Recommended Reading: Graeme Wood On The Islamic State

by | February 25, 2015

The best article I’ve read so far about the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, ISIS or Daesh, is a long but very worthwhile piece by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic. Wood not only delved into the State’s public pronouncements but also spoke to Bernard Haykel, a Princeton academic who is “the leading expert on the group’s theology”, and to some clearly committed and well-connected Islamic State supporters in England and Australia. The result is a detailed analysis of the Islamic State’s motivations, which are ludicrous, and prospects, which are decidedly less than stellar. If you’ve been feeling anxious about this mob of vicious Koran-thumping clowns, Wood’s essay should go a long way towards setting your mind at ease.

To his credit, Wood makes no bones about the fact that the Islamic State is, well, Islamic:

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.”

Yes, precisely. In the aftermath of what even non-Americans have come to refer to as “9/11”, I was living in the Boston area, and a local alternative weekly called the Phoenix published something about the United States being at war “not with Islam, but with a radical, cult-like form of Islam” – or words approximately to that effect. I found that formulation immediately convincing, and I haven’t changed my mind in the years since. Of course Islam is diverse, with many variants that are relatively peaceable, but it undoubtedly has its radical and cult-like forms. To fail to distinguish them from more benign kinds of Islam is a clueless oversimplification, but to dismiss them as somehow un-Islamic is – to use Haykel’s word – pretty damn “preposterous”.

The form of Islam espoused by the Islamic State is not only violent and puritanical, but also apocalyptic and messianic in character:

The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. It named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains. It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam.

The Islamic State’s conceit that it is engaged in a battle against “Rome” is so silly as to be almost endearing. I’m also not sure how Caesar’s legions are supposed to set up camp at Dabiq if the Islamic State has already taken the bloody place, but perhaps capital-P Prophets and their followers don’t concern themselves with such niceties as effective control over territory.

Pointlessly throwing forces at Nowheresville, northern Syria in order to fulfill some fanciful prophecy is one thing, but the Islamic State also takes its doctrines seriously enough to make success on the diplomatic front pretty well impossible. The fundamental problem is that acknowledgement of any legitimate authority other than that of good old Allah is considered shirk, meaning polytheism:

It’s hard to overstate how hamstrung the Islamic State will be by its radicalism. The modern international system, born of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, relies on each state’s willingness to recognize borders, however grudgingly. For the Islamic State, that recognition is ideological suicide. Other Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, have succumbed to the blandishments of democracy and the potential for an invitation to the community of nations, complete with a UN seat. Negotiation and accommodation have worked, at times, for the Taliban as well. (Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan exchanged ambassadors with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates, an act that invalidated the Taliban’s authority in the Islamic State’s eyes.) To the Islamic State these are not options, but acts of apostasy.

If the Islamic State thinks it would be act of apostasy to send an ambassador to the hardcore Sunni nation of Saudi Arabia, there’s obviously not much hope for any kind of meaningful accommodation with the Shia governments in Iran and Iraq, the Alawite one in Syria, or even the non-hardcore Sunni ones in places like Turkey and Jordan. Some Middle Eastern countries may be happy enough to ignore or tacitly support the Islamic State, but none are openly helping it, and some of the toughest and sharpest forces in the region are actively fighting it. Even without the involvement of Western aircraft and military trainers, it would surely be only a matter of time before the “caliphate” established by the Islamic State ended up in a state of ignominious collapse. As a geopolitical entity it has too many enemies, too few resources, and not enough ability (or indeed inclination) to win friends and influence people.

The Islamic State’s quixotic focus on establishing and defending a caliphate also means that it poses little direct threat to countries beyond Iraq, Syria and perhaps their neighbours. To the extent that Muslim terrorists are a danger to Canada, which I would argue is minimal in any case, the terrorists in question are a mix of ham-fisted “lone wolves” and members of factions such as al-Qaeda that have both the capability and the desire to attack the West. The Islamic State is more enthusiastic about grabbing, holding and “governing” bits of territory in the Middle East, a region in which Canada has little in the way of compelling interests. We sensible godless Canadians have every reason to scoff at the Islamic State, and to deplore its absurd beliefs and brutal practices, but no reason to see it as much of a hazard to our homes, schools and workplaces.

If Canada is going to continue to participate in the international military campaign against the caliphate, it will have to be on the basis of pure moral indignation arising from the Islamic State’s nasty behaviour towards those unlucky enough to find themselves within its reach. However, moral indignation isn’t much of a casus belli, and the campaign is a ramshackle, poorly coordinated one in any case. I would be in favour of winding down our involvement, resisting all perfidious attempts by Stephen Harper and his lackeys to use fear of the Islamic State as an excuse for further infringements on our civil liberties, and generally regarding the caliphate as a bit more of a joke (albeit a grim one, for those who live within or near its borders) and a bit less of a viable evil empire. I’m not even convinced that we should try very hard to stop Canadians from travelling to the Middle East to sign up as Islamic Staters, if they really want to. Once people reach the point of making concrete plans to join a tyrannical, murderous “caliphate”, I’d frankly rather see them dodging Kurdish bullets in Mosul than making plans to put their fanaticism into action in Montreal or Medicine Hat.

6 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: Graeme Wood On The Islamic State

  1. Tim Underwood

    To use Christopher Marlowe’s terminology, Islam is a pretty toy.

    This characterization 0f Christianity infuriated the religious police in Elizabethan times.

    Our economic school graduates, who dominate the Conservative Government, think there is some highly authoritative logic to Islamic poetry.

    They are dead wrong. It is only a dynamic artifice. It is an exotic plaything. It can be used for many divers purposes, but conquest and subjugation are its main utility.

    Reminds one of Catholicism.

    1. Corwin Post author

      I’m not sure it’s really that simple. There may be some cynics who consciously “use” Islam as a framework for furthering worldly goals like conquest and subjugation, but I would guess that the level of disingenuousness and hypocrisy required to pull that off would be difficult for most people to maintain. I don’t doubt that most Islamic State supporters and leaders genuinely buy into the “Islamic poetry” at some level, and see it as possessing plenty of “authoritative logic”. They may be drawn to jihadist forms of Sunni Islam in the first place because such doctrines offer more scope for indulging violent impulses than other variants of the religion, but I very much doubt their mindset resembles that of someone playing with a toy. One of the tragedies of the human condition is that people latch on to all kinds of nonsense with the utmost seriousness.

  2. Tim Underwood

    You are most likely correct about the disingenuousness.

    I doubt anyone knows for sure what Christopher meant, with any certainty.

    We can surmise what a cool skeptical observer might see while standing in the center of an ornate cathedral.

    His other diabolical conclusion was, “The Gospels were all written by one man,” This is sure to be at odds with contemporary New Testament scholarship.

    I like the image of a deadly toy though. Children play with toys. One of the more charitable condemnations of religion is that it is infantile. It refuses to accept adult knowledge or what is currently being referred to as ‘evidence’.

    1. Corwin Post author

      I agree that religion has its infantile aspects, but the zealots of the Islamic State remind me less of children playing with toys than they do of children fixating on strange, superstitious beliefs that rational adults would know better than to take seriously. I can imagine creative ten-year-olds getting caught up in a game where they go to war with Rome, and are magically guaranteed to win if they follow certain peculiar rules about not eating pork, praying five times every day, and so forth. The difference with the Islamic State is that there aren’t any grown-ups around to remind them that it’s not real, and make them stop playing before they get carried away and start throwing rocks at supposed apostates.

  3. billybob

    I see them as bandits, the religion is mostly irrelevant. They rape, loot and murder like a horde from the 1300’s. The religion is just an excuse for a bunch of the disenfranchised to take advantage of political chaos in
    the region to have some “fun” and grab some wealth and power.

    Look to history, people like this always arrive when there is oppourtunity for pillage.

    This is not about gods, it is about testosterone and

    1. Corwin Post author

      Even hordes from the 1300s had beliefs that they took seriously, though.

      I don’t doubt that testosterone and boredom play their part in drawing people to the Islamic State, and these days estrogen seems to be playing its part as well. However, I think there’s a very real religious side that shouldn’t be ignored. If they were just out to have fun and grab wealth and power, they wouldn’t be following strict Sunni rules of conduct (what self-respecting gang of bandits wouldn’t drink, for heaven’s sake) or squandering lives and resources on eccentric projects like capturing towns mentioned in prophecies. Even if Islam is in some sense an excuse rather than a genuine motivator, their choice of that particular “excuse” and not a different one is having a major effect on their behaviour. Perhaps we should imagine hormones and boredom (among other factors, including genuine religiosity and genuine grievances against the West) leading people to latch onto a whole jihadist mindset that includes both religion and organised banditry as critical components.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.