By Ross Douthat
Feb 18, 2015
Consider this post a kind of complement, maybe, to my anti-anti-Crusades commentary of late. The big foreign policy piece that everyone is talking about this week, and deservedly, is Graeme Wood’s deep Atlantic dive into the religious premises underpinning the Islamic State’s vision and grand strategy. Wood’s argument is rich enough to defy easy summary, but his core point is that Western analysts tend to understate not only the essential religiosity of ISIS’s worldview, but the extent to which that worldview has substantial theological grounding. It isn’t just a few guys making up a cult out of random bits of scripture; its political-religious vision appeals precisely because it derives “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.” And we ignore the coherence of those interpretations at our peril: The Islamic State’s “intellectual genealogy” is intensely relevant to its political strategy, and its theology “must be understood to be combatted.”
As a longstanding believer in a “theology has consequences” approach to world history and current affairs, I agree with all of this … but I would append an important qualifier as well. Specifically, in taking Islamic-State theology seriously as a form of Islamic thought, we also need to take seriously the Islamic case against ISIS, and the reasons why the soi-disant caliphate’s interpretation of its faith, however internally coherent and textually-rooted, represents a stark departure from the way the faith has been traditionally interpreted and widely understood.
I imagine Wood would agree, and since his essay’s primary mission is to get Western audiences to take ISIS seriously as a theological movement, it’s understandable that he didn’t also include a 5,000-word traditional-Islamic rebuttal to the movement’s theological worldview. But I think an incautious reader could come away from the piece with an impression that also surfaces a lot in debates about Christian fundamentalism, where the fact that fundamentalists claim to be taking scriptures more literally than their Christian rivals gets read as evidence that they really are going back to what orthodox Christians once all believed, and that they’re right to regard non-fundamentalist forms of Christianity as theologically compromised relative to their own purer, back-to-the-beginning approach.
Which is sometimes the case, but quite often not. Both Christian and Islamic fundamentalism are traditionalist in some respects but quite modern in others, and some of the most important elements in their back-to-the sources vision tend to be only comprehensible in a modern political-intellectual context, both as reactions against and imitations of secular trends and patterns and ideas.
In the Christian case, as I’ve argued elsewhere, everything from the pseudoscientific rigors of Ken Ham-style creationism to the detailed apocalyptic roadmaps of dispensationalism owes much more to the Social Darwinist and Marxist milieu of the later 19th and early 20th century than it does to older forms of Christian orthodoxy. The Islamic case has its own distinctives, not all of which I’m qualified to address. But much of what we think of as Muslim fundamentalism seems to be linked 1) to Islamic civilization’s unhappy encounters with Western imperialism and liberal modernity, and 2) to a kind of modernity-influenced Islamic reformation that already happened (here this Atlantic essay from last year by Shadi Hamid makes essential reading), that democratized religious interpretation and undercut an older clerical-theological consensus, and that in so doing opened doors for the kind of theological autodidacts currently running the Islamic State.
Which is why a passage like this one, from Wood’s piece, seems vulnerable to misreading:
We are misled … 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 Mohammad 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 important truth here (and throughout the article) is that ISIS is not just comprised of “modern secular people” in a religious disguise; it is comprised, at least among its more sophisticated adherents, of sincerely religious people who reject secularism and liberalism no matter how many times they eat at Pizza Hut. But this truth should not obscure the fact that these people and their motivations are themselves modern in some important ways, that to be anti-secular and illiberal is not necessarily the same as being medieval or traditional, and that just because ISIS is at war with the secular and liberal does not mean that its claim to speak on behalf of pre-modern Islam against some impure modern variant is necessarily legitimate or should be given the benefit of the doubt.
Here the point I keep making about medieval Christianity and the Crusades can be applied to Islamic civilization as well. Just as it makes no sense to treat the perpetrators of the Rhineland massacres (rather than the many Christian leaders, royal and clerical, who opposed and condemned pogroms) as the “real” face of medieval Christendom, the essential manifestation of everyone who took the cross or fought for Christendom, so too it doesn’t make sense to reach back to, say, the Granada Massacre or any other great crime perpetrated by pre-modern Muslims in order to portray ISIS as essentially faithful to the Islam of the Middle Ages in ways that other present-day Muslims are not. Indeed, one could more plausibly contrast the Islamic State’s barbarity with the conduct of the (zealous, warlike) Saladin, or the norms of many Islamic governments across the centuries we call medieval, and use that contrast to undercut the new caliphate’s claim to deep continuity with its pre-modern predecessors.
Now that claim of continuity, of course, rests on interpretations of the 7th and 8th century more than the 11th or 12th, and I don’t want to deny that the specifics of Islamic origins create particular issues around holy war, wartime conduct, and church-state issues writ large that don’t obtain in exactly the same way for other faiths. If you believe that theology matters, it isn’t enough to draw parallels between Christian and Islamic fundamentalism; you have to recognize that there are differences, beginning in the life and career of the Prophet of Islam himself, that may make the arguments of ISIS seem more cogent and textually-rooted and legitimately Muslim than, say, a case for establishing a Christian theocracy on the basis of the Levitical codes might seem. (Though of course the latter idea has had Christian adherents, and still does.)
But both Christians inclined to be skeptical of Islam and Whiggish liberals inclined to be skeptical of anything medieval need to recognize two things: First, that a process of scriptural and theological interpretation that ruled out certain ISIS-like ideas happened very early in Muslim history, and not as a concession to anything like modern secularism; and second, that the Islam that developed out of this process of interpretation has a stronger claim to continuity with the actual Muslim past, both modern and pre-modern, than the Islamic State’s “prophetic methodology” and apocalyptic expectations.
So even as we acknowledge the obvious and describe ISIS as Islamic, we should give the rest of Islam credit for being, well, Islamic as well, and for having available arguments and traditions and interpretations that marginalized this kind of barbarism in the past, and God willing can do so once again. Those arguments and traditions may not suffice to synthesize Islam fully with Western modernity; whether that’s possible (or desirable) is a larger and more complicated debate. But we can reasonably hope that they will suffice intellectually in the face of the Islamic State, whose arguments for its own deep orthodoxy are contradicted by centuries of Muslim theology and tradition, and which is as much at war with the lived historical reality of Islam as it is at war with Christianity, secularism or the West.
Ross Douthat joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in April 2009. Previously, he was a senior editor at the Atlantic and a blogger for theatlantic.com. He is the author of "Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class" (Hyperion, 2005) and the co-author, with Reihan Salam, of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream" (Doubleday, 2008). He is the film critic for National Review.