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 (and in this case, the far-Left, but the distinction between those two is increasingly fine) media assuring you that the Qur’an is benign, the U.S. Constitution is Sharia-compliant, and the Islamic State is not Islamic. 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.
Here is another exoneration of Islam for the crimes of the Islamic State, courtesy none other than establishment academic Juan Cole. It is not irrelevant to note also that Juan Cole is on the Board of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), which has been established in court as a front group lobbying for the Islamic regime in Iran. Said Michael Rubin: “Jamal Abdi, NIAC’s policy director, now appears to push aside any pretense that NIAC is something other than Iran’s lobby. Speaking at the forthcoming ‘Expose AIPAC’ conference, Abdi is featured on the ‘Training: Constituent Lobbying for Iran’ panel. Oops.” According to the Daily Caller: “Iranian state-run media have referred to the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC) since at least 2006 as ‘Iran’s lobby’ in the U.S.” Iranian freedom activist Hassan Daioleslam “documented over a two-year period that NIAC is a front group lobbying on behalf of the Iranian regime.” NIAC had to pay him nearly $200,000 in legal fees after they sued him for defamation over his accusation that they were a front group for the mullahs, and lost. Yet Juan Cole remains on their Board.
“How ‘Islamic’ Is the Islamic State?,” by Juan Cole, The Nation, February 24, 2015:
Last week a debate erupted over how “Islamic” the so-called “Islamic State” group (ISIS or ISIL) in Syria and Iraq is, and whether it is legitimate to speak of “Islamic” terrorism. It was provoked in part by a Graeme Wood article in The Atlantic and President Obama’s speech to a conference on Combating Violent Extremism. Obama was slammed by former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani as allegedly not loving America, in part because he declined to speak of “Islamic” terrorism. On Sunday, former defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, interviewed on CNN’s State of the Union show, called Obama’s refusal to use the phrase “Islamic terrorism” “silly,” saying, “I think people understand that Islam has something to do with what we’re fighting, and when you deny it, you lose a lot of support.” This debate is actually about what philosophers call “essentialism,” and, as Giuliani’s and Wolfowitz’s own interventions make clear, it is about absolving the United States for its own role in producing the violent so-called “Caliphate” of Ibrahim al-Baghdadi.
Oh, really? Yet I readily agree with Cole that Bush’s removal of Saddam Hussein and naive trust that a stable Western-style republic would take its place was ill-considered, as I argued back in March 2003. And the Islamic State filled the vacuum thus created. But this is an entirely separate question from that of whether the Islamic State has anything to do with Islam or not. Whatever Paul Wolfowitz or Rudy Giuliani said or did on CNN is simply irrelevant to the question Cole claims to be investigating: if Giuliani and Wolfowitz are right that Islamic jihadis have something to do with Islam, that does nothing whatsoever to absolve the U.S. “for its own role in producing the violent so-called ‘Caliphate’ of Ibrahim al-Baghdadi.”
The question of phraseology is easily dealt with. The word “Islamic” in Arabic, and in English as well, has to do with the ideals of the Muslim religion. It is thus analogous to the word “Judaic.” We speak of “Islamic ethics” as a field of study, just as we do “Judaic ethics.” Not all Muslims or Jews conform to the ethics preached in their religious traditions. Some are even criminals. But then they are Muslim criminals and Jewish criminals. They are not Islamic criminals and Judaic criminals. Likewise in Catholicism, one speaks of Patristic theology, referring to the religious ideas of the Church fathers, but wouldn’t talk of bad priests steeped in that theology as Patristic criminals. It is because both in Arabic and in other languages “Islamic” refers to the ideals of the Muslim religion that both Muslims and people with good English diction object strenuously to a phrase such as “Islamic terrorism” or “Islamic fascism” (fascism was an invention of Christian Europe, in any case).
Those, like Giuliani, who insist on speaking of “Islamic terrorism” want to shape our language so as to imply that the Islamic tradition authorizes the deployment of terrorism, which the US federal code defines as using violence or criminal activities to intimidate civilians or government for political purposes, with the implication that the perpetrators are themselves nonstate actors. But the Islamic legal tradition forbids terrorism defined in that way. Moreover, Muslim academics contend that the Koran, the Muslim scripture, sanctions only defensive war. Giuliani does not know more about the Koran than they do.
No, Giuliani doesn’t, but he isn’t the sole authority involved here. Muhammad’s earliest biographer, the eighth-century Muslim Ibn Ishaq, explains that defensive war was not Allah’s last word on the circumstances in which Muslims should fight. Ibn Ishaq explains offensive jihad by invoking a Qur’anic verse: “Then God sent down to him: ‘Fight them so that there be no more seduction,’ i.e. until no believer is seduced from his religion. ‘And the religion is God’s’, i.e. Until God alone is worshipped.” The medieval scholar Ibn Qayyim (1292-1350) also outlines the stages of the Muhammad’s prophetic career: “For thirteen years after the beginning of his Messengership, he called people to God through preaching, without fighting or Jizyah, and was commanded to restrain himself and to practice patience and forbearance. Then he was commanded to migrate, and later permission was given to fight. Then he was commanded to fight those who fought him, and to restrain himself from those who did not make war with him. Later he was commanded to fight the polytheists until God’s religion was fully established.” In other words, he initially could fight only defensively — only “those who fought him” — but later he could fight the polytheists until Islam was “fully established.” He could fight them even if they didn’t fight him first, and solely because they were not Muslim.
Nor do all contemporary Islamic thinkers believe that that command is a relic of history. According to a 20th century Chief Justice of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh ‘Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Humaid, “at first ‘the fighting’ was forbidden, then it was permitted and after that it was made obligatory.” He also distinguishes two groups Muslims must fight: “(1) against them who start ‘the fighting’ against you (Muslims) . . . (2) and against all those who worship others along with Allah . . . as mentioned in Surat Al-Baqarah (II), Al-Imran (III) and At-Taubah (IX) . . . and other Surahs (Chapters of the Qur’an).” (The Roman numerals after the names of the chapters of the Qur’an are the numbers of the suras: Sheikh ‘Abdullah is referring to Qur’anic verses such as 2:216, 3:157-158, 9:5, and 9:29.)
Warfare and terrorism pursued by Muslims according to such commands would indeed be “Islamic terrorism,” as it would be commanded and sanctioned by Islamic texts and Muslims authorities. It would not be simply terrorism that happened to be committed by Muslims, as Cole is trying to establish.
The attempt by the American right wing to mainstream the phrase “Islamic terrorism” takes advantage of general American ignorance of the Muslim tradition; it is a linguistic trap intended to make us all Islamophobes. If a politician insisted that we call Israel’s reckless disregard for noncombatant life in last summer’s attack on Gaza “Judaic terrorism” and implied that Israelis acted that way because they are all commanded to do so in the Bible, it would be easy to see this way of speaking as anti-Semitic. President Obama is right to avoid that trap, and he knows enough about Muslims and Islam to recognize it for what it is.
Wolfowitz is arguing that Islam has an “essence” that “has something to do with what we’re fighting.” Essentialism when applied to human groups is always an error and always a form of bigotry. Zionists bombed the King David Hotel in British Mandate Palestine in 1948, killing dozens of civilians and some British intelligence officials. If a British official had responded then by arguing that “everyone knows that Judaism has something to do with what we’re fighting,” it would be fairly clear what that official thought about Jews in general. As for Iraq and Islam, there was no Al Qaeda or ISIL in Iraq in 2002, when Wolfowitz conspired to fight an illegal war on Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands, maimed millions, created millions of widows and orphans, and displaced at least 4 million of Iraq’s then 25 million people, making them homeless. As late as 2012, in a poll conducted by my colleague Mark Tessler at the University of Michigan and several collaborators, 75 percent of Sunni Iraqis said that religion and state should be separate (personal communication). The social maelstrom visited on Iraqis by Wolfowitz’s sociopathy produced radical movements like Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and ISIL, to which even secular Sunni Iraqis have turned out of desperation. Wolfowitz had no business in Iraq. His actions were illegal. Now this war criminal is blaming “Islam” for “what we’re fighting.”
“Essentialism when applied to human groups” may be “always an error and always a form of bigotry,” but when applied to belief systems it is not. Cole is, perhaps deliberately, conflating Islam and Muslims, and claiming that to speak of what Islam is and is not, which is established by reference to Islamic texts and teachings, is to make a bigoted judgment against all Muslims. Islam in all its forms teaches certain things. Its teachings are knowable. To speak about Muslims acting upon them, when they themselves explain and justify their actions by referring to those actions, is not bigotry, despite the endless charges to the contrary from Leftists and Islamic supremacists. It is simply to notice reality.
As for the character of ISIL, the answer to the question being pitched in Washington lies in the field of the sociology of religion. Religious traditions always encompass lots of different kinds of organization. There are religious establishments, what the sociologists call “churches.” In Protestant-majority America, Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians are “churches” in this sense—typically, their congregations are full of white middle- and upper-class families and they have strong institutions, formal seminaries and ways of licensing and controlling clergy. The equivalent in the Middle East is the Sunni establishments. Each country typically has an appointed chief Muslim legal adviser, or mufti, and mainstream seminaries to train clerics in the complex traditions of legal reasoning that typify Sunni Islam.
Then there is the sect. Many (not all) Pentecostals, or a group such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, would be less institutionalized and more spontaneous, and draw adherents more from the working and lower middle classes, and so would fall into the category of “sect,” as sociologists use the term. The Salafi movement in Sunni Islam, which especially attracts people in poorer neighborhoods in cities like Tunis or the small towns of the Delta in Egypt, is the Muslim equivalent of working-class evangelicals and Pentecostals. Salafis often reject mainstream Muslim authorities and appeal to what they see as the practice of the first generation (the Salaf) of Muslim disciples of the Prophet Muhammad….
They reject those authorities because they contend that they have strayed from the true teaching of the Qur’an and Sunnah — just as Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses contend that the older mainline Protestant churches have strayed from the true teachings of the Gospel. So Cole’s own analogy here confirms that the Islamic State is indeed Islamic.
Cole then embarks upon a labored argument to establish that the Salafi jihadis are a “sect” and a “destructive cult,” charging anyone who disagrees with him with the cardinal sin of “Orientalism”
It is ironic that Americans, of all people, should have difficulty identifying sects and destructive cults, since our history has been littered with them. Nor have they necessarily been small or inconsequential. It is now typically forgotten that in the early twentieth century the Ku Klux Klan was a Protestant religious organization or that it came to power in the state of Indiana in the 1920s and comprised 30 percent of native-born white men there. It was a large social movement, with elements of the destructive cult, in the heart of North America. More recent groups such as Jim Jones’s People’s Temple and David Koresh’s Branch Davidians may have begun as high-tension sects, but at a certain point they became destructive cults.The refusal to see ISIL in these terms is just a form of Orientalism, a way of othering the Middle East and marking its culture as inherently threatening. The American obsession with this small militia of some 20,000 fighters, which has managed temporarily to seduce or kidnap what I estimate to be 3–4 million people in Syria and Iraq, colors their perception of the whole Middle East. But the big story in the region in the past year is probably the turn of Egypt (population 83 million) toward secular nationalism, such that those dressed as religious Muslims are often being harassed and discriminated against.
Cole here ignores, of course, the fact that the KKK, the People’s Temple and the Branch Davidians represented obvious deviations from Protestant Christianity, and were condemned as such. The Islamic State and jihadists have likewise been condemned by Muslim authorities, but these condemnations have all too often rung hollow: Tahir ul-Qadri’s vaunted 300-page fatwa against terrorism doesn’t even mention the passages of the Qur’an that exhort believers to violence against unbelievers; and the recent “Letter to Baghdadi” from Muslim scholars to the self-styled caliph of the Islamic State endorsed central concepts of jihad doctrine that Western analysts usually think are limited only to “extremists.” Cole likewise ignores the fact that all the traditional schools of Islamic jurisprudence (madhahib) teach that the umma has the responsibility to wage war against and subjugate unbelievers. It is not “othering the Middle East” to point this out — it is simply noting the severe limitations of Cole’s analogy.
That ISIL falls into the category of the destructive cult explains why the formal establishments (“churches”) of the Muslim world reject it. Scholars at Al-Azhar Seminary, the foremost institution of clerical authority in the Sunni Muslim world, and other Muslim establishments condemn it roundly, just as the Episcopal Church rather frowned on the actions of the Branch Davidians. Mainstream Muslims are outraged at allegations that the gratuitous brutality and grandstanding bloodthirstiness of ISIL can be traced to their “church.”
Al-Azhar rejects the Islamic State. Yet al-Azhar has certified a manual of Islamic law as “conforming to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community” that stipulates about jihad that the caliph “makes war upon Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians…until they become Muslim or pay the non-Muslim poll tax” (‘Umdat al-Salik, o9.8). So while al-Azhar disagrees with the Islamic State in practice, it agrees with it in principle. Can Cole say that about the Episcopalians regarding the Branch Davidians? Not if he is honest.
Wood controversially asserted in his article for The Atlantic, “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” This assertion is theological, not sociological. No social scientist would say, “The reality is that the Ku Klux Klan is Christian. Very Christian.” If what Wood meant to say was that ISIL is a Muslim cult rather than a Buddhist one, that assertion is uncontroversial. If he means that Islam has an essence, of which ISIL partakes or indeed that ISIL is a natural outcome of the alleged Islamic essence, then he is speaking as a medieval Platonist, not as a contemporary social scientist.
Yes, yes, contemporary social scientists reject “essentialism” — that is, the idea that anything really is anything, as opposed to anything else. That this is nonsense, and that Cole knows it’s nonsense, is shown by this very article: Cole assumes that he and his readers both know what the KKK is, and what Pentecostalism and Jehovah’s Witness is, but Islam? — a mystery, and you’re a bigoted Orientalist Islamophobe if you think otherwise. In any case, even if one grants that Islam has no essence, nonetheless the Islamic State jihadis claim to be acting in accord with Islam, and make their case based upon an interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah that is well established in Islamic history and theology. The fact that other Muslims have a different understanding of Islam doesn’t negate this.
Nationalism is probably also a conceptual veil here. Since the nineteenth century, religious movements have typically been inflected with nationalism, but in Europe and North America the national marker of identity has tended to be foregrounded, even where religion formed a key part of a movement. Thus, the Croatian Ustashe during World War II is typically seen as a form of nationalism, whereas Catholic identity and institutions were deeply implicated in it, and the fascist Ustashe demanded that Serbs convert to Catholicism. In its viciousness, destructiveness and ambition, the Ustashe was not very different from ISIL today. ISIL is put under the sign of religion, but it is in fact a form of nationalism appealing to medieval religious symbols. Nor is its ruthlessness unprecedented in modern history. It is not clear that Muslim ISIL adherents have as yet managed to kill a fraction of the number of people (over 500,000) that the Ustashe polished off in death camps in the 1940s.
The Christianity/Islam moral equivalence aside, to claim that the Islamic State is a form of nationalism leads inevitably to the question: which nation? And that’s where Cole’s analysis is most absurd: the Islamic State is not nationalistic in any sense. It is neither Iraqi nor Syrian, for it has erased the border between the two. It is, in fact, the most internationalist of movements, with over 20,000 Muslims from all over the world traveling to Iraq and Syria to join it. The only nation that the Islamic State could conceivably be said to be fighting for is the international Muslim nation, the worldwide umma — but Cole can’t acknowledge that, as it would be granting the point he is trying clumsily to rule out. He then goes on to explain that the Islamic State is “so much more powerful and widespread than the Branch Davidians” not because “their ideas are more attractive to people in Syria and Iraq than Branch Davidian ideas were in Texas,” but because it “operates in areas where the state has collapsed”; “has gained enormous coercive power”; and feeds Sunni-Shia antagonism. None of these come even close to attempting to explain the extraordinary appeal the Islamic State has for Muslims outside Iraq and Syria, despite condemnations of the Islamic State from Muslim leaders.
And so yet another attempt to establish the Islamic State as un-Islamic drowns in its own illogic and poor reasoning — not that Cole or the academic or media elites will take any notice, of course, except to call me a racist, bigoted Islamophobe. But the lingering question is, why is it so important to the elites to convince us that jihad terror has nothing to do with Islam? Why are they so desperate to make sure that non-Muslims in the West remain ignorant and complacent in the face of the manifest threat of jihad terror? Why are they so intent on pursuing policies that are absolutely certain to condemn the West to a future of civil war and chaos? I’d like to see Juan Cole answer those questions. But he won’t.