Jerusalem, Not Baghdad, Is the Islamic State’s Goal

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.

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  1. Wonder if John McCain is ever going to turn up on an ISIS coin one of these days…one of those limited editions honoring foreign dignitaries who helped out ISIS during its early days. Lots of photos around of McCain and other various and assorted US gov’t officials meeting with the ISIS crew, pledging support in the overthrow of Assad in Syria.

    They should even throw Bill and Hilary Clinton on one of those coins. Only Allah knows how many dollars the Saudis have thrown their way over the years.

  2. Prof. Bacharach: The threat to Israel from Iran, Syria, Hamas, (Gaza) and the Palestinian Authority is no less than that of IS. Read the Koran (in case of doubt) listen to what is being preached in the mosques in those places.
    None of the states or entities you mentioned are on speaking terms with Israel therefore it is not possible to peacefully “minimize” the threat from them, unless you are suggesting unilateral withdrawals. Are you are suggesting that Israel militarily eliminate the threat? Israel will use force only in self defense, because no Jewish mother wants her son to die. Contrary to and despite what many twisted minds in the this world think, Jews are not war mongers.
    Mistakenly Israel’s past unilateral withdrawals from Gaza and Lebanon created the situation where there are now tens of thousands of rockets are presently aimed at her, and has increased her vulnerability. The vast majority of Israelis are not in the mood for further unilateral withdrawal concessions.
    Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah all call for Israel’s extinction. The PA speaks in two languages, Arabic for local consumption and English to the world. The Arabic translation leaves little doubt, even their constitution calls for the destruction of Israel.

  3. @Prof Bacharach, it is very surprising to me that you with your strong credentials about the ME have fallen for this superficial pictures on the coins supposedly minted by ISIS? This is part of the propaganda you see! The ISIS was created by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia with common goals of fighting the Shias in the ME or more specifically divide Iraq into 3 separate states just like what we did with Yugoslavia for Sunnis, Kurds & Shias, also to destroy Syria, and to apply more pressure on Iran militarily and financially! So this is a bunch of hogwash and ISIS is NOT going to bite the hands that feeds it so to speak!

  4. @ ruven golan

    “Israel will use force only in self defense”|

    So, the appropriation of the Palestinian lands, the increasing illegal settlements and invasions of the Palestinian farms and homes at gun point and the savage massacres of the Palestinians and their children and demolitions of their homes and yearly arrest of their children in the middle of night, blindfolding, handcuffing and torturing them in solitary confinements – 700 Palestinian children a year, age 12-17, just for throwing stone to protest at the ruthless occupation of their land for over 47 years! – hence undermining the International Laws, the Geneva Convention and the UN Resolutions,…all have been in ‘self-defense’!! including the invasion of Lebanon, Gaza,.. Syria….No wonder millions all over the world have repeatedly condemned Israel’s barbarism and called as Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran have, for the elimination of the criminal Zionist regime, just as European before WWII called for the elimination of the Nazi regime.

    Yes, ” Jews are not war mongers”, but the financial and moral support the ‘Israeli’ Jews as well as certain Jewish groups ‘outside’ Israel, give the Zionist regime to empower it to pursue its illegal settlement policies and savage military attacks on the Palestinian population, as well as its humiliating walls and 100s of check points in Palestine, strongly refute your argument!

    The world’s increasing condemnation of the Zionist regime can no longer be silenced by accusing them of antisemitism; also, distinction has long been made between the ‘extinction’ of the Israeli regime and the Israeli population. Fortunately such skilful propaganda has long been exposed and outdated. In place of the over exposed ‘antisemitism’ claim especially its abuse in order to silence the American critics of the Zionist atrocities, Israel introduced the ‘existential threat’, despite its arsenal of nuclear weapons. Fortunately the world has woken up, though too late to stop the increasing bloodshed in the Middle East.

  5. @Khosrow, right on the money! As you know the Zionists always would have to cry innocent about anything and throw a tantrum like a baby when cornered! especially the poor Zionists from EUROPE, not the Jews from the ME as I’m honored to have many of them as my friends.The Jews from the ME especially those who lived and still live in Iran for thousands of years are good, decent and well respected people!

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