By Dr. Doron Pely
Those following the evolution and expansion of ISIS over the past few years find themselves often bewildered by the pace and rate of success demonstrated by a supposedly young, inexperienced band of ideologues. No real surprise there. In fact, the similarity is uncanny between what is happening now with ISIS and what happened 1,400 years ago, as Mohammad founded Islam and set about consolidating and expanding the power and reach of the new religion.
Take for example the “expeditions” or raids that the newly minted Muslims, headed by Mohammad, conducted after they were exiled from Mecca to the Oasis Medina. Gradually, but persistently, the “emigrants” (those who left Mecca with Mohammad and moved to Medina), assisted by growing numbers of “helpers” (local Medina residents who supported Mohammad), challenged the primacy of Mecca and its wealthy and inattentive traders, chipping away at their economic, military, and morale posture.
The raids, initially nothing more than a proverbial irritant, went mostly unanswered by the Meccans in any serious way, giving Mohammad and his growing following the economic and psychological space they needed to build and reinforce their self-confidence, as well as establish an ethos and a narrative of success and empowerment while they ate away at the self-confidence of the Meccans and the surrounding tribes.
This pattern of increasingly more daring raids led directly to the battle of Badr (March 624), when a small force of Muslims and helpers defeated a large but unfocused and under-motivated Meccan force, causing them substantial losses.
The Meccans realized at that point that their economic dominance and their physical wellbeing was challenged directly by the rising force and influence of the growing Muslim community to their north. They knew that they must re-establish their primacy and avenge the humiliation at Badr. Yet, they could not and would not muster the will and the resources necessary to put an end to the nascent threat from Medina.
Finally, after a year of prevarication, they launched a revenge attack against the Medinians, and although the Muslims of Medina failed to defeat the Meccans, the battle of Uhud (March 625) failed to weaken the Muslims. In fact, the day after the battle, Mohammad left Medina with a band of followers to pursue the retreating Meccans as they were returning home – a demonstration of the unbroken spirit and power of the Muslims – despite the casualties they suffered earlier.
The next three years were spent by Mohammad in consolidation of his posture, principally by getting rid of potential and actual opposition in the form of local Jewish tribes and other irritants. The Meccans, despite knowing full well that Mohammad was building up his strength and getting ready for another challenge, did nothing.
On March 628, Mohammad marched again against Mecca, ostensibly to perform a pilgrimage. He cowed the Meccans into a treaty, known as the treaty of al Hudaybiyah, where the pilgrimage of the Medina Muslims was postponed by a year, but the Meccans pledged to vacate their city for three days the next year to allow the Muslims to perform their rites. The end result of this agreement was that the Meccans lost their exclusive control over caravans to Syria, effectively giving away their last claim to any serious opposition to Mohammad.
Indeed, by January of 630, Mecca submitted to Mohammad, and the newly emergent Islam (only 20 years old) became the reigning power in the Arabian Peninsula – followed by a super-rapid expansion across major chunks of the ancient world.
Today’s picture is almost identical. The forces that oppose ISIS demonstrate the same lack of resolve, the same weakness, passivity and reluctance to act forcefully on their own behalf, as did Mecca in its time. This hesitance creates the space needed by ISIS to establish a controlled territory from which to consolidate and coordinate their next moves, and even more importantly, to establish a pattern of real and alleged successes that fuel a growing ethos of victorious destiny, a necessary condition for the recruitment of new followers from around the region and the world.
It is important to stress, however, that this analysis is valid only if you take into account the different historical contexts, the different morals, cultural and ethical standards – then and now. In fact, the comparison is even more valid when you put both sides of the equation into historical context because it highlights ISIS’s major fault: it’s desire to drive history in reverse and to re-create in today’s world a reality that has no place in it. A reality that can be studied, analyzed and otherwise used to try to understand historical processes but that cannot be used as a foundation for anything.
Yet, left unopposed, this unhindered reverse-evolution process establishes the conditions – administrative, economic, military and psychological – necessary to create the momentum for the next unbelievable yet predictable step – the establishment of a 7th century Caliphate right in the heart of the 21st century. Nothing good can come out of this.
Dr. Doron Pely is the Executive Director of the Sulha Research Center in Israel. Doron studies and teaches Muslim customary conflict and conflict management practices. His experience combines military (Lieutenant), police intelligence (field and analysis), business intelligence, executive duties, and academic and field research. Doron earned his PhD in Middle East Studies from King’s College, London.