The Obama administration made a kind of parlor game out of refusing to connect the Islamic State with Islam. The president himself said it most directly last year when he announced in a prime time TV address, “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’”
Just last week, the president suggested ISIS was a perversion of true Islam, recalling the Crusades and the Inquisition as precedent during a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast.
The antidote to this feel-good anti-theology is found in an important piece published this week by The Atlantic. Author Graeme Wood takes on the fundamental mischaracterization of ISIS that has run rampant through the Obama administration:
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. 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.
Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. 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 and back foolish schemes to counter it.
Wood does more than simply assert a position, he interviews the proponents of ISIS’s theology and also the leading academic expert, Princeton Professor Bernard Haykel who identifies such efforts at downplaying ISIS’s religious credibility as a species of political correctness:
Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”…
According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”
This is the reality that has pushed many frustrated observers to demand the Obama administration plainly state that religious devotion is a motivation for ISIS’s violence. As Haykel tells Wood, ISIS is “smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”
The reason this matters, Wood argues, is that ISIS’s devotion to a specific interpretation of their faith makes them somewhat predictable. In order to maintain the caliphate, ISIS must continue to wage war. In a sense, the group is like a shark that must keep moving outward and consuming territory or die.
It’s hard to overstate how hamstrung the Islamic State will be by its radicalism. The modern international system, born of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, relies on each state’s willingness to recognize borders, however grudgingly. For the Islamic State, that recognition is ideological suicide. Other Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, have succumbed to the blandishments of democracy and the potential for an invitation to the community of nations, complete with a UN seat. Negotiation and accommodation have worked, at times, for the Taliban as well. (Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan exchanged ambassadors with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates, an act that invalidated the Taliban’s authority in the Islamic State’s eyes.) To the Islamic State these are not options, but acts of apostasy.
What remains for the Western world is the necessity of defeating ISIS through force. Simply put, the caliphate does not exist without territory to rule. Denying ISIS that territory frustrates their ambition and harms their credibility. Wood argues that the best available option is “to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare,” but he does allow direct “boots on the ground” intervention can’t be ruled out, given the threat to innocent life the group represents.
Finally, in a section of the piece on dissuading others from joining ISIS, Wood points out how counterproductive the current administration’s approach is:
It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State “a problem with Islam.” The religion allows many interpretations, and Islamic State supporters are morally on the hook for the one they choose. And yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them.
This is a point Breitbart News made last week in response to the president’s reference to the Crusades. There is ample evidence that many Muslims around the world share some extremist views in common with ISIS. Denying that ISIS is a fringe of Islam is not true and also relieves some of those observing their exploits with cautious approval off the hook too easily. If the goal is to get Islam to moderate itself, the president is short-circuiting the very mechanism that could lead to that outcome.
The Atlantic piece is a rebuke to those who claim ISIS is anything other than deeply and devotedly Islamic. It also makes clear that a prerequisite to any lasting peace in the region is the eventual defeat of the Islamic State.