Graeme Wood Responds

Following on from Cris’ recent posts about ISIS and its coverage in the media, a new interview of Graeme Wood addressing his recent Atlantic article has just been posted by New Atheist Sam Harris. I often have a polarised response to Sam Harris because on the one hand, I agree with him that people are often reluctant to criticise any aspect of religion under the guise of tolerance/relativism, however, he also frequently makes grand reductionist pronouncements about religion or religious traditions and seems to have little use for the extensive existing research literature on religion and extremism. True to form in this interview, Harris provides much to agree with and yet also presents some head-slapping moments. Graeme Wood however comes across well, he provides interesting details about how he constructed the story and further nuances his position. I also agree with his assessment that many of his critics are simply misreading his piece based on their rather inflexible agendas:

Wood: Many enemies of Islam … have wanted to read the story as claiming that Islam is responsible for terror, or that ISIS is Islam. In fact it denies these claims explicitly and has a long section about literalist Muslim objections to ISIS. Many Muslims have, ironically, read the piece in exactly the same way, assuming it blames Islam for ISIS. That misreading, I think, is because it’s easier to argue against the anti-Islam point of view than to reckon with the possibility that Islam contains multitudes, like other religions, and that some of them are very, very nasty indeed, even though they share the same texts as the not-nasty ones… Finally, some readers are desperate to see my article as a portrayal of Muslims as savages, and cannot process that I am actually arguing something like the opposite, and specifically about ISIS. Its members aren’t brainless brutes who cannot think—that’s the Orientalist view, and ironically it’s the view that a lot of people who would call themselves anti-Orientalists take when reading the piece. ISIS members are often highly sophisticated people, just as capable of intelligent critical thought as anyone else. They are simply evil.

The only comment that gave me pause was the final ‘they are simply evil’, which is an understandable reaction but also something of an unproductive sweeping assessment. Sam Harris calls him on this point later however and argues for a more nuanced position:

Harris: Yes, but nor are these people “simply evil,” you stated at the beginning of this conversation. Calling them “evil” can be as misleading calling them “crazy.” …

I see no reason to think that most jihadis are psychologically abnormal. The truth is far more depressing: These are mostly normal people—fully capable of love, empathy, altruism, and so forth—who simply believe what they say they believe. (emphasis added)

I fully agree with Harris’ point here and it made me think about the recent fascination, evident even with liberal news sites like the BBC site and the Guardian, with various mundane details of the previous life of ISIS’ British executioner ‘Jihadi John’. While, his unmasking generated understandable interest, I was taken aback with the fact that the BBC and Guardian’s top stories for the past few days have been recounting his previous jobs in IT and comments from previous teachers, as if they represent some shocking revelation. The fact that he was a normal person, who had lived a fairly unremarkable life, seems to be baffling the media but that actually seems entirely predictable. Extremists can be life long fanatical devotees, raised in families of extremists or recruited after suffering some great injustice, but often they are not- especially when they come from the West, in such cases they are usually just ordinary teenagers or young 20 somethings that fall into extremism for fairly mundane reasons, be it political dissatisfaction or even just existential ennui. Harris’ makes this point clearly and I think it is noteworthy that this suggests a more realistic appreciation of Islamic extremists than many of his critics claim.

Wood defends his point by noting that ISIS fighters commit acts of barbaric savagery and openly promote things like the return of slavery and the execution of homosexuals as ‘good’ and thus calling them ‘crazy’ or ‘evil’ is not entirely unwarranted. Most people would agree with this, but I still think Harris’ point stands that to do so can be counterproductive.

Harris’ hawkishness does come out several times during the interview however and at one point he seems unable to understand how meeting ISIS in some glorious clash of civilizations battle could be a bad strategy:

Harris: It seems that they wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to engage us there, especially if we told them that we intended to build a gay-porn palace on the site, or some other sacrilege. It seems that these guys are telling us with every breath how to wage psychological warfare against them.

So why not act on this information? It seems to me that the psychological and propaganda value of our resulting victory is not something to wave away lightly. Imagine the effect this would have on true believers everywhere: They’ve created a new caliphate, and the new caliph is just swell. All the prophecies are coming to fruition, so an army of the purest jihadis to exist in a thousand years rides into this final battle and gets smashed by infidels. And God just sits on his hands…

Graeme Wood is eventually able to counter Harris’ enthusiasm by highlighting that such actions would lend ISIS and other Islamic extremists a propaganda victory that would ultimately prove harmful:

Wood: The decision not to attack them that way is a natural outgrowth of acknowledging that they mean what they say. If they really think there is a war brewing between Muslims and the West, then you don’t convince them otherwise by telling them to bring it on.

But even then, Harris seems to fail to appreciate how utterly self defeating it would be to hand ISIS a clear demonstration of one of its central propaganda premises, namely “that Crusaders are out to kill Muslims and will come to crush them whenever they become strong”.

Harris: It strikes me as such a strange fear to be obliged to consider. And to have it be the primary concern that closes down specific military options just seems uncanny.

I also enjoyed Wood’s counter of Harris’ simplistic dismissal of all of the existing academic research into extremism. He does then go on to criticise the peculiar ‘dogma’ of certain researchers who dismiss the relevance of ideology or beliefs out of hand but it is clear he does not attribute this perspective to all researchers:

Harris: … when someone says, “I think infidels and apostates deserve to burn in hell, and I know for a fact that I’ll go to paradise if I die while waging jihad against them,” many academics refuse to accept this rationale at face value and begin looking for the political or economic reasons that they imagine lie beneath it. So the game is rigged.

Wood: Yes. However, the countervailing current in social science is the tradition in ethnography and anthropology of taking seriously what people say. And this can lead to the exact opposite of the materialist, “root causes” approach. When Evans-Pritchard, for example, talks about witchcraft among the Azande, he’s describing exactly what they say and showing that it’s an internally consistent view of the world. This is something that anthropology has done quite well in the past, and it gives us a model for how we can listen to jihadis and understand them without immediately assuming that they are incapable of self-knowledge.

What I’m arguing for in the piece is not to discard either type of explanation but to remember the latter one and take the words of these ISIS people seriously (emphasis added).

In short, this is a very nice follow up to The Atlantic piece, which is simultaneously enlightening and at times very frustrating to read. Graeme Wood comes across as a very reasonable and responsible journalist, whose main argument is that we need to pay attention to what extremists say and not dismiss the influence of their beliefs because of the somewhat removed role of religion in Western democracies. He does not posit ideology as being the single factor responsible for extremism but rather a factor that is all too frequently overlooked. Harris on the other hand comes across sincerely, and at times well informed, but also as reactionary and dismissive of opinions that differ from his own. However, I am glad a voice like Harris’ is out there as liberals do need people like him to serve as a counterweight to the vocal US-centric narratives of liberal critics like Chomsky and Greenwald.

— Chris K.


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2 thoughts on “Graeme Wood Responds

  1. Dominik Lukes

    I’ve been trying to comment on the recent blogs re ISIS and Islam for a while but I can’t quite find the right words to do it (without turning to volumes). My feelings are perhaps best illustrated by this piece on this (my other favorite) religion blog:

    This should not really be a debate about the impact of religion (as most people think of it) but about the impact of the content of individuals’ beliefs on the actions of groups of which they are members. Historically, it is very easy to show that these beliefs have an unpredictable impact on the shape of those actions. They certainly interact with the shape but this impact is only visible at certain levels of magnification. Close up, all we can see is impact but a certain remove, they seem to have no impact at all. People organize themselves into groupings, play out in- and out- group interactions, compete for resource while playing all sorts of symbolic games that look pretty much the same from a distance. When you look up close, you will find honest belief and a corresponding impact on actions. But it seems to make little difference. I, for one, never doubted that the democratic dominoes theory was an honest belief of those who were invading Iraq. It was not some grand conspiracy over oil. However, the overall shape of events was those of competition over resources amidst mass violence. The outcome in Iraq would have been the same if it had been all about oil or over any other honestly held belief. There’s only so many shapes human interactions can take.

    I wrote four years ago: “if we look at the range of behaviors the Bible, or any other religious text for that matter, inspired over the millennia, the only thing we can say about them is that they are typical of human beings”

    I think this is the sort of thing that those who seek to diminish the role of religion in this conflict (and others) have in mind. But Harris (who sounds more than a little deranged in his hatred) and Wood seem to be implying that there is a whole movement of social sciences that thinks people lie when they talk about their religious motives. That it’s just a ruse to achieve other aims. But I don’t know any such people. You and Cris seem to agree with Wood and Harris. But I would like to see some references in the literature.

    Now, Wood makes a subtler point – which was the main strength (among many weaknesses) of his first article – that the beliefs of ISIS leaders may shape some of their tactical and strategic decisions – or in other words, be the key context to understanding what they consider rational behavior. And, that is the one area where the content of one’s beliefs matters and understanding what it is would prove helpful to people who make these decisions. There is no universal rationality, only that conditioned by what we consider rational.

    But my main problem with Wood’s first article was that he only subjected “their” rationality to this contextual scrutiny and not “ours” or that of the other actors in the space. In the interview, he hints at the content of his belief: “ISIS members are often highly sophisticated people, just as capable of intelligent critical thought as anyone else. They are simply evil.” This seems important to me. If what they believe matters, so does what we believe. We are not the neutral default from which all other positions must be judged. But we know our beliefs are complex, often contradictory when confronted with reality and interact with each other in many ways. So we find it hard to reduce all our actions to them in a straightforward manner. I would suggest we think of the ‘others’ along the same lines.

  2. Chris Kavanagh Post author

    Dominik I agree with your point about how things change depending on the level of analysis, but I think the argument that ISIS religious ideology is of central importance to understanding the actions of the movement is a valid one. You can and should look at the historical factors, the social and environmental context and consider that ISIS is not a unified homogenous entity, regardless of how they would like to be perceived. We also should consider our own bias and our own assumptions when trying to understand the group. However, I take that to be Wood’s fundamental point- that academics in Western democracies often fail to acknowledge the power of religious ideology precisely because of their unacknowledged secular bias/ideological commitments. To do so is to underestimate and ignore the obvious, ISIS is fundamentally a group tied to a religious ideology. Politics is inevitably involved because all groups, especially groups that have ambitions to create a new expansionist state, have political aspects. But that doesn’t change the fact that ISIS’ politics seem to derive from their religious ideology rather than vice versa. Hence, ISIS pursues actions which are politically harmful- executing alleged ‘Russian’ spies, killing Egyptian Christians etc. but consistent with their extremist religious views.

    As far as sources go for the tendency to distrust self-report, it’s hard to point to a specific paper because that view is so pervasive. Most psychology papers I read that employ either implicit or behavioural measures state that argument directly, implying that we can rely on the findings because they are supported by ‘better’ measures and not just unreliable self reports. The unreliability of self-report and lack of self awareness is also the basis of the whole psychoanalytical field, which invariably finds that individuals are unable to correctly identify the motivation of theirs action. On stronger empirical grounds, researchers like Jonathan Haidt and Antonio Damasio have done a lot of research that demonstrates that individuals are often blind to the impact of emotion on their decisions and that a lot of verbal moral reasoning tends to come after and be highly dependent on an initial affective response. An illustrative quote embedded in Haidt’s famous article ‘the emotional dog and its rational tail’ describes that “Informants pressed to explain practices that they themselves learned by observation, imitation, and participation generally have to make up concepts that have very tenuous, often imaginary relations with the manner in which the informants themselves actually acquired or generate the actions in question” (Fiske, 1999, p. 1; emphasis added). This specific example is talking about the learning of cultural information but the sentiment that we cannot trust informants self reports as an accurate measure is common and personally, I think it has a sound empirical basis. We shouldn’t dismiss the value of self reports but on their own they are quite an unreliable measure as they rely on individual’s providing objective, honest answers.

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