by Jere L. Bacharach
When a state creates new money it uses the images on their currency as a statement of their ideals and goals. In the US, the debate over who should replace Andrew Jackson on the US 20 dollar bill tells something about current differing US values. For those who have bothered to look at the Islamic State’s coinage, the emphasis has been on their use of calligraphy, their use of the shahada or affirmation of faith, and their lack of human images. What has not been noted is that there is a building on one coin and a medieval shield and spear on another.
On their 10 dirham piece they have placed the image of the exterior of the al-Aqsa mosque, which they have labelled in case the viewer didn’t recognize it. The al-Aqsa mosque is located at the southern end of the Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem or what most Jews and Christians call the Temple Mount. For those not familiar with the Islamic tradition, Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad flew in one night on a magical beast from Mecca to Jerusalem landing at the eventual site of the al-Aqsa mosque. He then rose to Heaven from the eventual location of the Dome of the Rock meeting numerous earlier prophets and the Godhead himself. He then returned to Jerusalem and Mecca. This tradition and many others make this city Islam’s third most holy but it is today the only one held by non-Muslims, in this case Israeli Jews. IS propaganda and others, it should be noted, play up the image of Israel as the modern Crusader state that must be destroyed and Jerusalem liberated as was done in medieval times.
IS’s strategy also mirrors that of two medieval Muslim rulers who effectively fought the Crusaders – the ruler Nur al-Din whose family ruled Mosul and Aleppo and then his successor and most famous of medieval Muslim rulers, Saladin. This reference to medieval history and earlier jihadist wars is reflected in the coin with the medieval shield and spear, neither of which are weapons of war in the 21^st century. Nur al-Din knew that he had to control Aleppo and then neutralize or occupy Damascus before he could attack the Crusaders in Jerusalem. He succeeded in taking Damascus but died before he could effectively attack Jerusalem. Saladin succeeded. IS’s planning parallels this early medieval strategy. They probe constantly at Baghdad hoping to weaken its will to fight but they have no intention of trying to govern that city whose male population is overwhelmingly Shi’ite and are heavily armed. The road from Raqqa leads to Aleppo; the road from Palmyra to Damascus and then Jerusalem, neither leads to Baghdad.
As many have noted, IS’s has a number of advantages. One is their total ruthlessness and disregard for local populations irrespective of how others may interpret Islam. Their willingness to kill Sunnis who oppose them, Shi’ites, Yazidis, Christians, and, as a goal, Jews irrespective of any international norms both inspires their troops and puts fear in their enemies. Their willingness to cut off water supplies to weaken their opponents is another example of their planned ruthlessness. Only the armies of the Mongol leader Genghis Khan were as brutal. This also means that they don’t consider civilian casualties of any consequence.
Sending US and European troops to fight on the ground will only enhance the reputation of IS as the only defenders of Islam against the new Crusaders [Israel] and their Western supporters. Also, one could predict that any captured American or Western soldier would be publicly humiliated and then executed to emphasize IS’s own definition of religious purity.
There is only one power which could effectively stop IS and that is Erdogan’s Turkey. Both IS and Turkey know this. For all the talk in the press and on the web about how IS has torn up the WW I boundaries using the phrase the Sykes-Picot Agreement, note that IS has done everything to avoid violating the Turkish-Syrian border which is as artificial as every other one in the region. Turkey could significantly reduce the flow of men and material into IS held lands, it could undermine IS’ illegal traffic in oil and antiques, and, worst of all from IS’s point of view, it could undertake military action which IS could not defeat as it would face a serious two front war. All of this is speculation because there is absolutely no sign that Erdogan even after this most recent election wants to confront IS nor that IS wishes to take any action which would lead to a Turkish response.
I have views on what are the best policies to deal with IS. I would only state that if I were in Jerusalem advising their government, I would minimize the threats to Israel’s existence from Iran, Assad’s Syria, HAMAS, Hezbollah, and even the Palestinians. Only IS, playing by different rules, motivated by their interpretation of Islam, willing to slaughter all opposition and ignore the costs to the populations they control including now firing rockets from Gaza, and playing up the memory of Saladin, his defeat of the Crusaders, and his liberation of Jerusalem, is Israel’s most formidable future enemy.
Jere L. Bacharach is professor emeritus of history and international studies at the University of Washington. Among other positions, he served as the director of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies from 1995 to 2001 after directing the Jackson School’s Middle East Studies program from 1982 to 1995. He also served as President of the Middle East Studies Association from 1999 to 2001. Republished from the Gulf2000 listserv with the permission of the author.