President Obama, keen to talk ISIS into submission, decided to hold a “Summit on Countering Violent Extremism” last week. The choice of words is telling. The White House is tying itself in rhetorical knots in an effort to characterize the conflagration in the Middle East as anything but religious and ISIS as anything but Islamic. Indeed, they have gone to great lengths to avoid labeling acts of violence as “Islamic terrorism” or the ideology as “Islamic” or even “jihadist.”
“Leading up to this summit, there’s been a fair amount of debate in the press and among pundits about the words we use to describe and frame this challenge, so I want to be very clear about how I see it,” the president said. “Al Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders, holy warriors in defense of Islam.”
The speech follows comments last week in which President Obama seemed to suggest that murder victims in Paris were chosen “randomly” when in reality they were targeted for being Jewish. The White House was similarly vague in refusing to say that the victims of a slaughter in Egypt were Coptic Christians. There have also been bungled attempts at putting ISIS’ extremism in a larger historical context.
“Unless we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” Obama said.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was also quick to point out that the Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa was a “Christian militant group.”
The question is, why? Why link the violence committed by Christians in the name of their faith yet deny the same treatment to the atrocities committed by Islamic extremists today? No one—at least no one worth mentioning—is arguing that ISIS, or Boko Haram, or al-Qaeda, or Abu Sayyaf , or Ansar al-Islam, or the myriad other ultra-fundamentalist Islamic groups or archetypal of Muslims generally. Instead, the argument is whether an interpretation, however wrong, of Islamic beliefs and texts is crucial to understanding the nature of the conflict.
As Graeme Wood writes for an upcoming issue of The Atlantic:
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.
In reporting the story Wood spoke with Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on ISIS’ theology, who said that people’s desire to call the Islamic State un-Isliam are typically “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view” of the religion that neglects what it has “historically and legally required.”
Those requirements range from the benign, like a prohibition on selling alcohol or drugs, wearing Western-style clothing, and shaving one’s beard, to the extreme, such as the requirement that adulterers be stoned and slavery be encouraged, to the insightful, such as understanding that Shi’a, because it adapts portions of the Koran is apostasy because it denies the Koran’s initial perfection, to the strategically useful, such as the fundamentalist understanding that peace treaties must be temporary, that national borders are an abomination, and that a caliph must wage jihad at least once a year.
A deeper understanding of Islam’s role in ISIS’s actions even shows the counterproductivity of President Obama’s attempt to insert himself into the theological debate over whether ISIS is, or isn’t Islamic. Wood writes:
Barack Obama himself drifted into takfiri waters when he claimed that the Islamic State was “not Islamic”—the irony being that he, as the non-Muslim son of a Muslim, may himself be classified as an apostate, and yet is now practicing takfir against Muslims.
I suspect that most Muslims appreciated Obama’s sentiment: the president was standing with them against both Baghdadi and non-Muslim chauvinists trying to implicate them in crimes. But most Muslims aren’t susceptible to joining jihad. The ones who are susceptible will only have had their suspicions confirmed: the United States lies about religion to serve its purposes.
And that’s the problem. We’re not talking about most Muslims, we may not even be talking about any Muslims, but we are absolutely talking about people who wholeheartedly believe they are not only Muslims, but the true embodiment of its teachings. Until the White House grasps that concept it will be difficult to fully defeat ISIS.