According to the Namierite reading of ISIS, the group’s rise to power is a story of political state failure in Iraq, where jihadists, in collaboration with ex-Baathists from the previous Saddam Hussein regime, were able to exploit Sunni disaffection and seize territory and resources. Ideology, according to this story, did not drive this historic advance, but rather was, like the territory itself, annexed and refashioned for ISIS’s own political purposes. Dalia Mogahed, for example, argued, contra Graeme Wood, that “a violent reading of the Quran is not leading to political violence. Political violence is leading to a violent reading of the Quran.” Or as The Atlantic’s Kathy Gilsinan paraphrased Mogahed: “It’s not ISIS’s interpretation of Islamic texts that drives its brutality—it’s the group’s desired brutality driving its interpretation of the texts.” In this view, ideology legitimizes ISIS’s violence, but it doesn’t cause it.
The Namierite reading also extends to the individuals who perpetrate violence in ISIS’s name. The British journalist Mehdi Hasan, for example, has pointed out that “it isn’t the most pious or devout of Muslims who embrace terrorism, or join groups such as ISIS.” Referring to two British men who purchased copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies prior to joining a jihadist group in Syria, Hasan wrote: “Religion plays little, if any, role in the radicalisation process.”
This view has gathered considerable traction since Wood’s article was published last year. Writing after the Brussels attacks in March, The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor argued that “radicalization is driven less by religious fervor than by more local factors, and it is shaped also by ties to gangs and other criminal activity.” Although Tharoor referred to the “complexity” of the causes of jihadist radicalization, he declined to identify religion as a salient variable in the causal mix. Far more important, he suggested, quoting Cas Mudde, an associate professor at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia, is the story of how Europe “has created the conditions for the resentment that drives the terrorists.”
On the other side of this argument are those who insist, in somewhat Hegelian style, to echo Zangwill, that there is direct relationship between belief and action, and that the former inexorably drives the latter. “Believe,” the atheist philosopher Sam Harris has written, “that you are a member of a chosen people, awash in the salacious exports of an evil culture that is turning your children away from God, believe that you will be rewarded with an eternity of unimaginable delights by dealing death to these infidels—and flying a plane into a building is only a matter of being asked to do it.” Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim who is now among Islam’s more prominent critics, similarly contended that the “cause of [jihadist] terrorism” lies in “the ideology of radical Islam.” She also wrote contemptuously of the view that religion “is a mere smokescreen for underlying ‘real’ motivations, such as socio-economic grievances.”