Response: What ISIS Really Wants (The Atlantic)

This post is a response to an article published this week in the Atlantic. While I am not going to give a glowing response, you will better understand the post if you understand what I’m responding to; you can find it here. Besides, pretty much everyone on my social media feed is talking about – don’t be the last one to the party.

Few groups in the world have the stomach to launch the attacks that have allowed ISIS to occupy headlines around the world for the past year. Due in no small part to such cruelty, many have been left asking “What do they want?” The press and internet have not been short on answers; the Atlantic presented their most recent offering to the debate early this week. The article, by Graeme Wood, is a thorough attempt to understand ISIS, mainly through the lens of religion. While he does not dismiss the regional factors that could play a role in ISIS’s rise – unemployment, regional identities, etc. – Wood’s main idea, which he returns to again and again, is that the group’s radical ideology is in fact deeply rooted in Islamic history, to which he employs a number of interviews with radicals of every shade.

Wood’s story takes us across the world, from Australia to New Jersey, as he searches for the answer to the question he poses in his title: “What does ISIS want?” Along the way, he interviews people from every walk of life. Sort of. While the article includes extensive quoting from Bernard Haykel, a distinguished scholar capable of insight and nuance on the topic, and one Salafi imam in Philadelphia intent on studying scripture and learning Japanese, the article relies heavily on input from ISIS and its direct supporters.

An exclusive reliance on material from radicals shades much of his analysis. Many scholars have looked at a number of underlying causes for the discord that has plagued the Middle East for much of the 20th century, including colonialism, shaky identities, and unemployment. Wood does not explicitly reject such theories but his reliance on input from a terrorist group that touts its religious credentials means that he often ends up finding justification for such beliefs.

Such thinking would not be out place when discussing the religious and cultural views of the group in isolation, but the danger here is that when Wood asks “What do they want?” he implies that such an answer could be helpful in answering a related question “Why are they doing it?” In placing religion at the center of his piece, he makes all other explanations  seem minute by comparison and implicitly supports the idea the idea that because ISIS’s rise has everything to do with religion.

GTY 463792506 A POL USA DC

From USA Today, Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

Wood also mischaracterizes a statement made by Barack Obama regarding the “Islamic” nature. Many were quick to criticize his remarks when he made them in September of 2014, but a quick look at the words in context reveal that Obama was attempting to delegitimize ISIS in the eyes of itself and its supporters, an act encouraged and undertaken by Muslims across the world:
“ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state; it was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government nor by the people it subjugates.”
While the “state” element of ISIS has been debated, Wood takes the statement that ISIS is “not Islamic” and runs with it, saying that Obama has likely miscalculated the group’s objectives and beliefs by rejecting the fact that ISIS sees itself as rooted in religion. In reality, Obama was way ahead of Wood in September: he clearly realizes there is some level of religious pull between ISIS and Muslims sympathetic to their cause in every corner of the globe. In his statement, Obama tried to reduce the power of such rhetoric while also tamping down on the “otherness” that often stains Muslims and pushes them into the hands of radical ideologues. While Wood might be correct in pointing to religious antecedents that justify ISIS’s behavior in the eyes of other terrorists, he fails to see that Obama’s statement was an attempt put distance between ISIS and those sympathetic to its message, realizing full well the pull of religiously rooted rhetoric.

Similar to many other journalistic endeavors examining jihadist theology, Wood stunningly fails to ask one sublimely simple question: why extremism and why now? For centuries, the Middle East was not a pressure cooker of extremism but a haven for scientific learning and one of the most cosmopolitan regions on Earth. Wood traces ISIS’s ideas to their roots in the days of the Muhammad and his companions but he does not ask what could have caused militant ideology now; clearly, either the tolerance of days past or today’s extremism are at odds. One of these beliefs has to be wrong, or something cataclysmic must have occurred to cause thousands of young men to abandon peace and Friends for jihad.

Notably absent from discussions on radical ideology is the fact that the Saudis have expended a great deal of their oil profits not only to promoting Islam, but promoting their extreme interpretation of it at the same time. This is one of the least discussed issues in American foreign policy and journalism; in avoiding the subject, we ignore a very real explanation for the rise of extremist Islam.

From Chechnya to sub-Saharan Africa, the House of Saud has been intent on spreading an extreme interpretation of Islam. Places in which Islam had previously coexisted peacefully with pre-Islamic practices or enjoyed a more liberal interpretation suddenly had to contend with a new interpretation, one that eschewed all but the purest of practices and reacted aggressively to those who opposed.

While the introduction of Saudi Wahhabiism does not in and of itself explain the rise of ISIS, the world would look very differently if the Saudis had spent their money building hospitals and teaching people physics. They cannot and should shoulder all of the blame for the rise of radicalism around the world – such a statement would be scapegoating – but it is no secret that the Saudis have long funded religious radicals in a number countries. Rather than asking “What do they want?”, Wood’s time would be better spent asking “Why do they want it?” The Saudis would play no small role in such an answer.

As an atheist, I am in put in the position of defending Islam far too often. I certainly do not agree with the tenets of Islam, radical or otherwise. Similarly, I do agree with Sam Harris’s points regarding violence and religion: some religions can contain more calls to violence than others and some religions that categorically reject violence cannot be said to lead to violence.

This latter point is relevant when talking about Islam, as it is when discussing Christianity. However, the overall tone of Wood’s piece takes on air of superiority, one that seems to dismiss the fact that such lines of thinking – empowering radicals and encouraging violence – could just as easily be applied to Christianity (indeed, they often have been) but that such examples have become a relatively rare sight in the modern world.

While he puts forth the standard journalistic due diligence in establishing the theological basics at the heart of ISIS’s radical ideology, that doesn’t rely explain why ISIS has become such a phenomenon now. Without such an explanation, Wood gives what ISIS proclaims to want, but forgets an important element of psychology, truth, and journalism: people often don’t know what their motivations are (on top of that, they often lie).

So by going by ISIS’s statements and those of their supporters and tracing such ideas back to Islam’s sometimes bleak past, Wood gives a picture of how ISIS sees itself and perhaps answers his title question but he doesn’t give us what might be a far more useful answer: how can we stop them and prevent this from happening again in the future? In addition, he gives far more credibility to the group than they deserve, elevating them to the spiritual guides that they claim to be. While religious ideology is certainly a major part of what drives them forward, if we see ISIS as ISIS sees itself, we may be merely further cementing their ideological basis not only in the eyes of ISIS, but in the eyes of potential supporters as well.

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