By Robert Wright
February 25, 2015
Last week, the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen published a piece under the headline “Islam and the West at War.” Something seemed amiss here. Surely a more-or-less liberal columnist at the Times wasn’t going to say what even George W. Bush was unwilling to say: that we are at war with Islam itself. Maybe this was one of those cases where the headline is meant ironically, and the piece goes on to show as much?
No such luck. The point of the column was to dismiss as “empty talk” the claim that we’re not at war with Islam. Elaborating, Cohen wrote, “Across a wide swath of territory, in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Yemen, the West has been or is at war, or near-war, with the Muslim world.”
You might ask: How could it be a war against “the Muslim world” if it’s confined to five countries that house only a minority of the world’s Muslims? Or: How could it be a war against “the Muslim world” if most of the Muslims even in these five countries are not the enemy?
Beats me. Anyway, here’s a more pressing question: Is this a sign of things to come? Is the clash-of-civilizations narrative, long favored on the right, starting to drift into the mainstream? The Cohen column isn’t the only data point suggesting as much.
On the same day Cohen’s column was posted, The Atlantic (where I was once a blogger) unveiled a cover story called “What ISIS Really Wants.” The piece, by Graeme Wood, a contributing editor at the magazine, was in part a response to President Obama’s longstanding refusal to use the kind of language favored by clash-of-civilizations aficionados. Wood quoted Obama insisting that the so-called Islamic State is “not Islamic,” and wrote, “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The Fox News Web site, among other venues, excerpted Wood’s article and linked to it. The piece went viral.
For purposes of virulence, indeed, the timing was excellent. The article appeared right before President Obama hosted a conference on violent extremism, at which he again refused to call ISIS or any other extremists Islamic. His critics, as usual, took issue, and the Atlantic piece helped feed the conversation.
While there are good reasons that a judicious President might not want to callISIS Islamic, there are also reasons that many scholars of religion look at the question differently. All major religions have changed so much over time, and sprouted so many branches, that a common rule of thumb is: if they say they’re Muslim, Christian, or Buddhist and don’t reject the most essential tenets of the faith, then that’s what they are. Mother Teresa and David Koresh, in this view, were both Christians. So calling ISIS Islamic isn’t novel enough to constitute news. But what did Wood mean by saying that ISIS is “very Islamic”?
He rested this claim about the deeply Islamic character of ISIS largely on the views of a single scholar, Bernard Haykel, of Princeton. Haykel’s main point seems to have been that ISIS isn’t just making up an ideology and grafting it onto Islamic beliefs. ISIS draws (if selectively) on the Koran and later Islamic texts; indeed, if you went back far enough in time, you would find its views more widely accepted by Muslims and Muslim scholars than has been the case in recent centuries.
After the Atlantic piece appeared, Haykel was interviewed by Jack Jenkins, of Think Progress. Haykel emphasized that the Atlantic piece as a whole represented Wood’s views, not his, and he qualified his views in ways Wood hadn’t. “This is something I did point out to [Wood] but he didn’t bring out in the piece: ISIS’s representation of Islam is ahistorical. It’s saying we have to go back to the seventh century. It’s denying the legal complexity of the [Islamic] legal tradition over a thousand years.”
Also: Wood had quoted Haykel emphatically dismissing the notion that “Islam is a religion of peace.” (“As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what people do, and how they interpret their texts.”) In the ThinkProgress interview, fleshing out his view more fully, Haykel said that what he had meant was that noreligion is a religion of peace, because all religions can have violent manifestations.
Scholars often consider journalistic treatments of their work insufficiently subtle, and I have no way of knowing how clear Haykel made his views to Wood. Still, there are subjects and times that demand particular fastidiousness on the part of journalists, even if that means interrogating sources with inordinate thoroughness. My own view is that the questions of whether Islam is a religion of peace and whether ISIS is “very” Islamic—coming, as they do, amid no small amount of anti-Muslim bigotry—are perfect examples. (This defacing of an Islamic school in Rhode Island was reported the day before the Atlanticarticle was posted.)
In any event, the nuanced version of Haykel’s views will never fully catch up with the Graeme Wood version. The ever louder voices that depict Islam itself as in some sense the problem will thus find it easier to cite “even the liberal”Atlantic. Just as, if they take the next step and describe a war between the West and Islam, they can cite “even the liberal” New York Times.
In 1996, when I reviewed Samuel Huntington’s book “The Clash of Civilizations” for Slate, I fretted that Huntington’s world view could become “a self-fulfilling prophecy.” This was before 9/11, and I wasn’t thinking about Islam in particular. Huntington’s book was about “fault lines” dividing various “civilizations,” and I was just making the general point that if we think of, say, Japanese people as radically different from Americans—as Huntington’s book, I believed, encouraged us to do—we were more likely to treat Japan in ways that deepened any Japanese-Western fault line.
Since 9/11, I’ve realized that, in the case of Islam, the forces that could make the clash of civilizations a self-fulfilling prophecy are particularly powerful. For one thing, in this case, our actual enemies, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, themselves favor the clash-of-civilizations narrative, and do their best to encourage it. When the Atlantic tells us that ISIS is “very Islamic” and the New York Times runs the headline “Islam and the West at War,” it’s party time in Mosul. Order up another round of decapitations! Get Roger Cohen more freaked out! Maybe he’ll keep broadcasting a key recruiting pitch of both Al Qaeda and ISIS: that the West is at war with Islam! (Wood noted, a week after his article appeared, its “popularity among ISIS supporters.”)
People who insist on linking terrorism to Islam often say that only by doing this—only by seeing the problem “for what it is”—can we figure out what to do about it. Really? Long before last week, we knew that ISIS does a good job of convincing some young Muslims that its cause is authentically Islamic. What value has been added if we grant Wood’s point that ISIS, in doing this job, can quote selectively from Islamic texts and point selectively to ancient Islamic traditions? I guess this helps us understand one rhetorical advantage that ISIS has in its recruiting. But since that particular advantage—what ancient texts say, what ancient people did—is something we can’t change, where do we go from there?
The part of ISIS’s rhetorical power that seems more worth pondering is the part that we can do something about. When recruiters for ISIS and Al Qaeda say that the West is fighting a war against Islam, they cite U.S. policies: drone strikes in Muslim countries, the imprisonment of Muslims in Guantánamo, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, perceived U.S. support for Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and so on. Obviously, we shouldn’t abandon any policy just because our enemies criticize it. But, when the policies help our enemies with recruitment, that should at least be added to the cost-benefit calculus.
Of course, many other factors also feed jihadi recruiting channels: political and economic dysfunctions in some Arab nations, the economic and social status of European Muslims, and so on. We may have less leverage over these things than over American drone strikes, but they’re worth understanding and working to change.
Which leads to what may be the biggest problem with the views conveyed by Cohen and Wood—especially as those views seep into Fox News and beyond and become further simplified, if not warped. When people think of extremism as some kind of organic expression of Islam, the belligerence of radical Muslims starts to seem like an autonomous, intrinsically motivated force—something whose momentum doesn’t derive from mundane socioeconomic and geopolitical factors. It’s something that you can stop, if at all, only with physical counter-force. In other words: by killing lots of people. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that commentators who dismiss attempts to understand the “root causes” of extremism tend to be emphatic in linking the extremism to Islam, and often favor a massively violent response to it.
By the way, the wind is at their backs. Last week, CBS News reported that, for the first time, a majority of Americans polled—fifty-seven per cent—favored sending ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Haven’t we seen this movie? The Iraq War, more than any other single factor, created ISIS. After the 2003 invasion, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who led an obscure group of radical Islamists, rebranded it as an Al Qaeda affiliate and used the wartime chaos of Iraq to expand it. Al-Zarqawi’s movement came to be known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, and then evolved into ISIS. Haykel confirmed by e-mail that the Iraq War was the kind of thing that he had in mind when he said, in the ThinkProgress interview, that ISIS is “a product of very contingent, contextual, historical factors,” and that “there is nothing predetermined in Islam that would lead to ISIS.”
No, there isn’t. But ISIS is here. And it’s here, in part, because we got all freaked out about Al Qaeda and overreacted to it. And now we’re getting freaked out about ISIS.
As freakouts go, this one is certainly understandable. ISIS wants to terrify us, and in the service of that mission has carried tactical atrocity to new heights of grotesqueness. And both ISIS and Al Qaeda have inspired atrocities far from their home bases.
It’s natural, when you’re freaking out, to accept simple and dramatic, even melodramatic, explanations. It’s a clash of civilizations! Deep within this alien thing known as Islam is an apocalyptic belligerence that is only now emerging in full form! Nobody at The Atlantic or the New York Times has put it this way. (Wood, in fact, notes that a large majority of Muslims reject ISIS, and neither Cohen nor Wood entirely dismisses political and socioeconomic contributors to religious extremism.) But when élite and generally liberal publications start broadcasting dubious catch phrases that dovetail nicely with such explanations, I start to worry.
And the process feeds on itself. The more scared we get, the more likely our government is to react with the kind of undiscerning ferocity that created ISISas we know it—and the more likely Western extremists are to deface mosques, or worse. All of which will help ISIS recruit more Muslims, thus leading to more atrocities in the West, as well as in the Middle East, and making the whole thing seem even more like a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. And so on.
Wood’s Atlantic article has some interesting details about ISIS. For example: the group’s leader believes that he is the eighth legitimate caliph, and that the apocalypse will happen during the reign of the twelfth. Wood considers a clear understanding of this apocalypticism very valuable—a primary reason that it’s worth dwelling on the group’s religious character. But you could also argue that, if something like an apocalypse is possible, putting undue emphasis on the group’s religious character could hasten it.
Robert Wright is the author of “The Evolution of God, The Moral Animal, and Nonzero.” You can follow him on Twitter at @robertwrighter.