Recent controversies have revived a pointless debate from the Bush era
The international conversation that forms the backdrop for the campaign against the so-called “Islamic State” (also known as ISIS or ISIL) terrorist group has suddenly found itself drawn into a rabbit hole. Politicians, pundits, preachers and pontificators of all sorts are presently tearing their hair out over how to navigate the relationship between the Islamic State and Islam. But this is a dreadful waste of time, a dead-end and a matter that is easily resolved.
The handwringing over this issue dates back to the immediate post-9/11 era, when President George W. Bush went to great lengths to distinguish the ideology and agenda of the Al-Qaeda terrorists that attacked the United States from Islam and Muslims in general. It is likely that Bush’s early rhetoric had a positive impact on the wave of backlash violence and discrimination facing American Muslims (and others mistaken for them, especially Sikh men). It’s even likely that lives were saved.
Unfortunately, Bush did not maintain this rhetoric as carefully as he had done at first during the subsequent years of his presidency. And, indeed, elements of the “war on terror,” especially regarding national security measures taken against various categories of noncitizens, and the invasion of Iraq helped to contribute to a very different atmosphere in the United States, in which the government appeared to be reserving to itself the right to discriminate while strictly enforcing the law against individuals and non-governmental institutions.
But Bush always, and correctly, maintained that the “war on terror” was not, in any sense, a war against Islam. People on the political right, as well as some leftists and others, were harshly critical of Bush’s rhetoric in this regard. They claimed that it was a lack of nerve, and a refusal to be honest about the nature of the threat facing the United States and its identity, that informed his refusal to speak in terms of “Islamic terrorism,” or some similar phraseology.
Bush’s supporters countered that it was only sensible diplomatically to respect the sensitivities of key American allies in the Muslim world who would be offended by such language. They added that it would have been foolish to grant Al-Qaeda and similar groups the legitimacy that would go along with acknowledging any sort of authentic religious element to their agenda. This logic invariably won the day in governmental and most serious policy circles regarding counterterrorism and national security.
I recall the Bush era because this tired old argument has suddenly flared up again well into the second term of his successor, Barack Obama. Now, in the context of the Islamic State, Obama is accused of everything that used to be hurled in the direction of Bush, but with the additional implication that Obama is insufficiently patriotic (or worse).
The issue has been lately further exacerbated by controversies swirling around a recent article by Graham Wood in The Atlantic which tried to explain elements of Islamic State ideology to the American public. In particular, Wood revived the debate by declaring: “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.”
So now, rather than debating how best to counter these fanatics, particularly in terms of developing effective counter-narratives and messaging designed to defeat their propaganda, we find ourselves once again dragged into the quagmire of “how Islamic is the Islamic State?” Wood’s thoughtful and serious article is long, complex, and, generally speaking, very sound. It’s a welcome contribution to one of the most important debates in contemporary international relations. But there are several places in which Wood seems to lose the plot, become tangled in contradictions or, as with the strange ending about the potential virtues of quietest Salafism, charge headlong in false directions.
One of the most obvious of Wood’s mistakes is the concept that the Islamic State is, or could possibly be, “very Islamic.” After all, either it is or it isn’t. There is no question of “very” in this context. And, unfortunately, it is. There can be no doubt that ISIS is composed of fanatical Muslims who justify everything they do through a bizarre and vicious interpretation of Islam. They are fortunate in that Islamic history is so rich, dense, diverse and multifarious that they can readily justify almost anything in terms of some aspect of Islamic history, doctrine, dogma, culture or practices.
There is no reason to doubt their sincerity, either. It’s impossible to know what aspect of cynicism intrudes on the purity of their religious and political fanaticism, and it doesn’t matter. Their public face is that of a Muslim extremist organization that rationalizes all of its behavior in terms of a peculiar and particular reading of Islamic traditions, culture and history. But it’s as meaningless to deem them “very Islamic,” as it would be to deem them “un-Islamic.”
And there are plenty of people, including some of the most important governments presently arrayed against them, who passionately insist that the “Islamic State” is precisely that: “un-Islamic.” But this is essentially to try to argue that because an organization’s beliefs and practices are manifestly evil, they cannot be “Islamic” because Islam is good. Again, one can understand the political and diplomatic impulse to make such a claim. But it is intellectually indefensible.
Like all of the other great faith and civilizational traditions of humanity, Islam, writ large as a series of very diverse and heterogeneous social texts, contains virtually every aspect of the human experience in some form or another. The old slogan popular during the Bush era — that Islam is a “religion of peace” — is perfectly meaningless. After all, the primary social function of religion, as with other aspects of culture, is to legitimize the conduct of power. It is therefore infinitely malleable, and can be successfully deployed to rationalize virtually any social or political agenda.
In the United States, for example, for almost 100 years, the battle for and against slavery was framed almost entirely in terms of competing religious interpretations among the same small set of Protestant Christian denominations. Supporters of slavery justified the institution on religious grounds, and abolitionists attacked it using the same texts. Christianity did not have a default position on the issue. It could be, and was, used with equal effectiveness by both sides in a Civil War fought almost entirely over the issue of slavery, as Abraham Lincoln noted in his second inaugural address, which he delivered in the midst of that conflict. “Both [sides in the American Civil War] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other,” Lincoln noted.
There are two obvious errors to be made, traps to be fallen into, in this not-terribly-complex problem.
First, it really cannot be maintained that ISIS is not Muslim in some sense or another. Indeed, it is a terrorist organization made up entirely of Muslim fanatics who use the religion to justify their transgressions and crimes. Just think in terms of the need for counter-messaging. Does anyone believe for a moment that counter-narratives that do not stress and emphasize religious arguments against Islamic State barbarism would be effective? Obviously not. Therefore, it must be acknowledged that there is a strong Islamic component, however twisted, to the narratives, ideology and agenda propagated by the Islamic State. An additional irony, of course, is that to call Islamic State fighters “un-Islamic” is to at least flirt with the takfiri practices that make them so extreme in the first place.
Second, it would be equally erroneous to conclude that the group comprises, therefore, “the Muslims,” or that it is authentically Islamic, or, in Wood’s unfortunate phrase, “very Islamic.” It is obviously none of those things. Its ideology is contemporary, novel, bizarre and profoundly out of sync with mainstream Islam, both now and historically. There is nothing “authentic” or representative about it. Quite to the contrary, in fact.
It ought to be a fairly simple, straightforward issue. But it is complicated by the genuine diplomatic and political need of some governments and leaders, including American ones, to play the game of denying that there is anything “Islamic” about an organization of fanatical and extremist Muslims. Clearly there is more to be gained through this strategic dissimulation than is lost, and everyone who can understand the reasons for it should nod and move on. Those who don’t understand it just need to think a little bit more clearly about the problem.
As for the rest of us, it’s high time to get back to the real issues such as how best to defeat the “Islamic State” both on the battlefield and politically, particularly in terms of developing effective counter-messaging. There couldn’t be a bigger waste of time than this overwrought fretting about how “Islamic” the “Islamic state” is.