Two of the most interesting pieces concerning what has happened with regard to ISIS have come from The Atlantic and The Nation. I advise reading both, especially as The Nation’s piece is an attempt to rebut the first article.
Here are some quotes from The Atlantic piece, bearing in mind it was written in March, long before the Paris incidents:
We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature. Peter Bergen, who produced the first interview with bin Laden in 1997, titled his first book Holy War, Inc. in part to acknowledge bin Laden as a creature of the modern secular world. Bin Laden corporatized terror and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia. His foot soldiers navigated the modern world confidently. On Mohamed Atta’s last full day of life, he shopped at Walmart and ate dinner at Pizza Hut.
There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.
The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.
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….
Nor, in the case of the Islamic State, its religious or intellectual appeal. That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.
The Nation article states, in part:
US federal code defines as using violence or criminal activities to intimidate civilians or government for political purposes, with the implication that the perpetrators are themselves nonstate actors. But the Islamic legal tradition forbids terrorism defined in that way. Moreover, Muslim academics contend that the Koran, the Muslim scripture,sanctions only defensive war. Giuliani does not know more about the Koran than they do.Those, like Giuliani, who insist on speaking of “Islamic terrorism” want to shape our language so as to imply that the Islamic tradition authorizes the deployment of terrorism, which the
The attempt by the American right wing to mainstream the phrase “Islamic terrorism” takes advantage of general American ignorance of the Muslim tradition; it is a linguistic trap intended to make us all Islamophobes. If a politician insisted that we call Israel’s reckless disregard for noncombatant life in last summer’s attack on Gaza “Judaic terrorism” and implied that Israelis acted that way because they are all commanded to do so in the Bible, it would be easy to see this way of speaking as anti-Semitic. President Obama is right to avoid that trap, and he knows enough about Muslims and Islam to recognize it for what it is.
Wolfowitz is arguing that Islam has an “essence” that “has something to do with what we’re fighting.” Essentialism when applied to human groups is always an error and always a form of bigotry. Zionists bombed the King David Hotel in British Mandate Palestine in 1948, killing dozens of civilians and some British intelligence officials. If a British official had responded then by arguing that “everyone knows that Judaism has something to do with what we’re fighting,” it would be fairly clear what that official thought about Jews in general. As for Iraq and Islam, there was no Al Qaeda or ISIL in Iraq in 2002, when Wolfowitz conspired to fight an illegal war on Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands, maimed millions, created millions of widows and orphans, and displaced at least 4 million of Iraq’s then 25 million people, making them homeless. As late as 2012, in a poll conducted by my colleague Mark Tessler at the University of Michigan and several collaborators, 75 percent of Sunni Iraqis said that religion and state should be separate (personal communication). The social maelstrom visited on Iraqis by Wolfowitz’s sociopathy produced radical movements like Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and ISIL, to which even secular Sunni Iraqis have turned out of desperation. Wolfowitz had no business in Iraq. His actions were illegal. Now this war criminal is blaming “Islam” for “what we’re fighting.”
Wood controversially asserted in his article for The Atlantic, “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” This assertion is theological, not sociological. No social scientist would say, “The reality is that the Ku Klux Klan is Christian. Very Christian.” If what Wood meant to say was that ISIL is a Muslim cult rather than a Buddhist one, that assertion is uncontroversial. If he means that Islam has an essence, of which ISIL partakes or indeed that ISIL is a natural outcome of the alleged Islamic essence, then he is speaking as a medieval Platonist, not as a contemporary social scientist.
Nationalism is probably also a conceptual veil here. Since the nineteenth century, religious movements have typically been inflected with nationalism, but in Europe and North America the national marker of identity has tended to be foregrounded, even where religion formed a key part of a movement. Thus, the Croatian Ustashe during World War II is typically seen as a form of nationalism, whereas Catholic identity and institutions were deeply implicated in it, and the fascist Ustashe demanded that Serbs convert to Catholicism. In its viciousness, destructiveness and ambition, the Ustashe was not very different from ISIL today. ISIL is put under the sign of religion, but it is in fact a form of nationalism appealing to medieval religious symbols. Nor is its ruthlessness unprecedented in modern history. It is not clear that Muslim ISIL adherents have as yet managed to kill a fraction of the number of people (over 500,000) that the Ustashe polished off in death camps in the 1940s….
People who actually love the United States want to rescue it from foreign adventurism and improve the health and welfare of its people. They would want to discourage bigotry and black-and-white thinking, which makes war so much more thinkable. And they would eschew wars of aggression, a daisy chain that brings more wars in its wake.
Both pieces are well worth reading to get a sense of both sides of the argument.