As I said yesterday, the Western intelligentsia is very, very anxious that you have a positive view of Islam. Thus we see a steady stream of articles in the mainstream media assuring you that the Qur’an is benign, the U.S. Constitution is Sharia-compliant, and the Islamic State is not Islamic. This goes for nominally “conservative” publications such as Forbes, as well as ones on the Left. These articles come in a steady stream, and they have to, because they are asking non-Muslims to disregard what they see every day — Muslims committing violence against non-Muslims and justifying it by referring to Islamic texts — and instead embrace a fictional construct: Islam the religion of peace and tolerance. This takes a relentless barrage of propaganda, because with every new jihad atrocity, reality threatens to break through. It wasn’t accidental that Hitler’s Reich had an entire Ministry of Propaganda: lying to the public is a full-time job, as the cleverest of propaganda constructs is always threatened by the simple facts.
Epitomizing the ignorance and complacency of this Forbes piece is the accompanying illustration: the black flag of jihad with the caption, “Very few Muslims are likely to follow this banner.” That proceeds from the assumption that this is the flag of the Islamic State. In fact, it has been used by other jihad groups, and as it says, “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah,” it could be said that every Muslim follows that banner, even if he or she doesn’t support the Islamic State.
“Five Reasons The ISIS Fight Isn’t About Islam,” by Loren Thompson, Forbes, February 26, 2015 (thanks to Maxwell):
Over the last several weeks, there has been a highly partisan debate in Washington about the proper characterization to apply to ISIS, the terrorist group that last year changed its name to Islamic State after declaring a caliphate in seized sections of Iraq and Syria. President Obama has resisted describing the hyper-violent group in religious terms, following the practice of many mainstream Muslim organizations that have branded ISIS “un-Islamic.” Some Republicans think this reflects a White House in denial about the nature of the threat, and Graeme Wood has a seminal essay in the current issue of The Atlantic arguing persuasively that, “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.”
It isn’t really all that much of a partisan debate. Most establishment Republicans follow the Obama line that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam, which, after all, is just a variation on the Bush line that the Islamic jihadists had twisted and hijacked the Religion of Peace. This is unquestioned dogma in Washington, enforced by iron fist. There are a few blades of grass poking through the concrete here and there, as the truth will inevitably defeat all attempts to stifle it. Wood’s notorious article was one of those.
The two sides in this debate seem to be talking past each other. It’s not that the White House isn’t conversant with what ISIS leaders believe,
Really? They’ve shown no sign of that.
just that it views the group as a cult of only passing significance in the broad sweep of Islamic history. As in the Christian religion, the global Islamic community contains many sects and offshoots that differ over interpretations of scripture. The main thing that distinguishes ISIS from these other factions is its recent ability to seize land and exploit social media (especially Twitter). But from the administration’s perspective, it would be counter-productive to suggest ISIS appeals to large numbers of Muslims; that would just play into the hands of the terrorists.
This assumes — as many, many people in Washington assume — that Muslims are looking to the White House and other non-Muslim authorities to give “legitimacy” to the Islamic State. In reality, it would be hard to find a Muslim who bases what he thinks is Islamic or not on what non-Muslim Western authorities say is and isn’t Islamic. For Obama to speak honestly about the nature of this threat would not “play into the hands of the terrorists” unless he had some magisterial authority among Muslims. He doesn’t.
The people taking the other side in the debate tend to be partisan opponents of the White House, and typically present the ISIS threat as a major challenge to U.S. influence in the Muslim world. They view ISIS as fundamentally different from previous jihadist groups — more popular, more organized, and more violent (if that’s possible). Every new video of an ISIS atrocity becomes grist for this alarming narrative. However, the evidence suggests that the alarmists are over-estimating ISIS’s appeal and staying power — in much the same manner as those who warned of more catastrophes to come in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks. Here are five reasons why factually and tactically, it makes no sense to turn the ISIS threat into a fight about Islam.
1. Look at the numbers. Active participants in ISIS consist mainly of young Sunni men living in the Arab world. You probably already know that, but think about what it means — (1) young, (2) Sunni, (3) men who are (4) Arabs. If you were to graphically depict these characteristics in a Venn diagram of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, they would be a minority within a minority. Four out of five Muslims aren’t Arabs and don’t live in the Middle East. Among those who do maybe a quarter are young Sunni males, and most of them show little inclination to actively support ISIS. The movement isn’t going to hold much appeal for Muslim women, given its well-documented record of atrocities against females who don’t follow rigid rules tracing back to early Islam. When you do the math, it appears that the “addressable market” for ISIS ideas is 5% of the global Muslim community, and as of today most of that market isn’t buying.
Yes, and the Bolsheviks were never a majority in Russia, and the National Socialists never won an absolute majority in a German election. But where is the Muslim pushback against this organized, energized vanguard? We have recently seen hundreds of thousands of Muslims demonstrate against cartoons of Muhammad; there have not been any Muslim demonstrations, however, against the Islamic State — much less efforts to teach against its understanding of Islam in Muslim communities.
2. Non-Muslims have committed similar atrocities. Much of the hysteria surrounding ISIS results from carefully choreographed depictions of atrocities against its enemies. The unspoken assumption among many Western observers is that these acts reflect a uniquely barbaric aspect of Muslim (or Arab) culture. The reality is that such behavior has occurred frequently throughout history, and you don’t have to reach back to the Middle Ages to find examples outside the Muslim world. The Nazis brutalized millions of European men, women and children. During the six-week “Rape of Nanking” in 1937-38, hundreds of thousands of civilians including babies were executed by Japanese troops, often in “killing contests.” White racists waged a multi-generation terror campaign in the American South that resulted in 4,000 lynchings, sometimes accompanied by public castrations and immolations. There is nothing uniquely Islamic about such behavior.
Irrelevant. The fact that there is “nothing uniquely Islamic” about what the Islamic State does in no way establishes that its behavior isn’t sanctioned and justified by Islamic texts and teachings.
3. Everybody in ISIS doesn’t believe the same thing. Graeme Wood contends in The Atlantic that all of the senior leaders of ISIS subscribe to the same eschatological interpretation of Islam, in which a decisive battle will play out in the Holy Land during the end days. Maybe they do, but as Joshua Keating points out in Newsweek, ISIS has “lower criteria for membership” than other jihadist groups like al-Qaeda. It isn’t likely all those former Iraqi military commanders that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi brought into the ranks after taking over in 2010 — who came to comprise a third of the group’s top military commanders — share the same apocalyptic vision. Nor probably do the various Africans, Asians and Europeans who have fallen for the on-line propaganda of ISIS. ISIS is a complex operation whose followers have diverse beliefs and motives. They may all be Muslims but that doesn’t mean they all share the same precise creed.
Really? How many creeds are there among Muslims? This point is based on sheer ignorance of Islamic theology and law. In fact, the Muslims who are committed to the Islamic State do all believe the same thing. There may be variations among Muslims outside it, but not among its cadres. And none of the disagreements are creedal. The Muslim creed is simple and universally adhered to by Muslims — to affirm it is what makes one a Muslim: “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet,” which is, again, what is on that flag that Forbes says that few Muslims will follow.
4. For many ISIS members, Islam is a pretext. ISIS isn’t the first militant organization that has attracted young men to its cause by claiming to represent a higher calling. Hitler’s early appeal to alienated young males in the beer halls of Munich — the notion of a thousand-year Reich, the need for lebensraum, the scapegoating of Jews, the rejection of cosmopolitan values – was similar to the appeals that ISIS issues today. It appears that every culture produces large numbers of young males who can be mobilized in the pursuit of millenarian philosophies, not because of the specific content of the vision, but because young men yearn for power and status and resources (not to mention mates). If we focus too closely on the Islamic features of what ISIS leaders propound, we will miss the underlying motivational dynamics that explain why such movements have similar success at recruiting even when they espouse completely opposite ideas.
To follow this logic, one would have to hold that Nazi Germany wasn’t Nazi because some of its followers were disaffected young males who had been mobilized in pursuit of millenarian philosophies. In other words, Forbes is so intent on establishing that the Islamic State isn’t Islamic that it is straying into absurdity.
5. ISIS says more about human nature than about Islam. You don’t have to read the details of any account about violence to know the perpetrator was a man, and probably a young one. If you strip away all the particulars that seem to make ISIS different from other terrorist groups, you are left with an inescapable reality of human nature. To quote three social scientists writing in the journal Philosophical Transactions, “Men’s tendency to engage in coalitional aggression is manifest in all cultures, modern and traditional, and is therefore considered a human universal.” The fact this trait has persisted in the human behavioral repertoire for thousands of generations, originating long before the appearance of the Prophet, tells us that at base ISIS has little to do with Islam. We can argue about what needs gave male violence value in evolution, but attaching its worst manifestations to one religion is misleading.
Yes, there is a violent strain in human nature. The question at hand is whether or not Islamic texts and teachings encourage that strain, rather than discourage it. This article completely sidesteps that question, while claiming to answer it.
None of this detracts from the imperative to do something about the threat that ISIS poses. However, there is no need to alienate the 99% of Muslims who find ISIS repulsive in prosecuting a campaign against the organization. How would Americans feel if the Ku Klux Klan was labeled a “Christian terrorist organization” by foreigners? Yes it espoused a version of Christian values and yes it practiced a kind of terrorism noteworthy for its reliance on atrocious behavior, but it held little appeal for most Christians. Washington and its allies can defeat ISIS without letting the terrorists define the terms of debate.
The KKK’s ideas were repudiated by all Christian sects. By contrast, the teachings of the Islamic State — warfare against unbelievers, the caliphate, etc. — are held by all sects of Islam and schools of Islamic jurisprudence, even as they reject the Islamic State’s embodiment of those principles. That’s a big difference, but it isn’t dealt with in this simplistic and silly article.