ISIS attacks Islamic holy city… WTF?

Suicide bombings hit three cities in Saudi Arabia within 24 hours—including Medina, striking near the Prophet's Mosque, resting place of Muhammed and Islam's second holiest site. Four security officers were killed in that attack, which came during Maghreb prayers, as Muslims break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan. A suicide blast also struck near the US consulate in the coastal city of Jidda, wounding two security officers. And a suicide bomber blew himself up at a Shi'ite mosque in the eastern city of Qatif, although only the only casualty there was the attacker. There were no immediate claims of responsibility, but the attacks are pretty obviously the work of ISIS. (CNN, BBC News, Al Arabiya, NYT)

The bombings come days after the terror attacks in Istanbul, Dhaka and Baghdad. All these attacks were claimed by ISIS, came during Ramadan, and largely (not exclusively) targeted Muslims. This again vindicates the truism that most ISIS victims are Muslims. However, it does not support the annoying nonsense we hear over and over (e.g. in this Al Jazeera video commentary by Mehdi Hasan, and from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the wake of the Bangladesh attack) that ISIS are not "really" Muslims, or motivated by religion. Religious extremists are by definition motivated by religion. What are the social factors that give rise to religious extremism is a critical question, but it doesn't change this obvious reality. Political Islam provides the ideological content of ISIS terror.

The attack on Medina is not surprising when one recalls that ISIS has also expressed terrorist designs on the Kaaba in Mecca—Islam's holiest site. In their ultra-fundamentalism, veneration of buildings is rejected as idolatry. Terrorist designs on holy places must also be seen in light of ISIS eschatology: the desire to provoke a final conflict. This explains the attacks on Saudi Arabia, keepers of the Sunni faith—often incorrectly seen as backing ISIS, but actually viewed by them as corrupt betrayers of their sacred trust. The imperative to provoke a sectarian war across the Islamic world, purge Islam of heresy, and force all Sunnis into the ISIS camp explains the attacks on Shi'ites. As we have stated before: The principal concern of jihadist franchises like ISIS and the various Qaeda affiliates is the struggle within Islam. The jihad against the West is purely secondary.

And while ISIS is by far the most extreme exponent of this kind of millenarianism now active on the planet, it is far from the only one—and nor is this pathology peculiar to Islam. There are clear eschatological implications to the ongoing violence in Jerusalem, with Jewish millenarian groups like the Temple Mount Faithful seeking to build a new Temple on the site now occupied by al-Aqsa Mosque, third holiest in Islam. The real threat of eschatological prophecies is that believing in them has the paradoxical power to make them come true.

So please shut up with this transparent jive that these attacks are "not about religion." Such denialism does not help us confront, appreciate and address the critically dangerous period we are now in.