All About ISIS

Over at The Atlantic, Graeme Wood has posted an article on ISIS that is a tour de force of reportage, a near perfect melding of intellectual history and investigative journalism. It makes for gripping reading and left me yearning for more, though the more I want would require ethnographic fieldwork that is impossible for obvious reasons. At this point we can only imagine what life is like in ISIS controlled territory, but Wood’s article allows the imagination to run wild. I imagine a Camus-like atmosphere, an all too real yet surreal theater of the absurd. Blood, lots of blood, has this flowing quality: it spins back and flashes forth, galvanizing one moment and disorienting another. The closing scene of the latest ISIS video perfectly captures this quality, though stills can do no justice to this Coptic-killing choreography of waves:

Isis-Bloody-WaveISIS-Message-BloodWithin Wood’s article we find two lessons that deserve further emphasis, as both are major issues in religious studies. The first is about definitions and teaches us that “Islam” (like all modern religions) manifests in myriad ways, no one version of which can be singled out and normatively classed as “true, authentic, or legitimate.” There are many iterations of “Islam,” in other words, and saying that ISIS is un-Islamic gets us nowhere. The second is about motivations and teaches us that religious beliefs can directly and primarily impel action. While this claim may seem commonsensical to some, academics often explain, or explain away, religiously motivated action as a product of something else: economy, social structure, politics, power, colonialism, symbolism, etc. In the case of ISIS, religious beliefs are primary and direct spurs to action.

With these in mind, let’s look at some key article excerpts on the first lesson (definitions):

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. 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 and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition” (emphasis added for benefit of progressive ecumenical religionists, aka Huffington Post religion section readers).

It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State “a problem with Islam.” The religion allows many interpretations, and Islamic State supporters are morally on the hook for the one they choose. And yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them.

The Islamic State’s ideology exerts powerful sway over a certain subset of the population. Life’s hypocrisies and inconsistencies vanish in its face. Musa Cerantonio and the Salafis I met in London are unstumpable: no question I posed left them stuttering. They lectured me garrulously and, if one accepts their premises, convincingly. To call them un-Islamic appears, to me, to invite them into an argument that they would win. If they had been froth-spewing maniacs, I might be able to predict that their movement would burn out as the psychopaths detonated themselves or became drone-splats, one by one. But these men spoke with an academic precision that put me in mind of a good graduate seminar.

Western officials would probably do best to refrain from weighing in on matters of Islamic theological debate altogether. Barack Obama himself [wrongly] claimed that the Islamic State was “not Islamic”…I suspect that most Muslims appreciated Obama’s sentiment: the president was standing with them against both Baghdadi [i.e., ISIS] and non-Muslim chauvinists [i.e., Fox News producers/consumers] trying to implicate them in crimes. But most Muslims aren’t susceptible to joining jihad. The ones who are susceptible will only have had their suspicions confirmed: the United States lies about religion to serve its purposes.

Now let’s look at some key article excerpts on the second lesson (motivations):

There is a temptation to rehearse this observation – that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise – and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, 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, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes. Hence, perhaps, the incredulity and denial with which Westerners have greeted news of the theology and practices of the Islamic State. Many refuse to believe that this group is as devout as it claims to be, or as backward-looking or apocalyptic as its actions and statements suggest.

Without acknowledgment of these factors, no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.

According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

Leaders of the Islamic State have taken emulation of Muhammad as strict duty, and have revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years. “What’s striking about them is not just the literalism, but also the seriousness with which they read these texts,” Haykel said. “There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.”

These excerpts, while extensive, are but a small part of Wood’s article, which I strongly recommend reading in full. It also repays re-reading, allowing the ethnographic imagination to run wild with morbid fascination.

— Cris

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7 thoughts on “All About ISIS

  1. johncbalch

    Thanks for posting this, it can sometimes be hard to find reporting on ISIS that doesn’t fall into some of the traps you’ve outlined above, so I’ll have to check this piece out! Just one thing-I also find it interesting how we distinguish “wars of religion” from “secular” wars in history. There have been wars of religion (like the Crusades) that were hybrids of political interest and religious devotion, and secular wars (like the two World Wars) that occasionally took on quasi-religious overtones (here I am thinking particularly of how the Nazis framed “the nation” as an object of fanatical devotion). Political and religious symbols are still as messily intertwined as ever.

    One other note-I highly recommend the documentary “Waiting for Armageddon,” because it drives home that in our own country we have a large number of people who believe that the End-Times are nigh, and that many of them are well organized and have a significant impact on our foreign and domestic policies. So I don’t know if I can concur that our bias towards other countries is shaped by how “religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin,” because it seems alive and well in Washington to me.

  2. Cris Post author

    Thanks for these comments John; good to hear from you.

    As for the religious ideology which is indeed alive and well in Washington, the problem may be that most Americans do not see their exceptionalist politics or foreign policy as “religious.” This is due in part to the subterranean and ostensibly “secular” nature of civil or nation-state religion, and due in other part to deliberate efforts to conceal the religiously motivated nature of certain political projects.

    While Robert Bellah, a liberal Christian who projected his idealism onto the state, may have been comfortable promoting civil religion, it is all too easy for these sorts of projects to spin wildly out of control. American evangelicals and eschatologists may invite or welcome such developments, just as the Nazis did, but this is a dangerous game that the non-religionists among us hopefully won’t play.

  3. Chris Kavanagh

    I was actually about to post about this article Cris but your summary captures the main points of the article better than I could have. It’s an excellent piece and is particularly admirable for not falling prey to the clichéd misrepresentations that it criticises. The article also helps to ‘make sense’ of the recent inexplicable actions of ISIS in provoking Egypt into direct conflict and alienating almost all of Jordan… the images released of people accused of being gay being thrown from tall buildings seems to lend credence to the cult like theatre of the macabre that is living under ISIS. Anyone in that region has my deepest sympathy, regardless of where their sympathies lie, it does seem like a group that is on a steady path to self destruction though.

  4. Cris Post author

    Chris, your apropos mention of a “cult like theatre of the macabre” brings to mind Inga Clendinnen’s trenchant assessment of the Aztec or Mexica “theater state.” In this post, I reviewed her book and in this one I directed readers to another review (at Abandoned Footnotes) which is much better than mine. There appear to be some productive analytical parallels between the Aztecs and ISIS. This passage gives a sense for it:

    We might say that the theatre state at Tenochtitlan was primarily organized not to provide security, prosperity, or even glory, but for producing transcendental experiences. In this setting, Mexica priests were, in Clendinnen’s felicitous phrase, “impresarios of the sacred” (p. 242), practitioners of the only art that really mattered in the polity, and capable of setting in motion all of its resources for the sake of producing such collective experiences. Their “work” involved not just sacrifice, but a whole series of techniques, from fasting to powerful hallucinogenic drugs to chanting and dance, designed for maximum emotional effect. (There is a great deal of interesting “psychological engineering” in Mexica ritual, and I occasionally wondered idly about the genesis of such complicated practices). And the overall effect of their work was a “calculated assault on the senses.”

  5. Cris Post author

    Thanks for the link Jocelyn. I was not able to find any substantive critique in Mughal’s response; after denouncing the Atlantic article he makes some fair and valid points, but these don’t strike me as rebuttals. He does not, in other words, show that the Atlantic article is wrong in any way; he simply identifies issues that should be considered in conjunction with the article he condemns. Even though it is a Salon piece, and thus a fair amount of progressive puffery should be expected, I expect more from an author (Mughal) who is a PhD candidate. This may have proven too much for him, given that he is apparently operating from inside the tradition and his only (weak) recourse is to claim that ISIS is not “true” or “authentic” Islam.

    My primary concerns about the Atlantic article are twofold. First, the author interviewed relatively few people, living in the West, who may or may not accurately reflect the ISIS worldview. But some sources are better than none, and Mughal makes many assertions without support or sourcing; he just expects us to believe him because he says it. Second, we don’t know what people in ISIS controlled territory think or feel; this is why I wished for ethnographic fieldwork from the region, of which there is none. Despite this lack, Mughal suggests that people living inside the controlled territory don’t support ISIS or adhere to its worldview. How does he know? How could he know?

  6. arcseconds


    Surely the ‘I fought for Freedom’ rhetoric of the Allies, and the depiction of the Nazis as being the ultimate in evil, also could count as ‘quasi-religious’.

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