All About Islamism

The web is currently on fire with some great writing, and serious thinking, about “Islam” and Islamism. In this post, I covered some notable aspects of Graeme Wood’s Atlantic article on ISIS. As good as that article is, and I think it superb, there has been some pushback, including this response in the Atlantic by Caner Dagli. Although Dagli is a professor of religious studies, his interest – or perspective – is not purely academic: he approaches these issues from inside the tradition. As a Muslim, he takes issue with the outsider idea or claim that ISIS is “Islamic.” As an insider, he argues that ISIS is in fact “un-Islamic” and disputing this puts (the vast majority) of non-militant Muslims in an impossible position: How can they denounce ISIS if they can’t rely on the texts and tradition to argue that ISIS-Islam is inauthentic, wrong, or as Dagli puts it, “phony”?

As an outsider, I can empathize with Dagli’s position and certainly want him, and other Muslims, to continue arguing that ISIS-Islam is “un-Islamic” and wrong. But as an outsider, I also recognize that these kinds of arguments may make pragmatic sense from inside a tradition but are analytically suspect from outside the tradition. This may explain the relative incoherence of Dagli’s response: it rings weak to my outsider ears. As an insider and an academic, Dagli is in a double-bind. While I don’t find his argument persuasive, I certainly hope that Muslims do. There is no way that outsiders can adjudicate issues of authority or authenticity within “Islam.” Lacking such standards, it behooves us to take Islamists, and their beliefs, seriously.

This, in fact, is what Michael Walzer argues in this dense piece over at Dissent. He chides his political fellow travelers on the secular left – liberals, journalists, and academics – for failing to recognize that religion itself can provide powerful, and perhaps even primary, motive force for human action. As I observed in my post on Wood’s ISIS article, this may sound strange to those who take their religion or religious beliefs seriously, but academics have a long history of explaining (or explaining away) religious beliefs-actions as the product of something else. Walzer argues, rightly in my estimation, that this is a mistake:

In the three and a half decades since the Iranian revolution, I have been watching my friends and neighbors (and distant neighbors) on the left struggling to understand—or avoid understanding—the revival of religion in what is now called a “post-secular” age. Long ago, we looked forward to “the disenchantment of the world”—we believed that the triumph of science and secularism was a necessary feature of modernity. And so we forgot, as Nick Cohen has written, “what the men and women of the Enlightenment knew. All faiths in their extreme form carry the possibility of tyranny.”

Today, every major world religion is experiencing a significant revival, and revived religion isn’t an opiate as we once thought, but a very strong stimulant. Since the late 1970s, and particularly in the last decade, this stimulant is working most powerfully in the Islamic world. From Pakistan to Nigeria, and in parts of Europe, too, Islam today is a religion capable of inspiring large numbers of men and women, mostly men, to kill and die on its behalf.

So the Islamic revival is a kind of testing moment for the left: can we recognize and resist “the possibility of tyranny?” Some of us are trying to meet the test; many of us are actively failing it. One reason for this failure is the terrible fear of being called “Islamophobic.” Anti-Americanism and a radical version of cultural relativism also play an important part, but these are older pathologies. Here is something new: many leftists are so irrationally afraid of an irrational fear of Islam that they haven’t been able to consider the very good reasons for fearing Islamist zealots—and so they have difficulty explaining what’s going on in the world.

The root cause of religious zealotry is not religion, many leftist writers insist, but Western imperialism and the oppression and poverty it has bred. So, for example, David Swanson, first on the War Is A Crime website and then on the Tikkun website (with a nervous but only partial disclaimer from the editor), asks “What to do about ISIS?” and answers: “Start by recognizing where ISIS came from. The U.S. and its junior partners destroyed Iraq . . .” That’s right; there would be no ISIS in Iraq without the U.S. invasion of 2003, although if Saddam had been overthrown from within, the same religious wars might well have started. For ISIS doesn’t “come from” the U.S. invasion; it is a product of the worldwide religious revival, and there are many other examples of revivalist militancy. Swanson might offer a similar explanation for all of them, but the explanation loses plausibility as the instances multiply.

The left has always had difficulty recognizing the power of religion (emphasis added). Aren’t all religions the ideological tools of the ruling class? And aren’t all millenialist and messianic uprisings the ideologically distorted response of subaltern groups to material oppression? Religious zealotry is a superstructural phenomenon and can only be explained by reference to the economic base. These ancient convictions are particularly obfuscating today. Parvez Ahmed, a Florida professor who is fully cognizant of the “scourge” of Boko Haram, provides a typical example in a recent blog. He argues that “much of the violence [committed] in the name of Islam is less motivated by faith and more so by poverty and desperation.” Similarly, Kathleen Cavanaugh from the National University of Ireland, writing on the Dissent website, insists that “the violent and oppressive actions [of ISIS] have little to do with religion per se,” but rather are “underpinned” by material interests.

But is this right? Why don’t poverty, desperation, and material interests produce a leftist rather than an Islamist mobilization? In fact, the religious revival, not only among Muslims but around the world, among Jews and Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, has enlisted supporters from all social classes, and the driving motive of revivalist activity seems, incredibly, to be religious faith (Fawaz Gerges’s Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy provides ample evidence of religion’s power).

[W]e have to acknowledge that the academic theory (which was also a left theory) that predicted the inevitable triumph of science and secularism isn’t right—at least, its time horizon isn’t right. Leftists have to figure out how to defend the secular state in this “post-secular” age and how to defend equality and democracy against religious arguments for hierarchy and theocracy. The appeal of religious doctrine and practice is obvious today, and we need to understand it if we are to persuade people that religious zealotry is frighteningly unappealing.

Because I’m an academic of sorts, I have considerable interest in all the non-religious theories (e.g., economy, politics, power, imperialism, colonialism, symbolism, etc.) that may explain religious beliefs and behaviors. But because I was raised in an American evangelical environment, in which wildly diverse people from all walks and stations of life take their spooky religious beliefs seriously and act accordingly, I have never discounted – or explained away – those ideas and actions on the basis of something else. While non-religious theories may partially explain why some people take their beliefs so seriously and are moved to act on those beliefs, these explanations are rarely and perhaps never sufficient.

While searching for an explanation which brings us closer to a necessary condition, we should acknowledge there is a psychology at work which predisposes some people, at all times and in all places, toward religious beliefs and consequent actions. We should take them seriously when they tell us they are doing something for religious reasons. Sometimes religious actions are just what they appear to be and what believers say they are. This is the methodological lesson that Robin Horton so forcefully made about the anthropology-sociology of religion, and I reckon he is right.

There are of course those, primarily academics, who disagree with this view in general and Walzer in particular. In this response, Yale professor Andrew March takes Walzer to task with alternative theories of Islamism and in this Berfrois article, Justin E.H. Smith (whose work I greatly admire) states his disagreement. While I do not disagree with either March or Smith, their arguments are not exclusionary or alternative: they are complementary to Walzer’s point, as I think he makes evident in this reply.

— Cris


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8 thoughts on “All About Islamism

  1. Bob Wells

    As someone who spent a lot of his life as a Fundamentalist Christian I have some thoughts on the increasingly radical nature of most religions. It’s very simple, the promises of the religion simply do not come true. In fact they seem to fail at every turn. The rain falls on the unjust even more than on the just and the faithful fall behind in every way but the infidels/pagans seem to thrive and advance. How can they explain the seeming success of evil and the failure of the righteous?

    There are three choices:

    1) The religion is false.
    2) The faithful are not really faithful
    3) The evil are terribly evil.

    Number one is unthinkable (although it is the truth) and so it must be number two or three. What can they do to correct numbers two and three? Be 110% faithful to every letter of the religion and do whatever it takes to correct the unrighteous.

    Isis is 100% consistent with that plan. If the Apocalypse won’t come they will force it to come by 1) being extreme in their devotion to Islam as they understand it, 2) by punishing Muslims who are not faithful as they understand it and forcing them to be faithful and 3) by punishing the infidels and reducing their evil.

    The question they ask is: “What would happen if we really lived like the Bible/Koran is true?” Then they go “all in” to find out. They’ll either prove their religion to be true or they will die trying.


  2. Chris Kavanagh

    Great points Cris, and Michael Walzer has earned himself a new fan. Both his original article and his rebuttal encapsulate perfectly my own feelings of exasperation with (some of) the left. Like him, I strongly identify as a left leaning liberal and fully recognise the problems with neocon ideologies, but I also find the tendency to search for the source of all evil in the West to be a profoundly ethnocentric and narcissistic tendency. For some writers it seems like all that happens in the world is due to the actions of the US (and to a lesser extent Europe). Glenn Greenwald for one illustrative example was quick to post an article condemning the US for using incendiary bombs after ISIS released the video of them burning the captive Jordanian pilot alive. But the obligatory disclaimer of ‘I’m as disturbed as anyone else by the video’ rings hollow when your immediate reaction to such a sadistic act by ISIS is to start writing an article criticising the US military.

  3. Michael Ewing

    Hi Chris, would you like to expand on the nature of this psychology that is at work, predisposing people universally to some form of religious belief? I find it strange that most of the world seems to be engaged in religious observance yet those who are not struggle to understand the mindset of the majority. One might think it would be a simple matter of asking them, but in my limited experience religious people seem largely to be unable or unwilling to explain why they are religious, leaving the ungodly among us to resort to speculations which often turn out to be wide of the mark.

    I suspect it has something to do with the fear of personal insignificance, which may be largely unconscious and perhaps afflicts people to varying degrees, those most severely affected being most prone to extremism and violence. But of course this only really applies to the monotheisms, dependent as they are on doctrinal belief. Before the Axial Age did people have a different psychology? If so, this would be an acquired phenomenon rather than an innate one. Might it be a reaction to some primary alienation from the world (nature) coincident with the beginnings of farming that led to the relocation of our ground of belonging to an otherworldly dimension?

    We all now inherit a world disenchanted by both sides of the religious divide: for the secularists there is no sacred, for the theists the sacred is elsewhere. I believe Hegel once wrote that humanity will only be content when it has lives in a world of its own making. It seems we are almost there but it doesn’t look like a place of contentment.

  4. Gyrus

    I agree that the leftist analysis is partly hobbled by its dismissal of religion. I’ve never agreed with Marxist reductionism. But then I’ve never agreed with any form of reductionism. I don’t understand the bluntness of the critique of Swanson’s assertion that ISIS arose from the devastation caused by the invasion of Iraq.

    For ISIS doesn’t “come from” the U.S. invasion; it is a product of the worldwide religious revival, and there are many other examples of revivalist militancy.

    The idea that ISIS was caused solely by the US invasion is simplistic. But then, so is the idea that it was caused solely by religious revivalism. There’s almost zero attempt here to move from a simplistic analysis to a more complex one. I guess it’s just another round of back-and-forth instead.

    Once we accept that ISIS is a product of a complex of factors, the issue then becomes, which factors are strongest? I can’t see any way to nail that down unarguably. Even factoring religious revivalism in, it would be a great feat of naivety to think that the US invasion wasn’t a major factor too. Arguing that other factors could have led to the same result rightly complexifies things – but positing alternative realities only goes so far in assessing this reality.

    Of course, the simplistic version of the idea that religious revivalism is the cause of ISIS is – as far as I can see – the explicit or implicit argument behind a significant portion of Western media coverage. ‘Islam is just dangerous’. Since the left is globally marginal, it seems only logical that it would tend to emphasise ideas that are downplayed in the centre-right (or just right) mainstream.

    When the left is in more of a position of power, globally, and its own blindspots become dangers, Walzer’s critique will become much more relevant. Until then, it mostly works as an internal critique of the left – and as such it would work better if it was more nuanced.

  5. Chris Kavanagh

    Gyrus, I paused at that exact same sentence but in the context of the article as a whole, I think the point being made was that such factors ARE significant but if you fail to take account of the religious aspects, then you fail to account for much of the specific character of ISIS. Material deprivation and anti-US sentiments don’t require the promotion of a new caliphate or social policies like the executing of homosexuals, so while the invasion of Iraq and the civil war in Syria are all certainly important contextual factors that must be given due consideration, I don’t think you can really link them to the fundamental doctrines that appear to underpin ISIS character and actions. They are not behaving strategically when they execute Egyptians or burn alive a Jordanian pilot, such images may recruit certain ideologues from other countries, but it also had the effect of dramatically damaging their recruitment/sympathy from people in nearby Jordan, and encouraging the Egyptian military to become directly involved in the conflict against them. These actions don’t make sense strategically but they do when one takes the ideology seriously.

  6. David


    Thanks for the much needed nuance! I am some what familiar with Robert Horton, but are there a particular piece/article (theoretical) you would recommend?

  7. Cris Post author

    David, the best place to find Horton’s extended comments on methodology and theory is in the collection of essays published as Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West. In several of those essays, including the introductory and conclusion pieces he wrote specifically for the book, he discusses these issues.

    In particular, Horton notes how strange it is that the first move social scientists make when dealing with “religion” is to discount everything people say about their ideas/beliefs, and to begin looking for alternative explanations. His point is that we should begin with what people say about their beliefs/ideas, take those seriously, and after performing a proper analysis of those, we can then move on to other explanations.

  8. collin237

    I think what’s called Islamophobia is not a fear of Islam itself, but of admitting what it actually means to say that Islam is a problem. Gradually in the last few centuries, a template has been agreed upon worldwide of what comprises acceptable religious behavior. Terrorism is one of the things that template forbids.

    If we were fighting terrorism from a non-religious organization, we would have no problem declaring war on it on the basis of secular morality. But to claim secular morality against a religious organization is only a monologue. We’re afraid to admit that we actually believe in two copies of the prohibition of terrorism, and that the one relevant to ISIS is part of the religious template. It comes not from any particular religion, but from an intersubjective view of religion as an ensemble.

    Arguments against Islamic terrorism usually come from either an atheist or a Christian. Atheists are afraid because they’re speaking from a position they don’t feel first-hand. Christians are afraid because they know that Christianity is also, in its own way, in violation of the template.

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