A few weeks ago Graeme Wood garnered a lot of attention for his article in The Atlantic titled: What ISIS Really Wants. Conservatives (like Peggy Noonan) used it to attack President Obama for his unwillingness to call ISIS “radical Islamists.”
Mehdi Hasan has written a thorough and comprehensive response to Wood’s assertions titled: How Islamic is the Islamic State? Not at All. This is a must-read article for anyone who not only has an interest in understanding ISIS, but who would like to avoid the whole idea of a “holy war” with the 1.6 billion Muslims on this planet.
Hasan gathers data from a variety of professionals who have studied Al Qaeda and ISIS to make her case that ISIS is far outside the mainstream of Islam. She includes psychiatrists, intelligence experts, theologians, a former radical, and pollsters. I’m going to pull a couple of quotes that stood out to me in the hopes that it will entice you to go read the entire article.
Sageman, the former CIA officer, says we have to locate terrorism and extremism in local conflicts rather than in grand or sweeping ideological narratives – the grievances and the anger come first, he argues, followed by the convenient and self-serving ideological justifications. For example, he says, the origins of ISIS as a terror group lie not in this or that Islamic book or school of thought, but in the “slaughter of Sunnis in Iraq.” He reminds me how, in April 2013, when there was a peaceful Sunni demonstration asking the Shia-led Maliki government in Baghdad to reapportion to the various provinces what the government was getting in oil revenues, Iraqi security forces shot into the crowds. “That was the start of this [current] insurrection.”
At the heart of much of the Islamophobia we see today is a complete dismissal of the centuries-old conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims and how that is fueling much of the discord in the Middle East today. In highlighting that anger is more of a motivator than religion, Sageman points out that it was the brutality of Maliki against the Sunnis in Iraq that led to the ISIS insurrection in that country.
The pollster Hasan consults is Dalia Mogahed – former Gallup pollster and co-author, with the US academic John L Esposito, of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. The information she provides will likely surprise a lot of Americans.
Gallup polling conducted for Mogahed’s book found, for instance, that 93 per cent of Muslims condemned the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. The 40-year-old Egyptian-American scholar tells me, “In follow-up questions, Gallup found that not a single respondent of the nearly 50,000 interviewed cited a verse from the Quran in defence of terrorism but, rather, religion was only mentioned to explain why 9/11 was immoral.”
The 7 per cent of Muslims who sympathised with the attacks on the twin towers “defended this position entirely with secular political justifications or distorted concepts of ‘reciprocity’, as in: ‘They kill our civilians. We can kill theirs.’”
It is thus empirically unsound to conflate heightened religious belief with greater support for violence.
The argument conservatives try to make is that in order to defeat ISIS, we need to understand them. There is some truth in that. But as Hasan has shown, that requires deeper thought and study than simply fear mongering about “radical Islamists.”