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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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