President Obama fails to understand that the Islamic State is, in fact, Islamic, and his ignorance of its religious basis is harming our ability to combat it, according to a new piece in the Atlantic by Graeme Wood that is gaining wide influence.
Wood’s his prodigious research suggests – though he himself does not draw this conclusion – that the only way to combat the Islamic State is to eradicate it, the sooner the better.
Wood writes that the version of Islam taken by the Islamic State, or ISIS, is one that is very close to that which would be familiar to Muhammed.
Note: I’ve rearranged Wood’s paragraphs but not altered his meaning:
We are misled . . . by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature.
In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior.
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.
Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “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.”
He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”
In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”
Muslims can say that slavery is not legitimate now, and that crucifixion is wrong at this historical juncture. Many say precisely this. But they cannot condemn slavery or crucifixion outright without contradicting the Koran and the example of the Prophet. “The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid,” Bernard Haykel says. That really would be an act of apostasy.
Not recognizing the true, Islamic nature of ISIS has already led President Obama to mistake its intentions and allow it to blossom:
Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.
If we had identified the Islamic State’s intentions early, and realized that the vacuum in Syria and Iraq would give it ample space to carry them out, we might, at a minimum, have pushed Iraq to harden its border with Syria and preemptively make deals with its Sunnis. That would at least have avoided the electrifying propaganda effect created by the declaration of a caliphate just after the conquest of Iraq’s third-largest city. Yet, just over a year ago, Obama told The New Yorker that he considered ISIS to be al-Qaeda’s weaker partner. “If a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” the president said.
Obama, in fact, should put a lid on his uniformed opinions about ISIS:
Western officials would probably do best to refrain from weighing in on matters of Islamic theological debate altogether. Barack Obama himself drifted into takfiri waters when he claimed that the Islamic State was “not Islamic”—the irony being that he, as the non-Muslim son of a Muslim, may himself be classified as an apostate, and yet is now practicing takfir against Muslims. Non-Muslims’ practicing takfir elicits chuckles from jihadists (“Like a pig covered in feces giving hygiene advice to others,” one tweeted).
I suspect that most Muslims appreciated Obama’s sentiment: the president was standing with them against both [Isis leader] Baghdadi and non-Muslim chauvinists trying to implicate them in crimes. But most Muslims aren’t susceptible to joining jihad. The ones who are susceptible will only have had their suspicions confirmed: the United States lies about religion to serve its purposes.
ISIS welcomes war with the United States, because it believes a vast war is foreordained, resulting in an end-of-days victory for the caliphate led by – guess who? – Jesus Christ. Seriously:
An anti-Messiah, known in Muslim apocalyptic literature as Dajjal, will come from the Khorasan region of eastern Iran and kill a vast number of the caliphate’s fighters, until just 5,000 remain, cornered in Jerusalem. Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off, Jesus—the second-most-revered prophet in Islam—will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory.
We can never hope to pacify ISIS. Its ideology, again drawn for the Koran, is constant war:
It has already taken up what Islamic law refers to as “offensive jihad,” the forcible expansion into countries that are ruled by non-Muslims.
Temporary peace treaties are renewable, but may not be applied to all enemies at once: the caliph must wage jihad at least once a year. He may not rest, or he will fall into a state of sin.
To survive and command obedience, ISIS leaders must possess land. They must oversee a caliphate. Depriving them of territory would end their organization:
One way to un-cast the Islamic State’s spell over its adherents would be to overpower it militarily and occupy the parts of Syria and Iraq now under caliphate rule. Al‑Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground. The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding.
While not at all dismissive of those who advocate a massive military campaign against ISIS, Wood believes the best of “bad” options” would be to bleed it slowly through airstrikes and efforts by allied Arab armies. “An invasion would be a huge propaganda victory for jihadists worldwide,” he writes, smacking of a crusade and boosting recruitment. Better to just keep it from expanding, since ISIS must not only hold territory but continue to expand to maintain legitimacy, Wood writes.
Properly contained, the Islamic State is likely to be its own undoing. No country is its ally, and its ideology ensures that this will remain the case. The land it controls, while expansive, is mostly uninhabited and poor. As it stagnates or slowly shrinks, its claim that it is the engine of God’s will and the agent of apocalypse will weaken, and fewer believers will arrive. And as more reports of misery within it leak out, radical Islamist movements elsewhere will be discredited.
Wood say ISIS is less of a threat than al Qaeda, because it is less focused on overseas terrorism and more concerned with perfecting and expanding its caliphate.
But Wood’s conclusion that limited warfare is the best option holds tremendous peril for the West and its allies in the Muslim world. His deduction is, unfortunately, wrong.
Leaving the Islamic State in place is a completely unpredictable game. We were unable to forecast its breakout into vast stretches of Iraq and Syria, and we don’t know what could come next. Should it suddenly overrun Baghdad or any place where we have forces hamstrung by their small size and limited rules of engagement, the propaganda value would be immense.
The numbers the Islamic State, or ISIS, intends to slaughter are vast. It will continue to seize and murder, in horrifying fashion, Americans and other Westerners. Most imperiled are other Muslims, particularly Shiites, who don’t fully accept the ISIS interpretation of Islam. These “apostates” must be killed. Christians and Jews at least have the option of enslavement:
Following takfiri doctrine, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from the region suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims.
The Islamic State is failing to expand right now, but its legitimacy remains and the cascade of foreign fighters into the caliphate continues. Wood himself acknowledges that a limited war would be a long one. By allowing ISIS to survive, possibly for years, we may cement its legitimacy and promote it as a power that resists the West and isn’t forced to hide in caves.
The threat to the homeland, in reality, is real and immediate. Wood admits and that if ISIS had a rapprochement with al Qaeda, from which it is estranged and which does seek to inflict casualties in the West, the group could be very dangerous.
But al Qaeda isn’t needed. If it is true, as Wood suggests, that ISIS seeks a fight with the us, what better way to provoke it than a massive terrorist attack in the United States?
Americans don’t have the appetite for a years-long campaign. If the threat from ISIS is properly described, they can be galvanized to take it to ISIS before this problem gains a permanent foothold and spins out of control by radicalizing more and more Muslims around the world.
But of course, to be concerned about the Islamic State’s potential reach and its ability to recruit potentially massive numbers of Muslims, one has to think of it as a branch of Islam.
And therein lies the problem.
There is a question, though, of timing. Can we do this now? Has Obama’s decimation of our armed forces made us too weak to sustain such a campaign while continuing to defend our interests worldwide? I don’t know.
And the more immediate threat would seem to Iran, which is on the cusp of gaining a nuclear weapon. The deal we are contemplating with Iran, as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will soon be here to explain, will not prevent it from becoming a nuclear power.
But let’s face it, Obama won’t ever attack Iran. Nor will he ever commit to a massive operation to battle ISIS.
Until ISIS attacks us, perhaps.
And therein lies an even bigger problem.