Manifestations of War Theology in the Middle East: the Case of Daesh, a Religious Movement or a Political-Military Organization?


  • Vladimir Sazonov
  • Holger Mölder




The 21st century provides multiple examples of violence and intolerance in the Middle East, wherein religious extremists use “God’s will” to justify cynical and cruel actions. Extremist politicians often manipulate faith and exploit human passions and desires in the name of God in order to pursue their purely secular goals. The Arab Spring was the outcome of large-scale social processes in many Arab countries, and has led to an unexpected ideological shift. We are now facing a phenomenon that can be best be described as politicized Islam; as a result religion and politics have been merged into a populist worldview. The elections after the Arab Spring did not replace the ruling secular authoritarian regimes with Western-type democracies as expected, but rather brought to power Islamist forces in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Only Tunisia has managed to achieve sustainable democracy. There are currently civil wars underway in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. The phenomenon of Daesh, which declared a worldwide Islamic Caliphate in 2014, grew out of the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, and then later extended its activities to other regions of the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa. Daesh has proclaimed itself the successor of the Caliphate that was created by the Prophet Muhammad in 632. The powerful image of the Islamic warrior that often appeared in the media discourses in connection with the phenomenon of al Qaeda and its former iconified leader Osama bin Laden has recently been replaced by Daesh, which can be considered to be one of the most conspicuous manifestations of contemporary theology in war. This has its roots in the earliest of human civilizations. Already the Ancient world contemplated just and unjust wars, and frequently drew upon theological concepts to depict war as a means of satisfying the will of God(s). Early texts from 2500–2400 BC dealing with the theological motifs of war, were derived from the ancient Sumerian. Later, the kings of Assyria repeatedly mentioned and highlighted the will of God in connection with their military campaigns, conquests and violence. A tradition of holy and religious wars in the Middle East developed rapidly after the triumph of Islam. After the Caliphate was established and there was a period of Arab conquest and Islamization. This was, when the concept of Jihad first began appearing in war theology. Most Islamic scholars agree that the Islamic Jihad is a collective obligation and is a necessary concept to disseminate the Islamic faith and expand the universal Islamic state. The Turkish sultan Selim I justified the war against his main opponent, the Shah of Iran, by proclaiming the slogan “True Islam against Shiite heretics”. Five centuries later, at the beginning of the 21st century, Daesh has revived similar slogans in their attempt to spread religious radicalism throughout the region. The ideological base of Daesh is undoubtedly a Jihadist one and as such is built on the violent exploitation of Salafist tenets and the strict interpretation of Islamic law, which is manifest in Sharia. The ideologues of the Islamic State seek to govern every aspect of their follower’s life and base their actions on dogmas of the Koran and hadiths that are shaped according to their understanding. What do they seek to gain? Basically the same that is sought by all Islamist fundamentalists – a way of life based on the Koran and the Sharia law, which are skilfully used to advance violent and radical interpretations of Islamic holy texts.


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