That must-read think piece: The Atlantic listens to the voices of the Islamic State

After reading (finally) Graeme Wood's much-discussed cover story at The Atlantic -- "What ISIS Really Wants" -- it seems to me that he is saying there are two people who are dead wrong when it comes to evaluating the religion component in the campaign to create the Islamic State. These two people, of course, have followers.

First of all, there is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself, who has been declared the leader of the caliphate that is at the heart of the Islamic State's claim that it's approach to Islam is just and true and that all faithful Muslims must embrace it or be declared as apostates. Truth be told, there are a few million Muslims who agree with him, but millions and millions of Muslims who disagree.

The other person who is wrong, when it comes to ISIS, is President Barack Obama, who has famously stated that "ISIL is not Islamic." Like the views of the self-proclaimed caliph, this is a absolute statement that draws support for many people, including some Muslims in the West, but is rejected out of hand by many, many other Muslims -- including the leaders of ISIS.

This brings me to the first of several passages in the Wood piece -- which is a work of analysis, not news reporting -- that I believe should be taken seriously by journalists who are trying to cover this debate. The ISIS leaders insist, he notes:

... that they will not -- cannot -- waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.
To take one example: In September, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman, called on Muslims in Western countries such as France and Canada to find an infidel and “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over with a car, or “destroy his crops.” To Western ears, the biblical-sounding punishments -- the stoning and crop destruction-- juxtaposed strangely with his more modern-sounding call to vehicular homicide. ...
But Adnani was not merely talking trash. His speech was laced with theological and legal discussion, and his exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops alone -- unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the lands of kuffar, or infidels, should be unmerciful, and poison away.

This brings us to the thesis statement:

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.
Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. 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.

Note that Wood freely admits that many Muslims disagree about the claims of the Islamic State and many have very good reason to do so. He knows that these arguments are raging and, in a way, he wants to pour some editorial gasoline on those fires.

However, his main point is that Western elites in journalism and government must take seriously the fact that there are reasons -- even if seen as warped or inaccurate -- that the faith and doctrinal claims being made by ISIS leaders are appealing to many Muslims in this modern and postmodern world. Much of the article, for example examines clashes INSIDE radical, even violent, forms of Islam that many Americans would assume are monolithic -- such as the rulers of Saudi Arabia, al-Qaeda and ISIS.

For example, when it comes time to justify Muslims killing other Muslims, it is important to know the difference between "sinners" and "apostates."

Taking these debates seriously requires, especially among journalists, two things, according to Wood. First, it is important to stop saying that everything radical Muslims do is caused by economic and political realities alone.Thus:

In the past, Westerners who accused Muslims of blindly following ancient scriptures came to deserved grief from academics ... 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 acknowledgment 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 so for religious reasons.

Second, if reporters (and diplomats) are going to make sense of the strengths and weaknesses (both exist) of ISIS, they are going to have to listen to a wide variety of voices in the Muslim world -- even the voices of scholars who are embraced by ISIS and rejected by secular scholars and "moderate" Muslims who teach in elite American universities.

In other words:

Non-muslims cannot tell Muslims how to practice their religion properly. But Muslims have long since begun this debate within their own ranks. “You have to have standards,” Anjem Choudary told me. “Somebody could claim to be a Muslim, but if he believes in homosexuality or drinking alcohol, then he is not a Muslim. There is no such thing as a nonpracticing vegetarian.”

If Wood's article makes some journalists on the cultural left angry, that is a good thing. Analysis journalism often does that. However, this piece raises crucial questions about how the ISIS story is being reported as political story, when it is, in reality, both a political story and a religion story.

It will take time, but read it all.

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