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On ISIS

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A lot of the commentary on Graeme Wood’s long article on ISIS has focused on the relatively uninteresting question of whether ISIS is “Islamic.”  This question has become a minefield, bound up not only in politics but also in turf fights between journalists and scholars of religion, on the one hand, and specialists in conflict on the other.

Some of the responses have been quite thoughtful; the distance between the headline of this H.A. Hellyer article and its content is one reason why few people will mourn the apparently inevitable demise of Salon. Elizabeth Breunig’s article on how we define religious belief is also helpful.   Ross Douthat made a surprisingly useful contribution, taking care to put some limits on the implications of calling something “Islamic,” or “Christian.” Other responses have been much weaker, with the authors focusing more on the building and burning of straw men than on engagement with the material.

I suppose my thinking is that every permutation of the religions of the Book require specific believers and communities of believers to make decisions about what practices to adopt and what to reject, and that these decisions only rarely have anything to do with sophisticated theological debates. This sort of thing is useful, but if you’re reading it as the final word on what Islam is or isn’t, rather than as part of a pointed conversation between different Islamic communities, then you’re reading it wrong. Mainstream religious authorities are pretty bad at identifying heretics, which is to say that they’ve very good at claiming that any divergence from mainstream tradition represents heresy and should be excluded from an understanding of the faith. This is especially true when the mainstream views the heresy as a public embarrassment to the faith.

Saying that ISIS is well outside the mainstream of Islamic religious belief can simultaneously be true and irrelevant as to whether it can make intelligible claims to have the “correct” interpretation of the Islamic tradition. For my part, the repeated tendency of Christian sects to locate divine favor in a particular state entity (tendencies that run across Orthodox, Protestant, and even Catholic communities) are far less intelligible, based on the foundational text, than anything ISIS has done. Yet simply arguing that these beliefs are “wrong” misses the point.

The history of Protestantism is, literally, littered with examples of sects that begin when laymen reject broader Christian traditions in preference for ahistorical readings of foundational texts. To use just a recent, convenient example, Jehovah’s Witnesses reject most of what we understand as Christian tradition in order to focus on what they believe are the core, ancient elements of the faith. JWs have a millenarian perspective on the world that, effectively, denies the legitimacy of most other Christian sects.  While I’m not attuned with the fine details of the theological debate, I’d be very hesitant to suggest that JWs represent are “wrong” about Christianity, or that the represent a “perversion” of the faith, especially in context of the wild variance in practice among Protestant communities. But (and this is particularly important) Catholic and established Protestant sects are not at all hesitant to make this argument. This is why, in brief, we don’t trust the Pope to serve as the final arbiter on whether someone is or isn’t Christian.

And so as a veteran of high-school-era wars over whether Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons count as “Christian,” I’m generally inclined to say that self-identification counts for a lot, a plausible degree of connection with foundational texts or traditions counts for a lot, and a recruiting strategy that focuses on existing believers (ISIS recruits mostly, although not solely, among Muslims, and these Muslims presumably do not believe that they cease being Muslim when they join ISIS) counts for a lot. For groups that these metrics would exclude, I’d be inclined to think Lord’s Resistance Army or the Taipings.

As an aside, I think that people inclined to suggest that Wood is treating ISIS as “authentic” are making a predictable error that comes more from how we talk about religious enthusiasm and authenticity than from anything associated with the question at hand.  I’m annoyed by the tendency to grant more radical forms of religious belief an unearned sense of authenticity, but it’s a tendency that runs across religions. As an interested outsider, it seems to me that reform and conservative Jews are often willing to grant far too much to their Orthodox and ultra-orthodox counterparts in terms of “authentic” belief and practice, even as they bitterly disagree with them on a variety of social and political questions. I think you find same confusion between enthusiasm and authenticity in intra-Christian (and probably even intra-Atheist) conversations, and this kind of thinking seems to infect our assessment of ISIS.  Douthat, cited above, is quite good on this point.

Now to back up a bit, it’s true that evaluation of this debate inevitably involves some assessment of the political stakes.  People are fighting over whether or not ISIS can be called “Islamic” because this determination has potential implications for the pointy end of the state, both domestically and internationally. The concern of many commentators that granting ISIS some claim on “true” Islam plays into the hands of right-wing critics is not unreasonable. This is undoubtedly true, although clearly right wing cranks don’t need Wood’s help in making atrocious arguments about the nature of Islam.

I think Wood could have been a touch more careful in not lending authenticity to ISIS, but his relevant point was that claims running as “ISIS is wrong about Islam” are problematic as statements of fact and not very useful as political rhetoric.  And Wood made it very clear that the vast majority of Muslims reject not only the theology of ISIS, but also its method and politics; he makes this point repeatedly across the article.  Finally, as a general rule, I’m of the view that ” to what use could a right wing asshole put this argument?” isn’t a terribly helpful heuristic for approaching complicated questions.

But whether or not ISIS is “Islamic,” it’s surely also a number of other things. And this is where things get more interesting for me. Wood suggests that ISIS’ conception of the state is in variance both with the understanding of state sovereignty that holds in international society, and with other jihadist organizations.  ISIS has displayed reluctance to assert its own sovereignty, in part because such an assertion would place it among the family of nations, with a necessary degree of respect for the sovereignty and borders of other countries.  As Wood describes, this is anathema to ISIS’ vision of the relationship between theology and territorial control.  And it’s this vision that sets ISIS apart from organizations like Al Qaeda, which don’t seem to place the same degree of (short term) value on territorial control.

And so in short, Wood presents an ISIS that views territorial control as a key value, but that denies traditional norms of sovereignty.  This is an unusual combination, but not an impossible one; it echoes a few revolutionary movements through history.  The Bolsheviks had a famously dim appraisal for foreign policy, built around early expectations that it would be easy to export the Revolution into Europe and Asia. The Soviet Union adjusted to reality pretty quickly, however. To my recollection violation of sovereignty was a key element of the political case for the Iranian Revolution (although it was interpreted differently by the various actors), and so the Islamic Republic also settled, fairly quickly, into a quasi-normal stance on foreign relations. The People’s Republic of China went through a phase in the Cultural Revolution when it rejected “normal” foreign relations, but this didn’t last long and didn’t seem to have much of an effect beyond the recall of most of the PRC’s ambassadors.  The Taliban is an interesting case; it was very slow to come around to the extant understanding of norms of sovereignty, but seemed to be moving in a conventional direction prior to 2001.  I should hasten to add that acceptance of general norms of sovereignty doesn’t imply that any of these countries were good international citizens, merely that they eventually acknowledged that international citizenship was a thing.

ISIS’ critique of sovereignty (and the term “critique” might go a step too far; “dismissal” may be a better word) seems the farthest ranging since the Bolsheviks. And so it’s interesting, in this context, to think about how an ISIS that somehow managed to retain a degree of territorial integrity would try to manage its relations with the outside world.  It would seem very difficult for ISIS to accept any degree of legitimacy on the part of its neighbors; none are good ideological candidates on the basic terms that ISIS has set. IR theory suggests that revolutionary states and state-like entities eventually (if grudgingly) follow the Bolshevik path, accepting the necessity of “revolution in one country” and adopting something that looks like a standard apparatus of foreign relations.  Whether ISIS would be capable of making those sorts of compromises is a question that I hope we won’t ever see answered.

Another interesting implication of ISIS’ preoccupation with territory (one that Wood, along with many others, points out) is that the fixation on territorial control makes ISIS unusually vulnerable to traditional military action.  If ISIS’ central theological, political, and public relations claims rest on the physical control of territory, then reducing the extent of that control could have a huge impact on degrading the organization.  Al Qaeda isn’t indifferent to territory, but doesn’t seem to worry overmuch about being forced to pick up stakes and move along.  If we are to believe ISIS’ propaganda, pushing the group out of the territory it controls would have a more far-reaching impact on the organizations’ survival.

This suggests some hope that future Iraqi and Kurdish military offensives may enjoy more than tactical and operational success (assuming, of course, that they enjoy tactical and operational success). The loss of territorial control may make it harder for ISIS to recruit, and may lead it to shed members (I’m guessing, without much foundation, that many of the “returned” fighters that leave ISIS are less interested in pursuing its aims in Europe and the US than in getting as far away from the organization as they can). And while it’s never, ever right to say “things can’t get any worse” when we’re talking about Syria and Iraq, ISIS does seem committed to pushing the limits of that proposition.

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  • It read like an excellent article to me. Trivial-minded people will do as they do.

    • witlesschum

      Wood is kind of one of them, with some of the rhetoric he talks about, but it is an excellent article overall.

  • CrunchyFrog

    Very interesting discussion, extremely detailed.

    However sometimes digging into the details may lead you to miss the real point. The old “forest for the trees” issue. When ISIS suddenly popped into media consciousness my initial reaction was that this development is going to be extremely beneficial for certain moneyed interests. I still think that. While a close examination of the details of the beliefs and philosophies of ISIS is intriguing, I can’t help feeling like we’re talking about the puppets and not about their masters.

    Also, this long post has a lot of depth to it, but it really needs to be proofread because a lot of sentences just aren’t right. For example: ” can simultaneously be true an irrelevant as” – the “an” should be “and”. Reads like one of my posts before I edit it.

    • Incornsyucopia

      Great job mixing tinfoil-hat conspiracy mongering with obnoxious pedantry!

    • witlesschum

      The answer to false dichotomies like you’re setting up is always we can do both. Because we can both oppose those in the U.S. who want to use these medieval cosplayers as an excuse for their nefarious actions and oppose the Islamic State itself. They don’t appear to me to be anyone’s puppet. Al Qaeda was the best thing to ever happen to George W. Bush politically, but that didn’t mean he was in some sense their master or they his puppets. Simplifying the complex relationship of independent actors playing off each other, even rhetorically, is dumb.

      • John F

        Back in my college days I took a course on the “History of European Socialism” the Prof was a bit of a Trotskyte*… any way he mentioned that it took him years before he realized a fellow traveler of his was SERIOUS when he continually condemned Lenin as a puppet of Ludendorff…

        *whose position was that “The Revolution” had not yet occurred, that the Russian Revolution was not hijacked by Stalin et al, but was not “The Revolution” that socialists yearned for the way Christians yearn for the 2nd coming- so when was The Revolution coming? Hard to tell he said, industrial nations after adopting mixed economies were a bit more durable and flexible than someone looking in the 19th/ early 20th centuries would have thought- in his mind The Revolution would need a prelude, a period of [mis]rule by the Randians could do the trick. If he’s still around (doubt it- he was old 30 years ago) my guess is he’s seen the creeping return of the gilded age since then as a POSITIVE in the “heightening the contradictions sense

  • I actually taught this article in a hs class today on Apocalypse. The students had done some reading on millinerian movements and also revitalization cults. The students were locating ISIS firmly in revitalization movements. The question is: are they Mormons or are they Ghost Dancers?

    • heckblazer

      Reading Weston La Barre by chance?

      • DrDick

        James Mooney I hope. LaBarre did the Native American Church.

        • heckblazer

          La Barre also wrote the book The Ghost Dance, which includes a good bit of discussion of millennialist movements in general. Though I missed the HS bit, so probably not given how dense the book is.

          • Yeah, they were mostly reading stuff from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Religion for overview.

    • Malaclypse

      Mormons, during the phase where the Danites were active.

      • During arguments over scripture, did anyone ever say “Book ’em, Danite”?

        • Malaclypse

          The Danites were, um, not known for taking people into lawful custody.

          • “Book ’em”…like throwing a holy book at them…never mind. It’s too early in the morning for me to come up with good double entendres.

          • Hogan

            “Cook ’em, Danite.”

    • ColBatGuano

      are they Mormons or are they Ghost Dancers?

      I love that Killers song!

  • petesh

    Thanks for this. What do you see as the implications for US policy?

  • The Temporary Name

    I liked the Wood article a lot.

    Some disappointing trivia:

    http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2015/02/22/Top-Muslim-cleric-urges-education-reform-to-curb-extremism-.html

    The head of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most prestigious seat of learning, called on Sunday for education reform in Muslim countries in an effort to contain the spread of religious extremism.

    Speaking at counter-terrorism forum in the Saudi holy city of Makka, Al-Azhar grand imam Ahmed al-Tayib linked extremism to “bad interpretations of the Quran and the sunna,” the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed.

    On Feb. 4, after ISIS released a video showing Maaz al-Kassasbeh dying in a cage engulfed in flames, Tayib said the jihadists deserved to be killed or crucified.

    On Sunday in Meka, home to Islam’s holiest sites, he made no mention of IS but denounced “terrorist groups… who have opted for savage and barbaric practices”.

    • blowback

      ISIS are Wahhabists so a counter-terrorism forum in Mecca is nothing more than a smoke screen for the Saudi royal family given the support they have provided to ISIS. Without the Saudi royal family, there would be no ISIS although first the United Kingdom and and then the United States are both culpable because of their support for the Saudi royal family over the last ninety years. I’m not saying that ISIS is part of a plot by either the CIA or MI6, it’s more that the USG/UKG provided the growth medium in which ISIS gestated and was born.

      • joe from Lowell

        Juan Cole keeps hammering home the point that, no, ISIL are not Wahabbists.

        Al Nusra are Wahabbists. ISIL is a different kettle of fish.

        Quickest link I can find before the edit timer runs out:

        http://www.juancole.com/2014/09/things-fight-against.html#comment-290774

        • joe from Lowell

          You must admit, what the link lacks in detail, it makes up for in pithiness.

          • buermann

            In Engaging the Muslim World he pretty much identifies Wahhabism with the Saudi state: he insists the 9/11 attackers were not Wahhabi because they wanted to overthrow the monarchy, no other reason is really provided. Here he says they’re Salafi because Wahhabi clerics denounce them (but so do some Salafi clerics, so?):

            http://www.juancole.com/2014/09/kirkuk-province-turning.html#comment-292760

            Here in the NYT the same resident expert of the Atlantic piece says, “It is a kind of untamed Wahhabism. Wahhabism is the closest religious cognate.” Half of that quote is in fact used in the Atlantic article to try and argue that ISIS is not Wahhabi but something historically medieval, without any actual examples of anything historically comparable. The NYT article goes on to outline instances of ISIS plastering quotes of al-Wahhab on their vans and using al-Wahhab textbooks in schools:

            http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/25/world/middleeast/isis-abu-bakr-baghdadi-caliph-wahhabi.html?_r=1&gwh=64EE1085B4260B0B25C9C73B8206A36C&gwt=pay&assetType=nyt_now

            To me it just looks like the first three Saudi conquests, from accusing other Sunnis of polytheism for believing in intercession (and using that as the pretext for conquest) to the tobacco bonfires.

            But al-Wahhab himself was a Salafi, so I just don’t see how there’s a distinction with a difference without a wider Salafi movement that particularly objects to al-Wahhab. And maybe there is, but clearly ISIS does not.

      • jeer9

        Fortunately, (in the spirit of definitional silliness) King Abdullah was a moderate or things would be much worse.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Is there any proof that the Saudi royal family even tacitly approves of ISIS support? To whatever extent the royal family is involved I suspect its an oppositional faction which supports ISIS since a strong ISIS would even threaten the ruling faction of the Royal Family. Let’s be clear, Bin Laden wanted the Saudi Royal Family dead every bit as much as he wanted Bush dead so this rush to pin the blame on the Saudi Royal Family seems half baked to me.

        • witlesschum

          It’s true that they’re responsible for funding and pushing a lot of Sunni extremists, so apparently they must responsible for funding and pushing these Sunni extremists! The Wood article doesn’t mention any evidence the Saudis are involved in this specific bit of nastiness.

          • rea

            It seems facially unlikely that the Saudis would support ISIS, because ISIS, in effect, denies the legitimacy of the House of Saud’s claim to rule. There can be only one Caliph.

          • ThrottleJockey

            And remember how this stuff works. You have polygamous marriage. So even though Bin Laden drove an airplane into the World Trade Center, his siblings–also named Bin Laden–were busy investing tens of millions with the Carlyle Group alongside the Bush Family. It may be true that factions of the Saudi Royal Family (and other rich Saudis) give money to extremists, but it puffs this up into more of a conspiracy than there actually is.

            From the above link:

            This morning [September 10, 2001] it is holding its annual investor conference at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Washington, DC. Among the guests of honor is investor Shafig bin Laden, brother of Osama bin Laden. [Observer, 6/16/2002; London Times, 5/8/2003] Former President George H. W. Bush, who makes speeches on behalf of the Carlyle Group and is also senior adviser to its Asian Partners fund [Wall Street Journal, 9/27/2001] , attended the conference the previous day, but is not there today (see (8:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001).

            • rea

              Osama’s grandfather had 54 kids. Just because someone’s a bin Laden does not mean he had anything to do with Osama

        • blowback

          The Saudis hoped that by funding the jihadis and persuading them to attack targets abroad, they would get rid of their most dangerous internal opponents. Did the Saudi royal family set out to create ISIS in its present form and with its current aims? Probably not, but they certainly created the conditions in which it came into being. And that doesn’t mean that individual princes in the Saudi royal family haven’t funded ISIS or its constituents directly.

          • joe from Lowell

            You should change your handle to walkback.

            ISIS are Wahhabists so a counter-terrorism forum in Mecca is nothing more than a smoke screen for the Saudi royal family given the support they have provided to ISIS.

  • heckblazer

    I’m guessing, without much foundation, that many of the “returned” fighters that leave ISIS are less interested in pursuing its aims in Europe and the US than in getting as far away from the organization as they can

    I recently read an article one returned fighter who had recently been convicted in the UK of fighting in Syria. Th reason he gave for coming back was taking along insufficient nicotine gum and thus being unable to quit smoking. No small thing when ISIS is executing smokers.

    • Woodrowfan

      one must have priorities…

  • Hogan

    Excellent discussion of religious authenticity, Rob. “Islam” (like “Judaism,” “Christianity,” et al. ad inf.) is an essentially contested concept whose contestation is best left to people who have a stake in the outcome. (Most of whom don’t think “contestation” is a real word.)

    • matt w

      But I think this runs both ways. It’s not uncommon for outsiders to a religion to claim that the most loathesomely extreme adherents of the religion represent its true essence–at least, it’s not uncommon for Western outsiders to Islam to do this to Islam, it’s a favorite maneuver of Sam Harris’s. And it’s a pernicious move that deserves pushback, because it supports Islamophobia–pants-shitting about the imposition of Sharia, the idea that Islamic countries must be dealt with by force, like that. When Wood spends the entire first part of his essay giving the microphone to someone who thinks that non-ISIS Muslims have a politically correct cotton-candy view of their religion, and finishes his article with a Hitler analogy, I think the concern about this rhetoric rises above “to what use could a right wing asshole put this argument?”–he’s inviting that use of the argument.

      This is not to deny that the other stuff in the article is worthwhile and far more interesting.

      • The Temporary Name

        It’s a little odd to think that Wood is going to hand more ammo to the right wing than the guys who burn people and take slaves.

        I see what you mean by your argument though, and I have some sympathy for it, as things are just going to get shittier for some people I know. Still, I don’t think the Wood article is a slur or represents ISIS as Islam’s true essence: he’s just demonstrating that ISIS has an authenticity and depth (within the terms it sets for itself) that puts it outside the analysis of the ignorant (in which group I would include myself).

      • CP

        It’s not uncommon for outsiders to a religion to claim that the most loathesomely extreme adherents of the religion represent its true essence–at least, it’s not uncommon for Western outsiders to Islam to do this to Islam, it’s a favorite maneuver of Sam Harris’s.

        And it doesn’t stop there, and tends to continue into a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose argument. Critics from Sam Harris and his Christian counterparts will make this dichotomy, saying that (the popular phrase) “there are moderate Muslims, but there is no moderate Islam.” So they admit, especially when accused of bigotry, that there are plenty of Muslims who live their lives without murdering their neighbors or honor-killing their daughters. But that doesn’t translate into approval and encouragement for these Muslims – instead, the so-called “moderates” get pilloried even harder, because they’re allegedly somehow “legitimizing” the psychopaths.

        If you’re a Muslim and you do anything short of loudly and publicly condemning Daesh, you’re bad – but if you loudly and publicly condemn them, you’re still bad, because you’re giving the impression that it’s possible to be Muslim without being a murdering psycho. You can’t win.

        • witlesschum

          Yeah, Wood gets into basically arguing, well actually the Islamic State has a plausible and even literal interpretation of what the Koran says. Which I guess is true, but the fact that he thinks it’s important suggests he doesn’t get what I think is the essential truth about all the big monothesisms and Hinduism and probably other religions that I don’t know anything at all about.

          Believers are good people based upon the extent that they ignore the literal words of their supposed holy texts and instead follow the parts they like and implications of good values contained within, while ignoring or explaining away all the ancient bullshit. The Islamic State doesn’t do that, they’re all about the ancient bullshit. Anyone who took a similarly literal approach to Christianity or Judiasm would be equally monstrous, because ancient people who wrote holy books hadn’t had an enlightenment or learned how the cosmos works or what causes disease and so on. That’s just a given, in my opinion, but Wood doesn’t really give a head fake toward it, I guess because he either doesn’t realize that or wants his audience to take the important doctrinal differences the Islamic State has from other Salafis, etc.

          The fact that it’s a plausible interpretation of the text doesn’t mean anything, because almost no extant religious people actually meaningfully follow a literal reading of their texts. So acting like it’s a thing in this case makes no sense.

      • Becker

        When I reached the Bernard Haykel interview in that article, I started saying, out loud and quite frustratedly, “no, no, no, no, no . . .” Both outsiders like Harris and co., as well as our own domestic fundamentalists of all stripes, are fond of claiming that only the most reactionary (they usually don’t use that word as a self-descriptor) strsins of religion are “true.”

        That part of the interview where the article describes how ISIS’ takfiri doctrines would excommunicate not only all non-Sunni Muslims, but nearly every Muslim who has ever lived, most especially those born after the end of whatever caliphate preceded the Ottomans (maybe the Seljuks? I don’t know), reminded me of the Great Apostasy theory of many Protestants (as well as the Witnesses, the Mormons and maybe the 7DAs) that Christianity basically ceased to exist between the end of the Apostolic Era and the beginning of the Reformation (or whenever their particular prophet came of age).

        • The Temporary Name
          • Donald

            I can’t understand what was “weak” in the links that Rob linked. They seemed fine to me. It’s obvious that ISIS has religious motives, but equally obvious that countries that have suffered the level of violence that Iraq and Syria have experienced are likely to produce fanatics of one sort or another. Given that this is the Middle East, is it surprising that the nature of the fanaticism involves Islam? If the US suffered that level of intense violence, no doubt it would involve Christianity. Maybe people would dress up in sheets and burn crosses.

            And Haykel was annoying in the article, and he walks some of it back (or says that Wood didn’t quote him on some key points) in that link you provide, so doesn’t that mean that the original Atlantic piece had some weaknesses? I’m also surprised at Rob’s cavalier dismissal of how Islamophobes will read this. Couldn’t Wood have accurately described the motivations of ISIS without citing Haykel seeming to endorse the notion that moderate Muslims have embraced a candy coated fantasy version of their religion? What the hell was that doing in a serious journalistic piece? And are Islamophobes such a minor factor in American politics that we can safely brush off concerns about how an article supports their viewpoint?

            • The Temporary Name

              And Haykel was annoying in the article, and he walks some of it back (or says that Wood didn’t quote him on some key points) in that link you provide, so doesn’t that mean that the original Atlantic piece had some weaknesses?

              Yes, in that the presentation of Haykel’s statements without more context made him seem lopsided, but at the same time I took Haykel to be describing ISIS, a very very very lopsided movement, and not speaking about the whole of Islamic tradition and jurisprudence. Maybe I supplied the context that made him sound cranky but not crazy.

            • ThrottleJockey

              And are Islamophobes such a minor factor in American politics that we can safely brush off concerns about how an article supports their viewpoint?

              Why should that be even the tiniest consideration???

              • witlesschum

                It’s never a bad idea to think about a thing, but in general Islamaphobes are Islamaphobes for other reasons than anything specifically Muslims do. They’d tell you they’re outraged by terrorist atrocities and cartoonist shooting, but those aren’t ever standards they apply to everyone.

                • ThrottleJockey

                  Hey, WC. I think a truthful argument should be the only argument. Refusing to state the truth out of political considerations (even when the political considerations are good and righteous) is just plain wrong to me….Too often truth is the 1st casualty of politicking.

                • witlesschum

                  Hey, TJ. That’s all true, but I’d argue thinking about how things will be received is part of telling the truth. If you tell the truth, but a bunch of people don’t get it because of how you phrased it, etc pisses them off or sends them down a rabbit hole and you could anticipate that, it’s incumbent on you to think about it.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Why even argue about what’s politically correct? The argument must never be, “We can’t say X is true because then right wing assholes will use that to press their political objectives.”

        Instead it must always be, “We must say that X is true, because X is true.” Otherwise you’re just trading talking points, and there’s no elucidation in that.

        • matt w

          In this case X (“ISIS represents true Islam”) wasn’t true, so once we’ve taken care of that I think it’s legitimate to consider whether this is one of those falsehoods that lends aid and comfort to bigots or one of the other kind.

          • Ronan

            In the case of the Atlantic article ? That’s obviously not the point he was making (quite the opposite, in fact, he argues there is no ‘true’ Islam..which is a point so obvious and trivial I’m surprised anyone would disagree)
            On the larger point I agree with TJ, not debating someone because it might encourage Islamaphobes is insane.

            • matt w

              Wood absolutely goes out of his way to suggest that real Muslims must acknowledge that slavery and crucifixion are OK some of the time.

              • Cheerful

                I think he goes out of his way to point out that slavery and crucifixion are practices sanctioned by early Islamic leaders. That doesn’t mean he also claims “real” muslims must call them ok today. It does mean that the practices are not completely alien to the concept of being muslim.

                At least that’s how I read him.

              • ThrottleJockey

                The interesting thing is that the Bible at least tacitly sanctions slavery as well. Must “real” Christians support slavery? Millions thought that in 1859.

                • rea

                  No tacitly about it–it’s damn explicit

                • ThrottleJockey

                  The OT is explicit, the NT is tacit.

    • Karen24

      Slactivist is, as always, good on the question of why we label nice members of religions “moderates,” implying that they lack religious passion. ALL monotheists do this for some reason.

      • Becker

        Fred Clark is an indispensible read for people who don’t “get” conservative Christianity. People who have never been believers, as well as ex-believers like me who came out of non-fundamentalist, non-evangelical traditions.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        that tendency isn’t limited to just religious beliefs. ‘uncompromising’ seems quite often to be synonymous with ‘purity’ or ‘authenticity’

      • Woodrowfan

        interesting essay. thank you for the link..

  • Peterr

    Saying that ISIS is well outside the mainstream of Islamic religious belief can simultaneously be true and irrelevant as to whether it can make intelligible claims to have the “correct” interpretation of the Islamic tradition.

    I get what you’re saying here, but I wouldn’t use the word “irrelevant.” Leaving aside the academic debates, there’s also a political/religious element at work when someone says that ISIS is well outside the mainstream of Islamic belief — especially when the ones saying it are Western Christians. That kind of critique potentially adds to the religiously motivated recruiting pitch for ISIS: “Who are these infidels who dare to try to teach us what is and is not true to the teachings of Islam?”

    • witlesschum

      I think it probably does that, but it probably also gives other Muslims heart to hear that the president of U.S. understands the Islamic State doesn’t speak for them and feels their pain as victims of it, so it’s hard to see how it would hurt more than it would help.

      • Peterr

        Agreed.

        My sense is that Obama is trying to thread the needle here, by standing against those who would paint this as a war between the West and Islam (Hi, GOP!), without going so far as to say “Islam has nothing to do with this, because these aren’t real Muslims.”

        In between is the “we’re fighting *these* people who did *those* things,” and resisting the temptation to get into debates on the Koran (leaving those to others in the Islamic world).

        But that’s the part that’s needed in this fight, and it can’t come from Obama. It has to come from the Islamic world, and can’t look as if it was coerced or purchased.

        To switch fundamentalisms for a moment . . .

        Fred Phelps preached his anti-gay hate for years in Topeka, and for a long time it was Fred against the LGBT community, which he cast as Christians vs heathens. When other Christians — particularly other Baptists — got tired of being painted with the “Oh, you think like Fred?” brush and began to speak out against him, that was the turning point. I had a friend describe to me the two biggest things that happened in Topeka during her lifefime, and she pointed to Brown v Board of Education and the (overdue but eventually strong) public stand of Topeka’s churches against Fred. Even those who do consider same-sex behavior to be sinful were standing up and saying “but that doesn’t justify what Fred is doing and saying.”

        When the LGBT community tried to say “Fred is not a real Christian,” it went nowhere. Indeed, it contributed to Fred’s sense of being a Christian facing the lions in the Roman Colosseum. But when pastors started to say that, it turned the tide. Fighting Fred took both activism from the LGBT community and the religious community. (And I note that these are not mutually exclusive groups.)

        • matt w

          True enough–but (not that I necessarily think you’re denying this) it seems to me that the Islamic world is pushing back against ISIS. Just as you’d expect, given that ISIS is fighting other Islamic countries. It’s mostly Muslims who are saying that ISIS is un-Islamic in the way that Wood is trying to refute.

  • joe from Lowell

    Very interesting piece.

    I don’t think the distinctions in how al Qaeda and Daesh operate gets enough attention, so people just sort of repurpose arguments from the drone war that don’t really apply.

    • ThrottleJockey

      Agreed

  • Dr. Waffle

    Great post. On a related note: is anyone else as horrified as I am by the wingnut rhetoric that’s been permeating the media and Interwebs lately? I mean, I know I shouldn’t be shocked, but they’ve really brought their A-game when it comes to discussing ISIS and its relationship to Islam. It seems like many of them have dropped all pretense of not being complete bigots.

    • heckblazer

      Here’s a little something for them from Haaretz last October:

      A senior Northern Command officer said Thursday that the Western coalition is making a big mistake in fighting against ISIS.

      The coalition forces’ attacks against the Islamic State support the “radical Shi’ite axis,” the unnamed officer said. “A strange situation has been created in which the United States, Canada and France are on the same side as Hezbollah, Iran and Assad. That doesn’t make sense,” he said.

      It was easier to deal with terrorism in its early stages [ISIS] than to face an Iranian threat and the Hezbollah, he said. “I believe the West intervened too early and not necessarily in the right direction,” he said.

      • Brien Jackson

        Well….this isn’t wrong, necessarily. Indeed one of the best reasons for washing our hands of (much of) the situation with ISIS is precisely that strong US action is going to necessarily strengthen Iran and Syria in the intermediate term, which could easily become the next unintended consequence we have to deal with, much as ISIS is in response to the Iraq war.

    • CP

      No more than usual. “Horrified” was in 2010, or as I still think of it, the Summer OF Hate, where the Ground Zero Mosque controversy exploded and this time there weren’t even the mealy-mouthed platitudes of George Bush or John McCain to temper them – it was full blown War On Islam and clarified for everyone that this level of Islamophobia had become not only the mainstream, but the only acceptable position within the GOP.

      Since then, they’ve stuck to it.

      • witlesschum

        Yeah, they’ve always chafed at this and never seemed happy to toe the line that George W. Bush laid down as far as not publicly waging a war on Islam. Good thing the Bush’s were so buddy-buddy with the Saudi royals, so he could view Muslims as people.

        • CP

          Like most of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, I think part of this is a holdover from Cold War mentalities. The Cold War sometimes brought out a weirdly ecumenical side to the Cold Warriors when they cast things as a worldwide struggle between the Godly and the Ungodly – where even if you weren’t a Christian or a WASP (e.g. Catholics, Jews, and Muslims), the fact that you were a Believer made you a fellow warrior in the struggle against Godless Communism.

          (“Godless Communism,” of course, could include believers who were judged to not be “true” believers. Ask liberation theology advocates in Latin America, or Muslims who were okay with Nasser’s brand of secular Arab Nationalism).

          ETA: it’s not all Cold War mentality, to be clear. What you mentioned about the Saud link is also a huge deal. The Cold War thing is just another aspect to it.

    • cleek

      it’s shocking, really. (to me, anyway).

      there was a link here a couple of days ago to a Byron York piece where York is being all faux-naive about how people are unsure about Obama’s religion. the comments there are cartoonishly bigoted. they range from calls for the extermination of all Muslims, to claims that Obama must be Muslim because his father was and religion is inherited.

      they don’t even pretend to be anything but proud bigots wishing for genocide.

  • DrDick

    I generally agree with your analysis here, though I do see some value to decoupling ISIS (and other terrorist groups) from Islam. ISIS, along with al Qaeda and the others, certainly use Islam as a justification and to recruit. At the same time, they are outside the mainstream of Islamic thought. All the Muslims I know do not support them and are outraged by their actions.

    The problem is that many on the right have used these groups to demonize Islam and to stigmatize Muslims. The same people who scream the loudest about Islam and terror are the the first to reject the terrorist label for radical right to lifers who attack clinics and abortion providers and reject the notion the many explicitly Christian White Power groups are Christian (or rightwing) terrorists. No religion has clean hands on this issue (not even Buddhists), but no world religion is actually responsible for the violence committed in their name.

    • Dr. Waffle

      Everyone knows that *real* Christians don’t commit acts of violence, and if they do they must be justified, because reasons.

    • xq

      At the same time, they are outside the mainstream of X thought. All the X I know do not support them and are outraged by their actions.

      This is always a terrible argument.

      • DrDick

        How and why? The same holds for the Christian religious extremists here. In both cases they use religion to justify their actions, but most followers of their faiths do not agree with them. All that argument says is that you cannot blame the religion for their actions.

  • MND

    To digress to a side issue in this post, what the hell happened to Salon? I stopped reading any of their political coverage years ago thanks to the painful click-bait headlines that made me feel stupider just for having read them, and the absurd focus on the latest outrageous thing some obvious troll like Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh said. Is there really a big audience for that nonsense? I guess not big enough if they’re going broke, but it was such a weird and misguided editorial direction to go in. The book and movie reviews are still good so I will miss the site for that.

    • Ann Outhouse

      They have a sucky, slow-loading web site with autoreload that you can’t disable unless you kill JavaScript. And the top front-page article at the moment is titled “From the Yoda gangbang to Sir Spankalot, here are the best porn sites on Blogger”.

      • Lee Rudolph

        Yoda gangbang

        Please, God, no.

        • Malaclypse

          Rule 34.

        • Could be worse. Could be a Jar-Jar Binks gangbang.

        • Origami Isopod

          “Douche before shooting, you must.”

  • CP

    I’m annoyed by the tendency to grant more radical forms of religious belief an unearned sense of authenticity, but it’s a tendency that runs across religions. As an interested outsider, it seems to me that reform and conservative Jews are often willing to grant far too much to their Orthodox and ultra-orthodox counterparts in terms of “authentic” belief and practice, even as they bitterly disagree with them on a variety of social and political questions.

    Thanks for pointing this out.

    The uncritical acceptance of the right wing nutjobs’ claim to be somehow more “authentic” or more strict in following their religion, essentially for no other reason than because they say so, has always pissed me off. Our religious right, as near as I can tell, owes far more to American nationalism, Ayn Rand’s economics and the red states’ (primarily the South) identity issues than anything in the Bible. That isn’t to say that they’re not authentic Christians, but the idea that they’re doing any less selection and rationalization than their “liberal” counterparts is just ridiculous.

    • ThrottleJockey

      A lot of the reason they get away with it, though, is that the Left has walked away from Christianity. You saw this when the Democratic base voted out the word “God” from the official party platform and then Obama had Villaraigosa re-insert it over their strident objections. Hell, a large number of commenters here are openly antagonistic toward Christianity–forgetting in my estimation how much of the early Civil Rights Movement depended on Christian support. It wasn’t the Southern Atheist Leadership Conference that MLK led. With the Left offering only lukewarm support for Christianity its no surprise that the Right has hijacked it. If we fail to define it, they will.

      • sibusisodan

        a large number of commenters here are openly antagonistic toward Christianity

        I know, you’re trolling. But you say that like it’s a bad thing?

        I eagerly await your denunciation of…oh…almost all of the prophets, for being openly antagonistic towards the dominant religious forms of their day.

        For myself, I am unable to look at even my own fractured attempts at Christian practice and honestly say that it doesn’t merit antagonism. Let alone the worst excesses of people and organisations with far more power and influence than me.

        • ThrottleJockey

          I’m not trolling. And I think its a horribly misguided belief that costs us electorally. You’ve already fallen into the trap that the Right Wing has set: That Southern Baptists are the only true Christians.

          I myself am a Live and Let Live kind of guy but I have problems with a party that feels the need to delete any mention of God in its platform, especially when the phrase they delete it from is wholly ecumenical.

          • Aimai

            Its not Ecumenical–lots of people either don’t worship the Christian God or don’t worship any god at all. Furthermore you might have noticed that in deleting mention of “god” (if that even happened) unless you are some kind of Christian bigot the Democratic party simply removed a highly problematic reference to all deities, not just to your deity of choice. Hindus don’t worship “god” and Jews don’t worship Jesus and lot of Protestants object to Catholic Marianism and I could go on and on. Not only are Southern Baptists not the only true Christians but all references to God in public documents can’t/ought not to be construed as always the Christian god–as the hilarious work of various local satanist groups demonstrates. If “God” referenes were deleted from a god damned secular document actual Baptists should be thanking everyone.

            • ThrottleJockey

              Who reads the word “God” as the Christian God? “God” simply refers to a Supreme Being–or in the case of Christianity, three Supreme Beings. And, heck, the phrase “God given rights” doesn’t refer to a specific religion…Had they removed the word “Jesus” then you’d have a point.

              • Aimai

                So what is your problem? Why would southern baptist christians be upset at the removal of an actually ecumenical, anything goes type reference to god? Why are you so upset? Are you actually trying to argue that there is something wrong with a secular approach to governance or a democratic party which choses not to exclude non theists, non christians, and secular people from participation as full members? You basically don’t even know what you are arguing at this point.

                • ThrottleJockey

                  Oh brother…I’m saying that the hostility shown by some Left wingers toward Christianity lets the Right Wing define Christianity exclusively for itself and hurts broader Left wing goals–like getting Dems elected to office.

              • Malaclypse

                or in the case of Christianity several Christian heresies, three Supreme Beings

                Fixed.

                • sibusisodan

                  I would like to be of one substance in a perichoretic union with this comment.

                • Lee Rudolph

                  Oi!

                • Malaclypse

                  I would like to be of one substance in a perichoretic union with this comment.

                  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the filioque remains an abomination.

              • John F

                Who reads the word “God” as the Christian God?

                A lot of people, in the US, I’d say a fair majority.

          • sibusisodan

            I’m not trolling.

            You’re bouncing between ‘but mean blog commentors said this!’ and ‘but I was talking about institutions like the Democratic party!’ depending on which part of your comment responders didn’t focus on.

            That two step is something one can only do if you are unclear about the point you’re making or indifferent to it.

            • ThrottleJockey

              But both are true, Sib. Blog commenters inform my perspective, but its not exclusively informed by blog commenters. That would be dumb since any one blog is just a narrow segment. The 2012 convention represents a broader cross-section of the activist/operative Left. In this case the data points align.

      • witlesschum

        The misconception you’re guilty of is thinking that the Democratic Party voting to take the word god out of its platform involves walking away from Christianity, rather than walking away from the current Republican vision of imposing a particular version of Christianity at gun (or Scalia) point. Officially the Dems seem perfectly welcoming to Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, whatever, they’ve just abandoned the idea that they’ll have anything to do with imposing any of those religions using the government’s power which is a good thing for its own sake and good politics for the party.

        MLK didn’t demand that his version of Christianity be written into the constitution and everyone forced to follow it. At most, he tried to get the values his Christianity suggested were good written into it, though most of them were already there and he just wanted them enforced.

        • ThrottleJockey

          There’s a false choice. In politics its not uncommon for people to define themselves in opposition to the other side, as opposed to defining themselves for themselves. In countering the GOP’s tortured interpretation of Christianity too many Left wingers object to any mention of God, much less Christianity.

          • Aimai

            No, not a false choice. Why should Jewish and Hindu and Atheist left wingers be forced to march under the banner of Christianity to make a few bigoted right wing christians happy? The majority of actual practicing christians, non evangelical and catholic, remain perfectly happy to vote Democratic. You are simply making shit up.

            • ThrottleJockey

              No, I’m not making shit up. You’re just wrong. 51% of Catholics and 58% of Protestants disapprove of Obama.

              Leaving the word “God” in your platform is not tantamount to a theocracy, nor does it suggest anything about Christianity. There are many interpretations of “God”.

              • Aimai

                Catholics are still a democratic constituency. Whatever polls show about their feelings they still voted overwhelmingly for Obama. And so did Jews. Southern White men did not but so what? They didn’t reject the Democratic party because it was anti christian (which, of course, its not. Only a very tendentious reading of reality would produce that claim) they rejected it because they are fucking racists.**

                ETA to correct myself. According to this pew survey:

                National Election Pool (NEP) exit poll data reported by NBC News show that about seven-in-ten white Protestants (72%) voted for Republican candidates in their congressional districts, roughly the same share as in 2010 (69%). Among white voters who describe themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians (a group that, in addition to Protestants, includes some Catholics and members of other faiths), a strong majority (78%) voted Republican in 2014, just as they did in 2010 (77%).1

                This year’s exit poll data show little to no change in the voting patterns of Catholics since the 2010 congressional elections. Catholics voted for Republican House candidates over Democratic candidates by a 54%-45% margin in 2014, and white Catholics supported the GOP over the Democratic Party by a 22-point margin (60% to 38%) this year, similar to 2010.

                But my basic point stands. White people won’t vote for a black man or a black-identified party. This will no doubt cease to be a problem when the democrats put back up a white candidate who, as usual, will be forced to pretend to be christian to please the many christian voters who are so bigoted they can’t imagine voting for someone not of their tribe. Or so, at least, TJ would argue without arguing it.

                • djw

                  Also Catholics tend to have a healthy appreciation of the potential value of separation of Church and State, for clear and obvious historical reasons. As a group I expect they’d be less likely to be troubled by this kind of symbolic shift (or make the insane interpretation of its meaning TJ suggests) than Protestants.

                • ThrottleJockey

                  Catholics are no longer reliably Democratic. You’ll recall that Kerry famously lost the Catholic vote to Bush!

                  So to refute Aimai’s point more clearly: Its not just race. A white Catholic lost the Catholic vote to a Protestant–by 5 points!! Obama learned from this and made overtures to moderate Christians. Smart liberals will do the same in the future.

                • CP

                  Got to agree with him on this count – the Catholic vote isn’t Democrat. Nor is it Republican. For years now it’s been the same as the national vote (to the point that IIRC most Catholics broke for Gore in 2000, but Bush in 2004).

                  There really isn’t a “Catholic vote” anymore. Catholics are probably the ultimate example of what integration looks like in America, actually – for most of history, as feared and hated as Muslims are today, but nowadays, indistinguishable from the population at large.

          • witlesschum

            In the Democratic Party platform, damn right I do. Same goes for Vishnu, Yahweh or atheism. If we need to stand for the opposite of right wing demands for enforced Christianity, that’s neutrality toward all religions.

            God is a specific religion or two and everybody knows it.

      • CP

        Weak sauce, says I. Not wanting the word “God” in your official party platform doesn’t make you anti-Christian. It means you’re acknowledging that this country’s government isn’t supposed to have an establishment of religion. Not having the party commit to your theological worldview does not mean they’re walking away from you, or in any way hostile to you. It’s acknowledging that the government can’t take sides.

        I’m getting mighty tired of Christians whining that it’s oppression or even rejection when they’re not given every special consideration and preferential treatment they’ve gotten used to over the years, and I’m far from the only one even within the Christian community.

        • ThrottleJockey

          There was no theological worldview present in the phrase they deleted, sir, and I’m not saying that Christians are “oppressed”. The notion that we are is laughable and part of the Southern Baptist Convention’s victimization message. I’m only saying the Left’s antipathy to Christianity has let the GOP unilaterally (re-)define it.

          • jim, some guy in iowa

            you call it ‘antipathy’ but the rest of us call it ‘not playing favorites’

            • Origami Isopod

              Bingo.

              Of course, to those with privilege (in this case religious), the two are often indistinguishable.

          • CP

            Didn’t say you did, though many do – I included the word “or even rejection” to cover your objection.

            As far as the rest of this goes, there is no reason whatsoever to include a reference to God in a political party platform, and, in an age when we have presidential candidates running on “changing the Constitution to reflect the word of the living God” (Mike Huckabee) or proclaiming that separation of church and state is “a lie of the left,” plenty of reason not to.

            And it doesn’t matter if you’re not specifically referencing the Christian God – nonbelief in God is also a thing in this country. (It’s not even blanket theism, since using “God” in the singular comes with its own set of assumptions).

            • Aimai

              Right to both Joe From Lowell’s point and CP’s point.

              Anyway the right answer to right wing victimization is not to try to play catch up and suck up to their puling voters–you can never overcome the power of whiny, self regarding, self interested, religious bigotry by trying to be inclusive. Because that’s not enough. There’s a reason for that old joke about how St. Peter is taking a newly arrived man around heaven and he is introduced to the Jews, the Muslims, the Catholics, the Buddhists and everyone else who is apparently there, enjoying the delights of paradise. Finally they come to a walled off part of heaven and from inside, behind the high walls, come similar sounds of joyous merriment. “Who’s in there?” the man asks St. Peter. “Oh,” St Peter replies, “its the Baptists, they can’t enjoy themselves if they think we let anyone else in here.”

              • ThrottleJockey

                There is a vast middle ground between conservative Southern Baptists and liberal atheists/agnostics. Obama courts this middle part of the electorate–he even got 6M evangelical voters in 2012–and its worked to his advantage. I’d be leery of pissing away this middle electorate out of sheer animus. This is why Obama personally insisted on re-inserting the God language into the platform.

                • CP

                  And again – removing the God reference isn’t animus, sheer or other. It’s respect for the religious neutrality that the government is supposed to maintain.

      • joe from Lowell

        You shouldn’t take your vision of “the Left” broadly from a few blog commenters. I mean, look at what you just wrote:

        You saw this when the Democratic base voted out the word “God” from the official party platform and then Obama had Villaraigosa re-insert it over their strident objections.

        So, the liberal Democratic President of the United States and the institutional Democratic Party aren’t the Left, but “a large number of commenters here” are?

        Beyond nut-picking, how serious is this problem you’re talking about?

        • ThrottleJockey

          I’m not basing it on blog commenters, I’m basing my opinion on what happened at the Democratic National Convention in 2012:

          Villaraigosa called the vote three times. The first two voice votes, which require a two-thirds majority to pass, were tied between “ays” and “nos.” On the third vote it was still hard to tell whether he “ays” were audibly louder than the “nays” in the half-full arena.

          When Villaraigosa announced “the ays have it,” loud boos erupted across the arena.

          An Obama campaign official said President Obama personally requested that “God” be put back into the platform. “Why did they change that?” Obama said, according to the official, when he heard the word [God] had been removed.

          That’s a much better representation of left wing operatives/activists than just blog commenters. To be honest I didn’t believe the press reports until I saw the video myself. Its shocking.

          • Hogan

            Moments after convention chairman Antonio Villaraigosa gaveled in day two of the Democratic Convention, the hall burst into chaos as Democrats voted to amend their party’s platform to include the word “God” and name Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

            So they were voting on two changes, but you just know which one everybody was booing.

            • ThrottleJockey

              It was a committee of activists and operatives which deleted both of these from the platform, demonstrating a change from previous platforms. So, sure, they dislike both things. The point stands.

      • DrDick

        Bull! I am not a believer, but I am not anti-Christian (or any other religion). I am adamantly opposed to imposing Christianity(or any other religion) on our government and public institutions, in clear, direct violation of the Constitution. The United States, as the founders explicitly stated in the Treaty of Tripoli, is in no way founded on the Christian religion.

        • ThrottleJockey

          To be honest you have said that teaching your kids Creationism is child abuse. That *might* be read as anti-Christian…To turn it around, it would be fair to characterize right wingers who teach their kids that illegal immigrants are criminals are “anti-immigrant”…so I don’t know whats in your heart, but that’s how it came across to me.

          • Aimai

            Creationism isn’t christian. Its christian(ist). Its also false. Render unto caesar what is caesar and render unto god what is god’s. You might want to revisit reality.

            • ThrottleJockey

              Aimai, you’re in no position to lecture anyone about Christianity. Whether you believe in Creationism or not, millions of Christians do. Its neither up to you, nor up to me; its up to them. In any event, Mark 12:17 has absolutely nothing to do with teaching Creationism!

              I’m not sure if your “reality” comment is meant to attack Creationists, but attacking someone’s faith is not cool. No more so than attacking their ethnicity, gender, race, or sexual orientation. It would also be beneath you.

              • DrDick

                More Xtianist bull. Most Christians do not believe in Creationism. It is an unsupported religious belief. There is no empirical support for it. Indeed, all the empirical evidence supports evolution. Teaching Creationism is child abuse, because you are deliberately harming your child’s ability to succeed in education and in employment. All of medicine and biology is grounded in evolution. Those are the “facts”. That people choose to believe things that are demonstrably untrue is also a fact (see conservatism).

                • ThrottleJockey

                  OMG and you wonder why people *might* get the impression that you’re anti-Christian!

                  And to get to your theory that most Christians don’t believe in Creationism, you’d have to include the results of nominal Christians–people who never or only seldom attend church! At any rate, its absurd that a non-Christian can lecture a Christian on what is or is not authentically Christian–especially when 69% of regular church attendees believe in Creationism! (Read Farley’s post on ISIS)

                • jim, some guy in iowa

                  i have to admit a certain amount of amusement at the sight of all these conservative lectures on what is and what isn’t authentically liberal…

                • sibusisodan

                  At any rate, its laughable that a non-Christian can lecture a Christian on what is or is not authentically Christian!

                  Not laughable. I’ve been pulled up several times by people outside of my faith tradition about my opinions or behaviour which weren’t getting anywhere near what I claimed to be doing.

                  They, looking in from the outside, could see that more clearly than I could. They were correct.

                • ThrottleJockey

                  Jim–I’m not a conservative. I’m a liberal Christian. And I’m not saying DrDick isn’t authentically liberal.

                  Sibusisodan–DrDick is not de Tocqueville. You can’t disregard what tens of millions of Christians profess and then say you understand their religion better than they do. Its bad anthropology and as an anthropologist DrDick knows this.

                • sibusisodan

                  You can’t disregard what tens of millions of Christians profess and then say you understand their religion better than they do.

                  Sure you can. It doesn’t make them bad Christians. It doesn’t make them insincere, unrighteous or inauthentic.

                  But, insofar as statements about doctrine are dependant on text and history, those statements can be weighed for congruity with that text and history. And that weighing can be done by outsiders as well as insiders.

                  Note the distinction I’m drawing here – which you are conflating – between the sincerity or authenticity of the person, and the congruity of the faith statements to which they assent.

                  Claiming to understand someone’s religion is almost impossible. But their doctrine? Absolutely.

                • Malaclypse

                  And to get to your theory that most Christians don’t believe in Creationism, you’d have to include the results of nominal Christians–people who never or only seldom attend church!

                  Well, them and the Pope, but what would he know?

                • DrDick

                  Throttle Jockey –

                  You seem to be the one policing who is or is not an “authentic Christian”, not me. I accept that anyone who claims to be Christian is one. I have no interest at all in “what is or is not authentically Christian”, since there are almost as many answers to that as there are Christians. My fact claims are regarding empirical evidence to support the scriptural accounts and interpretations of them, and I have read the Bible cover to cover along with the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and many other holy books. It is the near complete lack of external supporting evidence that I was referring to. You also have no idea what anthropology is or what the standards of evaluation are. Your ethnocentric views on what Christianity is are not dispositive or binding on the millions who disagree with you.

                • CP

                  And to get to your theory that most Christians don’t believe in Creationism, you’d have to include the results of nominal Christians–people who never or only seldom attend church!

                  Jeepers, Doctor. You mean you’re polling all the Christians in the country instead of just the people who pass ThrottleJocket’s purity test for who is and isn’t a real Christian? How very dishonest of you.

                  To be fair to ThrottleJockey, if you exclude all the Christians who don’t believe in creationism, most Christians do believe in creationism.

                • ThrottleJockey

                  Actually, I’m not policing who is or is not authentically Christian. The mistake you’re making is to take Catholic religious doctrine as the arbiter of “authentically” Christian doctrine when in fact its not. The fact that Protestant religious doctrine is incongruent (to use Sib’s phrasing) with Catholic doctrine is irrelevant. First, Catholic doctrine itself only adopted evolution in the ’50s, and second, non-Catholic Christians also have a voice in defining Christian doctrine.

                  In the same vein that Purgatory is a part of Christian doctrine even though (most) Protestants don’t accept it, Creationism is also a part of Christian doctrine even if (most) Catholics don’t accept it.

                • sibusisodan

                  Actually, I’m not policing who is or is not authentically Christian.

                  If that’s not policing behaviour, it’s definitely neighbourhood-watching it.

                • Malaclypse

                  In the same vein that Purgatory is a part of Christian doctrine even though (most) Protestants don’t accept it, Creationism is also a part of Christian doctrine even if (most) Catholics don’t accept it.

                  By this logic, the idea that Lucifer is the brother of Jesus is Christian doctrine, because Mormons believe it, and the belief of any Christian group becomes Christian doctrine.

                  Well done.

                • DrDick

                  the belief of any Christian group becomes Christian doctrine.

                  No, no, no, Mal! It is only doctrines that TJ finds acceptable that can become Christian doctrine. Heresies like evolution can never be incorporated.

                • Aimai

                  He’s just tone policing for our benefit. The leftists, jews, atheists, hindus, muslims, buddhists, and catholics can just shut up already about the secular state or the lack of a role for a legitimate political party in arbitrating religious disputes or recognizing particular gods. That just alienates the real and only valuable voters a party can have: 6 million evangelicals who voted for Obama and who apparently won’t vote ever again for a democrat.

                  **I was particularly fascinated by the part of the argument which goes like this: Obama lost the white southern evangelical vote but Kerry did too so that voter isn’t a confirmed racist, he’s a confirmed anti-democrat so the democratic party should keep reaching out to these critical god botherers for votes. Or something. Kerry was a PRACTICING CATHOLIC who attended Mass regularly but who was rejected by the right wing catholic hierarchy and their right leaning proestant co-bigots as insufficiently christianist for purity. If anything could put the lie to the continued insistence that christian voters vote their religion instead of their political prejudices it would be that. Christians won’t reliably vote for the self proclaimed christian in the race because they judge people’s christianity and belief by whether they track right wing prejudices, not by the person (or hte party’s) stated receptivity to christian god stuff.

                • Malaclypse

                  Heresies like evolution can never be incorporated.

                  I’m just impressed that TJ has led us through an endless discussion of what is authentic Christian doctrine without even once referencing the Nicene Creed.

                  Which makes sense, because 1) unlike the Nicene Creed, he claims Christianity has three Supreme Beings, and 2) everything he claims is authentic doctrine is an accretion unsupported by most traditions.

              • Origami Isopod

                Aimai, you’re in no position to lecture anyone about Christianity.

                An anthropologist is certainly in a better position than you are to do so.

                but attacking someone’s faith is not cool.

                Unlike ethnicity, skin color, gender, etc., people choose to believe in asinine bullshit like Cre[a]ti[o]nism. I will mock the everliving shit out of it all the livelong day and feel not one bit bad for it.

  • wengler

    In terms of what Obama says about movements like ISIS, it matters in that attempting to defeat every group militarily that declares itself ‘the only true Muslim’ is stupid.

    The rise of ISIS is a more interesting story in that it exposed the total incompetence and corruption of the people ruling Iraq. It has been The Sunni Revolt Part II and will remain an intractable problem as long as the same system prevails there.

    • ThrottleJockey

      Corruption or ethnic self-interest? Why would the Shia want to cooperate with the people who oppressed them for all these decades? Outside of S. Africa (thanks to Mandela) very few oppressed groups just forgive and forget. This same thing happened in Rwanda, and the reckoning was much more severe.

  • tsam

    Very well done, Robert. Great read, great insights.

  • Barry Freed

    This is a very good post but the original Atlantic article is actually very misleading and flat out false in parts. It’s not straw man nitpicking to point this out. ISIL is not medieval in any way shape or form. Not in their conduction of military operations and certainly not in their theological/juridical justifications for their actions.

    They do not follow centuries of well-established principles of juridical and theological interpretation of their religious texts in their wholesale condemnation of everyone who does not accept Baghdadi as the Caliph as being an unbeliever. First, is the fact in medieval classic Islamic thought the topic of unbelief was treated first and foremost as a matter of hypothetical theology – delineating the contours of the faith, as it were. And rarely if ever was treated as a matter requiring judicial punishment.

    Where declaring unbelief (takfir) was concerned, there were a certain procedures that needed to be followed. First, at a minimum, the accused was given the chance to convert or repent of their apostasy which repentance was enough to avert punishemnt. This is certainly not how ISIL conducts itself.

    Also, the concept of doubt is given a priority in Islamic legal thinking. If there is any cause for doubt than that weighs decisively in favor of the accused. This is also nowhere to be found in ISIL’s behavior.

    Burning alive is unheard of and is expressly a punishment to be reserved for God alone. This is well attested in numerous sound traditions (hadith) and explains just why the burning of the Jordanian pilot was so shocking in the Muslim world. Not because ISIL is representative of a normative Islamic tradition, even an extreme version of such, but because it was such a departure, even an outright negation of that traditon.

    There is nothing medieval or normative about the way ISIL interprets Islamic law. They are pragmatists and concerned with controlling territory and swearing fealty to their Caliph, everything else is in service of this.

    Finally Muslims are naturally reluctant to call another Muslim an unbeliever. Traditionally this was a matter left for God and the afterlife. (this is well attested in numerous very sound traditions thaht many Muslims learn in school. There is the story of when one of the hypocrites – who Muhammad tolerated after they professed Islam – in battle against a Muslim uttered the declaration of faith and a Muslim, a companion of Muhammad killed him anyway. When asked why he did so by Muhammad the man replied that clearly the hypocrite was lying, “did you open his heart and look inside to see what he believed” replied Muhammad.

    This internalization of the reluctance to declare another Muslim an unbeliever causes a kind of Catch-22 that binds Muslims when they are caught up in a discourse that expects them to distance themselves from other Muslims.

    I should add that actual instances of legal takfir and punishment for the same are very rare in medieval Islamic sources. And that the punishment for false accusations of unbelief was as bad as being successfully accused of unbelief and just adds to the reluctance to go there.
    —-
    BTW, this is a good article that takes religious categories and thinking seriously:

    http://nisralnasr.blogspot.ca/2015/02/sacrificing-humans.html

    • The Temporary Name

      They do not follow centuries of well-established principles

      Well right, if they want to return to the seventh century they get to ignore what’s after, a radical position and convenient because you skip a lotta reading.

      • Cheerful

        I guess i was thinking the same thing. If their own theory of self is that true Islam focuses only on what they think can be drawn from the earliest sources, than the experience of how Islam actually developed over the centuries would be irrelevant – creeping heresy.

        In a different form, it looks like the Protestant vs. Catholic theory of what is the Church – simply the earliest writing or the experience and wisdom of church fathers and religious leaders since.

    • Salem

      Burning alive is unheard of and is expressly a punishment to be reserved for God alone.

      But Abu Bakr burned Fuja’ah Al-Sulami alive. So to make that argument, you have to posit that Abu Bakr’s example shouldn’t be followed.

      This is why making these arguments with Da’ish just plays into their hands.

      • Barry Freed

        The source for that is Tabari’s History which is not a source for Islamic law. Tabari wrote great history, he was the Muslim Herodotus (see Hodgson’s brilliant article on reading Tabari and early Islamic historiography) but he included like Herodotus he included just about everything he read or heard about (though I would tend to agree that this makes such reports a bit more believable, again, see Hodgson).

        Far more important are the laws for jihad promulgated by Abu Bakr. These were widely accepted as having legal force:

        Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy’s flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone

        .

        Granted, one of the key sources for this is also Tabari but this tradition was widely reported and had a body of legal interpretation that built up around it. (More later perhaps.)

        • Aimai

          Thanks for this important point: everything that has ever happened in history to one group or another doesn’t constitute lawful authority for it happening now. Especially in Islamic law/theology which is so very legalistic and devoted to authenticating and analyzing everything.

          • Barry Freed

            And of course this bit: You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone in that quote means Christians.

    • Origami Isopod

      ISIL is not medieval in any way shape or form. Not in their conduction of military operations and certainly not in their theological/juridical justifications for their actions.

      I’d love to see a moratorium on calling religious fundamentalists of any sort “medieval.” Religious fundamentalism is a reaction to modernism.

      Also, while I didn’t read the Atlantic article, I’d disagree with Farley on the Salon and ThinkProgress rebuttals to Haykel; I’d say they were perfectly fine.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    Very insightful piece, Robert. Thanks for it.

    I had three problems with the Wood piece that seem not to get much mention but that, I think, rise above the level of nitpicking.

    The first is actually mentioned just upthread by Barry Freed: to call ISIS “medieval” seems entirely incorrect. Specifically for all the reasons laid out by Barry upthread. More generally because to do so is to engage in lazy negative stereotypes about the Middle Ages as well as lazy positive ones about modernity. ISIS seems to be a new development in Islam and to have many distinctly modern features.

    Second, Wood’s claim that “centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes” seems even more clearly wrong. The Troubles in Ireland and the wars in the former Yugoslavia were both largely religious in nature. Pogroms against Jews did not stop “centuries ago,” but continued well into the last century. The Catholic Church in Spain backed the White Terror during and after the Spanish Civil War.

    Finally, the notion that there is a “Western bias” that “if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul” is bizarrely off-base. To begin with, while religious ideology may not matter much in Berlin, it certainly matters in Washington…and even more in many of our state capitals. And most Americans understand this and take religion seriously as a political force whether they like it or not. Secondly, despite the ritual claim that ISIS is a terrorist organization and therefore not religious, I think the vast majority of Americans would say its motivations are religious.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      i dunno. i suppose most americans *do* think isis’ motivations are religious… but i think the motivation is the same old: power/autonomy. they invoke religion in an effort to give that pursuit of power a kind of legitimacy- not just the minds of the people they’re trying to control- and in ours- but in their own minds as well

      • ThrottleJockey

        You think ISIS is twisting the faith to suit their own cynical ends, instead of truly believing that ISIS’ Allah-given mission is to establish a modern caliphate?

        There’s a danger in not taking people at their word, especially these people. Some people believe in money, some people believe in power, and some people believe in religion.

        • witlesschum

          Agreed. I don’t think there’s a lot of cynical calculation involved in the Islamic State because they really do seem to be doing things not to their particular advantage, like trying to control territory. They really mean this stupid Caliph stuff.

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          well, who really knows what someone else thinks. i tend to think they’re more idealistic than cynical, but also that their desire for self determination, etc comes first

        • djw

          There’s a danger in not taking people at their word, especially these people.

          This is a meaningless statement, because its inverse is also every bit as accurate. The danger would be better charcterized as dogmatically, uncritically, doing one or the other.

          • tsam

            I take them at their word when they say they’re going to murder all their neighbors to set up their psychotic little empire.

            I don’t take the religious bluster to be anything other than what it is, pure propaganda and bullshit. Whether the purveyors of propaganda believe it or not isn’t really relevant.

            • ThrottleJockey

              If someone is a mere opportunist who really twists religion in order to gain power or money, they can be bought off with money or power (the Saudi Royal Family comes to mind). If they’re in fact true believers, then their zealotry will only cease once their zealotry has been sated–or they’ve been “re-educated” or killed. Knowing your enemy’s true motive is often key to stopping them.

              • tsam

                Once they come out and say they’re going to kill everyone, then they kill everyone, the motives are in the rear-view mirror.

                The motives play into assessing a threat. Yes, understanding that these are true believers and willing to act like total savages makes the idea that diplomacy or reasoning won’t work. But we’re long past wondering if ISIS is a threat.

              • Malaclypse

                If someone is a mere opportunist who really twists religion in order to gain power or money, they can be bought off with money or power (the Saudi Royal Family comes to mind).

                Was Joseph Smith a mere opportunist, or a true believer? What about Brigham Young? Be sure and support your answer.

                • witlesschum

                  How about King James I, the polygamous monarch of Beaver Island, Michigan?

        • DrDick

          You assume that the two things, pursuit of power and profound religious belief, are mutually exclusive. History teaches that they are not. I think they are explicitly both and that the former shapes their belief in subtle and profound ways.

          • You mean to say that Ferdinand and Isabella actually existed?

    • Cheap Wino

      “Secondly, despite the ritual claim that ISIS is a terrorist organization and therefore not religious, I think the vast majority of Americans would say its motivations are religious.”

      And they would be right about those motivations. But I think it’s a good idea to approach the problem that they present with that attitude, especially when considering the. . . challenges Obama faces domestically. Not that the administration should ignore the religious context in decision making. But taking the secular approach strikes me as a winner, at the very least from a PR perspective. Getting into a national discussion about religious motivations and meaning vis a vis ISIL is a political loser. Do we really expect the media to get that right?

      • DrDick

        We could say the same thing about the anti-abortion terrorists or the Aryan Nations. They are clearly driven by their interpretation of Christianity, but they in no way represent most Christians.

    • Origami Isopod

      More generally because to do so is to engage in lazy negative stereotypes about the Middle Ages as well as lazy positive ones about modernity.

      Yeah, the popular image of the Middle Ages is very flawed. Like any other long era of history it was a mixed bag. And the “arc of progress” mindset flatters us unduly.

      Secondly, despite the ritual claim that ISIS is a terrorist organization and therefore not religious, I think the vast majority of Americans would say its motivations are religious.

      PZ Myers has written before that secular/atheist liberals make a grave mistake when they blithely assume nobody really believes x, in which x is some extreme belief that such liberals have never heard espoused in person. No, a lot of people do believe x, and it’s just as true in the West as elsewhere.

  • Quite Likely

    ISIS is pretty clearly a phenomena of Arab Sunnis, so it’s not going to spread beyond areas where they are the majority – meaning it long ago reached the limits of its expansion in Iraq.

    On the other hand, we thus far have not seen much ability of any other forces to ‘liberate’ Arab Sunni areas from ISIS control. The question is whether that is going to start to happen. If so, we might see what is described here: ISIS loses territory, loses morale, collapses. On the other hand, if no one manages to make significant inroads, we start to look at what a longer term ISIS run territory looks like, and wait for it to either moderate itself or implode.

    • Cheerful

      I guess the question is whether in Islamic areas outside Sunni Arabs, e.g. in Pakistan, Indonesia or Turkey, the power of the ISIS theology has any power to gather significant adherents and, if so, what they think their role will be – funnel support to ISIS’s caliphate or fight ISIS enemies close at hand.

      I can see the difference between ISIS and Al qaeda, but one can bleed into the other – the sympathizers to the Bosheviks in other countries were told they had their obligation to do what they could to help.

    • ThrottleJockey

      You’re assuming that a Sunni minority can’t beat a Shia majority. But minorities beat majorities all the time. Its happened again and again throughout human history.

  • Cheerful

    This is the wrong forum probably to get an answer, but I would love to know what use the right wing think is served by identifying ISIS as authentically Islam, and labeling the enemy Islamic terrorism. I was baffled and horrified recently when O’Reilly condemned the president for not declaring a Holy War. How could this possibly advance any reasonable aim?

    Culturally Christian myself I try to imagine how I would feel if another country suddenly decided to declare war against Christian terrorism. Even if intellectually I would understand they are theoretically not trying to make me a target, emotionally I would fear that the actual war would not be so carefully circumscribed.

    • Marc

      Their victims are, overwhelmingly, other Muslims. There was an article about vigilates in Nigeria fighting their local fanatics – BH. When reporters asked about mercy for misguided kids, or the equivalent, the people involved had to remind them of the horrible things that they had done. That’s going to have a lot more relevance than some concern about meddling outsiders; France was pretty popular in Timbuktu when they expelled the foreign fanatics there.

    • rea

      I would love to know what use the right wing think is served by identifying ISIS as authentically Islam, and labeling the enemy Islamic terrorism.

      They see it has helpful in domestic politics. You might as well ask what use is opposing health care.

      • witlesschum

        That plus some authentic blood lust.

      • matt w

        I think many people on the right wing also authentically see all Muslims as the enemy and want to go to war against them.

    • cleek

      1. identify something Obama is for/against
      2. take the opposite side
      3. collect donations from those who are afraid that Obama is going to destroy them

      Even if intellectually I would understand they are theoretically not trying to make me a target, emotionally I would fear that the actual war would not be so carefully circumscribed.

      reminds me of a song…
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GM7fsiBg4g

  • MCofA

    I found the Wood article problematic in a few key ways. Mostly, it’s a deeply non-critical view of ISIL’s religious ideology. The claims they make are within Islam, but they can be critiqued in innumerable ways from within Islam. This is the sentence that stuck out to me the most:

    The caliph is required to implement Sharia.

    Sharia law was developed centuries after the caliphate ended. The implementation of legal analysis and shared norms for judges could only really occur after the collection of the Hadith and the establishment of jurisprudential rules, none of which were in place during or in the
    century after the caliphate.

    To write an academic article in which you talk about seventh-century sharia as if that were an actual thing rather than an entirely chimerical modern invention is to lose the thread of your research quite badly.

    They’re Muslims, yes, full stop. They are clearly creating a Muslim way of life in the world, but the way they’re doing it should not be taken so uncritically as an expression of an early Islam that can be recovered. It is an early Islam they are inventing for their own purposes.

    • MacK

      I do not find the idea that the Caliph is required to implement Sharia that odd – it only seems odd to someone who believes the separation of church and state is normal – but the thing is, that has only happened in the west as a result of the 30 Years War and the recognition that the king determining and enforcing the religion of his subjects was a recipe for mayhem.

      It was only at this time that “render unto god what is god’s and to caesar what is caesar’s” Matthew 22:15-22 ( see also Mark 12:13-17 and Luke 20:20-26) was dredged up to support the idea that Christianity agreed with secularism. In short, secularism is a modern construct that grew out of the enlightenment.

      Most versions of Islam does not accept in principle the idea that an Islamic society can be secular – instead many majority Islamic countries have adopted secularism, in part because their rulers were not about to accept a religion that somehow made them subordinate.

      Finally, it is not really early Islam they are trying to recreate, but more 12-13th century Islam.

    • Barry Freed

      Really good comment.

    • tsam

      I think the critical nature of the article was aimed at the fact that this expanding Caliphate is trying to mimic Mohammed’s conquest of the Arabian Peninsula and fulfilling the prophesies, making ISIS a Muslim version of our Dominionists (of sorts). I’m not sure how he thinks this should influence Western policy, other than to accept his assertion that ISIS is, in fact, an Islamic movement.

      Personally, I don’t quite understand how the debate over whether they are “real” Muslims has much relevance in discussing how to stop the genocidal nature of them, unless we’re talking about how to prevent more of their kind from rising.

      ISIS is really nothing more than a fascist group bent on conquest and ethnic cleansing. Their own stated goals indicate as such. The religious zealotry is a component–a Fifth Column type tool, as far as I can tell. Inventing religious doctrine to justify the means people use to control others isn’t a new thing, Christians have raised that to an art form.

  • Obama’s resistance to call them Islamic is, I think, the proper way to handle this issue. They self-identify as Islamic, true, but then remember the outrage when Bush called the attack on Iraq a crusade? And that was just from Christians. You know damned well that thing went viral on YouTube in Muslim countries and was used as a recruiting tool, never mind that he walked it back just days later.

    Indeed, that one slip may have created ISIS in the first place.

    The last thing we should be discussing is the religious overtones of ISIS, full stop. Rather, we should keep the focus tightly on what they want to accomplish which would not change if they were Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or even atheist: a tightly controlled dictatorship. And THAT should be the focus of our efforts.

    • Cheerful

      I thought the Wood article interesting (not knowing the early history of Islam probably helped as it prevented me from seeing the errors in history believed by ISIS and uncritically reported by Wood) but the weaker part of the story was trying to demonstrate the actual difference it made reporting ISIS as part of Islam. As you note it does little good for non Islamic westerners to engage on the question of what really is Islam.

      The value, if any, is to encourage current muslims to proclaim, repeatedly as needed (and given human difficulties in hearing things they don’t want to hear repeatedly is necessary) how the newly created early medieval theology proclaimed by ISIS actually does differ from the Islam practiced by most muslims.

      • joe from Lowell

        Our allies in the anti-ISIL coalition, the locals, are pushing the line about ISIL not being Islamic. They seem to see some value to it, from the perspective of reaching fence-sitters, so I’m inclined to think they know what they’re talking about.

        • Well, they too are trying to avoid what ISIS is looking for: a holy war.

    • CP

      The last thing we should be discussing is the religious overtones of ISIS, full stop.

      Word, Actor.

      The bottom line about this entire line of conversation is it’s ridiculous that it’s even being discussed at all. When we committed troops to helping local armies fight the Lord’s Resistance Army in East Africa, there was never a conversation about whether or not the LRA was “authentically” Christian, or what the implications of the LRA’s Christianity were for the broader Christian community and religion, or… etc.

      (There also wasn’t any screaming for the “moderate Christians” to “denounce the LRA.” It was generally understood that 1) that would be idiotic, as most of them have nothing to do with these people and have never even heard of the movement, and 2) the number of Christian soldiers engaged in fighting the LRA should be “denunciation” enough – a courtesy the Foxbots singularly fail to extent to all the Kurdish, Lebanese, Jordanian, Iraqi and other Muslim soldiers who’ve been doing far more to fight Daesh).

      It’d be nice if we could simply acknowledge that “yes, these people are dangerous, who cares what they claim to believe” and then plan accordingly. From what I’m told, when international terrorism first became a big thing in the seventies and eighties, it was dogma at the FBI that they should be treated as common criminals and their politics not even acknowledged – because 1) acknowledging any political content to their actions was thought to be doing them an honor they didn’t deserve, and 2) it was important for the purpose of democratic values to show everyone that the reason they were being chased down wasn’t because they were communists (or separatists or racists or fundamentalists or whatever), but because they’d committed a crime.

      We could do a lot worse than sticking with that model, as Obama (and Bush, for that matter) did WRT Islamic terrorists.

  • MacK

    Many of the arguments against the article sounded like efforts to deny that the Provisional IRA is/was Irish; of course it was. I may have disagreed with the PIRA’s violence, or that it was “republican” rather than fascist, of that it spoke for me or the vast majority of Irish people, but it would be silly to deny that organisation is/was Irish.

    Moreover, recognising the Islamic character of ISIS is important in terms of understanding how it recruits. Irish guys were not running off to join the Moro-Liberation Front, they were joining an organisation that claimed to represent them, to advance their “Irish” cause. Similarly, foolish 15 year old Anglo-Pakistani and Anglo-Bengali muslim girls are not running off to join a group of christian fundamentalist warriors – they are joining a group that is “Islamic” just as they see themselves as being.

    • CP

      That I can get behind.

    • Aimai

      I think this is a weird comparison. No one is denying that there is a fantasy “islamic” component to what ISIS thinks its doing but the analogy here isn’t to the Irishness of the Provisional IRA but to their religiousness. Iran and Iraq were at war for 7 years–which of the two was more “muslim” than the other?

      Now: Islam is, like Christianity, a pan-ethnic/universal religion so it stands to reason that people will be attracted to it and move towards it (the girls) even though its a brand of islam that is not espoused by their particular ethnic group. While the IRA being primarily a nationalist struggle drew on the notion of an ethnic/nationalist identity to attract followers.

      But that’s just epiphenomenal: Within the christian tradition this kind of shifting loyalty has certainly happened in the past time and again. Young people ran off to become Catholic or Protestant or Mormon. In fact there is always heavy recruiting among young people in breakaway sects in order for those sects to grow. There is nothing at all specifically islamic in young girls leaving their families and cleaving to the “new” religious community family, or even arranged marriages with martyrs and new converts. In fact the first thing a new religion or a new flavor of an old religion does it try to grab hold of children and fertile women to reproduce.

      • Aimai

        Tacky to reply to my own comment but Mac’s point about the girls running off to join Isis reminds me of other times that young people have run off to join military campaigns. In the play The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie one of the teenage boarding school girls runs off to join the Spanish side of the war:

        Mary, influenced by Brodie, sets out to Spain to join her brother, whom she believes is fighting for Franco. She is killed when her train is attacked shortly after crossing the frontier. This event serves as the last straw for Sandy, who betrays Miss Brodie’s efforts to impose her politics on her students to the school’s board of governors, who finally decide to terminate Miss Brodie.

        Sandy confronts Miss Brodie on her crimes, most especially her manipulation of Mary, her part in her senseless death (for which she is unapologetic) and the harmful influence she exerted on other girls, adding that Mary’s brother is actually fighting for the Spanish Republicans.

        Of course this is a fictional representation but of something that was really happening at the time. Young british people really did head out to spain to take part in the conflict. Decka Mitford and her first husband both did.

        • Lee Rudolph

          Decka Mitford and her first husband both did.

          And her sister’s (I don’t know exactly how fictionalized) portrayal of that episode, in Love in a Cold Climate or perhaps its sequel, is a masterpiece of tragicomedy.

          • Aimai

            Great book. I re-read it periodically.

        • MacK

          Some great uncles of mine were republicans (i.e., IRA) – who supported the republicans in the Civil war, also the Republicans in Spain, and then joined the RAF in WW II – one died. When people would ask my father what IRA members were doing flying with the RAF he would respond “they were republicans.”

          Inter alia the history of the splits in the IRA is itself complex – it split in ’39 over the entire issue of WW II, one side wanting to seek German support, another appalled because of Spain and because they did indeed see the NAZIs as anti-republican.

          • Lee Rudolph

            Mr. Yeats, publishing in 1919, FWIW:

            An Irish Airman foresees his Death

            I know that I shall meet my fate
            Somewhere among the clouds above;
            Those that I fight I do not hate,
            Those that I guard I do not love;
            My country is Kiltartan Cross,
            My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
            No likely end could bring them loss
            Or leave them happier than before.
            Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
            Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
            A lonely impulse of delight
            Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
            I balanced all, brought all to mind,
            The years to come seemed waste of breath,
            A waste of breath the years behind
            In balance with this life, this death.

      • MacK

        Aimai:

        If you every got into a debate with a member of Sinn Féin in the 70s and 80s you might perhaps see the distinction of “the Irishness of the Provisional IRA” from their “religiousness” as perhaps specious – their sect being defined primarily by whether they were a First Dáil-er or Second Dáil-er (and these are interestingly pointless theological distinctions btw.) They also denied the status of people as being Irish if they did not accept the entire PIRA manifesto.

        I don’t find the comparison at all weird – ISIS claims to be Islamic, it uses Islamic texts to support its manifesto. That it claims to be Islamic does not mean that someone else who is Muslim/Islamic agrees with ISIS, but it is foolish to deny that it is an Islamic movement.

        • Aimai

          No one is denying that it is an islamic movement. What people are arguing about is the use to which this rather uninteresting observation can be put. The assertion, at full throat, that ISIS is quintessentially or perfectly or seriously or authentically Islamic is at odds with the reality which is that it is a literal fringe movement in an enormous religious and ethnic tradition which is pursued by over a billion people. How many people identify with ISIS? How many people recognize in ISIS’s practices (not their dogma, their practice) a serious identity with the Islam that they, themselves, practice? That’s one important issue.

          The second one is that essentially accusing all Muslims (all One point something billion of them) of being somehow historically, aesthetically, culturally, or personally aligned with ISIS because of a shared muslim language/text is just incredibly damaging to any attempt to ally with other Muslims against ISIS. There’s just no logic to it. You can’t make allies out of people you are accusing of being your enemy. So while its trivially true that ISIS talks like an islamic group its just not meaningful to accept their self description as a more true, more real, more authentic, or more sacred version of a religion which about a billion other people practice completely differently.

    • tsam

      You mean Irish as a matter of principle and heritage, or geneology?

      I think that distinction is critical.

      • MacK

        Birth in my case. You decide what distinction you want to apply.

        • MacK

          Although, if you wish to know, I also can speak Gaelic fairly fluently (if a little out of practice), but then so could my English-Jewish (and red haired) college roommate; I wonder what you’d classify him as?

          • tsam

            See below for further (if rickety) explanation.

      • Lee Rudolph

        You mean Irish as a matter of principle and heritage, or geneology?

        I think that distinction is critical.

        I can’t figure out what being “Irish as a matter of principle” means.

        I’m a little clearer on the distinction between “heritage” and genealogy—but were there really any sizeable number of people attracted to (or repelled from, I suppose) the IRA who were “genealogically” Irish in the sense that they were (directly or remotely) descended from Irish-in-Ireland yet not Irish in the sense of “heritage” because they were raised without the trappings of (real or imagined) Irish culture?

        All in all, I am confused by your comment.

        • tsam

          I can’t figure out what being “Irish as a matter of principle” means.

          The same way that being a Heartlander with a beard and a big truck makes you WAY MORE AMERICAN than a Jew in a suit going to work on Wall Street. (Polemics)

          The idea of the comment was to get at the motivation for it. When we say the IRA was Irish, there are lots of ways to describe Irish. Is it nationalist? Is it geneological? Is it religious?

          I’m really sort of following Aimai’s comment about the comparison of ISIS=Islam vs the IRA/Irish being a bit off the mark.

          • MacK

            tsam:

            Here is the thing – I know so many Irish people, Irish Americans, Gealgoires, Ulstermen, Orangemen, Anglo-Irish, Franco-Irish, etc.

            And my response to your question is “fecked if I know!” And if I can’t answer it, mmmmmm

            • tsam

              Agreed–that’s the danger of trying to pigeonhole human motives. It’s fun for the Sunday morning pants-shitting festivals, but it doesn’t get us any closer to learning how to prevent the violence in the future.

              Not saying you’re doing that, btw…

              • MacK

                tsam,

                let me explain why I find trying to distinguish forms of Irishness as irritating – it is because that is so many people tried to do, the Provos decided that Orangemen could not be Irish, the GAA had its dual bans (British military and foreign (i.e., English games)), the Catholic Church (to be truly-Irish you had to be Catholic), the Gaelgoire – you had to speak Irish (and an 8 year old kid could be whipped for not getting that right.) To me it is utter horses hit, but deadly and dangerous horseshit.

                But you know, the Provos and the GAA and the Gaelgoire and that creep John Charles McQuaid were Irish – you can’t run away from it.

                • Hogan

                  And that’s just in Ireland.

                  The mrs. and I spent a week there about 10-12 years ago, and we went on a guided musical pub crawl in Dublin. One of the performers in a really minimalist pub explained that this was the look pubs in Ireland had always had until recently. Now most of the pubs in Dublin hang a bunch of crap on the walls and put shamrocks on the menus because that’s how Irish diaspora pubs in the US and Australia look, and it’s what the tourists expect when they come to Ireland. The expectations for being Irish here is very different from the expectations for being Irish in Ireland.

                • MacK

                  Hogan:

                  The reason a lot of Irish pubs used to have “crap” in them, particularly in smaller cities was because the pub was usually a business that had also a liquor license. Especially in market towns a lot of shops wanted to be able to give a visiting farmer a pint while his order was seen to.

                  This could be alarming on occasion – Freeneys in Galway was both a gunsmith and a pub.

      • Hogan

        Gris was provincially Spanish, and Gertrude Stein used to say that only a true Spaniard could behave as he did; that is, he would speak Spanish and sometimes return to his family in Spain.

    • Ronan

      I don’t think the comparison with the Provo’s is about denying the PIRA were Irish, but about those who denied the Provo’s were drawing on very specific traditions in Irish history. Which they were. Trying to understand the Provo’s (what they wanted, who supported them, what alternative political programs were available in the nationalist traditions etc) without understanding the history they thought they were continuing, was futile and led many down an analytical back alley.
      Thus it is with ISIS, trying tounderstand their aims, support base, rhetoric,actions, political goals (the caliphate, for example)without taking the traditions theyre drawing upon seriously, is nonsensical.

  • LeeEsq

    As an interested insider, I haven’t noticed that non-Orthodox Jews give that much deference to Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews at all. On the Jewish forums, I’ve read the what is true Judaism has always resulted in bitter fights.

    If your referring to the Orthodox/Ultra-Orthodox somewhat monopoly on Jewish religious life in Israel, there are some very specific reasons for this. The first reasons is that the most of the initial Israelis came from Eastern Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East, areas where non-Orthodox Judaism never made much of an impact. To most of the first Israelis, even if they weren’t really devote, Orthodox Judaism was Judaism. More on this bellow. Another reason is that Israeli government cafeterias and the IDF were going to need kosher food. Reform Judaism rejected the concept of kashrut and an Ultra-Orthodox civil servant wasn’t going to eat food deemed kosher by a Conservative Rabbi. The Israeli government needed to serve kosher food that everybody could eat, which basically meant the most strict Jews had to determine what is and what is not kosher.

    Besides Hasidism, the different branches of Judaism didn’t really arise as a matter of theological debate. They arouse in the context of determining how Jews were to survive out of the a ghetto environment in 19th century Europe and later how to assimilate into mainstream American life. The Reform Jews were the ones that wanted to assimilate as much as possible without actually becoming Christians. The Conservative Jews didn’t agree with the Orthodox opinion of no or little change but thought that the Reform Jews were giving up too much. In the United States, Conservative Judaism got its start at a Rabbinical ordination banquet that served oysters and other obviously non-Kosher Jews. This was literally too much reform from them, the Conservative Jews thought that at least lip-service had to be paid to some of the more important aspects of Jewish law like kashrut for Judaism to be authentic. The Ultra-Orthodox thought that if the Gentiles won’t maintain the Ghetto than Jews have to maintain it themselves. The Modern Orthodox thought that being a modern, acculturated person and an Orthodox Jew was not contradictory.

    In areas where Jewish assimilation was not possible, Eastern Europe and Muslim-majority areas, than non-Orthodox Judaism never gained ground because they were irrelevant to the social conditions Jews faced.

    • Lee Rudolph

      In the United States, Conservative Judaism got its start at a Rabbinical ordination banquet that served oysters and other obviously non-Kosher Jews.

      There are four types among those who sit before the sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer and the sieve. The sponge absorbs all. The funnel takes in at one end and lets it out the other. The strainer rejects the wine and retains the sediment. The sieve rejects the coarse flour and retains the fine flour.

      Of these, the oyster is a strainer.

    • MacK

      Interestingly – in Europe a lot of traditionally Jewish areas of cities are now muslim. This is the case in London with the East End and Edgeware Road, in Dublin around Portobello, Richmond Street and Clanbrassil Street, etc. The apparent reason muslims were attracted to these areas because of their Kosher butchers in a period when there were no Halal butchers. Indeed a major meatpacker in Ireland used to employ supervisors that allowed it to certify meat both Halal and Kashkrut (apparently they are mutually compatible), which made it easier to export.

      • Aimai

        I don’t think thats so much because of the butchers as because those are poor people/immigrant places in crowded urban areas that earlier waves moved out of as they rose up in class status. The same thing happened in Philadelphia–the Jewish communities of the 20-2 to 50’s were replaced by all black communities as the Jews moved out and poorer families moved in.

        • MacK

          Not necessarily – Swiss Cottage and St John’s Wood are pretty posh areas – dotted with both Mosques and Synagogues now. In Paris a lot of well off Jewish areas went Arab too.

          The little Beirut part of the Edgeware Road is in the West End – nice big posh townhouses all around it. Portobello Road is at the border of Rathmines, Rathgar and Ranelagh – heading for Dublin 6 (which is not quite Dublin 4, but pretty upmarket.)

          • Aimai

            I’d like to point out that as property values increase (places become posh) then the new immigrants by definition have to have some money to take those places. I guess I’m not seeing where “muslim” is a relevant category here. Its more accidental than anything else. One immigrant group supplants another in waves. Its always been this way.

            • Origami Isopod

              +1

        • Hogan

          The We Are More Than Conquerors Deliverance Ministry on 63rd Street is housed in a former Jewish community center, complete with tile art.

    • sibusisodan

      a Rabbinical ordination banquet that served oysters and other obviously non-Kosher Jews

      It’s a cookbook!

  • John F

    The history of Protestantism is, literally, littered with examples of sects that begin when laymen reject broader Christian traditions in preference for ahistorical readings of foundational texts.

    The history of Protestantism literally began and wholly consists of laymen rejecting broader Christian traditions in preference for ahistorical readings of foundational texts.

    FTFY
    :-)

  • John F

    While I’m not attuned with the fine details of the theological debate, I’d be very hesitant to suggest that JWs represent are “wrong” about Christianity, or that the represent a “perversion” of the faith, especially in context of the wild variance in practice among Protestant communities. But (and this is particularly important) Catholic and established Protestant sects are not at all hesitant to make this argument. This is why, in brief, we don’t trust the Pope to serve as the final arbiter on whether someone is or isn’t Christian.

    And so as a veteran of high-school-era wars over whether Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons count as “Christian,”

    I’m of two minds, I basically have 2 definitions of “Christianity”
    1: Those who claim to be Christian are; or
    2: Catholics/Eastern Orthodox and related Churches, plus maybe the Copts are Christians, no one else, especially not the evangelical Protestant churches…

    In weak movements I have a 3rd definition: no one, no one aside from scattered individuals there are no churches or groups which are truly christian (meaning no one actually follows what the Jesus of the New Testament said to do or interprets the Old Testament the way he did)

  • Heron

    Those are good points and all, but this misses why it is that political figures are resistant to call IS “muslim”; fears over domestic harassment. In the US and Europe even moreso, there’s a very vocal element on the right that has set painting all muslims with the brush of the “terrorist” and encouraging harassment of and discrimination against muslims as one of their primary political objectives. Obama resists calling IS “Islamic” not necessarily due to scholarly exception to the “legitimacy” of their claim, but as as tactic in the moderate political establishment’s propaganda fight against these hate-mongers.

    Obviously, the Mods are unwilling to stop, stay, or meaningfully change our actual policies, which at home lead the FBI and DHS to hound muslim USians and abroad lead to every male aged 12+ being a possible bombing target, but in the realm of ideas they’re less bloody-minded.

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