Following the publication of his Atlantic cover story, “What ISIS Really Wants,” Graeme Wood has challenged critics who claim that he misrepresented Islamic belief, noting, “It’s instructive to see how responses to my piece reckon with or ignore this line: ‘Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do.’” But Wood’s entire essay implies that such a rejection of ISIS by other Muslims can only be hypocritical or naive, and that ISIS members and supporters follow the texts of Islam as faithfully and seriously as anyone.
The main expert in Wood’s article is Princeton University professor Bernard Haykel, who “regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. … In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war.”
Put another way: Not only are Muslims wrong that ISIS is distorting Islamic texts, but the very idea is preposterous. ISIS is faithfully following Islamic norms of war. All of this might lead a thoughtful reader to wonder what all the other Muslims are doing.
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Wood quotes Haykel’s invocation of an axiom, common in academic discourse, that there is no such thing as ‘Islam,’ rather, “It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Presumably Wood does this in order to emphasize that he is not personally offering a criterion to judge who is a good or bad Muslim. But he introduces just such a criterion: namely, that a Muslim is evaluated according to his or her interpretation of these texts. His article evaluates ISIS against other Muslims on this basis.
“What’s striking about [ISIS] is not just the literalism, but also the seriousness with which they read these texts,” Haykel said. “There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.”
But who decides who takes the texts seriously? On what grounds do non-Muslim journalists and academics tell Muslims that their judgment that ISIS does not take a full and fair view of the Quran and Sunnah (the example and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) amounts to a “cotton-candy” view of Islam, while these non-Muslims retain the right to judge how “serious” ISIS is in its understanding of core Islamic texts?