Opinion

What we talk about when we talk about ISIS

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As the U.S. prepares to re-engage more deeply in the Iraq War, including the likely deployment of ground troops to help retake Mosul from Islamic State, we are being asked to recommit to an ideological view of our military campaigns in the Muslim world. Roger Cohen fixates on “Islam and the West at War”, denouncing the “empty talk” of Western leaders who eschew his clash-of-civilizations framing. David Brooks proposes a poorly-defined “nationalist solution”, arguing that only “a more compelling heroic vision” can counter the glorious spiritual ardor of radical Islam. And a splashy cover story in The Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants”, offers an intellectual foundation for the reenergized War on Terror, presenting full recognition of ISIS’s “very Islamic” nature as a matter of urgent strategic significance.

This push to name the enemy of the West as Islam is in fact a defense of our own side’s troubled ideology. The guiding principle of post-World War II foreign policy — that the course of world events should be influenced, wherever possible, by force — is imperiled by the spectacular failure of the War on Terror, which actually succeeded in creating a transnational army of Islamic terrorists. That Islamic State rose in Iraq, then spread to Syria and Libya, threatens to give war a very bad name: it’s starting to look like destroying a country naturally empowers extremists.

The Atlantic magazine cover
The Atlantic magazine cover

One way to avoid confronting this reality — which might cause us to ask painful, demoralizing questions about who we are and what we believe — is to focus on the decontextualized ideology these newly empowered extremists profess so vehemently. This is The Atlantic approach. Author Graeme Wood gestures towards the importance of other factors in the rise of ISIS, with one eye-popping omission:

In the past, Westerners who accused Muslims of blindly following ancient scriptures came to deserved grief from academics — notably the late Edward Said — who pointed out that calling Muslims “ancient” was usually just another way to denigrate them. Look instead, these scholars urged, to the conditions in which these ideologies arose — the bad governance, the shifting social mores, the humiliation of living in lands valued only for their oil.

Without acknowledgement of these factors, no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing it for religious reasons.

Missing from Wood’s list of “conditions” is the critical event that precipitated ISIS’s rise: the destruction of Iraq’s political order, which caused untold civilian suffering and left one-fifth of the population — the Sunni, with their ties to Saddam’s “security-obsessed totalitarian regime” — suddenly disempowered and vulnerable. This was a recipe for violent resistance.

Ignoring Iraq

“Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change,” observed Milton Friedman, who, whatever the merits of his economic theories, certainly understood practical politics. “When that occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” The U.S. occupation of Iraq, at once abusive and ineffectual, was an enormous crisis, especially from the perspective of the Sunni. And there happened to be a fighting ideology available to them, one that could draw from the strength of foreign fighters incensed by the spectacle of Muslim suffering at American hands: the Salafist jihadism of al Qaeda, which dreamed of a reconstituted caliphate but was in no position to make that happen as of 2003.

Although this ideology dates back decades, there was no jihadist movement in Iraq before the US invasion. Islam was not anathema to Saddam — after Gulf War I he launched a so-called Faith Campaign, to shore up support for his regime in the face of fundamentalist opposition and economic hardship — but religious extremism was his enemy. When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi entered Iraq in 2002, he found safe haven not in Saddam country but in semiautonomous Kurdistan, under the no-fly zone. It was the next year — when the Americans smashed the regime, disbanded the army, enacted de-Baathification, and created a Shia-dominated Governing Council — that al Qaeda operatives found an opening among Iraq’s Sunni tribes. As Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan recount in their new history ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, “Disenfranchised Saddamists, who had melted back into their native cities and villages along the Euphrates River, were only too happy to accommodate the new arrivals, seeing them as agents for the Americans’ expulsion and their own restoration. The jihadists, however, had different ambitions for Iraq.”

At first, al Qaeda was just one among many factions fighting the Americans, who gave Iraqis plenty of reasons to hate them. But the dynamics of the occupation, which played out like Osama bin Laden’s wildest fantasy, favored the jihadists. Zarqawi’s ruthlessness — he was a violent criminal before he discovered Salafism — gave his group a natural advantage, bequeathing to the world the revolting propaganda triumph of the beheading video. The resulting US emphasis on al Qaeda as the source of resistance in Iraq raised its profile further. And the prisons of the occupation, which housed countless young men caught up in the American dragnet, facilitated proselytizing and networking. Among those locked up was the previously unremarkable Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; according to an Islamic State commander who did time with the future self-proclaimed caliph at Camp Bucca, “If there was no American prison in Iraq, there would be no IS now. Bucca was a factory. It made us all. It built our ideology.”

Putting the Blame on Islam

Almost none of this history appears in Wood’s essay, which purports to answer (among other key questions) where ISIS came from. Instead of attending closely to the circumstances of the group’s creation, which are still highly relevant to the state of play in Iraq, Wood spoke with people in the West who admire ISIS or claim to be experts. The picture that emerges seems at times close to fantasy:

According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for the cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.”

If this characterization (by Princeton professor Bernard Haykel) sounds suspiciously sweeping and confident, there’s a reason: it does not match the reports of actual experts. Didier François, a French journalist who spent 10 months in an ISIS prison, has said that among his captors,

“There was never really discussion about texts or — it was not a religious discussion. It was a political discussion. It was more hammering what they were believing than teaching us about the Quran. Because it has nothing to do with the Quran. We didn’t even have the Quran; they didn’t want even to give us a Quran.”

According to Weiss and Hassan, “Those who say they are adherents of ISIS as a strictly political project make up a weighty percentage of its lower cadres and support base.”

This isn’t to suggest there aren’t many intensely religious ISIS fighters, including Baghdadi, who has a doctorate in Islamic studies and reportedly used to preach. But beyond a tidbit or two — like the significance of Rome and Dabiq in ISIS propaganda — Wood has little of interest to say about the group’s religiosity. When he writes, “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic,” he means simply that ISIS is fundamentalist — committed to literal interpretation of sacred texts and harsh enforcement of doctrinal laws — which comes as news to no one. But since cover stories are about getting attention, that familiar term appears not once in 10,000 words, nor does the related but less precise “extremist”. Instead, in keeping with The Atlantic’s editorial commitment to Islamophobia, there is an implicit claim that ISIS represents a more authentic version of Islam than does your garden-variety, non-bloodthirsty Muslim. Quoting Haykel, Wood informs us that these mainstream types “who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically…‘embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion’ that neglects what their religion has historically and legally required.’ Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an ‘interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.’” This is New Atheist-style churlishness, affording higher religious status to fundamentalism and thereby reproducing the position of ISIS itself.

It’s also philosophically incoherent. Wood goes on to quote an exasperated Haykel complaining that “People want to absolve Islam. It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such as thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Neither Haykel nor Wood seems to recognize the blatant contradiction: if there is no such thing as “Islam”, no authoritative interpretation, then what is it that mainstream Muslims have “a cotton-candy view of”? What is it that “historically and legally requires” the atrocities of ISIS? If it’s true that Islam is “what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts,” then given that the vast majority of Muslims don’t participate in ISIS-style barbarity, Islamic State must be “deviant” (as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the mentor of Zarqawi, has dubbed it), or un-Islamic.

Of course it isn’t, necessarily, because the world’s religions are all heterogeneous, defined by a core of characteristic beliefs but encompassing numerous sects, denominations, practices and styles. It’s very unlikely that the president doesn’t understand this; Obama is obviously practicing rhetoric, with an eye toward the very real intra-Islam struggle, when he says that ISIS isn’t made up of true Muslims. But for Wood, Obama’s public pronouncements “reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.” This is Wood’s justification of his inquiry, the claim that what he has to impart about Islamic State’s theology could make the difference between our strengthening the group or facilitating its self-destruction. And yet, despite his criticisms of Obama’s misunderstanding, Wood winds up endorsing the strategy the president has pursued so far: “Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare, appears to be the best of bad military options.”

Give War a Chance

The case for escalation against ISIS based on Wood’s argument is obvious (he toys with it himself), and has been taken up by the usual suspects — Max Boot, for instance, writing for Commentary: “Wood is compelling in analyzing the ISIS threat — less so in suggesting a solution. His work points to the imperative for the US to do more to deny ISIS territorial control. That is why I have suggested the new [sic] for more than 10,000 US personnel to be deployed…”

Only a neocon could embrace the argument that heedlessness of the enemy’s Islamist ideology helped pave the way for ISIS. What about Gen. Stanley McChrystal, architect of the US killing machine in Iraq, who brought his counterinsurgency strategy to ISAF headquarters in Afghanistan? According to an army officer who was McChrystal’s roommate at West Point, “He was someone who saw this global ‘Caliphate’ as a tremendous enemy, and kept beating the drum for that.” The officer continued: “Boykin and Cambone and McChrystal were fellow travelers in the great crusade against Islam,” naming two Pentagon intelligence bigwigs in addition to the general. “They ran what was for all practical purposes an assassination campaign.” (See Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars, pp. 109-10.) And what did we gain by stacking up the corpses of al Qaeda commanders in Iraq? In a word, ISIS:

“Zarqawi was very smart. He was the best strategist that the Islamic State has had. Abu Omar [al-Baghdadi] was ruthless,” Abu Ahmed said, referring to Zarqawi’s successor, who was killed in a US-led raid in April 2010. “And Abu Bakr is the most bloodthirsty of all.

“After Zarqawi was killed, the people who liked killing even more than him became very important in the organisation. Their understanding of sharia and of humanity was very cheap. They don’t understand the Tawheed (the Qur’anic concept of God’s oneness) the way it was meant to be understood. The Tawheed should not have been forced by war.”

This account, given by an ISIS commander who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed to The Guardian’s Martin Chulav, encapsulates a lesson the U.S. refuses to learn: in a conflict like the so-called War on Terror, our violence is counterproductive. Smash al Qaeda, and you get something worse. Smash Islamic State, and God knows what will happen. Wood may resist the conclusion, but it follows from his argument — ISIS is an implacable, apocalyptically-minded enemy — that there is no remedy for our latest predicament except more killing. Follow this reasoning, and we can expect the situation to deteriorate further (hard as that is to imagine now).

Abu Ahmed’s story also demonstrates the folly of presenting the phenomenon of ISIS as essentially Islamic. His complaint about declining religious standards among the leadership is echoed in Weiss and Hassan’s account of “the internal story” told by “two disgruntled al-Qaeda members”, several years after Baghdadi occupied the top spot in 2010:

The reason they were disgruntled was that their perception of the rise of al-Baghdadi, whatever his level of education, represented the takeover of the Salafist-Jihadist movement within ISI of people without strong Salafist-Jihadist credentials — Baathists.

That’s another word you won’t hear from Wood, though it’s critical to understanding ISIS’s takeover of so much territory. Islamic State went from an urban guerrilla group to a full-fledged army not because of Western recruits without military experience, but because of a rapprochement with the Baathists, including Saddam’s former officers. These were not jihadis, though some of them took up Islam in the wake of the U.S. wrecking ball. “It was never clear that he would turn out like that,” the governor of Anbar province said of one such officer, a former student of his who joined al Qaeda and spent time in U.S. detention. “He was from a simple family, with high morals, but all his brothers went in that direction… all those guys got religious after 2003.” Weird coincidence. Another commander, formerly a major general in an elite unit, tried to rejoin the Iraqi Army but was turned down because of de-Baathification. After ISIS sacked Mosul, he telephoned the official who rejected him: “We will reach you soon, and I will chop you into pieces.” Not exactly a religious scholar with esoteric motivations.

We should dismiss the fanciful notion that countering ISIS is primarily a matter of understanding Islam. Wood quotes “confidential comments” by the U.S. special ops commander in the Middle East, “admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal: ‘We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.’” As though the military would be capable of changing the personal convictions of foreigners, if only we could figure out out what those are. In fact, the appeal of ISIS is obvious enough (though no U.S. commander could admit this and continue to do his job): the grievances of Sunni in Iraq and Syria, and of their sympathizers worldwide, are not mysterious, and jihad is the recourse available to them. Even if every fighter were purely motivated by Islamic extremism, an ideology can’t be destroyed. Wood mentions Hitler and the appeal of fascism; decades after one of the most resounding political failures in world history, driven by crushing military defeat and incurring unparalleled disapprobation, there are still people who identify with Nazism. What we can do — or ought to be able to do, at least — is avoid creating or contributing to the crises that empower dangerous ideologues.

At present the U.S. seems poised to do the opposite. In Syria, bombing both ISIS and its wayward offshoot, Jabhat al-Nusra, seems like a policy designed to draw the two back together. In Iraq, pushing Baghdad to retake Mosul in a matter of months could well herald a return to the worst days of sectarian slaughter, given the record of the Shia militias. With characteristic grandiloquence, Wood mentions the prospect that ISIS will “self-immolate in its own excessive zeal,” but we seem determined to keep on fanning the flames in which extremist movements are hardened.

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the critical event that precipitated ISIS’s rise: the destruction of Iraq’s political order Iraq’s political order was a parasitic autocracy which would have eventually collapsed under the weight of its own corruption, and there’s reasons to believe that Saddam’s regime dying of “natural causes” would have led to the emergence of something similar to Daesh: the US most certainly did a lot of harm, but the Sunni/Shia feud which fueled Maliki’s revanchist policies thus driving… Read more »

Nice summary of what ISIS is and isn’t. I found Wood’s article appealing because he does finally come to the conclusion that the US should even attempt to destroy ISIS militarily for the simple reason that this would make the problem even worse. Not just Iraq but Libya is a good example — our interventions provide the cause that mobilizes opposition to our intervention. Eamon’s suggestion in this piece that the core of ISIS’s military… Read more »

Blaming Islam is like blaming the Democracy for the intentions,plannings,and conducts and the results of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In the “name of the democracy” Bush conducted the wars after initial reasons offered, had been exposed to be contrived . It was in parallel to Saddam who “in the name of Islam” tried to cement the cohesiveness ,consolidate his reign,and infuse a sense of ethno- religious patriotism after his tribal clan based domestic and… Read more »

“the critical event that precipitated ISIS’s rise: the destruction of Iraq’s political order” Same thing happened in Yugoslavia, as all know and USA should not have forgotten when it decided to overthrow Saddam. But our presidents are essentially pirates (win that election however you can), not scholars. Get rid of the dictator who holds a disparate country (usually a recently-manufactured country) together, and you have chaos as the parts re-split-up. In Iraq, Sunnis, Kurds, and… Read more »

RE: “This push to name the enemy of the West as Islam is in fact a defense of our own side’s troubled ideology. The guiding principle of post-World War II foreign policy — that the course of world events should be influenced, wherever possible, by force — is imperiled by the spectacular failure of the War on Terror, which actually succeeded in creating a transnational army of Islamic terrorists.” ~ Eamon Murphy SEE: “The Reckless… Read more »