The so-called Islamic State – ISIS – was founded to create the global Caliphate, uniting all true Muslims under one regime, loyal to God. Daesh is the latest in a line of apocalyptic and millennial movements which promise a future paradise, golden age or utopia. The military defeat of ISIS in the Middle East will produce an existential crisis in the minds of many ISIS fighters which adds up to a crisis in Islamic terrorism.
Now that ISIS – the so-called Islamic State – has lost its twin capital cities in the Middle East, western intelligence services are braced for the return of hundreds, if not thousands of potential terrorists.
The current view is that they should be killed rather than risk them returning. Yet the fall of Raqqa in Syria, and Mosul in Iraq, will produce an existential crisis in the ranks of ISIS supporters.
Some will suffer severe disillusion. Others may hang on to their violent creed, at least in part, but opt for a quiet life preferring to slip back to their former lives, unnoticed by the authorities.
Thi s, at least, is what we can expect, based on the past history of other apocalyptic and millennial movements.
The universal failure of golden ages to actually arrive on any more than a temporary basis is known as prophetic disconfirmation. The earliest academic work, published in 1956, concluded that the faithful would respond to failure by redoubling their efforts to spread the word. Later studies concluded that failure could provoke a variety of responses, such as changes in theology and the kinds of predictions such groups make.
The original templates for prophetic disconfirmation are found in two great failures: Jewish predictions that the Kingdom of David will be restored, and Christian expectations of Christ’s return.
Both provide evidence that sometimes failure only deepens faith. In Israel ultra-Zionism and the settler movement are driven by the belief that if only the faithful can make one more final push then God will reward them with the creation of their own paradise.
Christian evangelism is driven by the belief that Jesus could return next month, next week, or even today. In the USA the Rapture Movement which stands at the heart of the Christian Right holds this prediction close as an absolute truth.
Over the last two thousand years other Christians have reacted in different ways to Christ’s failure to return. Some postponed the Kingdom of God until the distant future. Others thought they could encourage God to fulfil his promise. The crusaders chose war and violence, Frances of Assisi preferred pacifism.
The English radicals in the 17th century formulated the world’s first socialist programme, reasoning that if they created a just and equal society, God would smile on them. In the 18th century the Swedish visionary Emmanuel Swedenborg found a new solution.
He declared that Christ’s return was an internal spiritual event which would never actually happen in a physical sense, so the prophecy could never fail.
At the heart of prophetic failure lies the problem of abandonment. “Why has God not fulfilled his promise?”, the faithful ask, followed by ‘what have we done wrong?’ and ‘have we let Him down?’
The key speeches made by ISIS leader Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi insisted that the task of the jihadi was to kill or be killed and that victory was guaranteed by God. We can imagine the scene on board the buses transporting Isis fighters out of Raqqa in October.
These were people who had been prepared to die for God, but had chosen life. They had chosen not to be killed. Denied victory by God, they had rebelled against al-Baghdadi and his theology. On the model of previous prophetic failures we can imagine the ISIS fighters’ likely futures. Some may return to the Koran to reinterpret the key passages which advocate Jihad.
Others may look for a new leader as a replacement for al-Baghdadi or reject violence in favour of peaceful struggle. Many may attempt to return to ordinary life. If this seems a stretch then we have plenty of precedents in recent history.
Fervent Nazis who had been gripped by the hope offered by the thousand-year Reich settled into being good democrats or communists after 1945, depending on whether they found themselves in East Germany or West.
From 1989 to 1991, fervent Marxists throughout the eastern bloc renounced the faith of a life time. For most people ideology is ephemeral, a product of their personality and circumstances.
There is therefore good reason to hope that the risk from former ISIS fighters may not be as great as feared.
The radicalisation that turns apparently ordinary teenage boys – and sometimes girls – into killers is not a one-way process. The experience of other kinds of conversion, whether to religious or political groups, shows that back-sliding – ‘deconversion’ – is common. In the 1970s and 1980s there was considerable concern over the numbers of young people joining so-called cults, such as the Scientologists and Moonies.
But studies showed that many abandoned their new allegiance after a short while, and slipped back to ordinary life.
Like many radicals in the past, having espoused world revolution for a short while, the lure of marriage and bourgeois life may be impossible to resist.
It is quite possible that many ISIS fighters, especially as many have experienced horrors for which their upbringing never prepared them, may wish to forget their time in Iraq and Syria. To return quietly to study, work and normal relationships will be a relief for many.
It only takes one former fighter to drive a truck into a crowd, and a handful to build a bomb.
Yet the shock of defeat and the crisis triggered by the failure of the prophecy of the universal Islamic State will be so traumatic that most former fighters, like St. Peter denying Christ after the crucifixion, will reject their former creed.
The problem for us is knowing who among them will go the other way and seek an even worse revenge on their enemies.
*Nicholas Campion is the author of “The New Age in the modern West: counter-culture, utopia and prophecy from the late eighteenth century to the present day”. (London: Bloomsbury 2015).