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. In other words, Baghdadi doesn’t claim the stature of Mohammed. Other would-be prophets have done so. In the mid-19thth century alone there was the Muslim Mahdi in Sudan and the benevolent Muslim Persian Bahai prophet Bahaullah. The Chinese Taiping Rebellion’s leader from 1850-1864, Hong Xiuquan, claimed to be Jesus’s younger brother. ISIS is only the latest version of a historically recurring pattern. It manifests a familiar human desire for transcendence and personal holiness. If it were local and peaceful no one would object, so long as it respected the rights and security of others.

ISIS of course does the opposite. But it’s not true, as many Americans have assumed, that beheadings, crucifixions, and other horrors perpetrated by ISIS fighters are simply barbaric behavior, the actions of young men plumbing the depths of human nature’s dark side. In Islamic State’s ideology, savagery is authorized, glorified, indeed blessed by Allah.

Between Reason and Savagery

The first ISIS justification is revenge: avenging modern Islam’s victimization by outside European powers in the 19th and 20th centuries. British and French imperialists, with Russia’s assent, took the Allied victory in World War I as their chance to carve up the defeated Ottoman Empire’s Arab Muslim areas on the basis of the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, setting out post-World War I spheres of influence (i.e. creating British predominance in the new Iraq and Jordan, and French predominance in Syria and Lebanon). ISIS’ s version of this history is accurate, and it explains why obliterating the border between Syria and Iraq was their first geopolitical goal.

Acts of savagery such as decapitating prisoners and defeated soldiers are for ISIS a form of fighting beyond mere gratuitous violence. Ancient and medieval wars used it, and it is depicted in the Holy Books. The purpose is to terrorize the enemy, to break their spirit, to cause them to run away from battle.

The main point is that a literalist reading of the Koran offers here and there an exalted, holy, religious or ideological justification for savagery. Beheadings and other methods are in some places specifically authorized in the Koran. But in other places the opposite is said: “He who kills one kills all humanity.” ISIS ideology cherry-picks texts from the Koran. Its leaders doubtless realize this but carry forward nonetheless.

ISIS relies on a military/religious manual for jihad called The Management of Savagery – it might have better been called The Political Uses of Savagery. Written by one Abu Bakr Naji, it was published online in 2004. (The full English text seems to be impossible to find online.)

Naji, writing almost a decade before ISIS evolved out of al Qaeda in Iraq, said that jihadists must wage a “very violent” struggle, more extreme and hungry for territory than was Al Qaeda. As researcher Mark Tapson wrote in Daily Mailer on Oct. 27, 2014, the plan must be “a merciless campaign of violence in Muslim lands to polarize the population,” to “drag the masses into battle” because they cannot remain outside it. Fighters must be mentally equipped to commit atrocities. (Naji writes, “We need to massacre,” as Mohammed’s successors did after his death.) Other jihadist groups, including al Qaeda, reject savagery, confining their tactics to terrorism. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s successor, broke with Islamic State last year on this very issue, saying that savagery is counterproductive and that most of its victims are other Muslims.

What Americans and all outsiders must realize is the crucial justification ISIS uses for its barbarism – that, as Tapson says, “this violence is (said to be) actually a part of Allah’s mercy to all mankind.” In Naji’s words, beheadings and other savage acts are “among the most blessed acts of worship for the servants…Jihad is the most merciful of the methods…the most sparing of the spilling of blood,” because if jihad is defeated, Allah will bring about an incomparably worse destruction of humanity.

In other words, ISIS fighters are taught that they are performing the lesser evil; moreover, that their actions demonstrate their integrity and goodness, and that their personal sacrifice (doing evil things) will be rewarded.

The question then is not whether ISIS offers a justification for savagery, it’s how people of any intelligence and moral feeling can believe it. One answer is that they’re simply oblivious, swept up in the idea of Islam’s renaissance, unaware and uninterested in thinking seriously about what they are being told. (Suicide bombers are told among other things that they will get to heaven faster.) Blinders are comfortable and ignorance is bliss. One ISIS social media video depicts a life of idyll within the caliphate – children playing in a river. Another video, shot by a brave German journalist, shows ISIS religious police patrolling Mosul giving out instructions to the people, who are seemingly grateful for being put on the right path. It reminds one of the Nazi documentaries depicting family life for death camp personnel living on the “campus,” who, after a day’s work massacring people on an industrial scale, return home to wives, children, gardens, and dogs, everyone beaming.

I have little doubt that al-Baghdadi and his sharia cohort actually believe this themselves. They are sincere. Islamic State’s onslaught is not, or not only, about power or wealth. ISIS sharia leaders are often highly educated Koranic scholars. (Baghdadi himself has a Ph.D. in Islamic studies.) But they are in reality tragically narrow-minded and provincial, uninterested in other religious theologies, let alone in Eastern or Western political, moral, and philosophical thought.

Westerners such as U.S. President Barack Obama make a goodhearted error when they assert that ISIS is “not Islam,” and that “Islam is a religion of peace,” in order to avoid offending Muslims. This oversensitivity in fact masks a patronizing attitude, as if Muslims are not mature enough for the truth. ISIS is indeed part of worldwide Islam, but it is a tiny group within a billion-plus community of believers. The president should say that. It would take political courage, but that’s his job. The Islamic State’s leaders must notice that the outside world is beginning to understand them as they understand themselves. It would be good for us and bad for them, because it leaves them no longer an inexplicable, charismatic mystery, all the more frightening precisely because they don’t fit into our usual mental universe. They may well believe that savage jihad is blessed by Allah, but the rest of the world sees extraordinarily brazen acts of evil. If the One True God is a just God who loves humanity, as the Koran says, this God does not bless savagery, whatever bits and pieces of the Koran and episodes in Islam’s history contradict this. According to moral law and to international law, ISIS has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Islamic State’s forms of fighting seem to be anything but a noble struggle that will restore Islam’s dignity and self-confidence.