The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The misguided debate about how ‘Islamic’ the Islamic State is

In this undated file photo posted Aug. 27, 2014, by the Raqqa Media Center of the Islamic State group, fighters of the Islamic State wave the group's flag from a damaged display of a government fighter jet following the battle for the Tabqa air base in Raqqa, Syria. (Raqqa Media Center of the Islamic State group via AP)

What does the Islamic State really want? The extremist militants have carved a fiefdom of their own in the imploding nation-states of Syria and Iraq. They have proclaimed a caliphate and lured thousands of foreign fighters to their ranks. They have butchered untold numbers of innocents, enslaved women and beheaded hostages. But to what end?

This week, the Atlantic answered the question in the form of a 10,000-word cover story by Graeme Wood. Through interviews with a number of Islamic State supporters and sympathizers, Wood builds a case for why we should take the jihadists' religious worldview seriously.

"The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic," Wood writes. "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."

The piece is worth reading, not least as it appeared the same week that the White House convened a summit on "countering violent extremism." President Obama ended proceedings with a speech reaffirming his stated belief that the U.S. is "not at war with Islam," but rather "with people who have perverted Islam." In the overheated atmosphere of Washington, this benign talking point is curiously divisive, with political opponents angry that the administration isn't more forcefully calling out the religious underpinnings of the terrorists.

"You've got to be able to criticize Islam for the parts of Islam that are wrong," said former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.

"The holy war is here," bloviated Bill O'Reilly, "and unfortunately it seems the president of the United States will be the last one to acknowledge it."

Giuliani and O'Reilly represent the blunt end of the conversation, which in their zeal to score political points appears to embrace the same clash of civilizations favored by Islamic State ideologues, who want nothing better than to array themselves against Western crusaders. But Wood's lengthy piece, which has spawned many thousands more words of reaction, offers a more sophisticated reading.

To put it very simply, Wood explores the Islamic State's "assiduous, obsessive seriousness" — the degree to which its followers genuinely believe in an apocalyptic creed that's rooted in Islamic doctrine and await its fulfillment on Earth. The group's mass slaughters are part of an active attempt to return the world to a primeval moment where national borders are erased and only the Islamic State's religious law will be observed. They want to draw the West into a battle that conjures up visions of messianic end times.

"Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do," Wood writes, when explaining what underlies the "mettle" of the jihadists. "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."

The article is rich and nuanced, and is hardly calling upon a war on Islam. But, as many critics argue, its fixation on the Islamic State's brand of Islam obscures other important truths about the jihadists.

In a thoughtful series of comments, Brookings scholar Shadi Hamid said the piece took the Islamic State's religious motivations "too seriously," and ignored the many ways in which the organization's ideologues have forgotten or defied a long tradition of Islamic thought.

That's echoed by the New York Times' Ross Douthat. Wood does not convincingly dismiss the contention that the jihadists, for all their medievalist fervor, are still creatures of our modern moment. Beyond placing itself well outside the pale of centuries of accumulated Islamic jurisprudence, the Islamic State emerged out of a set of historical conditions laid down in the 20th century, and grew its ranks and spread its message through the networks of the 21st century.

Others reckon Wood too readily accepted the worldview of the Islamic State's followers. "Though [the Islamic State] assembles its rhetoric with bits and pieces of religion," writes Haroon Moghul in Salon, "its relationship to Islam is like Frankenstein to a human being, or a zombie to a living person." Wood skirted the work of a whole raft of established Islamic scholars to produce "a 10,000 word exercise in confirmation bias," says the Intercept's Murtaza Hussain.

And then there's a larger question to consider: Does it really matter what a bunch of criminal murderers believe? Some compared this obsession with the Islamic State's ideology to conversations in other eras about the "ethnic" or Marxist identities of insurgent groups.

"Wood’s essay reminds me of some of the breathless tracts during the Cold War that pointed out that the communists really, really believed in communism. Of course many Islamic State leaders believe their ideology," writes Fareed Zakaria in The Washington Post. "The real questions: Why has this ideology sprung up at this moment, and why is it attractive to a group — in fact, a tiny group — of Muslim men."

The answer to those questions can't really be found in Wood's meditation on the jihadists' messianic death wish. It's interesting to think about their delusional mindset, but it's probably more important to reckon with the real challenges of the present: the Arab regimes whose authoritarianism has bred Islamist extremism; the disasters of Western foreign policy that in part gave life to the jihadists; the many roadblocks to development and political reform that remain in the Middle East.

We can get caught up in the "Islamic" part of the Islamic State. But matters of "state" will be what ultimately unravels it.