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Thursday, February 26, 2015
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

The cover story in the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic is entitled “What Does ISIS Really Want”. I have the issue on my kitchen table (yes, a old-school paper magazine), but haven’t read the article yet. However, I did come across a good summary today on the Atlantic web site by none other than the article author himself, Graeme Wood.

If I’m reading him right, Mr. Wood is trying to drill down past the “western enlightenment” analysis regarding the social and economic conditions that arguably lead to political extremism and violence, and see just how serious ISIS is about its religious ideology. He seems to be saying that we do in fact need to take seriously the notion that ISIS finds its inspirations in existing (if not entirely mainstream) strains of the Islamic tradition. Although the Islamic mainstream is peaceful and tolerant, the ISIS viewpoint was not made up on the fly for entirely political and sociological reasons; Mr. Brown says that it is not a laughable misrepresentation of historical Islam. And that fact makes it all the more dangerous and powerful.

Of course, many intelligent people here in the US want to think that this really isn’t about religiously-inspired belief. We just can’t believe that anyone in the modern world would accept the notion that God demands an extraordinary level of purity, one that requires violence and death to achieve. In order for the many to be saved, some (“the wicked”) need to die. No, it just can’t be that anyone living today would think that . . . it has to be poverty, historical exploitation by the west (motivated by oil), brutal dictators who were supported by the US and its European allies . . . Recall the recent TV interview statement by State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, who asserted that a primary motivation for people to join ISIS is the lack of job opportunities in Middle Eastern countries.

Good old Tom Friedman, the self-appointed Middle East guru of the NY Times, today weighed in on what ISIS is, and what problems need to be solved in order to stop it. In a column entitled “ISIS Heads to Rome“, Friedman takes an “all of the above” approach. He asserts that ISIS is led by a small vanguard of true believers, but is filled out and kept alive by those looking for better alternatives to the lives they currently live. So, we have to both promote social justice, while at the same time encouraging mainstream Islamic voices to reign in the extremists and keep the extremist message from spreading (is that even possible in a world of Twitter and YouTube?). And realistically, we may well have to get bloody with them (although if no other Islamic forces stand with us, our bloodshed would probably be in vain). Friedman seems to grudgingly accept that Western military action is going to be part of the mix.

OK, sounds reasonable. But let’s not think that another “hearts and minds” campaign by US armed forces can do any better for us than in Vietnam — or to be honest, in Iraq or Afghanistan (the leaders in those wars may have learned from our Vietnam mistakes, but still left a lot to be desired). And at the same time, let’s not put our heads in the sand and think that no violence will be needed. If you could time-transport an army from medieval Europe into the present, you couldn’t change their mindsets. They believed in blood or victory, and you’d have to take them up on that. Because they would definitely take you up on it.

Surely a 21st Century Internet-savvy ISIS isn’t like that . . . well, don’t be so sure. Brown ends his article with a quote from an ISIS supporter who commented on his feature article. Here’s what the pro-ISIS guy says:

What stands out to me that others don’t seem to discuss much, is how the Islamic State, Osama [bin Laden] and others are operating as if they are reading from a script that was written 1,400 years ago. They not only follow these prophecies, but plan ahead based upon them. One would therefore assume that the enemies of Islam would note this and prepare adequately, but [it’s] almost as if they feel that playing along would mean that they believe in the prophecies too, and so they ignore them and go about things their own way. … [The] enemies of the Muslims may be aware of what the Muslims are planning, but it won’t benefit them at all as they prefer to either keep their heads in the sand, or to fight their imaginary war based upon rational freedom-loving democrats vs. irrational evil terrorist madmen.

I don’t agree that ISIS equals Islam, and I don’t accept the implication that the western opponents of ISIS are “enemies of Islam” or “enemies of the Muslims”. But if you replace those phrases with “enemies of ISIS”, you will see that this guy is in effect doing us a favor. We had darn well better read that script from 1400 years ago and take it seriously. It’s way past time to talk about curing this crisis solely with democracy and and infrastructure projects and constitutions guaranteeing human rights and job training and industrial investment. Friedman is right, those things will be needed to bring the Middle Eastern body back to health. But for now, there is a cancer that needs to be excised. (Not entirely unlike the virulent social cancer that sprung up in Germany in the 1930s and 40s, along with the slow-death cancer that overtook and dominated Russia between 1917 and 1991, which might not have been entirely excised as Mr. Putin seems to demonstrate.)

Oh, and PS — Friedman supports Brown’s contention that ISIS’s “fanaticism” isn’t as non-Islamic as the Obama White House paints it. Tom F repeats the well known fact that Islam does not have anything like the Pope and Patriarchs of the Roman and Eastern Catholic faith traditions, who enforce a fairly strict definition of what the Catholic faith is and isn’t (much to the chagrin of many liberal and educated western Christians). Given the lack of a highly centralized command structure akin to the Vatican and a canon of written doctrine, a wider variety of Islamic interpretations live side-by-side, each claiming ultimate authenticity.

So, even if the more radical versions of Islam capture the loyalties of only a minority of those professing the way of the Holy Book and Prophet, there is no general authority in the Islamic world to assert their heresy. The White House can try to do this itself, but will certainly not get much traction on the “Muslim street”. The only real authority would be the “voice of the Ummah“; and until the Islamic majority starts speaking up loudly and forcefully against the radicalists, the latter group’s claim to spiritual legitimacy will continue to make some sense to many of those whom they are trying to impress (i.e., the masses in Pakistan and Egypt and Jordan, etc.).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:33 pm      

  1. Jim, I took time to read “The Atlantic” article by Graeme Wood. I found the cover story and couldn’t help myself; I tho’t I have to find out what these people (ISIS) are all about, and this was about the only place I’ve seen anything considering them seriously written about them. So here are a few of my impressions that struck me as I read Wood’s article.

    Frankly, the individuals who seem to be the main people in ISIS and those rushing to join them (can’t say anything about the “regular” people of the group, but likely they are not much different) remind me of another group – very different and millennia apart. They remind me of the early Christians who spent at least 100 years (if not more) waiting for the coming of Christ; gradually it dawned on them it wasn’t going to happen soon.

    Then there were all the other smaller groups who rise/rose up now and then and who are/were convinced the end of the world was coming soon, such as Jim Jones, David Koresch, etc. I’m not being facetious here, but the only ones, even the early Christians, who saw the end of time, were the people in the groups; the rest of the world escaped. That might tell us something about ISIS and how it will end. However, there’s the time in between ISIS ending and where we are now.

    ISIS also (if I understand some of their beliefs correctly, per Mr. Wood) are extremely well educated about their religion, theologians in their own right, and are convinced that the apocalypse is just around the corner, so to say, and are waiting for it with baited breath.

    They seem to be young individuals, altho some are in the late 30s, if that can be considered “young”. (To me it is; to others not so.) Much like the early Christians ISIS and those who want to emigrate to join the group are willing to die for it. Again, this reminds me of Christians in the early church who had to be told that deliberately seeking out martyrdom was a sin and not to be done. (That’s when suicide became a sure way to hell for Christians. Clement of Alexandria maintained that the *real* problem with causing one’s own martyrdom was the fact that one caused the person killing the martyr to sin grievously. Some of this approach might be used to argue with ISIS on martyrdom.)

    ISIS differs from the Christians in that the ISIS group seems to be so blood thirsty and delighted in the worst kind of death they can inflict on someone the better. That is very different from the early Christians. (But it might be argued that the “worst kind of death” was a common thing in the early Christian time and not much different from what ISIS is doing now.) The ISIS group also believes in the killing of their enemies and believes in slavery (especially of women – what a surprise that is) among other things. While I doubt Christ himself might preach and advocate these particular aspects of a way to defeat their enemies, there’s no doubt in my mind that much of the Old Testament (which Christ surely was very learned in) advocated the worst of deaths for the enemies of the Jews, also included was included slavery. The Jews themselves were made slaves when they were conquered by their enemies; it’s something that was expected at the time. (Christ himself was a rebel in that he did not approve of this approach; he said do unto other as you would have done to yourself.)

    ISIS seems to pick and choose what aspects of Mohammed’s teachings it wishes to follow more strictly than others; not a big surprise as there are plenty of Christians who do the same thing with Christian teachings.

    Here, my question would be just *why* are these people looking to the bloodthirsty aspects of Muslim teaching and not the teachings that have more peaceful aspects, those teachings that look to one’s own life and soul and living a good life.

    I would note that it seems that there are only a few people that eagerly want to emigrate to join ISIS. It may be that these few get the most “press” and the group emigrating looks larger than it is due to that press. However, I don’t have any stats to back up that tho’t; so I may be very wrong on that.

    Another thing that I noticed is that those who are in ISIS and who want to join ISIS seem to want black and white answers in a world where it seems only grey answers are available, where taking responsibility for one’s own decisions about religious beliefs, which admittedly is a tremendous burden but one that matures an individual, is given up to follow rather blindly what they are being told to do and how to live. (A terrible sentence. Sorry.) That way, the work of figuring out what it is they will believe and the burden of the responsibility of decision is lifted from them. Joining such a group makes life much easier – just do what you are told is God’s Will and you *will* go to heaven. Furthermore, I often think, it must be so comfortable and consoling to know without a doubt that one is going to be “saved”. (I’ve never quite understood that word and how it applies. I suppose it presumes a belief in hell fires where one will suffer forever if one doesn’t live life “right”. Without that belief in hell what does “saved” mean? Here is one example of the burden of making one’s own decision about what one believes.)

    As to the bloodthirsty aspect of all this, I find myself wondering if the violence the group seems to revel in, and it’s unspoken desire to return to the Middle Ages or even farther back, is not the result of the fear of all the “new” things in society, all the changes that are
    bound to come about in the change from the industrial age to the information age.

    Show enough violence, put enough psychological and emotional pressure on others, and they *will* follow. ISIS, strangely enuf, is currently using that approach to great advantage in spreading their ideas. (Note: Even Mr. Wood said that to his dismay he found that, [given the “mouse as a dragon” aspect of ISIS’ approach to almost anything] after interviewing those die-hard ISIS members, he came to the point where he began to like them himself.) It’s not unheard of that something that is considered a risk or wrong or fearful is also sought out in some way by those who experience these things as unconsciously wrong or fearful. As I said before, making decisions in a grey world is burdensome, risky, and fearful.

    The question remains: What to do about ISIS? One might wait for them to simply die off and/or change their beliefs eventually. But what about the “in between” time? I must confess I have no answers that might be worthy of consideration.

    I would think that individuals in power/government/military should become as informed about the theology of ISIS (and the other groups of Islam) to deal with the group intelligently and in some ways respectfully. Thus these individuals could then form a kind of subversion from within the group itself.

    The tho’t also occurred to me that ISIS may implode sooner rather than later. From what I understand from Mr. Wood’s article there are a “slew” of Salafi (look to your own personal life and make that pure) theologian Muslims who would be able to defeat the theology of ISIS.

    Then too, I found in some ways even more surprising than the ISIS group’s beliefs the Salafi belief of avoiding “discord and chaos” to the point where a practicing Muslim of this group would “fall in line with just about any leader, including some manifestly sinful ones” all the while, staunchly adhering to the “religious social contract” and their commitment to their “society of Muslims” – the “peaceful” group, that is. Outwardly appearing to go along and agree; inwardly, following Islam to the T.

    ISIS is more likely a really big danger to people in its own area and to captives it may take. (I’m sure they consider them slaves and of no matter whether they live or die.) While this may relieve the West from some level of threat, it does not relieve the West from considering the plight of those under the thumb of ISIS at present. Those people are suffering just as we would suffer were we in their place. The world is becoming a “one planet” instead of a bunch of nations. The worst mistake the West, and the U.S., might make is to consider those whose lives are most affected by ISIS of less importance than American lives. Perhaps a good start in solving this problem would be to consider all peoples as one and all lives equally as important as others. A consideration of respect for the lives of all might be a first step in this whole situation. This sounds like a “wimpy” end and a “wimpy” approach to this whole issue, but it may not be. Without true respect for the lives of all, any attempt at “help” in such a situation may only make things worse. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 1, 2015 @ 12:05 pm

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