News,  Politics

Is ISIS terror driven by religion?

From Graeme Wood in The Atlantic:

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…

In the past, Westerners who accused Muslims of blindly following ancient scriptures came to deserved grief from academics—notably the late Edward Said—who pointed out that calling Muslims “ancient” was usually just another way to denigrate them. Look instead, these scholars urged, to the conditions in which these ideologies arose—the bad governance, the shifting social mores, the humiliation of living in lands valued only for their oil.

Without acknowledgment of these factors, no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.

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.”…

The fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

This article is long, coming in at about 11,000 words. Nevertheless, it’s an important one, and you can read the rest of it here.


  • William Smith

    “Without acknowledgment of these factors, no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul.”

    Good point and good article.

  • James Stanton

    There’s no doubt that ISIS is driven by religion. ISIS is primarily concerned with imposing Sharia where it rules and purging all whom they consider apostates and infidels. These include mostly other Muslims and Christians and minor sects. They are a truly dangerous group that we unwittingly helped develop in the middle east.

  • Curt Day

    Again, should we list the murderous organizations that operated in the name of Christ? Personally, I let those who belong to a group, define that group. Those who belong to a group should be allowed to speak for themselves. Here that means Muslims get to define what Islam is. And we should realize that if ISIS truly resembled Islam, which it does not from own reading of the Koran, with over 1 billion Muslims, we would be in a heap trouble, and we aren’t.

    Sad to say but this post cares more about building fear and hate rather than enlightening through good information.

    • Ian Shaw

      Even if we did that, the murderous organizations/groups that murdered in the name of no god/deity, would vastly out-number those that operated and murdered in the name of any god.

      Dozens of Coptic Christians beheaded by this organization. Would President Obama say what he said now?

      • Roy Fuller

        Yes, non-religious ideology has been responsible for the deaths of millions in the 20th century. This does not seem to be a contentious claim, and has not been challenged by any authority I have seen, yet it has been raised as if it somehow negates the also accurate claim that many have died at the hands of those claiming a religious justification. I don’t know what President Obama would say now, but I don’t think he plans on bombing them less, so what is your point? Oh, that he is soft on ISIS? Really?

        • Ian Shaw

          Roy, many talking heads are decrying religion as if it’s the worst cause of violence in the world. That’s been evident the past few weeks. Those people and their ilk continue to spread the lie that religion is the largest cause of war in the world. I didn’t say Obama was being soft on ISIS. My point was whether he would have made the remarks he did at that prayer breakfast, if that prayer breakfast would have been after the 2 dozen Coptic Christians were killed.

          Point also, if it would have been radical Christians killing Muslims, would he have said his point as well? Just saying…

      • Curt Day

        Did you know that prior to mentioning the Crusades, the President sharply criticized ISIL? Also, how does what ISIL did justify what the Crusaders did or those running the Inquisition did or those practicing Jim Crow did?

        • Ian Shaw

          Curt, if I follow your logic, you would also infer that white’s cannot be upset for any crimes that blacks commit due to the atrocities of slavery and segregation. It’s one thing to remain humble about a group’s past transgressions, but it’s another to never raise a voice to decry an evil because of past evils that were done by a group you may associate with.

          • Curt Day

            You are not following my logic because I never said that we should not be upset about what ISIL is doing. But taking responsibility for the violence we’ve visited on those in the Middle East is not just the moral thing to do, it is the adult thing to do. And we don’t have to look to the time of the Crusades to see the violence we’ve practiced.

            Furthermore, trying to understand why people do such horrendous acts does not imply that we cannot be upset. Nor does it imply that we are justifying the horrendous acts. It does mean that we are looking into the why so we can reduce the what in the future.

            Please explain how you thought my logic was going in the way of your question

    • Paul Reed

      But we are in a heap of trouble. And yes, why don’t you go ahead and list those murderous organizations that operate in the name of Christ? Like the crusades centuries ago? Or maybe you want to bring up that abortion clinic bombing a couple decades ago.

        • James Stanton

          Ian, I can imagine you pumping a fist as you read his winning comment. If we want to be serious we should at least acknowledge that many in the ME believe “Christians” have been slaughtering Muslims by the thousands for about the last decade or so.

      • Curt Day

        But the question is, why are we in a heap of trouble? Is it possible that groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIL learned their violent temperaments from the violence we either practiced or supported what others did against them?

      • Chris Ryan

        IT wasn’t all that long ago that Scott Roeder murdered George Till…And just last week an Islamic-phobe murdered 3 Muslims in North Carolina.

  • Roy Fuller

    I appreciate many of the points made by Wood in the article linked above. I would offer a couple of observations which I think round out the picture painted by Wood. First, as far as I am concerned, the question is not “Is ISIS terror driven by religion?” Rather, the question may be asked, is the interpretation of Islam followed and promoted by the Islamic state representative of the broader Islamic tradition? Or does it represent minority opinion and interpretations which have been rejected by the mainstream. While Wood maintains and does so with some thoroughness, his position that the Islamic State models themselves on Islamic traditions, especially those promulgated by the early generations of Muslims (the Salafist position), he fails to not the case which can be made that the Islamic State also fails to observed traditions believes and practices with regard to war. For instance, traditional Islamic scholars maintain that wars of aggression are a violation of Quranic teaching, and they point to verses such as 2:190-193. The facts that there have been wars of aggression waged by Muslims does not negate the point that while IS is promoting some Islamic traditions, it is ignoring or violating others. Also, the killing of innocent life and civilians in warfare is condemned in the Quran. Again, the fact that this principle has been violated by some Muslims through history is beside the point, which is this – the Islamic State, while claiming to follow Islam, does not follow the Islamic principles which do not fit their agenda. Wood’s claim that the Islamic State follows Islam in “in punctilious detail” does not represent the whole picture and is not accurate. His further claim, “The fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war” is also only partially true. So, in answer to the original question posed in title, I would answer “yes” but only in selective ways, following early and medieval interpretations of the faith, many of which have long since been rejected. This does not mean they are not religious, but it does mean they are not mainstream, and in some cases are ignoring elements of their own tradition.

    As Wood himself notes, the Islamic State stands in the “activist” wing of the Salafist sect. Salafism is itself a minority position within Islam, and is today primarily promoted by the Saudi state, whose interpretations are regarded as extreme and rejected by most Muslims today. So does ISIS represent Islam? Partially, in that they hope to recapture the glory days of the early empire. But Muslims know that the doctrines necessary for ISIS, takfir and an aggressive interpretation of jihad necessitated by the claim to be a caliphate, are extreme positions, even as they have some historical basis in the tradition.

    I have to wonder why there is the pressure to label ISIS as representative of Islam, as if doing so will somehow free ourselves from some self-imposed restrictions to not take the fight to them. As Wood points out in his article, the best policy, by which he means the best of all bad military options, would be to continue the current policy of airstrikes and proxy warfare (supporting Kurds and others in ground warfare). Wood states “a vast ground invasion would certainly make the situation worse.” Yet that is what is being called for by political leaders in this country.

    Finally, Wood makes the very important and often overlooked point that ISIS and al Qaeda are NOT the same. They have differences of opinion with regard to strategic goals, tactics, etc. This is a point often lost in the discussion of extremism in this this country. As Wood suggests there are many factors which need to be examined in order to understand what motivates ISIS, religion is only one.

    I might add that I could certainly be tagged with the “interfaith” label derided by Wood, but I have no interest in defending ISIS. I just believe we should strive for as complete and accurate an understanding as is possible. And this can be done without labeling all Muslims as violent, or by suggesting that non-violent Muslims fail to understand their own faith, or by suggesting that extremists groups such as ISIS represent Islam.

  • buddyglass

    Suffice it to say there is ample disagreement among Muslims about whether ISIS is faithful to Islam. See the statements from the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, both Muslim, after their citizens were murdered. Al Azhar in Egypt has actually prohibited Egyptian Muslims from watching and/or distributing the footage of the murders. Various folks have called the murdered Jordanian fighter pilot a martyr.

  • Johnny Mason

    This is a fantastic article. It really lays out their motivations, why certain cities are important to them, what a caliphate is and why it is important, why they want to goad other countries into fighting them, and why they keep making references to Rome. It was a real eye-opener. A must read.

  • Chris Ryan

    Ironically the thing that struck me most about the article was how much certain aspects of their theology mirrored certain segments of Christians believers, what with John Hagee’s focus on the End Times, Armageddon, etc. At least in Kansas where I grew up my local evangelical community was quite exercised about this stuff. I can’t remember how many times we saw A Thief in the Night. It seems like back then we talked about the Anti-Christ being Russian, whereas now I hear folks back home talk about him being a Muslim, or, geez, even Obama…Anybody else have the same thought?

    • Christiane Smith

      Hi CHRIS,
      I also found a similarity in how invasive ISIS is in controlling those under its rule . . . there is a mandate of answering to the ‘authority’ placed over one, rather than to the Creator . . . you find the same thing going on among SOME Christian fundamentalists who have a similar idea of ‘authority’ micromanaging the lives of those it controls, which interferes with personal ‘conscience’ as the final guide in the Christian’s moral and ethical life. Fundamentalism in all religions does show some classic similarities, yes.

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