“Is ISIS Islamic?”
Wait, don’t go away. I don’t intend to add to the growing library of comments on that topic. But I do have to address it, at least briefly, to get on with what I want to discuss: What is the appeal of ISIS?
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.
Or, more broadly, what is the appeal of the Islamic fundamentalist movement stirring in the Middle East—what is called the Salafi movement, the ultra-conservative orthodox movement within Sunni—majority—Islam? This is the movement that in Saudi Arabia is called “Wahabism” and aspires to emulate the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers, rejecting all religious innovation and supporting implementation of sharia or Islamic law. This is, in short, what is causing all the trouble.
Long before the coldly subhuman massacre in Paris two days ago, the issue of Islam at large versus its extremist break-away groups was shaping European debate over admitting tens of thousands of Muslim refugees fleeing the war in Syria. Was Europe admitting a tidal wave of adherents to a religion that in its most basic tenets rejects the free, democratic, largely secular, and multicultural society that European nations embrace?
The debate became pointed, to say the least, when the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, claimed “credit” for the atrocity on the streets of Paris.
As I see it, there are three positions on the question: Is ISIS Islamic?
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.
Bruenig’s entire article is worth reading. Consider just one more statement:
After all, even if ISIS is ‘Muslim’ because they use Islamic texts and incorporate some elements of Islamic history into their political practice, isn’t it possible they’re bad Muslims, heretical Muslims, or some sort of ‘lapsed’ Muslims—still Muslim, but without the broadly damning consequences of less qualified labels?
I’m going to go with this final statement. Scholars of Islam, including the most academic and respected, like those at the Middle East Forum, arrive at the conclusion that, yes, ISIS statements and practices are rooted in and regularly cite the accepted historical ideas of Islam. They even did so when they burned alive, at the stake, a Jordanian pilot who fell into their hands.
Which is most useful for dealing with Muslims today: the 1500-year-old historic roots or how Islam is practiced worldwide today?
Yes, ISIS is rooted in fundamental ideas and scripture of historic Islam, but those ideas and texts no longer shape how 1.4 billion Muslims around the world view and practice their religion. Which is most useful for dealing with Muslims today: the 1500-year-old historic roots or how Islam is practiced worldwide today?
But most of us, say in the United States, in particular, but even in France, with its significant Muslim population around Paris, have little familiarity with the beliefs and practice of Islam in our communities. Living in New York City, where there are many mosques, I know not a single Muslim in the sense of being able to hold a simple conversation. They are invisible because like most of us they go about their day, and the practice of whatever religion they follow—if they follow any—and never impinge on our lives.
What we do know about is fundamentalist Islam. If we didn’t already, we do after this weekend. But we know not even about all of fundamentalism, because many Wahabists, for example, practice what is called “political quietism,” the rejection of involvement in politics. What we know about Islam is that there are groups like al Qaeda and ISIS and that their militant adherents are committed to jihad against the West and the Western way of life.
It has been said that Muslims worldwide reject in horror the actions of these groups, which is true. And that the masses of refugees fleeing Syria for Europe are fleeing ISIS and its ilk. And yet, we are left with the question: To what extent do Muslims at large share the fundamental premises of ISIS? Why do a few thousands of young Muslim men and women from France and other parts of Europe leave behind their lives to go to join the ISIS jihadists? What possibly could move them to risk everything to join the new Islamic caliphate in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Libya committed on doctrinal grounds to murder, torture, rape, enslavement, and theft?
The question that since this weekend has lit up the Internet is how many of the non-militant Muslims already in Europe or now surging into Europe, sympathize at some level with the jihadists, the ISIS killers acting on the letter of law from the Koran? Will the ISIS thugs and killers move through a medium of their co-religionists who tacitly support them—wish them well without wishing to choose the path they have chosen?
That is the argument of those in Europe who would stop immigration, slam shut their borders to Muslim refugees, on the grounds that the threat is Islam as such—militant, quietist, or otherwise.
I do not have the answer, but I have an observation. Every religion, today, including Christianity and Judaism, has a big “fundamentalist” problem. Look at the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the United States—its growth and political power in recent decades—as well as Christian evangelical sects that are sweeping parts of America and much of South America. In Brazil, Christian evangelists are now shaping all laws concerned with religion, birth control, abortion.
The problem for Judaism? In America, where the Jewish fundamentalists are a minority of Jews—but the most rapidly growing sect—and are concentrated heavily in parts of New York City—there is as yet little or no assertion of political claims.
Exactly the opposite, however, is true in Israel, where the Jewish fundamentalists by whatever name are by far the most rapidly growing segment and now dominate Israeli politics. They are the mainstay of the electoral power of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They are the chief force for illegally settling the West Bank—the proposed future Palestinian state—and so foreclosing a “two-state solution.” And they are the political force advocating a “greater Israel” that would absorb the West Bank, all of Jerusalem, Gaza, and even, eventually, Jordan, which once was part of the British Palestinian mandate. When there are shootings of Palestinians, revenge killings, it usually turns out to be the fundamentalists.
What, then, is the appeal of the fundamentalists—Muslim, Christian, or Jewish—that draws away those raised in “reformed,” “liberal,” “moderate” religious sects? You know, the nice civilized ones.This is a philosophical question about how ideas over the long term compete with one another.
What, then, is the appeal of the fundamentalists—Muslim, Christian, or Jewish—that draws away those raised in “reformed,” “liberal,” “moderate” religious sects? You know, the nice civilized ones. Much has been written about the appeal of ISIS to young Muslims growing up in France or the United States. Writers appeal for explanation to poor opportunities for education, economic hardships, discrimination, and the search for “meaning.”
But what is the dynamic at work when one version of a religion’s core principles are competing with another version? For example, modern Islam versus ISIS? Reformed Judaism versus Hassidic? Liberal Congregationalism versus Evangelicalism?
This is a philosophical question about how ideas over the long term compete with one another. The philosopher Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and originator of the philosophy of Objectivism offers us some extraordinary guidance in an essay entitled: “The Anatomy of Compromise.”
Isn’t this what concerns us? In the case of the major religions, first set forth many centuries ago—Judaism the oldest, Christianity next, and Islam most recent—we have seen long-term adaptation to the modern world, an adaptation over centuries. But periodically, and today, we see in all three religions a militant revolt against adaptation—against compromises with the modern world. That reaction is fundamentalism, a summons to return to basics, the roots, the fundamentals of a belief system.
Ayn Rand set forth three principles for understanding the dynamics of “compromise.” “In any conflict between…two groups…who hold the same basic principles, it is the most consistent one who wins.” And that is one explanation—an epistemological explanation.
In her essay, Ayn Rand set forth three principles for understanding the dynamics of “compromise.” I will quote all three for the sake of context, but focus on the first.
I submit to you that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism each embody “basic principles,” but, in each case, the modern version, today’s version, represents a compromise, an adaptation, a toning down vis-à-vis that religion’s fundamental historical principles. Does this position need to be argued? We all know that the Christian, Jew, or Muslim practicing his religion today—perhaps once a week, perhaps only on religious holidays—typically has shed many of commandments, duties, and beliefs that defined the religion when it was closer to its origins.
“In any conflict between…two groups…who hold the same basic principles, it is the most consistent one who wins.”
And that is one explanation—an epistemological explanation, rooted in the nature of knowledge and its demand for consistency, elimination of contradictions—for the powerful appeal of fundamentalism. By definition, “fundamentalism” goes back to the fundamentals, the core principles of a religion. And, in any sustained confrontation or debate with the modern “liberal,” “moderate,” “adapted” versions of the religion, the fundamentalist are most consistent. And, of over the long term, as the ideas and debates sort themselves out, the fundamentalists win.
This is one dynamic by which ISIS—and salifism more broadly–appeal to young Muslims. It is the appeal of evangelical fundamentalism to Christian youth; it is the appeal of strict Jewish orthodoxy to Jewish youth.
For it is the young, when they enter early adulthood, who most avidly challenge the beliefs of their upbringing. Challenge the creed of their parents. They are, as Ayn Rand said, “shopping around for a philosophy,” and they are sensitive to any hint of hypocrisy—e.g., any compromise with the basic principles their parents confessed.
Add to this another consideration: When any person feels he has lost his way in life he asks himself if he has been true to the ideas he has accepted. Parents and teachers who themselves practice a highly compromised version of their religion, nevertheless, when they turn to teaching the young, typically go back to the basic texts. They teach the fundamentals but practice them in a moderate, highly compromised version.
This makes fundamentalism a problem inherent in religion, religion as such. As long as we adhere to a religion, which, as a belief system, is defined by its fundamentals, we put ourselves in the position of competing with the fundamental version of what we may profess and practice in a highly liberalized form. And in that competition, we are fated to lose the argument to the fundamentalists. The only alternative is to give up the religion entirely and argue against the fundamentalism on other grounds—say, reason and science.
This leads to my final point. Why has Islam, today, had a crisis caused by its youth turning to fundamentals while Christianity and Judaism have not—at least to the same extent? Why do Muslim parents see their children run off to don explosive suicide vests, pick up rifles, and join the “army of God”?
Consider that both Christianity and Judaism passed through a historical period Enlightenment, an era, especially in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, when philosophy and science gravely and confidently challenged faith in the name of reason and science. Faced with that challenge, and unable to respond effectively, Christianity and Judaism survived by making concessions to reason, science, and the secular worldview. Today, in countries dominated by Christian and Jewish traditions, the choice presented to the young is not solely between the moderate/compromised and the fundamental versions of religion. These societies and their educational systems offer another well-established, respected, and well-represented choice. That choice is to adopt the worldview of reason, science, and secularism—and then, perhaps, make the choice about where religion, church going, may or may not fit into that secular worldview.
Islamic countries, as scholars have pointed out repeatedly, never experienced a modern era of enlightenment when reason and science dominated learning and intellectual life and openly and persistently challenged faith. Thus, with some exceptions—Turkey was touched by the French Enlightenment—Islamic countries do not offer the young the choice of reason, science, and the secular worldview versus religion. Many Islamic countries, especially in the Middle East, don’t teach secular philosophy and science that challenge Islam. Nor do they publish, or even permit, books on those subjects and other secular matters.
I submit that this is one compelling explanation why thousands of young Muslims are choosing “true religion” such as Wahabism over the compromise that is modern Islam. Where that is the only choice that is real to them, fundamentalism may appear to be the path of consistency and integrity.
In the end, this is a twisted tribute to man’s reason, his demand for internal consistency in his ideas, which favors the uncompromising “purity” of ISIS doctrine. The only way to save societies slipping toward religious fundamentalism is to stop arguing from the losing position of moderate, compromised versions of belief. Only by rejecting the fundamentals of all religion—faith, revelation, and projection of a separate spirit world superior to ours—can we defend the secular, scientific society—the society of reason—against the encroaching darkness of which ISIS is but the harbinger.