Make sure to check out our extensive interview with Bernard Haykel, the same expert cited in the Atlantic article below, to see what else was left out of Graeme Wood’s piece.
On Monday, The Atlantic unveiled a new feature piece by Graeme Wood entitled “What ISIS Really Wants,” which claims to expose the foundational theology of the terror group ISIS, also called the Islamic State, which has waged a horrific campaign of violence across Iraq, Syria, and Libya over the past year. The article is deeply researched, and makes observations about the core religious ideas driving ISIS — namely, a dark, bloodthirsty theology that revolves around an apocalyptic narrative in which ISIS’s black-clad soldiers believe they are playing a pivotal role. Indeed, CNN’s Peter Bergen published a similar article the next day detailing ISIS’s obsession with the end times, and cited Wood as an “excellent” source, quoting a passage from his article with the kicker “Amen to that.”
Despite this, Wood’s article has encountered staunch criticism and derision from many Muslims and academics who study Islam. After the article was posted online, Islamic studies Facebook pages and listserves were reportedly awash with comments from intellectuals blasting the article as, among other things, “quite shocking.” The core issue, they say, is that Wood appears to have fallen prey to an inaccurate trope all too common in many Western circles: that ISIS is an inevitable product of Islam, mainly because the Qur’an and other Islamic texts contain passages that support its horrific acts.
In his article, Wood acknowledged that most Muslims don’t support ISIS, as the sheer number of Muslim groups who have disavowed the terrorist organization or declared it unIslamic is overwhelming. Yet he repeatedly hints that non-literal Islamic arguments against the terrorist group are useless because justifications for violence are present in texts Muslims hold sacred.
“…simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them.” Wood writes. “Muslims can say that slavery is not legitimate now, and that crucifixion is wrong at this historical juncture. Many say precisely this. But they cannot condemn slavery or crucifixion outright without contradicting the Koran and the example of the Prophet.”
Although Wood qualifies his claim by pointing briefly to the theological diversity within Islam, Islam scholars argue that he glosses over one of the most important components of any faith tradition: interpretation. Jerusha Tanner Lamptey, Professor of Islam and Ministry at Union Theological Seminary in New York, told ThinkProgress that Wood’s argument perpetuates the false idea that Islam is a literalistic tradition where violent texts are taken at face value.
“That’s very problematic to anyone who spends any of their time dealing with the diversity of interpretations around texts,” Lamptey said. “Texts have never been only interpreted literally. They have always been interpreted in multiple ways — and that’s not a chronological thing, that’s been the case from the get-go … [Wood’s comments] create the [impression] that Islam is literalistic, backward-minded, and kind of arcane or archaic, and we’ve moved past that narrative.”
Lamptey also said that Wood’s argument overlooks other Quranic verses that, if taken literally, would contradict ISIS’s actions because “they promote equality, tolerance.” She pointed to surah 22:39-40 in the Qur’an, which connects the permission for war with the need to protect the houses of worship of other religions — something ISIS, which has destroyed several Christian churches, clearly ignores.
“ISIS exegetes these verses away I am sure, but that’s the point,” she said. “It’s not really about one perspective being literal, one being legitimate, one ignoring things…it’s about diverse interpretations. But alternative ones tend to not gain any footing with this kind of black-and-white rhetoric. It completely delegitimizes them.”
Wood, of course, didn’t accidentally invent the idea that violent passages in Islamic texts make the religion especially prone to violence, or that ISIS’s supposedly Islamic nature is evidence of deeper issues within the tradition. These concepts have been around for some time, but are becoming increasingly popular among two groups that usually find themselves ideologically opposed — namely, right-wing conservatives and the so-called “New Atheists,” a subset of atheism in the West. Leaders from both camps have pointed to violent passages in the Qur’an as evidence that Islam is a ticking time bomb. Rev. Franklin Graham, son of famous evangelist Billy Graham, has regularly attacked Islam using this logic, and recently responded to questions about the Qur’an on Fox News by saying that Islam “is not a religion of peace” but a “violent form of faith.” Similarly, talk show host and outspoken atheist Bill Maher sparred with Charlie Rose last September over ISIS, saying that people who disavow the group as unIslamic ignore the supposed “connecting tissue” between ISIS and the rest of Islam, noting “The Qur’an absolutely has on every page stuff that’s horrible about how the infidels should be treated.”
But while these positions are widespread, Lamptey noted that they are also potentially dangerous because they play directly into ISIS’s plans. By suggesting that Islam is ultimately beholden to specific literal readings of texts, Lamptey said Wood and other pundits inadvertently validate ISIS’s voice.
“[Wood’s position] confirms exactly what people like ISIS want people to think about them, which is that they are the only legitimate voice,” she said. “It echoes that rhetoric 100%. Yes, that is what ISIS says about themselves, but it is a different step to say ‘Yes, that is true about the Islamic tradition and all Muslims.’”
Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, expressed a similar sentiment in an interview with Raw Story on Tuesday. He argued that in addition to Wood’s piece being “full of factual mistakes,” its de facto endorsement of literalistic Quranic interpretations amounts to an advertisement for ISIS’s horrific theology.
“Scholars who study Islam, authorities of Islamic jurisprudence, are telling ISIS that they are wrong, and Mr. Wood knows more than what they do, and he’s saying that ISIS is Islamic?” Awad said. “I don’t think Mr. Wood has the background or the scholarship to make that dangerous statement, that historically inaccurate statement. In a way, I think, he is unintentionally promoting ISIS and doing public relations for ISIS.”
Awad also pointed out that Wood used “jihad” and “terrorism” interchangeably, which implicitly endorses ISIS’s argument that their savage practices (terrorism) are a spiritually justified religious duty (jihad). In addition, there is a major issue with Wood’s offhand reference to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as “the first caliph in generations”: although a caliphate can be established by force, a caliph, by definition, implies the majority support of Muslims (which ISIS does not have) and caliphates are historically respectful of other religious traditions (which ISIS certainly is not).
Lamptey added that Wood’s position is demeaning, because it renders invisible the overwhelming majority of Muslims whose theologies rebuke violent atrocities. Among other things, Wood’s piece extensively quotes Bernard Haykel, a Princeton scholar the journalist relies on heavily throughout the article, who says Muslim leaders who condemn ISIS as unIslamic are typically “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion.” This stands in stark contrast to the bold statements from respected Muslim scholars all over the globe challenging ISIS’s Islamic claims, and Lamptey says such comments can be read by many Muslims as having their peaceful devotion to their own religion second-guessed by people who believe they’re simply “overlooking things.”
“[Wood and others think moderate Muslims] they’re not ‘real’ Muslims, but ‘partial’ Muslims, or even apostate,” she said. “The majority of [Muslims] do not subscribe to [ISIS’s] view of their religion. But they do subscribe to the idea of emulating the Prophet Muhammad, upholding the text, and upholding the tradition, but come up with very different end points about what that looks like.”
“It’s not like these Muslims are ‘kind-of Muslims.’ They’re Muslims who are committed to the prophetic example in the texts and the Qur’an,” she added.
Other Islam scholars say this narrative breeds suspicion of Muslims as a whole. Mohammad Fadel, Associate Professor & Toronto Research Chair for the Law and Economics of Islamic Law at the University of Toronto, told ThinkProgress that these arguments entertain the notion that all Muslims are just one literal reading away from becoming terrorists.
“There already is the background … that stresses the idea that Muslims lie about what they believe,” Fadel told ThinkProgress. “That they really have these dark ambitions, but they just suppress them because of their own strategic purposes of conquest. They pretend to be nice. They pretend to be sympathetic to liberal values, but as soon as they get the chance, they’re going to enslave us all. The idea here is that they’re all potential followers of ISIS.”
“On first reading [Wood’s article] seemed to suggest that a committed Muslim should be sympathetic to ISIS, and protestations to the contrary either are the result of ignorance or the result of deception,” he said. “That’s not helpful, and potentially very dangerous.”
Granted, Fadel and Lamptey agreed that a discussion of ISIS’s apocalyptic theology is important, and were hesitant to single out Haykel. But they remained deeply concerned about the popularity of Wood’s framing, and challenged his assertion that ISIS is a “very Islamic” institution that is somehow representative of the global Muslim community.
“Yes, [ISIS is] Islamic in that they use Islamic sources to justify all their actions,” Fadel said. “But I think the question that bothers most Muslims is the idea that just because someone says they are Muslim or that their actions are representative of Islam doesn’t make it so. Just because a group can appropriate Islamic sources and Islamic symbols, and then go around doing all sorts of awful things, doesn’t mean that they get to be the ones who define for the world what Islam means.”
“Muslims who reject ISIS aren’t doing it because they’re bad Muslims. They just have a compelling version of Islam that they think is much better.”