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On ISIS

[ 223 ] February 24, 2015 |

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.

War Zone!

[ 44 ] February 23, 2015 |

In response to charges that my claims to having served honorably during the Iraq War are “incorrect” or “made up,” I would like to point out that there is copious documentary evidence to indicate that I worked in a variety of different capacities, during the Iraq War, within the territorial confines of one of the major combatants.  There may even have been a time or two when I was mildly concerned about my safety.

Should be good enough for Dylan Byers.

Back to ‘Nam

[ 17 ] February 23, 2015 |

More thoughts on the Vietnam War…

Why do we continue to revisit the Vietnam War, or any historical event?  Because we hope that the disastrous experience will hold lessons for future strategic decisions.  The best that might be argued about the Vietnam War is that it established, for U.S. allies, that the United States would expend tremendous amounts of blood and treasure for areas that Washington didn’t really care about. This, consequently, would indicate U.S. toughness, and preempt aggression in areas the U.S. did care about.

 

Mercy Mercy Jerome Kersey

[ 5 ] February 19, 2015 |

This is tragic:

 Jerome Kersey, a fan favorite during his decade-plus career with thePortland Trail Blazers and a veteran of 17 NBA seasons, died Wednesday. He was 52.

The Trail Blazers confirmed that Kersey had died but didn’t provide details. A team ambassador, Kersey appeared Tuesday with fellow former Blazers Terry Porter and Brian Grant at Madison High School in Portland in celebration of African American History Month.

“Today we lost an incredible person and one of the most beloved players to ever wear a Trail Blazers uniform,” Blazers owner Paul Allen said in a statement. “My thoughts and condolences are with the Kersey family. He will be missed by all of us. It’s a terrible loss.”

Like most of the rest of the players from his era, Jerome Kersey was an important figure in the Portland sports and social scene. By all accounts he was an incredibly nice guy, generous with time and money. It’s particularly tragic given that we’ve now lost 2/5ths of the great 1990-1992 team, way, way too young.

Think Local!

[ 14 ] February 18, 2015 |

Why won’t Obama just let local cops do their job, especially when they seem to understand their job as the enforcement of a nasty system of racial inequality?

The Justice Department is preparing to bring a lawsuit against the Ferguson, Missouri, police department over a pattern of racially discriminatory tactics used by officers, if the police department does not agree to make changes on its own, sources tell CNN.

Attorney General Eric Holder said this week he expects to announce the results of the department’s investigation of the shooting death of Michael Brown and a broader probe of the Ferguson Police Department before he leaves office in the coming weeks.

So This is How Far We’ve Fallen

[ 55 ] February 18, 2015 |

Classes at the University of Kentucky have now been cancelled four out of five days this week.

It’s the first time in over a decade that classes have been cancelled two days in a row. Frankly, there’s no way that President Mitt Romney would have allowed this on his watch.

Tuesday Linkage

[ 39 ] February 17, 2015 |

Things for the reading of:

Worst. Graph. Ever

[ 74 ] February 16, 2015 |

This is amazing:


The point is to try to indicate that Russian military spending has increased from baseline, while EU spending has decreased. The visual effect (and a graph, of course, is intended to display data in an effective, informative manner) is to indicate that Russia is spending much, much more than the Europeans. This is accomplished through the unconventional means of putting the number “70” much higher on the graph than the number “265,” which is made even more confusing by the fact that the Y axis (which is supposed to reflect % change) is right next to the absolute number labels…

Drone Power!

[ 2 ] February 15, 2015 |

I have some thoughts on teh dronez:

What countries have made the most of the drone age?  Some of the answers are unsurprising; nations with huge investment capacity and ongoing military conflicts have obvious advantages in the ability to develop drones, and to develop ways of using them for strategic purpose.  This article looks at the five nations that have most effectively taken advantage of the Golden Age of the Drone, with more of an emphasis on how these countries have managed innovation, organization, and deployment than on the characteristics of specific weapons.

 

All a Matter of Emphasis…

[ 10 ] February 13, 2015 |

Many references to state politics include details that are relevant to the politics of that state:


Sure… Chris Dudley played twice as many games as a Trail Blazer than as a Knick, and played much better for the Trail Blazers than for the Knicks, and hey, Portland is in Oregon, but whatever…

When People Stop Being Polite…

[ 57 ] February 12, 2015 |

Earlier this week, Francis Sempa made a go at rehabilitating the reputation of James Burnham.  I had some objections:

What’s odd about Sempa’s column is that very few try to resurrect the reputation of Vietnam hawks, the people who argued that the only problems with the war in Indochina are that the United States didn’t squander enough blood and treasure and didn’t slaughter enough Asians. America’s historical memory has struggled to flush such voices from its consciousness, and has largely succeeded. It also bears note that the National Review itselfrarely enjoys being reminded of the sort of sentiments it published during the 1950s and 1960s.

… via Hogan, Orwell on Burnham. And this is particularly on the nose:

Power worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is
winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible. If the Japanese have conquered south Asia, then they will keep south Asia for ever, if
the Germans have captured Tobruk, they will infallibly capture Cairo; if the Russians are in Berlin, it will not be long before they are in
London: and so on. This habit of mind leads also to the belief that things will happen more quickly, completely, and catastrophically than
they ever do in practice. The rise and fall of empires, the disappearance of cultures and religions, are expected to happen with earthquake
suddenness, and processes which have barely started are talked about as though they were already at an end. Burnham’s writings are full of
apocalyptic visions. Nations, governments, classes and social systems are constantly described as expanding, contracting, decaying, dissolving,
toppling, crashing, crumbling, crystallising, and, in general, behaving in an unstable and melodramatic way. The slowness of historical change,
the fact that any epoch always contains a great deal of the last epoch, is never sufficiently allowed for. Such a manner of thinking is bound to
lead to mistaken prophecies, because, even when it gauges the direction of events rightly, it will miscalculate their tempo. Within the space of
five years Burnham foretold the domination of Russia by Germany and of Germany by Russia. In each case he was obeying the same instinct: the
instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible. With this in mind one can criticise his
theory in a broader way.

Foreign Entanglements: The Guns of Kiev

[ 2 ] February 10, 2015 |

On the latest episode of Foreign Entanglements, Sean Kay and I talk about arming Ukraine:

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