Somewhere in Raqqa on Monday night, we can presume, several Islamic State higher-ups gathered around a screen to watch Donald Trump’s speech about the mass murder in in Florida—his renewed demand to ban immigration by Muslims, and his allegation that American Muslims as a group, all of them, are giving cover to terrorism. The first comment in that room in Syria was mostly likely, “Thank God, at least something is going right for us.”
The details of the scene are conjecture. The import of Trump’s words is not. For this reason, Hillary Clinton’s post-Orlando speech was missing one critical connection. She was right to use the word “terrorism,” to talk about the battle against the Islamic State, and to warn against transforming grief into hatred of Muslims. But that doesn’t quite go far enough. President Obama came closer to the mark when he said that “painting all Muslims with a broad brush” is “doing the terrorists’ work for them.”
But the point needs to be sharper: For the Islamic State, the express purpose of such attacks is to ignite hatred of Muslims. The organization, like so many disappointed revolutionaries before it, says explicitly that it uses terror to awaken the people it thinks should be on its side.
Trump, therefore, is not just a bigot and a bully. He has made himself a strategic asset of the Islamic State.
This is not to ignore the other dimensions of the horror in Orlando, such as the insanity of letting civilians walk into stores and buy guns designed for the battlefield. The attack was most basically an act of homophobic hatred. Judging from what’s been reported so far, Omar Mateen linked himself to the Islamic State to change the meaning of what he did. This fits a pattern seen elsewhere: A young, angry person drawn to murder, suicide or both chooses an ideology and a struggle so that he can imagine himself as a hero, so that he can imagine a community somewhere assigning him glory.
Homophobia isn’t necessary a product of religion. The Soviets imprisoned thousands of people for sexual inclinations regarded as counter-revolutionary, as expression of the “moral decadence of the bourgeoisie.” The Nazis slaughtered homosexuals. But today religion may be the last refuge of the homophobe, most of all fundamentalist religious movements.
Fundamentalism isn’t old-time religion, though it claims to be. Used properly, the term describes the modern permutations of religion that express angry rejection of modernity. One reason for that anger is the breakdown of sexual rules and roles. Freedom can be frightening.
Fundamentalist movements claim to resurrect a golden age that is a product of their imagination. Along the way, they reject traditional tenets of their religion and adopt secular ideas, rebranding them as religious values. The Islamic State’s adoption of terrorism—relabeled jihad—is an extreme case-in-point. The strategy is precisely the one pioneered by Russian revolutionaries of the late 19th century and copied by many groups since. The sheer outrageousness of the terrorists’ actions is meant to show their daring and determination, thereby drawing recruits.
The strategic text that apparently served as an Islamic State handbook, The Management of Savagery, lays out just this rationale—in religious language that belies its secular roots. It explains that terror attacks against the West will lead to clumsy assaults on the Islamic world, thereby “dragging the masses [of Muslims] into the battle.” The organization’s pre-Ramadan manifesto this year repeats justifications for killing civilians in an attempt to argue away traditional Islamic rules for just war.
Two other things leap out of that manifesto: a recurring attempt to convince readers that the Islamic State’s battlefield losses and shrinking territory in Syria and Iraq are inconsequential, and fury at Muslims who have not joined its side. The subtext is that the so-called Caliphate is facing the very real possibility of being overrun. The effort to recruit foreign fighters, much as it has frightened Europe, has fallen far short of the Islamic State’s fantasies. The vast majority of Muslims have persisted in what the radicals consider apostasy. They are labeled “mindless beasts” who count themselves as Muslims but believe America.
So the Islamic State, besieged and apparently lacking foreign networks, urges “supporters of the Caliphate in Europe and America” to carry out attacks on civilians. It’s the classic lament and call to arms of a revolutionary group facing defeat. The victims of its violence are randomly chosen. The expectation is that the theatrics of bloodshed will provoke an over-the-top, indiscriminate response by the enemy against Muslims. This, in turn, is supposed to prove even to “mindless beasts” that coexistence between Islam and the West is impossible—both in the individual’s daily life and on the global stage.
Donald Trump, with his bravado and hatred, is playing the part assigned to him in this script, little as he understands it. As president, he would constantly show that terror works, not just in his words but in his actions.
The good news is that the terror strategy has often failed miserably. “The masses” are not “mindless beasts,” but people with choices. They can be repulsed by terror. In this particular case, a great many are outspokenly appalled by the desecration of their religion. Trump’s narcissistic bigotry is most likely to encourage more American Muslims to register to vote, so that they can help defeat him. Nonetheless, his outbursts encourage the Islamic State to believe that its strategy is working and to step up its incitement to terror in the West in general and America in particular. Call him the Raqqan candidate.
This post first appeared in American Prospect and appears here by special permission.