President Obama stands accused of political correctness for his unwillingness to accuse groups such as the Islamic State of “Islamic extremism,” choosing a more generic term, “violent extremism.” His critics say that you cannot fight an enemy you will not name. Even his supporters feel that his approach is too “professorial.”
But far from being a scholar concerned with describing the phenomenon accurately, the president is deliberately choosing not to emphasize the Islamic State’s religious dimension for political and strategic reasons. After all, what would be the practical consequence of describing the group, also known as ISIS, as Islamic? Would the West drop more bombs on it? Send in more soldiers to fight it? No, but it would make many Muslims feel that their religion had been unfairly maligned. And it would dishearten Muslim leaders who have continually denounced the Islamic State as a group that does not represent Islam.
But “the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic,” Graeme Wood writes in a much-discussed cover essay for the Atlantic this month. Wood’s essay is an intelligent and detailed account of the ideology that animates the Islamic State. These are not secular people with rational goals, he argues; they really do believe in their religious ideology.
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. 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? Wood describes the Islamic State as having “revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years.” Exactly: The Islamic State has rediscovered — even reinvented — a version of Islam for its own purposes today.
Wood notes that the group’s followers are “authentic throwbacks to early Islam” — that is, Islam as it was practiced in the desert 1,400 years ago. Surely the most salient point is not that medieval Islam contains medieval practices such as slavery (which figures prominently in the Bible as well) but why this version of Islam has found adherents today.
Wood is much taken by the Princeton academic Bernard Haykel, who says that people want to turn a blind eye to the Islamic State’s ideology for political reasons. “People want to absolve Islam,” he quotes Haykel as saying. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do.” Right. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and perhaps 30,000 members of the Islamic State. And yet Haykel feels that it is what the 0.0019 percent of Muslims do that defines the religion. Who is being political, I wonder?
“The most interesting question about ideologies is why they succeed at any given time,” says Barnard College professor Sheri Berman . “An ideology succeeds when it replaces some other set of ideas that has failed.” And across the Middle East, the ideas that have failed are concepts such as Pan-Arabism, socialism, secularism and (in locals’ eyes) even nascent attempts at democracy. The regimes espousing these principles usually morphed into repressive dictatorships, producing economic stagnation and social backwardness. In some cases, the nation itself collapsed. It is in the face of this failure that groups like the Islamic State can say, “Islam is the answer.”
This battle of ideologies can be seen vividly in the life of one man, Islam Yaken, profiled brilliantly by the New York Times’ Mona El-Naggar. Yaken, a middle-class fitness trainer from Cairo, was interested mostly in making money and meeting girls. “Every guy dreams of having a six-pack so he can take his shirt off at the beach or at the pool and have people check him out,” he is quoted as saying in an exercise video shot two years ago.
But “his dreams began to crash into Egypt’s depressed economy and political turmoil,” the article notes. He couldn’t get a good job and began dreaming about leaving Egypt. As the country’s democratic revolution collapsed and its military dictatorship returned, his political alienation increased. Questioning his life choices, Yaken became drawn to a very different ideology, a version of Islam that is rigorous and militant.
Yaken, now 22, fights for the Islamic State in Syria. During the last Ramadan season, he tweeted a photograph of a decapitated corpse. His post read: “Surely, the holiday won’t be complete without a picture with one of the dogs’ corpses.”
Islam Yaken is now a true believer. But the question surely is, how did he get there? And what were the forces that helped carry him along? Calling him Islamic doesn’t really help you understand any of that.
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