By Fareed Zakaria
February 21, 2015
President Obama stands accused of political correctness for his unwillingness to accuse groups like the Islamic State of “Islamic extremism,” choosing a more generic term, “violent extremism.”
The president is deliberately choosing not to emphasize the Islamic State’s religious dimension for political and strategic reasons. After all, what would the practical consequence be of describing the group, also known as ISIS, as Islamic? Would the West drop more bombs on it? Send in more soldiers to fight it? No, but it would make many Muslims feel that their religion had been unfairly maligned. And it would dishearten Muslim leaders who have continually denounced ISIS as a group that does not represent Islam.
“The Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic,” writes Graeme Wood in an essay for The Atlantic this month. Wood’s essay is an intelligent and detailed account of the ideology that animates the Islamic State. These are not secular people with rational goals, he argues; they really do believe in their religious ideology.
Of course many ISIS leaders believe their ideology. The real question: Why has this ideology sprung up at this moment and why is it attractive to a group — a tiny group — of Muslim men?
Wood describes ISIS as having “revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years.” Exactly, ISIS has rediscovered — even reinvented — a version of Islam for its own purposes today.
He notes that the groups’ followers are “authentic throwbacks to early Islam.” That is, Islam as it was practiced in the desert 1,400 years ago. Surely the most salient point is not that medieval Islam contains many medieval practices like slavery (which figures prominently in the Bible as well), but why this version of Islam has found adherents today.
Wood is much taken by the Princeton academic Bernard Haykel, who claims that people want to turn a blind eye to the ideology of ISIS for political reasons. “People want to absolve Islam,” he quotes Haykel as saying. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do. ...”
Right. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and perhaps 30,000 members of ISIS. And yet Haykel says that it is what the 0.0019 percent of Muslims do that defines the religion. Who is being political, I wonder?
And across the Middle East, the ideas that have failed are concepts like Pan-Arabism, socialism and attempts at democracy, economic liberalism and secularism. The regimes espousing these principles usually morphed into dictatorships, producing economic stagnation and social backwardness. It is in the face of this failure that groups like ISIS can say, “Islam is the answer.”
This battle of ideologies can be seen vividly in the life of Islam Yaken, profiled by The New York Times’ Mona El-Naggar. Yaken, a middle-class fitness trainer from Cairo, was interested mostly in making money and meetings girls.
But “his dreams began to crash into Egypt’s depressed economy and political turmoil,” the article notes. He couldn’t get a good job and began dreaming about leaving Egypt. As the country’s democratic revolution collapsed and its military dictatorship returned, his political alienation increased. Questioning his life choices, Yaken became drawn to a very different ideology, a version of Islam that is rigorous and militant.
Yaken, now 22, fights for the Islamic State in Syria. During the last Ramadan season, he tweeted a photograph of a decapitated corpse. His post read, “Surely, the holiday won’t be complete without a picture with one of the dogs’ corpses.”
Islam Yaken is now a true believer. But the question surely is, how did he get there? And what were the forces that helped carry him along? Calling him Islamic doesn’t really help you understand any of that.