By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
There is a brewing controversy over a cover story by The Atlantic. The major article by Graeme Wood is a slick piece of journalism by a slick feature writer (see his website). It covers all the bases and hits the right nails.
He begins by asking, noting: “Our ignorance of the Islamic State is in some ways understandable: It is a hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned. Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable.”
He states what should be obvious, but often isn’t. “ISIS follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy…We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al‑Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it.” He compares ISIS to messianic movements in the West like the Branch Davidians and David Koresh. But he claims that we should not imagine ISIS is a modern secular movement in religious guise, rather “much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment.”
In a sense this article seems to go against the Obama narrative spouted by many Western leaders and intellectuals, that ISIS is “not Islamic” and “not the real Islam” and is a cabal of “violent extremists.” On that note he is correct, it is ridiculous to pretend ISIS is “not Islamic.” It’s like pretending David Koresh “isn’t a Christian.” Maybe he isn’t “your type of Christian” but to pretend he is just a street thug with a violent messianic view mistakes the truth in order to cater to liberalistic nonsense about not “stereotyping ISIS as Islam.” The author argues, “Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it.”
THAT IS where the logic of this article ends and where everyone falls into a trap. Once we accept that ISIS believers are actually Muslims and have a “belief system”, then the author wants us to enter that system and debate it from within. The article brings up a “Sheikh Adnani” and quotes him as telling his followers to kill westerners and destroy their crops. “Adnani was not merely talking trash. His speech was laced with theological and legal discussion, and his exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops alone—unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position.”
The reader is then forced to wade through pages of explanations about the Islamic legal perfection of ISIS. “Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government. Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as the jizya.” In a slight of hand the author argues that those who discount ISIS’s Islamicness are taken in by Edward Said “if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul.” The article embarks on a literary Jihad to make us believe “the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor.” The author goes and interviews ISIS apologist Anjem Choudary in London. “Choudary took pains to present the laws of war under which the Islamic State operates as policies of mercy rather than of brutality.” Choudary seemed to paint a utopian, communist-like picture of the end vision of ISIS; “That whole package, he said, would include free housing, food, and clothing for all, though of course anyone who wished to enrich himself with work could do so.”
This reminds me Michel Foucault and all the Western intellectuals who fell in love with Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic revolution of 1979. Khomeini became another Che Guevara and all these Westerners bowed down to his “third way” and they all worshipped his supposedly perfect Islam that would usher in all sorts of “economic justice” and oppose “western imperialism and capitalism.”
Like in 1979 we are all trapped now inside a box where we have to argue the points of “Islamic law” or “Islamic faith” in the press. Salon.com published a takedown of the Atlantic piece, “it’s beyond a stretch to argue that ISIS represents Islam, is grounded in Islam, or justified by Islam. That’s not to say they don’t claim religious mandates, or exploit religion to enable their savagery.” So the Haroon Mughol implies that really, once we read the Koran and all become Muslims, we will realize that “ISIS’s relationship to Islam is like Frankenstein to a human being, or a zombie to a living person. So ISIS is the fault of the West. “ISIS didn’t come out of nowhere. Already our intervention in Libya has opened the door to the same kind of chaos Iraq has seen so much more of—is it any surprise there’s an ISIS franchise in Libya now, too? The same foreign policy mistakes produce the same results.” ISIS isn’t Islamic, and not only that, it is the West’s fault; “our overextended war on terror has delivered terrible returns.”
Murtaza Hussein at ‘Intercept’ makes a similar argument to the one at Salon: We haven’t read enough Islamic scholarship to understand ISIS. The Atlantic article, he notes, “ignores the great mass of established religious scholars whose theological conclusions are starkly at odds with the revisionism of Islamic State.” Hussein goes on to tell us that good Islamic scholars have sent the ISIS leader a “letter” and that SIS “rejects all these centuries of scholarship and tradition.” He accuses Wood of not meeting Muslim “in authority” who would give “religiously based counterpoints.” He doesn’t “engage the predominant view.”
Where Hussein is wrong is assuming that the “real” way to write about the Crusades is to go interview Catholic priests today and understand the “predominant” theological objections to them today. The real way to look at the KKKs’ appropriation of Christianity is to go talk to Lutherans who didn’t support the KKK.
Jack Jenkins at ThinkProgress also took The Atlantic and Wood to task; noting that they reached the wrong conclusion that “since ISIS’s theology draws upon Islamic texts to justify its horrendous practices, it is an inevitable product of Islam.” Jenkins sets up a straw man, misreading Wood’s article; “The implication, according to many who read the piece, is that ISIS’s theology is founded in Islamic texts that cannot be debated.” So ThinkProgress takes us back to Al-Azhar University, in a sense, to debate what is “real” Islam. “ThinkProgress challenged Haykel’s assertion that people who declare ISIS unIslamic are unschooled in Islam, pointing to a lengthy letter signed by over 120 prominent Muslim leaders and scholars that refers to the Islamic State only in quotation marks and repeatedly rebukes their beliefs as “forbidden in Islam.”
THE PROBLEM with all these articles is that it sucks the reader into a circle where we all have to debate Islam with Muslim scholars. This is exactly how the intellectuals wanted us to debate Communism. They wanted us to read Karl Marx and Antonia Gramsci, and be versed in anarcho-syndicalism; we were supposed to understand the difference between “Maoism”, “Trotskyism”, and Santiago Carillo. As Stalin was killing millions in the Ukraine and deporting people from throughout the Soviet Union and as a million people rotted in the Gulag, everyone was supposed to be reading Trotsky and talking about how “Stalin isn’t Communism.” Later as Mao starved 50 million people to death we were supposed to be talking about how it isn’t “the real communism.” Khmer Rouge, Castro, North Korea; wherever, there were always apologists to come along and there were always writers like Wood who wanted to understand the “theory” behind the genocide in Cambodia. Always a theory.
A brilliant art show in New York looking at Communist art from the 1930s brings back this idiocy. An article in the New Yorker reminds us; “The one outright funny work in the show, a color lithograph titled ‘The Lovestonite’ (1933), finds two hatted and besuited men at a table, with coffee cups, looking tense as another walks by. The seated men are evidently solid Communists, and the third is a follower of Jay Lovestone, who was the national secretary of the American Communist Party until 1929, when he was expelled for promoting moderate policies.” In those days it was the same, the “real Communists” and the good ones and bad ones and everyone took it seriously.
ISLAM IS not Communism, of course. But Islamism is approached like Communism was and in some ways the sudden explosion of Islamist parties across the world, from Turkey’s AKP to the Muslim Brothers, to the extremist groups like Al-Shabab and Boko Haram, have in common a trajectory similar to the arrival of Communism and its various outshoots, like the Beider-Meinhoff terrorists.
The problem with always addressing groups like ISIS within their own worldview, or denying their worldview, is the same as the false approach to understanding Communism. You can say that North Korea isn’t “real Communism” all you want. That doesn’t make North Korea go away, and it denies the essential essence of the Korean regime which was birthed in Communism and supported by Communist countries. Similarly the best way to undermine North Korea is not to have 120 “Communist intellectuals” send a letter to the North Korean leader.
This ridiculous theory that some Islamic scholars reject ISIS is meaningless. So what? So what that only .0001% of Muslims are members of ISIS. It’s like saying that only 1% of Christians joined the Nazi party. Or having to listen to a lecture on how the Nazi party “wasn’t Christian.” Who cares? Neither is meaningful. You think the people being herded into the death camps cared if Nazi logic made sense? Did they care if “real Western intellectuals” had condemned Nazism? Did it matter to the victims of Stalin if he “perverted Communism.” It matters as little as to the Yezidis being sold into slavery. All the nice letters won’t do them any good. You think that slavery in the US South, which was supported by many Christian southerners, was mitigated by the fact that preachers in the North or in England condemned slavery? I mean, really, when black people were tossed overboard during the slave trade and murdered, did it matter? Does it matter to Shia being massacred in Iraq if the people killing them have a logical ideology?
What does matter is how to roll back ISIS. Articles by Wood, Obama’s speeches and the stories weaved by Jenkins and friends are not doing anything about ISIS. ISIS is winning; it is expanding into Libya and other places. Many other groups, like Al-Shabab and Boko Haram are taking cues from ISIS. They aren’t being defeated. There are no examples of one of these extremist groups really being defeated. From the Taliban to Abu-Sayyef, they are mostly winning or at least holding the status quo.
THERE SHOULD be a happy medium between these various examinations of ISIS that takes into account that the theology of ISIS is not important. Every movement has an ideological theory behind it. The Nazis also had a theory about Aryan racists. Himmler and his “experts” spent years researching imaginary German origins. Is it important to learn about all this in order to confront Nazism? Does one need to become an expert in Mein Kampf to debate Neo-Nazis? Did Chuchill win the war by studying John Locke?
Studying Islamic theories and reading the learned opinions of “mainstream scholars” can only get one so far. It isn’t only because ISIS is staffed by numerous people who may be semi-illiterate; but just because it doesn’t matter. You can define ISIS as whatever you want. Define it as a Christian messianic movement. Fine. Then tell me how it isn’t “really Christian.” Who cares? That doesn’t change the situation. In fact the very question of the need to “understand” ISIS may be irrelevant. It may not even be worth understanding. Why do we need to understand why the Taliban massacres children in a school? Don’t get sucked into the understanding paradigm.