What ISIS Really Wants

Graeme Wood’s in-depth examination of the Islamic State’s “medieval religious nature,” the March cover story, quickly became the most-read article in Atlantic history. The same week that the magazine published Wood’s article, the White House convened a summit on countering violent extremism. According to The Washington Post, President Obama reaffirmed “that the U.S. is ‘not at war with Islam,’ but rather ‘with people who have perverted Islam.’ ” To the contrary, said Wood: although “nearly all” Muslims have rejected Isis, “the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.” Understanding this, Wood argued, will be key to stopping the group.


Amid the wave of political correctness crashing against Graeme Wood’s article, I wanted to send a note of support. The article is accurate in its assessment of the Islamic State, from where it derives its so-called legitimacy, and how the U.S. fell into its trap, engaging in a way that only boosts its profile.

We have been reporting on the Islamic State since the very beginning of its presence in Syria, and I can assure you that it has been screaming for attention from the U.S. Left to its own devices, the Islamic State will fail. In fact, it already is failing, and not because of air strikes. In the eastern province of Deir e-Zor, a loose group of vigilantes has already begun assassinating Islamic State fighters and members of their so-called religious police, the Hisbah. If the United States insists on intervening in Syria, it should be in support of these people, who are risking so much by targeting their Islamic State overlords. We are still not sure who these vigilantes are; some say they are former moderate fighters whose family members were killed or disappeared under Islamic State rule. They are known in Deir e-Zor as the “White Shroud,” and I can assure you that their fearlessness is more of a problem for the Islamic State than air strikes are.

Kristen Gillespie
Editor in Chief, Syria Direct
Amman, Jordan

Graeme Wood presents an insightful, balanced, and refreshingly honest portrayal of radical Islam’s war against the West. It confirms my experience in the Office of the Secretary of Defense after September 11, 2001, when I was preparing the seminal Bush-administration brief on the battle of ideas as a crucial component of the global war on terror.

During vigorous internal Defense Department and interagency debates, two competing narratives emerged, each drawing on Koranic and Hadithic tenets, defining Islam as either essentially peaceful or inherently violent. We bridged the divide by saying that most contemporary Muslims are peaceful and tolerant, but a small, radical minority struggles to return to Islam’s harsh seventh-century origins. We called that a “perversion” of a peaceful faith. Others argued that Islam needed to emulate Christianity and undertake its own “reformation.”

During the drafting process, some administration officials said American non-Muslims should avoid involvement in theological Islamic disputes. Anodyne terms like violent extremism began supplanting references to Muslims and Islam. The Obama administration has made that political correctness an art form, engaging in all manner of verbal gyrations to avoid calling Islamist terrorists what they manifestly are.

Wood makes clear that over the past dozen centuries, the practice of Islam has effectively undergone a reformation, as Sharia law has been significantly modified in most of the Muslim world. What has been happening in recent decades is actually a counterreformation, as various stripes of Islamists try to restore the faith to its original, pure form from the time of Muhammad.

As the DoD brief declared, what we are experiencing is not a war of civilizations but a conflict first within Islam, between moderates and extremists, and second between extremists and the West. In that conflict, moderate Muslims and the West are natural and necessary allies. Moderate Muslims bear a heavy burden to defeat the Islamists’ counterreformation by not falling into their trap.

That means abandoning the patent illogic of first dismissing the Islamists as not real Muslims and then decrying the West’s antiterror campaign as a “war on Islam.” It is an intellectually dishonest and unworthy posture that serves only our common enemy.

Joseph A. Bosco
Washington, D.C.

The problem set that we face with Isis has several components. Among the biggest is that this is a problem internal to Islam. As a result Muslims have to resolve it for themselves. In many ways what we are watching in real time is the Islamic equivalent of the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and then the splintering within the Reformation that led to hundreds of years of struggle, conflict, and warfare in Europe. A lot of it had to do with which version of Christian theology and dogma was supposed to be correct and followed … An appropriate response would be containing Isis at the theater level within the Levant. To do this we should be empowering allies, clients, and friends within the region, including helping to forge new alliances. This includes engaging with the Iranians as appropriate in order to both reduce Isis’s capacity and allow the people that actually live in the Middle East to determine how they want to structure their own societies, economies, and polities.

Adam L. Silverman, Ph.D.
Formerly of the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the U.S. Army
Excerpt from a Balloon Juice post

Perhaps because too many still accept that terrorism is an inevitable outcome of Islam, the Atlantic editors published Graeme Wood’s article. Do you consider the Christian terrorist organization the Army of God to be “very Christian”? Is its interpretation of the Bible “learned”? Why not? Just like Isis, the Nazi Party, and American slaveholders, the Army of God has cherry-picked sections of a religious text and cited them as justification for its deadly and misguided actions.

Members of Isis are frustrated, desperate, and mistaken. Their limited vision has nothing more to do with the Koran than the vision held by the Army of God has to do with the Bible.

Dustin Vassari
Los Angeles, Calif.

In taking Islamic State theology seriously as a form of Islamic thought, we also need to take seriously the Islamic case against Isis, and the reasons why the soi-disant caliphate’s interpretation of its faith … represents a stark departure from the way the faith has been traditionally interpreted and widely understood.

I imagine Wood would agree, and since his essay’s primary mission is to get Western audiences to take Isis seriously as a theological movement, it’s understandable that he didn’t also include a 5,000-word traditional-Islamic rebuttal to the movement’s theological worldview. But I think an incautious reader could come away from the piece with an impression that also surfaces a lot in debates about Christian fundamentalism, where the fact that fundamentalists claim to be taking scriptures more literally than their Christian rivals gets read as evidence that they really are going back to what orthodox Christians once all believed, and that they’re right to regard non-fundamentalist forms of Christianity as theologically compromised relative to their own purer, back-to-the-beginning approach …

Both Christian and Islamic fundamentalism are traditionalist in some respects but quite modern in others, and some of the most important elements in their back-to-the sources vision tend to be only comprehensible in a modern political-intellectual context, both as reactions against and imitations of secular trends and patterns and ideas …

Much of what we think of as Muslim fundamentalism seems to be linked (1) to Islamic civilization’s unhappy encounters with Western imperialism and liberal modernity, and (2) to a kind of modernity-influenced Islamic reformation that already happened … that democratized religious interpretation and undercut an older clerical-theological consensus, and that in so doing opened doors for the kind of theological autodidacts currently running the Islamic State …

Both Christians inclined to be skeptical of Islam and Whiggish liberals inclined to be skeptical of anything medieval need to recognize two things: First, that a process of scriptural and theological interpretation that ruled out certain Isis-like ideas happened very early in Muslim history, and not as a concession to anything like modern secularism; and second, that the Islam that developed out of this process of interpretation has a stronger claim to continuity with the actual Muslim past, both modern and pre-modern, than the Islamic State’s “prophetic methodology” and apocalyptic expectations.

So even as we acknowledge the obvious and describe Isis as Islamic, we should give the rest of Islam credit for being, well, Islamic as well, and for having available arguments and traditions and interpretations that marginalized this kind of barbarism in the past, and God willing can do so once again.

Ross Douthat
Excerpt from a New York Times post

“The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic,” Wood writes.

The Ku Klux Klan is also white. Very white …

Understanding whiteness is relevant to understanding white supremacy, just as understanding Islam is relevant to jihadism. And to be sure, religion matters to Isis. A lot. But the concept of an exclusive identity matters far more …

For identity-based extremist groups, one function of extreme religious observance is to serve as an identity marker, a signal to establish who is part of the in-group and who is part of the out-group.

Religion is therefore of primal importance in the narrative created by an extremist group’s adherents, but a group’s extremism does not naturally proceed from its claimed religious basis …

It’s important, even critical, to understand how Isis’s religious beliefs inform its actions, particularly its apocalyptic elements … Millenarian sects may … rely on religious texts as important sources, but their defining quality, and what makes them dangerous, is an unshakable belief that history is coming to an end.

Millenarian beliefs are often wedded to identity-based extremism through the narrative device of a chosen group that will triumph in an apocalyptic war or survive an apocalyptic disaster. Again, the traits of these groups are remarkably consistent across a variety of belief structures. Their commonality is their millenarianism, not the theological background from which those End Times beliefs are derived.

To understand and counter Isis’s threat and appeal, frame it properly. Identity-based extremism and millenarian apocalyptic cults provide a far more useful framework for understanding Isis than Islam does.

J. M. Berger
Excerpt from a post on the Brookings Institution’s Web site

What will help defeat Isis? Wood makes an important point here: “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” …

In short, if we can roll back Isis’s territorial control, we will dissipate its appeal. How we can do that is subject to debate. Wood himself writes that suggestions from some analysts, such as Fred Kagan and me, to deploy tens of thousands of troops to fight Isis are misguided and will backfire. He writes: “Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare, appears the best of bad military options.”

And yet many months of those air strikes have failed to dislodge Isis from the vast majority of its territory in Syria and Iraq—which, as Wood notes, is the only way to defeat this evil organization. At best those air strikes have blunted Isis’s momentum in Iraq. In Syria they have not done even that much: Isis has continued to expand its territorial control even while being bombed. This means, as Wood writes, that “an avowedly genocidal organization is on its potential victims’ front lawn, and it is committing daily atrocities in the territory it already controls.”

Wood is compelling in analyzing the Isis threat—less so in suggesting a solution. His work points to the imperative for the U.S. to do more to deny Isis territorial control. That is why I have suggested the need for more than 10,000 U.S. personnel to be deployed, primarily in an advise and assist capacity, so as to galvanize opposition to Isis primarily among Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. Yes, this carries risks—but so does allowing Isis to continue expanding, not only in the Levant, but also as far afield as Libya and Afghanistan.

Max Boot
Excerpt from a Commentary post

Graeme Wood Replies:

Dustin Vassari asks whether I consider the Christian terrorist organization that calls itself the “Army of God” Christian. The answer, of course, is yes. In my essay, I explicitly compared the Islamic State to David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, a Christian doomsday cult rejected by virtually all Christians. Let me multiply such examples, and offend ecumenically: Burma’s 969 movement is very Buddhist, despite preaching an unenlightened message of ethnic hatred; the Society of Saint Pius X is very Catholic, despite being out of full communion with the Church of Rome; Abhinav Bharat is very Hindu, despite alleged terrorist acts; Neturei Karta is very Jewish, despite its claim that the state of Israel is an abomination.

Many detestable organizations claim the mantle of religious authority. But it seems terrible precedent to deny their religious nature simply by virtue of their status as fringe groups. I understand Muslims’ desire to distance themselves from the Islamic State, as well as Christians’ desire to say that the Ku Klux Klan (to take an example) has nothing to do with Christianity. Most Christians dispute the KKK’s interpretation of Christianity. Far be it from me to say they are wrong to do so.

If you declare groups non-Muslim, or non-Christian, for breaking with “tradition” or “the mainstream,” you might be against the Islamic State, but you’re also embracing an illiberal, exclusionary view of religion. Muslims’ near-consensus about the impermissibility of reviving slavery would, at other points in Islamic history, have been a fringe position. Who, exactly, is un-Islamic?

A full-scale war remains, I think, a terrible idea. Max Boot hopes a deployment of 10,000‑plus troops to Iraq would “galvanize opposition to ISIS” among Arab Sunnis. I think its power to galvanize opposition to the U.S. would also be considerable, and impossible to control. Moreover, I urge us not to be spooked or goaded into doing anything foolish just because of snuff videos on YouTube, and to avoid confirming the ISIS recruitment narrative of a fight between the West and Islam.


The Big Question

Readers respond to the January/February issue

WHO WAS THE MOST INFLUENTIAL TEENAGER OF ALL TIME?

5. Joan of Arc played a key role in ending the Hundred Years’ War and restoring Charles VII to the throne of France. Unfortunately, she was burned at the stake by the English. She was sainted in 1920. Her age at death? Nineteen.

— Robert F. Benson

4. The discovery of the 3.2-million-year-old fossil remains of Lucy—estimated to be as young as 12 or 13 when she died—caused a seismic change in the theory of evolution, suggesting that humans started walking upright before developing larger brains. She remains the most famous of our hominid ancestors and continues to inspire anthropologists and enthrall the general public.

— Dan Fredricks

3. During his teens, Mozart wrote at least 30 symphonies, three operas, two Masses, 14 string quartets, 10 piano sonatas, and eight concertos, each work significantly influencing all of Western music thereafter. Yet he still made time to have adolescent fun.

— Donald Wigal

2. Blaise Pascal. As a teenager, the French mathematician and philosopher invented an early mechanical calculator and initiated significant breakthroughs in the fields of geometry and probability. His work as a teenager served as a foundation for his life’s work, and influences present-day physics, mathematics, engineering, and medicine.

— Tom C. W. Lin

1. Most scholars agree that Mary of Nazareth was a teenager, perhaps as young as 14, when she gave birth to Jesus. In all of history, what other teenage girl has had hundreds of songs written about her, thousands of buildings erected in her honor, and countless millions calling her name both at the zenith of life and in the hour of death?

— E. Michael Brady

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