ISIS is really, truly Islamic

I keep touting Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 as a corrective for those who claim that Al-Qaeda is motivated not by religion, but by secular issues like poverty, colonialism, and the like.  Wright’s book shows clearly that the roots of Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamic groups that practice terrorism were, in the main, motivated by Islam, its dictate to wage jihad, and its hatred of the West, whose values stood in distinction to those of Islam.

Despite, that, though, Muslim apologists like Karen Armstrong and Reza Aslan continue to insist not only are Islamic terrorist groups “not truly Islamic,” but that the message of the Qur’an is one of peace and love. That, of course, is bunk. And now that ISIS has arisen after Wright’s book, the same apologetics are being applied to it as were applied to Al-Qaeda.

The necessary corrective has just been published in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood, in a piece called “What ISIS really wants“. Wood is an editor at the magazine as well as a lecturer in political science at Yale. He lived in the Middle East for four years beginning in 2002, so he certainly has the street cred to write about ISIS. His piece is long—21 pages as I printed it out—but it’s well worth reading, especially because ISIS threatens to kindle a huge war in the Middle East.

Many readers sent me the link to the piece (thanks, all!), probably because its main message is one I make a lot: ISIS has deep roots in Islam and, in fact, is simply carrying out the medieval Muslim plan to establish a worldwide caliphate. Wood clearly describes ISIS’s bizarre theology involving the capture of Istanbul by the Caliphate, the death of nearly all its members, and then their final rescue by the Muslim prophet Jesus (yes, the Jesus) who comes back to Earth during the Apocalypse.

Wood’s article involved a lot of travel, interviewing, and scholarly work, and you really should read it (the download is free). I’ll give just a few quotes (indented) and then my own take on the piece.

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. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.
. . . 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.”
There is much more, but I needn’t duplicate what’s online. But why is it important to recognize that ISIS, like Al-Qaeda, is a religiously motivated group? This is where a generally superb article loses a bit of its patina. Wood argues that we can fight the organization more effectively since its religious background gives us insight into its plans:
The ideological purity of the Islamic State has one compensating virtue: it allows us to predict some of the group’s actions. Osama bin Laden was seldom predictable. He ended his first television interview cryptically. CNN’s Peter Arnett asked him, “What are your future plans?” Bin Laden replied, “You’ll see them and hear about them in the media, God willing.” By contrast, the Islamic State boasts openly about its plans—not all of them, but enough so that by listening carefully, we can deduce how it intends to govern and expand.
And indeed, one of Wood’s claims is that ISIS must continually expand and gain land, for that is what the Caliphate is supposed to do. If we can prevent that, he says, ISIS will die a slow death. This is in contrast to Al-Qaeda, which can be viable as an organization without a territory, for it can simply go underground and emerge at appropriate times to wreak havoc.
But in the end, says Wood, an invasion and direct confrontation is unlikely to work, and so he basically recommends what we’re already doing:
Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare, appears the best of bad military options. Neither the Kurds nor the Shia will ever subdue and control the whole Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq—they are hated there, and have no appetite for such an adventure anyway. But they can keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand. And with every month that it fails to expand, it resembles less the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammad than yet another Middle Eastern government failing to bring prosperity to its people.
. . . Properly contained, the Islamic State is likely to be its own undoing. No country is its ally, and its ideology ensures that this will remain the case. The land it controls, while expansive, is mostly uninhabited and poor. As it stagnates or slowly shrinks, its claim that it is the engine of God’s will and the agent of apocalypse will weaken, and fewer believers will arrive. And as more reports of misery within it leak out, radical Islamist movements elsewhere will be discredited: No one has tried harder to implement strict Sharia by violence. This is what it looks like.

So in the end, knowing ISIS’s background and ideology doesn’t seem that helpful.

But Wood also has another point. Every time the President or someone else claims that ISIS isn’t really a brand of Islam, it turns those who are susceptible to jihad even more militant, for they see that the U.S. “lies about religion to serve its purposes.”  Well, I don’t find that argument terribly convincing, but maybe it does have some force.

My own objection to characterizing ISIS as “not Muslim” is on grounds of truth: such statements are disingenuous and simply serve to perpetuate all religion, with the harms attendant on it, for I see even the moderate forms of faith as usually harmful. (Yes, Reza Aslan, I’m an anti-theist.)  I think it’s marginally useful to know that ISIS is a religiously motivated group, for it’s best to know your enemy as fully as possible, but Wood hasn’t made the case that such knowledge will be crucial in defeating the group.

For another take on the religious nature of the war, see Roger Cohen’s column in today’s New York Times, “Islam and the West at war.” One excerpt:

I hear the words of Chokri Belaid, the brave Tunisian lawyer, shortly before he was gunned down by Islamist fanatics on Feb. 6, 2013: “We can disagree in our diversity but within a civilian, peaceful and democratic framework. Disagree in our diversity, yes!”

To speak of a nonspecific “dark ideology,” to dismiss the reality of conflict between the West and Islam, is also to undermine the anti-Islamist struggle of brave Muslims like Belaid — and these Muslims are the only people, ultimately, who can defeat the black-flagged jihadi death merchants.


  1. Posted February 17, 2015 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    “Pulitzer-Prize-winning book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 as a corrective for those who claim that Al-Qaeda is motivated not by religion, but by secular issues like poverty, colonialism, and the like. ”

    What I got from the book was that the primary motivating force for jihad was outrage for the treatment of Muslims by the West. The US in particular was to blame because of its support for the despotic governments in Egypt, its “occupation” of the holy land of Saudi Arabia, and its support of Israel.

    So the main role of religion was that it fostered the sense of identification with all Muslims, and that a crime against one was a crime against all. I really didn’t get the sense that the specific doctrines of Islam were all that important.

    • Isaac
      Posted February 17, 2015 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      That is definitely not what I got from the book. Do you remember what was the problem with US’s occupation of Saudi Arabia in the first place? It was the religious grievance that the US were a country of infidels. How dare those infidels set foot on the Holy Land?!

      • Posted February 17, 2015 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

        “It was the religious grievance that the US were a country of infidels. ”

        Sure, I noted in my comment the issue of “holy land” and holy is a religious concept. The book starts off, though, talking about Sayyid Qutb as one of the fathers of the jihadist movement; his primary beef was western support of the Egyptian despotic government.

        The question is, if the only US involvement in the region was military bases in Saudi Arabia, would that have been sufficient to create the jihadist movement we now see? I would argue probably not.

        • Dave
          Posted February 17, 2015 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

          “…his primary beef was western support of the Egyptian despotic government.”

          I’d be more inclined to give that argument a hearing if the Islamists didn’t establish even more despotic governments when given the opportunity. It seems to me their real beef is that the western-backed governments aren’t despotic enough – in the correct, Koranically-approved way, that is.

        • rickflick
          Posted February 17, 2015 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

          Qutb had complex motives. He had been raised in a strict (sexually repressed) environment. When, as a young scholar, he spent time in the U.S., he seemed superficially to get along well. But his later writings reveal that he was seething with hatred of his experience and was disgusted by the forwardness of American women. He also felt injured by American racism that sometimes was aimed at him, being dark skinned. His sense of revulsion resolved itself in the idea of a pure Islam.
          In addition, he was subsequently jailed and tortured by the Egyptian government, which completed his conversion to jihad and terrorism.

          • Filippo
            Posted February 17, 2015 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

            ” . . . . disgusted by the forwardness of American women.”

            Yep, not sufficiently submissive- and subordinating-enough to the testicular class to suit him.

            • Dominic
              Posted February 18, 2015 at 3:55 am | Permalink

              That is a little unfair – surely the point is not whether ‘forwardness’ is right or wrong, but what Qutb felt about it. Like it or not, we are products of upbringing & culture. If someone is abused they are more likely themselves to be abusive – & so the sad story continues into another generation…

    • rickflick
      Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      My take on the book was that bin Ladin was a serious trouble maker who really did not have a cohesive plan for jihad. He was not very deep or complex. The Saudi King and princes were decadent as spendthrift and he blamed this on Western influence and oil money. He hated the west and longed for Islam to return to the time of it’s once great power and influence. Basically a romantic notion. Although there were many drivers of the jihadist idea, different for different participants, the integrating element in the motivations is religion.

      • Posted February 17, 2015 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

        “motivations is religion.”

        There’s no getting away from that, but I think the interesting question is whether it’s the religious doctrines to blame, or it’s just the fact that it’s a religion shared by the people of the region, regardless of the content.

        I also think this is a separate question from the violence that the regimes inflict on their own people under Sharia law.

        • rickflick
          Posted February 17, 2015 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

          My guess? Certainly if the shared religion of the region was Amish, we would not have a problem. The doctrines of Islam play a significant roll, no doubt. An interesting question is if the tenets of Islam were much more benign, would there still be a significant terrorist movement? Are the other forces in play strong enough on their own to create havoc? Given the violent, tribal history of the region there would be little hope for a stable peace.

          These Middle Eastern regimes are totalitarian states. Without Islam, they would probably be much the same in terms of repression.

          • atheist in a foxhole
            Posted February 17, 2015 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

            I must agree with rickflick based upon my personal experience in Iraq (2 deployments with US Army). During one deployment, I gave tours to soldiers at Saddam Hussein’s Al Faw palace in my off duty hours. I’m a bit of a history buff so I did a bunch of reading up on his personal history. I also got to speak to a lot of the local Iraqis an Iraqi historian who was serving as an interpreter for my unit.

            What I learned was that Saddam only paid lip service to Islam when it served his purposes. When religious fervor took hold of the masses, he would dress in traditional attire and quote the Koran. When the religious fervor would subside and economic issues where dominate he would present himself as a business man in a flashy suit courting western businesses. When nationalist feelings were on the rise he would present himself in uniform as a solider and protector of Iraq. Saddam always presented himself in the way that he thought would get him the benefit of the social whims of the moment. His only goal was to maintain his personal power.

            Behind the scenes in his private life he defied most of the edicts of islam: he drank, smoked, cheated on his wives, he brutally tortured his enemies, he even wrote a romance novel – Zabibah and the King!

            A brief web search on Qaddafi or other middle eastern rulers will give you the same impression.

            • Michael Waterhouse
              Posted February 18, 2015 at 10:24 am | Permalink

              Largely true but I think, from memory of Gaddafi many years ago, he was more genuine than Saddam.

    • Filippo
      Posted February 17, 2015 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      ” . . . because of its support for the despotic governments in Egypt, its “occupation” of the holy land of Saudi Arabia, and its support of Israel.”

      But apparently no problem with the despotic government of Saudi Arabia.

      • rickflick
        Posted February 18, 2015 at 10:52 am | Permalink

        Bin Laden was incensed by the Saudi ruling class. I was a significant motive for jihad. But his objection was not to it’s despotism so much as it’s decadence. If he had had his way, he would have liked to see a puritanical despotism in its place.

  2. GBJames
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    And, predictably, theologians claim Wood isn’t qualified to speak the truth.

    • GBJames
      Posted February 17, 2015 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      erf… and the check box…

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted February 17, 2015 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      Yes, completely predictable. The only real god is a kind,loving one, and anything else is nothing to do with Him at all. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’d moved into that camp before I abandoned religion altogether. I wanted to believe in God, so he had to fit my personal worldview, which didn’t match the tenets of any religion. So basically they were all wrong and I was right, which of course is untenable in its arrogance quite apart from all the other reasons everyone here can come up with.

      The only reason people like DAESH are wrong is that there is no god or gods. Everything else is variation on a myth. It’s like my father getting angry at Kevin Costner’s portrayal of Robin Hood. None of it is real; all of it is dangerous because they believe it is.

    • gluonspring
      Posted February 19, 2015 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      Which is about as dumb a point as anyone can make. Wood is only claiming to speak ISIS’s truth, not The Truth about every version of Islam.

      I’m not a theologian either, but I can tell you with certainty that Jerry Falwell believed that homosexuality is an abomination. I know this because he said as much, and lived it out. I also know that he would scoff at any suggestion that we should not read literally the Bible verses saying homosexuality is an abomination. No many how many liberal theologians you lined up to “set him right”, it would only be proof to him that those people aren’t “true” Christians at all. Sure, lots of Christians do “interpret” their text in such a way that homosexuality is not an abomination. But one doesn’t need to be a theologian to read and see that the text clearly says that it is.

      To deny ISIS’s theology, or it’s appeal to some people, is to deny the very existence of fundamentalism. That’s just ignorant.

      • Filippo
        Posted February 19, 2015 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

        “To deny ISIS’s theology, or it’s appeal to some people, is to deny the very existence of fundamentalism. That’s just ignorant.”

        Sunni and Shia don’t get along. Anyone know if Aslan has uttered a pearl of wisdom advising which one I should prefer/support?

  3. Craig Gallagher
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    This failure to accept what IS is about is puzzling because if there was ever an organisation whose name more succinctly articulates its core aims and values than “Islamic State”, I’m struggling to think of it.

  4. Isaac
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Wood’s is indeed an excellent article. One of the most limpid and comprehensive ones I’ve read on the topic.

    The way I usually put it is this:

    If religion is neutral and the propositions of Islam, once accepted, have no bearing on people’s inclination to become terrorists and martyrs, then, given the statistical facts about terrorism and genocide today, what is it exactly about Islam that makes the religion such an attractive and auspicious milieu for “people who are already bad and violent”?

    In other words, the facts are in. Terrorism and religious violence today is brought about almost invariably by people who identify themselves with the Islamic faith. Therefore, those eager to absolve the faith must explain what is it about the religion of peace that makes is such a perfect haven for cut-throats and genocides.

    • Sastra
      Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      I think you mean “lucid,” not “limpid.”

      • Sastra
        Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        Oh, never mind: they’re synonyms. My bad.

        • Isaac
          Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

          It’s ok. Just please don’t let it happen again. :p

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      I agree. We keep hearing that Islam isn’t at fault, so what is?

      Do we blame the culture? The victims? The climate? Maybe it’s genetics. I’m not comfortable with any of those alternatives.

      • Kevin
        Posted February 17, 2015 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

        Who killed Nicole Simpson? Aliens, obviously.

        It must be aliens who have come down and decided to motivate some uneducated persons in the desert to kill people because the aliens feed off of these particular killings. We need to be looking for the aliens, then the killings will obviously stop.

        • Curt Nelson
          Posted February 17, 2015 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

          Finally, an answer that makes sense!

          The argument, I think, should not so much focus the blame on Islam but on religion in general. False world models lead to trouble.

          What about the good in religion? There is none. It’s like saying that a kidnapper fed his abductee well.

  5. livinginabox
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    ISIS must be every bit as abhorrent to civilised people as Christianity was in mediaeval Europe. And I suspect few realise just how bad Christianity was in mediaeval Europe.

    • EvolvedDutchie
      Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      No. Catholicism (protestantism was invented by Maarten Luther in 1517) was far less controlling than ISIS today. Sure, you could not choose your own religion, but at least you had free trade and you could choose your own clothing, drink beer and eat bacon.

      The islamic state is full of rules and regulation about all sorts of things. Islam has ridiculously detailed laws. This only appeals to muslims and Germans.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted February 17, 2015 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        There were rules about clothing, but they weren’t as prescriptive as those of Islam and judging by the number of times they were re-issued, no-one took much notice of them.

        Google Sumptuary Laws. Called that because they were about dressing according the the place in society God had put you. The richer you were, the more sumptuous your clothes were allowed to be.

        But you’re right. Medieval Catholic Europe while bad, was not like DAESH-controlled territory. It depended a lot on the local religious authority, and if he wasn’t obsessive, life could be pretty laissez faire. Some were more like a DAESH commander though and controlled every aspect of life. Others were all about the love and compassion of Jesus. It depended a lot where you lived.

  6. frankschmidtmissouri
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    For a counterpoint to Wood’s piece, read Juan Cole:

    • sensorrhea
      Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      My response to his most relevant point:

      Snake handlers are considered unusual, but literally nobody thinks they aren’t Christian. ISIS is an extreme Islamic breakaway sect, but that doesn’t make it not Islam. Wahabism and Salafism are pretty awful and people consider them Islam.

  7. Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    How can there be so many people who don’t see what’s afoot? There are whole countries standing on the sidelines and not condemning nor acting against ISIS and Boko Haram and others. In fact, does Russia not see that they’re wasting good resources (and other countries’), selfishly going after Ukraine, when there’s vile forces loose that would cast us back into the Dark Ages? What about China, etc? Shouldn’t we stand together against these forces that too closely resemble Hitler’s regime? This is no time to keep silent. It’s time to choose – Civilization or the Dark Ages.

    • Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      *there’re vile forces*

    • Posted February 17, 2015 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      Russia and China will continue to block efforts of the UN security council to ramp up pressure on the regime in Syria. They always block resolutions there b/c they do not want the UN to go after them and their regional interests.
      Not that the UN security council has a lot of teeth…

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted February 17, 2015 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        Exactly. In the P5, while the US, always stands up for freedom of speech, Russia and China pretty much always say there should be no involvement in the internal affairs of another country without specific invitation. Both insist that is the way they always behave.

      • Filippo
        Posted February 17, 2015 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

        “Not that the UN security council has a lot of teeth…”

        Not that the security council membership doesn’t want it that way, all having agreed that one nay vote negates any action. One doesn’t see the U.S. opposing that rule.

        • rickflick
          Posted February 17, 2015 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

          Of course. What would majority rule look like?

  8. Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Wood’s piece is indeed very good.

    I have just finished reading, and would like to recommend, the superb book ‘Understanding Jihad’, by David Cook, a professor of religion at Rice University. Cook’s specialty is there history and nature is jihad theology, martyrdom and martyology, and apocalypticism in Islam.

    The book surveys the history of jihad ideology, beginning with its textual foundations in the Quran, the hadith, and the Sirs of the Prophet. It then move on to the medieval theologians, and examines the various debates between then about the subject, and what exactly defines the martyr (it turns out that martyrdom is actually quite easy to achieve).

    Cook examines how jihad effected historical events, and how this events in turn changed how the theologians thought about jihad. In the last part if the book, Cook goes through the latest developments in jihad theory. According to Cook, what has happened lately is that new interpretations have arisen which declare that the entire Muslim community is in a state of jahiliyya, or ignorance, the way that the Arabs were before the Prophet. This interpretation lead to the conclusion that all the world Muslims are actually apostates, unless they are currently wagging jihad.

    In an appendix, Cook has helpfully provided translations of popular documents regarding jihad, many of which circulate online. To read them is to go through the looking glass, into a crazy, topsy-turvy world, where truth is a matter of mere emotion, and death is the best thing that could ever happen to you.

  9. Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    If ISIS isn’t motivated by Islam, then the Crusades and the Inquisition weren’t motivated by Christianity.

    • sensorrhea
      Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      There are actually people who will agree with both propositions.

      • Filippo
        Posted February 17, 2015 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        And then one more step to saying religion doesn’t/could never motivate anything negative.

        • sensorrhea
          Posted February 19, 2015 at 9:37 am | Permalink

          Yep. Question begging. They define religion as that which inspires good and never inspires evil.

    • muffy
      Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      And modern Christians are capable of similar brutality. Just look at the Lebanese civil war. Burning buses of innocent civilians…

      The only reason, imo, that Christianity has been defanged is that most Christians live in first world countries or are not subjected to the kind of instability that Iraq has gone through.

  10. sensorrhea
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    I figured out how to square the “ISIS is not Islam even though they say literally everything they are is Islam” circle.

    They are a new breakaway Islamic sect (though adopting old ideas). Just like the Sunni-Shia split. Or maybe they are less breakaway and more like a new flavor, like Wahhabism or Salafism.

    So, yeah, they are Islamic, the way protestant sects are Christian even if the Pope says they are heretical. The global culture at large (including Catholics in practice) accepts protestants, including really weird ones like snake-handlers and glossolalists, as Christian.

    • Filippo
      Posted February 17, 2015 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

      ” . . . including really weird ones like snake-handlers . . . as Christian.”

      Though the occasional snake doesn’t accept in return.

  11. Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    “Properly contained, the Islamic State is likely to be its own undoing.”

    I can appreciate the allusion to epidemiology and the need to keep this strain of ideological depravity from finding additional hosts.

    Islam should be seen as incidental to ethnicity rather than identical to one’s identity. Disproportionate emotional attachment to scriptural injunctions demonstrates that anti-pluralism is essentially pro-implosion and unsustainability is the ultimate legacy of any “caliphate.”

    • GBJames
      Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      I suspect you mean “rather than identical to one’s ethnicity.”

      • Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        Pardon my prose. I meant to say “an unfortunate conflation” akin to identity politics on crystal meth.

  12. Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know if the United States actually underestimates ISIS, but I think it is a good thing to allow them to become a military power.

    Military powers can be defeated. Ideology, not so easily. My opinion is worth every cent I charge for it, but I believe the only way to defeat the ideology is through a protracted and painful struggle between Muslims. The more crazies assembled in a concentrated area, the better. The more they are feared and hated, the better.

    This is World War IV. It could get very ugly.

    The reason I think the major nations are taking it seriously is that all the western nations are taking measures — NSA and the like — that are typical in wartime. The fact that Obama goes along with spying on Americans (not a talking point with progressives) is that Washington knows we are in a world war.

    • Isaac
      Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think “A painful struggle between Muslims” is not the most accurate way to describe it. It’s more of a “one-side slaughtering the other” kinda thing.

      • Posted February 17, 2015 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

        I see several sides. I don’t pretend to understand the region, but I see Shias, Sunnis, ISIS, Taliban, Al Qaeda, and nations like Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, and so forth, each with it’s own agenda.

        And within each of these group there are individuals with hidden agendas.

        This is not a conflict where a person of good will can simply support the good guys vs the bad guys. I see parallels with European history. I think we have, as a culture, forgotten how brutal western societies were just a few hundred years ago.

        We have forgotten phrases like “Manifest Destiny” that are functionally equivalent to the Caliphate.

        • Posted February 17, 2015 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

          … and not to mention Indonesia which “is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, at 87.2% in 2010, with the majority being Sunni (99%)” (Wiki) It’ll be interesting to see where they align themselves, when there’s a full-on world war.

  13. Sastra
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that those who insist that the Islamic State is not Islamic would also watch Jesus Camp and say that this isn’t about Christianity. No, it’s about people fighting back against a culture which threatens them. Nothing to do with religion.

    One of the things to keep in mind when dealing with the claim that Religion X is really about “peace and love” is that the most virulent, hostile, violent, and divisive faiths are ALWAYS “really about peace and love.” In the end. As the ultimate goal. As the final result of the necessary purges and cleansings and valiant battles against impurity and wickedness.

    Only when God is in complete charge can peace and love can finally be achieved. Until then, the world must be dealt with as Love commands. So yeah, Islam is really about peace and love. So are all Utopian schemes.

    • peepuk
      Posted February 17, 2015 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, isis needs an islamic utopia that’s under threat by the west to justify their actions, otherwise this extreme violence would be hard to sell. “Moral superiority” has always been an excellent motivator for violence. It allows you to block normal moral instincts (do no harm, fairness …).

      Denying a link between islam and isis has of course nothing to do with truth-seeking, it’s political motivated reasoning.

      By observing that “Moral Superiority” leads to violence, they think they have to promote moral relativism: all cultures are considered to be equally good. But of course this nonsense is hard to maintain with a violent cult like isis.

      For moral relativists, to save at least islam, there is only one option left: to put as much distance between islam and isis as possible.

      • friendlypig
        Posted February 18, 2015 at 3:35 am | Permalink

        ISIS needs land. You cannot have a Caliphate if there is nothing to govern, it’s as simple(?) as that. Take away that land that they ‘rule’ and there is nowhere to build 7thC Islam.

    • gluonspring
      Posted February 17, 2015 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      This is the most important point, in my view. Most of the most horrid atrocities we can readily name had, as their commonality, the marriage of fear and loathing and the natural human tendency for “othering” in the present time with some utopian ideal. Religion is just the most common form of totalizing utopianism, but not the only one. People in the grip of such an idea are exceedingly dangerous because they can turn every human emotion, both love and hate, into motivation for horrors. It a kind of tough love to kill those in error to inspire the survivors to repent and live in utopia. Torture the heretic, so that they might repent and enter paradise. Genocide now, for the 1000 years of peace and harmony afterward. Because they live in a fantasy which exists only in their mind, interacting with them is a strange through the looking glass experience.

      Any effort to make the world perfect, based on a sincere belief that the perfect can be attained, will end badly because it can’t ever be realized. Trying harder, with more zeal, does not fix all problems, but if you believe in the utopian vision you try harder and with more zeal you must until something breaks. Sometimes it turns only a little sour, making someone overbearing and unpleasant to be around, as zealots so often are. Other times it turns murderous.

      I think more than anything, what science, and the Enlightenment, and the practical merchant class that arose in the West, has done to improve the world is to lower our sights from the utopian horizon, from the perfect, which exists only in our imaginations, down to grubby “improvements” in the here and now. This, of course, seems banal and hedonistic to the utopian mindset.

      • gluonspring
        Posted February 17, 2015 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        Ack.. so many errors.

        • Sastra
          Posted February 17, 2015 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

          What, are you demanding perfection from yourself? 😉

          • rickflick
            Posted February 17, 2015 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

            Exactly. When you’re right you’re right.

      • rickflick
        Posted February 17, 2015 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

        This is a fine assessment. Humans often find themselves striving for some kind of perfection as a solution to many emotional problems. Utopia seems to solve all problems at once, including the problem of one’s current mental anxiety. I think a significant driver of religious extremism can be mental illness which afflicts quite a few revolutionaries for good or ill.
        Another significant factor might be sexual repression which is evident in many religious traditions. Many of the suicide bombers and the WTC highjackers were clearly troubled about lust and likely conflated biology with destiny.

  14. Randy Schenck
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    I’ll be reading both articles and as understood they are both correct and very good. The Roger Cohen piece particularly – These Muslims are the only people who can defeat this.

    If you deny that ISIS is a part of ISLAM, and think it some bad gang that just jumped up to hate the west, then you may think going to war or battle against this in a conventional way makes sense. And even if you do think it is radical Islam, such as many republicans, you might still conclude the useless thought of war.

    The battle is within Islam and it is for Islam to decide. For the west to conclude war is the answer is as senseless as war in Vietnam or war in Iraq. Lets actually learn from history.

  15. David W.
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders, Mark Lilla tries to see what he sees. What I see are descendants of immigrants who are not interested in becoming French, at least what’s been traditionally seen as being French, and instead are adopting Salafist ideologies.

    France on Fire – by Mark Lilla

  16. Diane G.
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 1:30 pm | Permalink


  17. Posted February 17, 2015 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    I think perhaps we are seeing what might have happened if Hitler has risen to power in the age of the internet.

  18. jay
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    CNN has a couple of articles arguing that ISIS is driven by an apocalyptic fervor, essentially their version of the Christian Armageddon. Hence they are actively building up enemies in preparation for a ‘final battle’.

    This mirrors some fundamentalist Christians who are also looking forward to an epic battle in the Middle East. Both groups expecting the devil to be bringing his forces together (viewing each other as the devil) for the ultimate showdown between good and evil. (As I remember the term Gog of Magog was supposedly a reference to the devil’s army). Both groups may wind up playing into each other’s mythology.

    • gluonspring
      Posted February 17, 2015 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

      I think this is much more real a possibility than many people want to believe.

      My sense is that the number of Christians who think like this is increasing. When I was a kid, no one in my fundamentalist church was inclined to think much about the modern state of Israel. We were not apocalyptically oriented, and tended to read Revelation is either symbolic or perhaps as a coded message about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Some thought there would be a US/USSR showdown and that Revelation somehow was a coded description of that. However, in the 1970’s and 80’s it seemed that some of our leaders seemed to notice, as if for the first time, that there was a modern state of Israel. From the 80’s on, more and more of the Christians I know started to think of the very existence of modern Israel as a fulfillment of Bible prophecy. This idea was motivating and reinforcing in a way that the idea of a US/USSR superpower showdown never was. More of them started to consider the idea that the modern state of Israel might actually play a role in some end times drama. More of them started to think of Israel as being there by the will of God, and so that we should support Israel for that reason alone. These ideas have been around for ages, of course, but the very real facts of the re-creation of Israel was, for many Christians, actually a proof of Christianity. In this way, old texts long forgotten, long impotent, can become the centerpiece of a group of people’s world view.

      I think the danger of apocalyptic religious views, in the age of nuclear weapons, is hardly possible to overstate.

  19. Posted February 17, 2015 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    I had been looking at how ISIS funds itself. Their revenues come from several sources.
    1. Hijacked oil refineries. They smuggle oil in trucks into a thriving black market in Turkey.
    2. Extortion of people in territories they occupy.
    3. Constant taxation of people in their occupied territories. Any purchase & any bank transaction has a fee paid to ISIS. I think this is a reason why the must grow.
    4. Donations from outside sympathizers.
    Many of their upper members were racketeers from Iraq and Syria and other places. This is only novel to them in terms of scale.

  20. Posted February 17, 2015 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    I like both articles, and Jerry’s take.
    IS/Daesh is indeed very much religious, and religious in the medieval sense.
    However, I do not think they are a major threat. Their influence is limited to some Sunni heartland in Syria and Iraq (the latter being the heartland of Saddam’s forces, who are ‘with’ IS now), basically the territory they control at present. The routing/fleeing of the predominantly Shia army, under a Shia government, leaving the traditionally Sunni areas open, should not surprise us. But it gave IS an aura of a conquering force.

    Their defeat at Kobani, mainly by a Kurdish militia (with some drone support), exposed their military weakness. They were expelled from Mosul, they are trying to conquer Baghdad for about a year now, without much, nay any, progress. IS’ success is more about pr than actual power.

    I think your president’s drone warfare is very effective. Since they (IS) are not a military force of real significance, they can be contained by drones and some ground resistance. I mean, if you get taken out by a drone, you look more like a stupid idiot than a heroic martyr.

    The real threat of Islam is not IS, nor even the very much more serious threat of a ‘nuclear’ Iran, but the way Islam can dictate the rules, by playing overlord where possible and victim when opportune, in Western Europe (immi).

    I also do not understand why fanatic Muslims (including converts) are not allowed to go to IS. Not only a ‘good riddance’ kind of thing, but basically a right to freedom of choice.

    • Filippo
      Posted February 17, 2015 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

      “I also do not understand why fanatic Muslims (including converts) are not allowed to go to IS. Not only a ‘good riddance’ kind of thing, but basically a right to freedom of choice.”

      Yea, the more who join the fewer to succumb to the temptation to act out in Western cities, and the more who have to be fed, clothed and sheltered, that much more quickly depleting Daesh operating funds. The more collected in one spot, the greater the effect of a drone strike.

    • atheist in a foxhole
      Posted February 17, 2015 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      The reason western nations don’t allow known ‘fanatic Muslims’ to go running into the open arms of terrorist groups is that they have no combat skills before they go to join terrorist groups.

      If they are able to join a terrorist group, their training begins. They can learn how to shoot, become hardened veteran fighters, and may move up the ranks and plan their own operations. Some terror groups then send them back to their home countries to commit terror attacks abroad as PR campaigns to attract more foreign fighters to their cause.

      It is much more difficult for ‘fanatic Muslims’ living in western countries to acquire dangerous skills. They may be irritating but they are less dangerous.

      • Posted February 18, 2015 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        Yes, I guess that is a good point. Although the ‘foreigners’ in IS have an extremely high mortality rate, I guess that three trained terrorists sent back are more dangerous than 300 frustrated local incompetents.
        Probably the reason for these weird attempts to stop them. I have some doubts, however, if IS service makes one an effective terrorist.
        I mean, cutting off heads, raping women, stoning adulterers and hiding from drones does not an effective terrorist make (again, immo).

  21. gluonspring
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    When I read Wood’s piece yesterday I keep having a feeling of total recognition. This is exactly how fundamentalists think. The church I grew up in was exactly as fixated on identifying what made one a “true” Christian, and was completely happy to write off a couple billion so-called Christians as mere pretenders due to some point of doctrine or another. All were doomed to go to Hell, along with the unbelievers, because they were wrong (or, as we would contend, because the Bible was plain and they refused to submit to God). My group, too, scorned all interpreters of our one holy text, the Bible. The Bible was the word of God. To interpret it, to consult experts or scholars or any other authority was essentially to claim that it wasn’t God’s word. Being a “liberal Christian” who denied the literal truth of some parts of the Bible was, to us, at least as bad as being an unbeliever.

    Of course, we were hypocrites too. We picked and chose which part of the Bible we were going to enforce in our pursuit of ideological purity. But our ideology of purity was intense.

    Looking back, I am thankful that Jesus did so prominently say to “love your enemies”, and “turn the other cheek”, and so on. For I am certain that if Jesus had routinely called us to slaughter the apostate, many people I know would have jumped at the opportunity to purge the world of “error”.

    I recognize ISIS. I grew up with a fangless version of ISIS. It is a terrifying phenomena and no one should doubt their sincerity. But being unhinged from reality is a double edged sword. As dangerous as they are, I think the Wood is right, they are hobbled by their fantasies.

    • Posted February 18, 2015 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      I recognise it too, although with three generations in-between,.
      My maternal grandfather came from a Calvinist nest, but he did start some things that his peers strongly disapproved of, such as insisting that his daughter should study. Nevertheless, he could never rid himself of the rigidity, he disowned his own youngest son (my uncle), because of the latter one’s homosexuality.

      The passage in Christian ‘Cannon’ I like best is “who is without sin throwest the first stone”. Now that maybe a 4th century addition, but it is profoundly ‘good’, and one of the best arguments against stoning adulterers and hypocrisy. Much more realistic than turning the other cheek and loving your enemies.

      And yes, again, IS is profoundly religious, it’s “raison d’être”.

  22. Posted February 17, 2015 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    I loved Kareem Abdul Jabar’s (née Lew Alcindor) comment that ISIS “no more represents Islam than the KKK represents Xtianity.” I love it because he meant it as a defense of mainstream Islam, but instead made a statement that is true and an indictment of both organizations. Of course mainstream Muslims and Xtians reject the extremist elements, but that doesn’t mean they don’t come from “a” version of their respective faiths – they both represent “a” version to a T.

  23. Vaal
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    I believe that the actions of groups like ISIS should not only bring pressure on moderate Muslims, but on Christians as well.

    The moderates are of course comprised of many regular, decent folk. But they bear some level of culpability, be it intellectual, moral, brought upon by their own worshiping of their Ancient Texts.

    Christians, you are horrified by the scenes played out by ISIS? Open your own damned Holy Book – parts of it are like an ISIS play-book, in which God commands just the type of moral insanity and barbarity ISIS is currently acting out. ISIS is showing you what it actually looked like, fulfilling God’s commands thousands of years ago. How do you like it?

    If you, the Christian, still call it The Good Book you have a lot to answer for.
    Excuses like “Oh, those were laws for another time” are hardly mollifying. It’s like people using Mein Kampf as a guide book to life, cherry-picking the benign parts, and excusing the demonizing of Jews and Final Solutions as “strategies for a past age, we don’t do that now.” Hardly comforting. The point being that it’s ludicrous in the first place to appeal to such texts as moral guide books, given the enormous liabilities contained within them.
    And insofar as Christians portray The Bible as a legitimate moral guide book for our lives, especially as if it represents Divine Wisdom, they take on culpability for doing so. And they ought to feel pressure for it, IMO. (Or maybe I’m just feeling particularly enraged by the ISIS stuff).

    • gluonspring
      Posted February 18, 2015 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      I agree.

      However, I feel a small bit of trepidation at the idea of drawing Christian’s attention to the bloodthirsty aspects of the Bible. Many are in denial about it, and many more are actually in ignorance of it (Bible literacy among Christians is lower than one might expect). While it is true that, were they to examine it carefully, many will recoil in horror at what can be found in their Bible, it is also possible that as many will mull it over and come to the conclusion that this whole lull in Christian violence was a mistake.

  24. ladyatheist
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s ridiculous for religionists of any stripe to distance themselves from the violence done in the name of their deity by saying “they aren’t true [insert bogus belief nouned adjective here]” If the person perpetrating the violence believes themselves to be a member of that religion, then they *are* a member of that religion! They don’t represent every branch but in their minds they are true believers.

    The dominionist leanings of ISIS are rather frightening mainly because they are repeating the very methods that spread Islam in the middle ages – convert or die. It’s an effective strategy. I hope their days are numbered.

    …and I really hope that believers will come to their senses when they see what their religion truly commands and permits.

  25. The Syed Atheist
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 3:09 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Syed Atheist.

  26. Posted February 18, 2015 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Excellent article by Graeme Wood.

    I’m not totally convinced that a head-on confrontation would make things worse. I can’t help harkening back to Hilter and his reign of terror. This is not all that different from that lead-up to WWII, and I don’t see that the world can stand idly by while innocents are slaughtered, brutalized and enslaved.

    So what about this thought from Wood’s fine essay: ” These include the belief that there will be only 12 legitimate caliphs, and Baghdadi is the eighth; that the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria; and that Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest. ” What if the most sophisticated technologies, including drones, are used to take out the caliphs, one by one as they rise to power or are identified as waiting in the wings? Remember that in the piece, ISIS is prepared to wait for a long time, even ten years or more.

    A coordinated mass invasion (a wider coalition) could come from Turkish territory but also from Italian territory, just to cover all bases (because of the ambiguity of ‘which Rome’), as well as from countries (including Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia,etc.) surrounding ISIS strongholds. If the world renders impotent the false prophecy, then the whole thing would collapse.

    If the world is too meek in action or keeps its blinders on, as in Hitler’s reign, then we could well see a repeat of that horror about which we often solemnly but sometimes too glibly declare “Never again”.

    Another thing. Russia should get the hell out of the Ukraine. This is no time for reckless attempts at dynasty building. Putin has been dangerously impetuous and rash in invading Crimea right in the middle of the Olympics. Something is amiss with a mind that works that way.

    • Filippo
      Posted February 18, 2015 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

      “Another thing. Russia should get the hell out of the Ukraine. This is no time for reckless attempts at dynasty building. Putin has been dangerously impetuous and rash in invading Crimea right in the middle of the Olympics. Something is amiss with a mind that works that way.”

      May one hope that the catch-phrase for the 2016 U.S. presidential election will be (to paraphrase Bill Clinton), “It’s foreign policy, stupid”?

      Perhaps not when, per Susan Jacoby, something like 25% of Americans age 18-24 cannot locate Iraq on a map labeled with the names of countries.

    • rickflick
      Posted February 18, 2015 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

      I’m currently entertaining the possibility Putin is doing a crazy act to trash-talk the West into caving. If the West worries about his sanity, they will be less likely to expect rational settlements from Russia. He gets his way in Ukraine because nukes in the hands of a madman make him too dangerous to resist.

    • gluonspring
      Posted February 19, 2015 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      There is a key difference between Daesh (ISIS) and Hitler. Hitler rose to power in a technologically advanced country with manufacturing capability and industry. Daesh are just a bunch of losers with stolen weapons that they would never, ever, be able to make for themselves. They are every bit as wicked as Hitler. Possibly moreso, if they could find the power to enact the full measure of their vile fantasies. But power they lack, and will always lack, because they do not command an advanced society with actual capabilities. All they have is the power to shock with their depravity. But that’s it.

  27. Kirth Gersen
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    It almost seems like ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, in declaring itself a Caliphate and acting accordingly, is doing the world outside their boundaries a huge favor.

    In forcing non-aligned Muslims to denounce their {ISIS’] methodology and thology, they’re de facto forcing Muslims to denounce the more barbaric passages of their own holy texts. And — as history has shown us — the more a religious sect ignores its own texts in preference to more humane and/or logical considerations, the more enlightened it tends to become.

    ISIS, if it gets big enough, might be what finally spurs the large-scale “Islamic Enlightenment” that most Westerners seem to be hoping for.

    • GBJames
      Posted February 18, 2015 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      “In forcing non-aligned Muslims to denounce their {ISIS’] methodology and thology, they’re de facto forcing Muslims to denounce the more barbaric passages of their own holy texts.”

      Despite that, and what is obvious to you and me, some people are slow to figure it out.

      • gluonspring
        Posted February 19, 2015 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        “Texts have never been only interpreted literally. They have always been interpreted in multiple ways — and that’s not a chronological thing, that’s been the case from the get-go … [Wood’s comments] create the [impression] that Islam is literalistic, backward-minded, and kind of arcane or archaic, and we’ve moved past that narrative”

        Wood doesn’t claim, and would be foolish to claim, that “Islam” only interprets texts literally. He blames that Daesh, and the people being recruited by Dash does.

        All Christians are not fundamentalists. But to deny that fundamentalism is a real thread in Christianity is absurd. To deny that fundamentalists see “interpretations” of the Bible as fundamentally wicked is simply to be profoundly ignorant of the world you live in.

      • Kirth Gersen
        Posted February 19, 2015 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

        You got me there — I admit I got halfway through the mental gymnastics of those “Muslim scholars” arguments, then fell off the parallel bars.

  28. Posted February 19, 2015 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Manjeet Kumar.

  29. Yan
    Posted February 23, 2015 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    The main reason is to encourage Islamic leaders /imam to condemn the ISIS approach. If ISIS RECOGNIZED AS not-Islamic they would not have ground to argue

  30. Posted February 27, 2015 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne,

    I’m sorry I missed this when it was first posted. A good reading of a good essay, and of the situation it addresses. And you do raise important problematic issues.

    Perhaps we can hope that ISIS’ rigorous fundamentalism will at last reveal the inherent dangers of reading literally a sacred text. Slavery, beheadings, the crushing of women – and the inability to govern in a way that meets even the most basic needs of the populace under control – The irrationality is self-evident. Although it no doubt has drawing power for the weak-minded who feel some social suffering, it sustains no reasonable longings over any length of time. Or simply – it don’t work.

    Ancient texts offer no guidance for living in real time.

%d bloggers like this: