My Weekly Reader 1 April 2017.

Since 9/11 the imperatives of the war against radical Islamism have imposed an un-true interpretation of the enemy.  The radicals (Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, ISIS) form a minority within Islam, their most common targets are fellow Muslims, and the assistance of Muslim states is essential to victory over the Islamists.  Hence, it has become commonplace to describe the radicals as not truly Muslim, as heretics at best.

To argue differently is to open oneself to charges of Islamophobia.[1]  Nevertheless, radical Islamism diverges from contemporary Islam much more than it diverges from foundational Islam.  Originally, the Prophet Muhammad preached a single community of Believers (the “umma”), led by puritanical religious figures (a theocracy), and living in permanent hostility to Unbelievers (the conflict between the dar al-Islam/House of Peace/Islam and the dar al-Harb/House of War/Unbelievers).  Jews and Christians, the “Peoples of the Book,” were tolerated in return for payment of a tax, bit barred from proselytizing.  Slavery remained a hall-mark of Muslim societies from the time of the Prophet through the 19th Century.  Subsequently, mainstream Islam moved toward what Western observers think of today: fractured into nation states too weak to pull a hobo of their sister; economically stagnant in the face of swiftly rising populations; ruled by tyrannical soldiers and monarchs, and struggling to reconcile “modernization” in all its forms with core cultural values.

Gilles Kepel and others have argued that dissatisfaction with these governments sent people streaming toward a renewed religious commitment in the last decades of the 20th Century.  Some of those people turned back to a fundamentalist version of Islam.  The fruit of this commitment has been harvested in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, France, Germany, Spain, and Britain.

It’s not difficult to narrate the rise and fall of the Islamic State.  It’s just difficult to explain—comprehend really—why people are willing to give their lives in support of it.  Graeme Wood argues that the “foot soldiers [of ISIS] view their mission in religious terms and spend great energy on piety and devotion.”[2]  They are filled with religious passion.  Dexter Filkins isn’t sure this is actually the case.  His own experience as a war correspondent in Afghanistan and Iraq for the New York Times leads him to believe that “the motives for joining a militant organization were varied and complex.”[3]  Psychopaths and sociopaths found a justification, not a motivation, in religion.  Possibly Wood’s response would be to point again to the identity between the theology of ISIS and the theology of early Islam.  In the 7th and 8th Centuries the Arabs over-run vast tracts of the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires.  Historians conventionally describe these armies as fired by a passionate religious enthusiasm.  Would Filkins argue that they actually were madmen and criminals?

The two different strands of interpretation can be reconciled if one understands that religious faith is intended to redeem those who feel themselves to be ruined by sin.[4]  Religion may become a tired and stifling bourgeois convention that upholds the established order.  It doesn’t normally start out that way.  So, perhaps ISSIS recruits a wide range of troubled people who are self-aware enough to embrace beliefs that may heal or channel their flaws.

[1] It isn’t immediately apparent why mouthing ignorance-based platitudes favorable to Islam is less Islamophobic than is mouthing ignorance-based platitudes hostile to Islam.  Both approaches seem to be based on an indifference to learning about Islam.

[2] Graeme Wood, The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State (2017).

[3] Dexter Filkins, “On the Fringes of ISIS,” NYT Book Review, 22 January 2017.

[4] See, for one example: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/02/24/the-islamic-brigades-1/

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