In a widely-circulated article for The Atlantic, Graeme Wood reported on “our ignorance of the Islamic State” and judged “We have misunderstood the nature of” the group, in part because of “a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature.” Graeme then breathlessly revealed, “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” That the group made and actually believed religious claims was, apparently, astonishing.
The same week as the Atlantic story went viral, coincidentally, the Obama administration held a summit at the White House on “violent extremism,” at which all discussion of “Islam” was studiously avoided. The administration’s fundamentalist insistence on political correctness has become a self-parodying punchline.
In truth, the Islamic State’s (ISIS’s) religious nature is banal because it is so obviously true. The Islamic State is difficult to comprehend only for secularists who believe religion is an aberration in the modern world. It isn’t: they are. Ignoring the religious nature of jihadists is the simple arrogance of those who dismiss as “false consciousness” the sincere devotion of the faithful. I read Graeme’s piece and felt like Captain Renault being shocked—shocked!—to find gambling going on in Rick’s Cafe. You’re only shocked if you’ve been deluding yourself for a decade.
But the religious nature of the Islamic State—and of jihadist terrorism generally—feeds into some disturbing chatter I’ve heard among conservative friends and colleagues. People rarely say it publicly, but in private conversations and emails among friends, I’ve heard more mutterings about the problems with “Islam,” about how the Islamic State proves Islam is not a “religion of peace.” I heard someone wonder when we were going to recognize the threat from “them” and start tracking Muslims in America to protect ourselves from their plots.
We are right to dismiss the White House’s pablum as vacuous nonsense. But rejecting one idea does not mean we have to affirm its opposite. It is false that jihadism has nothing to do with Islam; but that does not mean that Islam is nothing but jihadism. The tiresome, politically-correct cliche about the vast majority of Muslims not being terrorists….is true.
I. The Islamic State Is Definitely Muslim
Yes, the Islamic State is “Islamic.” Jihadists use Islamic rhetoric, symbols, and concepts in the construction of their ideology. They endlessly debate fine intricacies of Islamic theology. They direct their arguments at Muslim audiences and seek new recruits from among Muslims. They invoke the Koran, quote the hadiths of Muhammad, and find bases for their beliefs in the jurisprudence of Islamic law. They claim to be Muslims—indeed, the only true Muslims—and they explicitly claim that their religion motivates, inspires, and even commands them to commit their horrific acts of violence. They believe that Islam has a great deal to do with their behavior. Some scholars have argued that the clash between rival interpretations of Islam should be seen as a civil war within the Islamic world—jihadists, Islamists, traditionalists, and reformers all attempting to pull Islam in different directions—in which case jihadism most certainly has a strong, complicated, and important relationship to Islam and its future.
Scholars and policymakers evade these awkward facts by arguing that jihadists’ religious claims are either false or irrelevant. The first evasion is irrelevant; the second is false. The falsity of jihadist theology has absolutely no bearing its existence as a hostile religious ideology fervently believed in by thousands of well-armed people who wish to harm the United States. Its theological status does not change the threat it poses, nor, necessarily, its ability to find more recruits from within the Islamic world.
And jihadist religious claims are certainly relevant. Success in war depends on knowing your enemy. Social scientists who dismiss the religious claims of jihadists, treating religion as epiphenomenal to some other “real” cause, betray a materialist, secularist bias and do not help us understand our enemy. The secularist view—that jihadism is the product of frustrated rational actors lashing out at their disempowerment in corrupt, poor, repressive societies left behind by globalizing modernity—is true but incomplete, the shallow understanding of secular modernity unable to come to grips with the enduring power of religious identities.
Religion powerfully intermixes with politics in all societies in the world, including the United States—whether it is the religion of Christianity or the religion of Enlightenment secularism. That Islam has become entwined with the politics of countries in which it predominates is unsurprising, and, naturally, has given rise to attempts to construct a coherent political ideology along Islamic lines—what is broadly called “Islamism.” Islamism is the transmutation of Islam into a political ideology. Much as the American founders claimed that civic republicanism was a natural consequence of Protestantism, similarly many Muslims are grappling with the question of what politics flows most naturally from their faith.
As such, Islamism is not necessarily violent nor, always, opposed to majoritarian rule, representative institutions, or elections. Tunisia’s Enhadda Party is probably the best example of a peaceful Islamist movement that briefly held power after the Arab Spring, and which peacefully conceded defeat in elections in October 2014. Turkey’s Justice and Development Party is a slighter version of a peaceful Islamic movement, although its commitment to political liberalism has been cast in doubt the longer it has held power. Egypt was briefly ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood before the 2013 military coup. Islamist governments are illiberal—but not necessarily violent or threats to U.S. national security.
Jihadism is a variant of Islamism. It is the effort to impose Islamist goals—however defined—by force. Jihadists have found or invented theological justifications to attack their enemies, mostly fellow Muslims, for their impiety or disloyalty to the jihadist cause, leading to the rise of jihadist terrorist and insurgent groups and, occasionally, jihadist governments (including the Taliban and the Iranian regime) and quasi-governmental entities (like the Islamic State and some organizations within Pakistan and Saudi Arabia). Jihadist movements are quite obviously threats to the national security of states they seek to overthrow, many of whom are U.S. allies; they are also threats to their neighbors because of the expansionist drive inherent in jihadist ideology. Jihadist ideology ultimately seeks the dominance of its brand of Islam over the world.
II. Nearly All Muslims Aren’t Jihadists
Religion matters and ideas have consequences. But if we stopped there, we might be tempted to start fearing our Muslim neighbors as a fifth column just waiting to strike when the moment is right. Here is where we need to take counsel from the other side of the debate.
There are 1.6 billion professing Muslims in the world. If we count up every member of every jihadist group in the world, including al-Qaida, the Islamic State, the Taliban, Boko Haram, al-Shabab, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Hamas, Hezbollah, Lashkar-i Taiba, and scores of other groups you’ve never heard of, how many would there be? Let’s assume that we could count one million active jihadists in the world, almost certainly an exaggeration of their true numbers.
That would account for 0.06 percent of all Muslims worldwide.
Assume ten million active jihadists worldwide, a wild exaggeration of their true numbers. That is 0.63 percent of all Muslims worldwide.
Assume that there are one hundred million Muslims worldwide who would count themselves as believers, supporters, fellow-travelers, fundraisers, or sympathizers with jihadism, people who would actively give their time, money, and effort to supporting active jihadists. That still leaves 94 percent of the world’s Muslims who neither participate in nor even sympathize with terrorism.
According to a 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center, “Muslims around the world strongly reject violence in the name of Islam,” including overwhelming majorities that reject suicide-bombing, a good proxy measure for support for terrorism. By any reasonable measure, Muslims are not terrorists.
Let’s say you went shopping in a very large mall in a cosmopolitan city filled with people from all over. You wanted to know if it was safe. If I told you that 99.5 percent of all shoppers in the mall had no criminal record whatsoever, you should, rationally speaking, feel safe. If, instead, you looked at the mall and declared it to be full of criminals, you would be wrong.
I loathe political correctness for its arrogance, illiberality, and intellectual oppression. So when I say that Muslims are not terrorists, I say that simply on the numbers, as a quantifiable fact. The percentage of Muslims who are terrorists (let’s say it is 0.5 percent) is barely higher than the percentage of Quakers who are terrorists (which I assume is zero).
III. Islam Is a Living Religion
But, comes the rejoinder, Islamic theology is different than Quaker theology. Specific passages in the Koran, hadiths attributed to Muhammad, and much of early Islamic history support the idea that Islam is inherently violent, intolerant, hostile, expansionist, and aggressive. If 99.5 percent of Muslims in the world are not terrorists, that’s because they’re bad Muslims. In this view, the Islamic State is the true embodiment of what Islam actually is, and what all Muslims might become if they woke up to the true calling of their faith.
There are a number of problems with this argument, the first of which is that this is exactly the claim the terrorists are making, and I’d hate to play into their propaganda.
Second, I’m not an expert in Islamic theology and neither are you, so it is pointless and presumptuous for either of us to get into a debate about what is and isn’t true Islamic theology. For us to sit here and try to judge which interpretation of Islam, the violent or nonviolent, is truer to the founding words of Islam, strikes me as futile and irrelevant. I doubt we have the ability to make accurate judgments about the supposed essence of Islam. You should immediately disbelieve any “expert” out there who quotes one or two Koranic verses and uses them to make sweeping claims about all Islam. Anyone who does the same with the Bible is rightly dismissed as a crank.
Third, and most importantly, this view commits an error of ontology: it assumes that there is single, objective thing called “Islam” defined exclusively by its theology, and that we can make distinctions between what is true Islam and some things are false Islam based on parsing ancient texts.
There is no single thing called “Islam” captured once and for all time in the Koran. “Islam” is a lived religion as much as it is a body of theology; it is a pattern of behavior embodied by 1.6 billion Muslims as much a propositional doctrines expounded by its theologians. The meaning of Islamic theology and Koranic passages change across time and culture as it is interpreted and lived by different people in different times and places. How those 1.6 billion Muslims live should be key to our interpretation of those doctrines and ancient texts.
In other words, there are many versions of Islam. For practical purposes, I simply observe the numbers: in almost every case, the way Muslims have lived “Islam” does not involve terrorism.
IV. But Islam Has Many Other Problems
But my appeal to the “lived religion” of most Muslims invites a final critique of Islam. If we are looking at the broad pattern of behavior of Muslim societies, they may not have a strong tendency to inspire terrorism, but there seems to be a broad pattern of tyranny, oppression, misogyny, poverty, illiteracy, lack of religious freedom, and more. Jihadist violence is, in this view, only the most dramatic and violent manifestation of a deeper pathology. (Not all Muslims are terrorists, but these days an alarmingly high percentage of all terrorists are professing Muslims). The United Nations Arab Human Development Reports have more than adequately documented with high standards of rigor and scholarly objectivity something that we all sense: humanity does not seem to flourish in the heartland of Islam.
To the extent that this is true, there may indeed be a problem with “Islam” in all its varieties. Some problems, like the lack of women’s rights and religious freedom, seem to be straightforward implications of widely-accepted, mainstream Islamic theology that privileges male Muslims. Multiculturalists have yet to own up to their hypocrisy when they champion women’s rights and cultural pluralism: most cultures in the world accord women far less respect than ours.
But other problems, like poor governance, corruption, and poverty, are not so obviously a function of Islamic theology. This is where we might start looking for an interdisciplinary explanation for this broad phenomenon, one that integrates both theological study with anthropology and history and political science. There is so much variance across the Islamic world that we should look at the different cultures, histories, politics, and geographies of the Islamic world to begin to explain things. That would be a better response than the Obama administration’s epic ostrich-head-in-the-sand performance, and better than its opposite.
Jihadist violence is a threat to U.S. national security, and we should use all instruments of national power to prevent any jihadist group—including the Taliban, about whom most Americans have conveniently forgotten—from seizing power anywhere. In the film “Fury,” one character tells another that killing Nazis is a “righteous act.” In every just war, such is the case.
But just war is not an excuse for bloodlust. It is, in fact, supposed to be an expression of love. Most of the other problems in Islamic societies are not national security threats. We can, if we wish, safely ignore them. If we choose to pay attention, their plight does not call for our fear or hatred so much as our pity, and our charity.