The Obama administration would do itself a huge favor if it would pass out copies of Graeme Wood’s most recent piece for The Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants,” to all of its staff. At a time when the commander in chief can say with a straight face that the Islamic State group is not Islamic and State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf publicly focuses on getting terrorists better job prospects, it is a must-read.
Mr. Wood writes:
Many refuse to believe that this group is as devout as it claims to be, or as backward-looking or apocalyptic as its actions and statements suggest.
Their skepticism is comprehensible. In the past, Westerners who accused Muslims of blindly following ancient scriptures came to deserved grief from academics—notably the late Edward Said—who pointed out that calling Muslims “ancient” was usually just another way to denigrate them. Look instead, these scholars urged, to the conditions in which these ideologies arose—the bad governance, the shifting social mores, the humiliation of living in lands valued only for their oil.
Without acknowledgment of these factors, no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.
This is an incredibly important point. The leadership of the Islamic State is not interested in merely acquiring power for the sake of acquiring power — its quest is directly tied to a serious reading of the Koran that can be debated, but not dismissed.
Mr. Wood continues:
Muslims can say that slavery is not legitimate now, and that crucifixion is wrong at this historical juncture. Many say precisely this. But they cannot condemn slavery or crucifixion outright without contradicting the Koran and the example of the Prophet. “The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid,” Bernard Haykel says. That really would be an act of apostasy.
The Islamic State’s ideology exerts powerful sway over a certain subset of the population. Life’s hypocrisies and inconsistencies vanish in its face. Musa Cerantonio and the Salafis I met in London are unstumpable: no question I posed left them stuttering. They lectured me garrulously and, if one accepts their premises, convincingly. To call them un-Islamic appears, to me, to invite them into an argument that they would win. If they had been froth-spewing maniacs, I might be able to predict that their movement would burn out as the psychopaths detonated themselves or became drone-splats, one by one. But these men spoke with an academic precision that put me in mind of a good graduate seminar. I even enjoyed their company, and that frightened me as much as anything else.
Mr. Wood nails it again when he observes their “academic precision.” For his piece he also interviewed London’s radical cleric Anjem Choudary, accurately articulating many of my own opinions on the man. Say what you will about Mr. Choudary, but he is not stupid and he is not psychotic. To say that he and his ideological allies are not “Islamic” is ludicrous and invites policy makers to embrace doomed strategies for dealing with them.
Mr. Wood offers sage advice to Mr. Obama when he says:
Western officials would probably do best to refrain from weighing in on matters of Islamic theological debate altogether. Barack Obama himself drifted into takfiri waters when he claimed that the Islamic State was “not Islamic”—the irony being that he, as the non-Muslim son of a Muslim, may himself be classified as an apostate, and yet is now practicing takfir against Muslims. Non-Muslims’ practicing takfir elicits chuckles from jihadists (“Like a pig covered in feces giving hygiene advice to others,” one tweeted).
When a U.S. president tells the American people not to take seriously the religious motivations of men who now control a land mass the size of the United Kingdom — in the heart of the Middle East — he is doing the free world a grave disservice.
Here is what I wrote Feb. 9:
It seems much more likely that Islamic State will publicly cheer on any “lone wolf” attacks that may occur in the U.S. in the next few years while privately amassing more wealth and allocating resources to grow its nascent caliphate in the Middle East.
Here is what Mr. Wood said for his March article:
A few “lone wolf” supporters of the Islamic State have attacked Western targets, and more attacks will come. But most of the attackers have been frustrated amateurs, unable to immigrate to the caliphate because of confiscated passports or other problems. Even if the Islamic State cheers these attacks—and it does in its propaganda—it hasn’t yet planned and financed one. (The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January was principally an al‑Qaeda operation.) During his visit to Mosul in December, Jürgen Todenhöfer interviewed a portly German jihadist and asked whether any of his comrades had returned to Europe to carry out attacks. The jihadist seemed to regard returnees not as soldiers but as dropouts. “The fact is that the returnees from the Islamic State should repent from their return,” he said. “I hope they review their religion.”
Question: Why are we both coming to similar conclusions?
Answer: Because both of us don’t go around deluding ourselves that a lack of good office jobs is anywhere close to the primary driver for Islamic State recruitment. Taking these men and their interpretation of the Koran seriously yields the kind of information policymakers need to make sound decisions; telling them that the Islamic State group is not Islamic is a recipe for disaster.
If you get a chance, take the time to read “What ISIS Really Wants.” Mr. Wood’s piece for The Atlantic is superb. Unfortunately, the can’t same be said for the Obama administration’s attempts to deal with Islamic terrorists around the globe.