Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Is ISIS Islamic?

This is a question that has garnered a large amount of press in the last few weeks. The cover article in The Atlantic's monthly print edition, 'What ISIS Really Wants' (March 2105) played the part of catalyst.

The article was written by Grame Wood, a Canadian journalist who has written for The New Yorker, The Republic, and the Wall Street Journal. Reaction was almost instantaneous. News feeds exploded with more or less--sometime more and sometimes less, in my estimation--credible reactions to Wood's claim that there is something deeply Islamic about the 'ideology' or 'worldview' that inspires the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (or ISIL, which stands, more broadly, for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).

Certain more radical strains of politically conservative and liberal punditry seized on the idea that ISIS was deeply Islamic. For what were naturally different reasons. Conservative commentators wanted to see something deficient in Islam itself to explain its inability to be modern, Western and European, to generate the institutions that support civil society, to develop the rule of law. Liberal commentators saw Islam as inherently patriarchal, oppressive, or, at least, repressive, and saw ISIS as only the most recent expression of this. Other, more centrist positions, call for a more moderate interpretations with a measured reticence like President Obama, who is staunchly opposed to identifying ISIS with Islam. For some, most likely pragmatic, raison d'etat, he opted to use the label of 'violence extremism.'

Of course, this does not exhaust all the possibilities. An article in Salon, usually a more radical, left-leaning news source, by Haroon Mughal was titled 'The Atlantic's Big Islam Lie: What Muslims Really Believe about ISIS.' The article described the recent history of the region that birthed ISIS, highlighting the United States' disruptive influence in the region. It also made the important point that the vast majority of Muslims, in fact, do oppose ISIS' extremism. If the group has been able to flourish, that has more to do with the lack of legitimate local authority to check the its growth and progress. The disruptive influence of the United States, again, has played no small part. Fareed Zakarai addressed Wood's contentions on his Sunday morning CNN show, Global Public Square. In a related article, 'The Limits of the "Islamic" Label,' he makes the point that 'many Islamic State leaders believe their ideology.' But if we only understand the ideology, we will never what motivates individuals to become extremist.

I myself am of two minds on the question. I think ISIS is Islamic insofar as it deviates from the Islamic norm; but insofar as ISIS deviates from the norm, it is not Islamic. Clear-thinking persons, who insist on the absolute validity of the principle of non-contradiction, may accuse me of positing a doctrine of double-truth. However, the reason that I am of two minds is really quite straight forward. The question has two possible answers, one factual and the other normative. ISIS is Islamic insofar as its language, the authorities to which it appeals, and its general ethos are Islamic. But ISIS is not Islamic insofar as most persons and groups, including those within the region, that self-identify as Muslim reject its claims.

The matter can perhaps be stated more clearly in these terms: the Islamic community broadly conceived, or what Muslims know as the Ummah, has existed since the 7th century, and can today count around 1.6 billion members, in its various fractious manifestations. ISIS, as an infinitesimal part of that larger whole, has been around for a couple of years; it's numbers are maybe in the tens of thousands. Now it is simply inconceivable that ISIS stands for the Islamic community as a whole. ISIS is a flash-bang in the frying-pan: its extremism is simply not sustainable, and so it's essentially Islamic character (both factually and normatively) must be seriously doubted. The Ummah has lived and will continue live on. ISIS? Not so much.

This, at least, seems to me a credible position to take for a person who is moderately well-informed about the Muslim world. The position balances between the different sort of concerns that crop up whenever one tries to define groups with respect to each other (or with respect to sub-groups or off-shot groups). The act of defining a group presumes some normative identity, whereby we can discriminate what does and does not count as being part of the group. But the definition also has a 'factual' (or actual) point of reference; namely, the persons who are defined as belonging to the group or not.

The problem with the present conversation that has grown up around the Wood's article, it seems to me, is that it misunderstands the essentially communal nature of Islam. As it is with most other classical religious traditions (perhaps with the exception of Greco-Roman traditions of Neoplatonism and Stoicism, which are escapist doctrines), so it is with Islam that theology is sociology. The Christian Church, the Jewish Covenant (or Chosen) Community, and, to a lesser degree, the Buddhist Sangha and the Confucian family, are comparable examples. Doctrine informs of communal way of life, which includes basic moral norms and also ritual practice.

The present conversation in widely-read North American new sources fundamentally misunderstand the communal nature of religion. It bounces back and forth between defining Islam, on the one hand, in abstraction as a body of doctrine, or an outlook; and, on the other hand, as an object of sociological study. Commentators begin by distinguishing theology from sociology, and then try to figure out afterwards how they fit together, with ambiguous, often one-sided success.

This is a very real problem. If theology is sociology, then the definition of Islam will be derived from the entire history of the Ummah, beginning with the Hijra from Mecca to Medina in 622, when the Ummah formally had its beginning. Rather than cherry-pick examples, which can be spun to fit any narrative, the definition will contend the moral arc inscribed a Muslim's account of Islam's own history. But if theology and sociology are first regarded separately, and only afterwards related to each other, then we land in the absurd situation where the question, Is ISIS Islamic? is debated at length and with great sincerity.

The case in point here is Wood's article. The argument of the article can essentially be boiled down to the claim that if it looks like Islam, smells like Islam, and feels like Islam, then it must be Islamic. As Wood commented in a follow-up article, he subjected himself to a rigorous early-morning regime of consuming as much hate-full ISIS propaganda, hoping that the effects would wear off by the evening, so he could sleep. He wanted to inhabit the extremist universe. He noticed that ISIS language borrows heavily from existing Islamic tradition. The apocalyptic language that it employed was especially striking. Wood, at this point, made a genuine contribution to the public discourse on ISIS. What rationale does the organization have for provoking absolutely everyone? They are trying to bring about the end of the world. He points out, 'The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself.'

Certainly, this is true. Apocalyptic movements often act in ways that defy the conventional norms of rationality. ISIS does not appear concerned, for example, in the slightest with self-preservation. It wants to be the harbinger of the Last Day. And even though it cannot be sure that it is (such things belong to God alone), it can at least hope.

But Wood's argument gets a little fuzzy at this point, for the reasons I pointed out above. He, if you will, has in his possession a pair of ideas. The first idea is generic conception of Islam, its doctrine and its practice, abstracted from the material record of its history. The second idea he has is of ISIS, both what it claims for itself and what it has actually done, which it has done a very good job of publicizing on its own. One is timeless, for all intents and purposes; the other is in time. He holds them up for readers to see. And he suggests an answer to the question, Is ISIS Islamic?

To his credit, Wood backs away from explicitly calling the problem of ISIS, the problem of Islam. Alternative Islamic voices are cited towards the end of the article. But his own position is buried in the later half of the article. Commenting on Salafi preachers, who he sees as an ISIS analog in the West, he says, 'To call them un-Islamic appears, to me, to invite them into an argument that they would win.' That some of his readers have not been so reticent to call the problem of ISIS, the problem of Islam is not surprising. The article moves in the direction, even if it never arrives at the destination.

Wood's opposes an of an abstract idea about Islam to a vanishingly small group of Islamic extremists. In his eyes, the transience of extremist movements and the accumulated wisdom of past generations counts for naught. Human history has no depth; tradition, no weight. Wood quite literally cannot see the Ummah. Everything is made to stand and fall on a single judgment about a tiny group of individuals, in their tiny corner of human history. The question, Is ISIS Islamic? is not only the wrong question; the terms on which it is asked are entirely out of proportion.

The problem that Wood and so many other scholars is that they diagnosis the pathology of extremism by pathologizing religion. They pathologize religion by cutting the human world in two: doctrines and practices go on one side, groups of people go on the other. Where does that leave him? Wood's most recent article, 'What ISIS Really Wants: The Response,' cites as sources actual members of ISIS, who have reacted positively their portrayal. But he does not see the interpretive dilemma.

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