The March 2015 issue of The Altantic carried a brilliant piece by Graeme Wood entitled What ISIS really wants. In it he offers a well-researched and well-reasoned exposition of that organisation and the ideology of its members and supporters, taking in both misconceptions entertained by Western policy-makers and illusions maintained by mainstream Muslims, through interviews with significant Western ISIS supporters and at least one major critic of Islam. It is hard to find fault with Wood’s many insights, but I will pick him up on a few points that I consider central to the feasibility of his eventual proposition for destroying ISIS.*
Some say that ISIS is just another terrorist organisation, while others say its like nothing we’ve ever seen. Wood characterises ISIS as akin to David Koresh’s Branch Davidians (or, for that matter, Aum Shinrikyo, founded by Shoko Asahara). I agree with Wood’s characterisation of ISIS, but would go further and call it the ultimate doomsday super-cult. Broadly, doomsday cults come in two flavours: some prepare for an imminent end huddled together and isolated from the world (they may all kill themselves at the first sign of the imagined final moment), leaving the condemned outside to the wrath of God; while others actively work to bring about the complete destruction of the world and everything in it, including themselves, for they will rise again in a cleansed and purified world. ISIS belongs to the latter.
As much as the barbarism of ISIS outrages us, and as satisfying as we find it to call them names, we cannot escape the necessity of correctly charactering this organisation, if we are to have any hope of thwarting its programme. This is not to be taken lightly, because far from ISIS being irrational, psychopathic madmen, they are, in fact, highly rational and meticulously calculating, fuelled by a conviction beyond the reach of either ethics or humanity.
Loosely, to be rational means to think and act in a manner consistent with achieving a particular end, whatever that end might be. Ultimately, what ISIS really wants, is the real question here, as Graeme Wood so piercingly recognises. What ISIS really wants is the faithful fulfilment of the project “revealed” in the Qur’an, in the manner stipulated in the Qur’an. The very first claim the Qur’an makes for itself, after all, is, “This is the book about which there is no doubt,” (2:2).
If the Qur’an, in its full retrospective horror, is the place where ISIS stands, then moving civilisation back to the seventh century, whatever we may think of it, is an entirely rational project. Wood explains, “much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilisation to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse,” (my emph.). To have “no doubt,” means to accept the Qur’an in full and to the letter.
For this to be feasible for twenty-first century Muslims, they must necessarily adopt a seventh-century ideology and seventh-century norms. This means a wilful rejection of all post seventh-century ethical and cultural development. It is the inability of moderate Muslims to do this that keeps them beyond the reach of ISIS. In short, in ISIS we are dealing with the earliest and most primitive of mediaeval minds.
Quite rationally, then, ISIS rejects all post-seventh century ethical, social and cultural development as innovation beyond what the Qur’an, God’s perfect and final word, commands or approves. Islam is the final religion and the Qur’an Allah’s final word. Allah is perfect and perfection cannot be improved upon. Wood writes, “Denying the holiness of the Koran or the prophecies of Muhammad is straightforward apostasy.” On this all Muslims agree. ISIS (and other true believers) tease out the implications of this in light of “This is the book of which there is no doubt.” The unavoidable conclusion is that “to innovate on the Koran is to deny its initial perfection,” as Wood says in comment on ISIS’s readiness to murder 200 million Shia, a supposed “innovation on the Quran.”
Quite rationally too, however, ISIS has no qualms about supplementing the sword with the very latest in twenty-first century technology, as the Qur’anic command to kill all unbelievers who do not submit to Muslim overlordship is unlikely to be accomplished without the Internet and nuclear weapons backing up the mu’athinun and the sword (let no-one accuse ISIS of blind literalism)!
Horror at ubiquitous cruelty and inhumanity is alien to the mediaeval mind. Their actions and decisions are logical in that, while they are not consistent with twenty-first century circumstances, they are consistent with seventh-century circumstances. The ideology, actions and logic of ISIS form a complete and impervious self-referential system. A skilled ISIS rhetorician can be as watertight in argument as one in any other system, as Wood found to his apparent surprise.
To be fair to Wood, he is writing about ISIS, but it behoves him to take a harder look at the text that inspires both ISIS and the Muslims it rejects. Why do not more — not to say ‘all’ — Muslims support ISIS, if they all draw inspiration from the same perfect book? The Qur’an does not permit any interpretation. According to the Qur’an, all reform, of whatever stripe, is apostasy. Shari’a is not an “extremist interpretation” of Islam; it is Islam. To move the focus of concern to arguments over interpretation is to allow the fox to escape. But honestly examining the Qur’an, the scripture from which all Muslims claim to take guidance and from which only ISIS unequivocally and unashamedly does, is a step too far for most moderate Muslims. Why this should be so is a question that Wood should at least raise, if not answer. I say more on this below.
I take issue with Wood that Quietist Salafism presents an alternative to ISIS. The absoluteness of the Qur’an, especially as reinforced by the innovation (no less) of abrogation (naskh) that presumes later verses to supersede earlier ones that they contradict, renders Quietist Salafism effectively no more than an extreme form of moderate Islam. The point is not whether it forms an alternative pole of attraction to Muslims who may be inclined towards extremism. The point is that the Qur’an can be just as easily used against Quietist Salafism as it can against any other form of moderate Islam. Only by highly-selective reading can the endless commands to oppress in the name of Allah, punish in the name of Allah, wage war in the name of Allah, and kill in the name of Allah be ignored. If you claim allegiance to the Qur’an, then the Qur’an demands total submission from you.
“Submission,” in the sense of “Islam,” is not mere deference or consultation in the contemporary sense; but yielding, surrender, compliance and self-abasement as pertaining to slavery. In other words, submission is meant in the ancient and early-mediaeval sense, when slavery was the prevailing social order. It is not for no reason that the Qur’an is to be recited, rather than read. Of the 1.2 to 1.7 billion (claims vary) Muslims, the only ones who submit to the Qur’an in the manner the Qur’an commands, is ISIS. ISIS dispenses with Quietist Salafism with the same ease and contempt as it does with Shi’ism, “moderate Islam” or anything else that deviates in the slightest from the literal letter the Qur’an.
This is a conclusion that Wood himself ought to arrive at with ease, especially given his access to Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel. Wood, quoting Haykel, asserts that Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” and neglect “what their religion has historically and legally required.” I’m not sure I agree with Haykel’s laying the blame for what I call Muslim Delusionism (for it is truly a movement) at the door of an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition,” much as I share his impatience with that tradition. In the embarrassed, politically-correct, cotton-candy views of moderate Muslims I see, instead, a struggle between faith and humanity, two forces that are mutually exclusive. A Muslim with a conscience is an inherently uncomfortable creature, for continued claim to the name “Muslim” necessarily requires a “cotton-candy view of their own religion.”
I see two parallel struggles unfolding: the war against ISIS; and a struggle for the conscience of moderate Muslims. So far, moderate Muslims have been their own worst enemy, claiming that “extremist” have “hijacked” Islam and “distorted” the texts. I am in agreement with Haykel, who regards such views as “preposterous, sustainable only through wilful ignorance,” in Wood’s words. The humanity in moderate Muslims wants to absolve their precious Qur’an, their pristine Islam and their perfect Prophet. Unfortunately, “These guys [ISIS] have just as much legitimacy as anyone else,” says Haykel. The inconvenient, nay, devastating truth is that “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition.” According to Haykel, ISIS “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.” This, unfortunately, is true.
How else are we to explain the phenomenon of ISIS defections, but as a struggle between faith and humanity within the breasts of such ISIS recruits? Quoting an anonymous ISIS report, Wood relates that, “Yazidi women and children [are to be] divided according to the Shariah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations [in northern Iraq] … Enslaving the families of the kuffar [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Koran and the narrations of the Prophet … and thereby apostatizing from Islam.”
Those recruits who still retain a semblance of their humanity will find it increasingly difficult to conceal a growing revulsion at what they’re witnessing and a deepening disgust at their own culpability. Not all will comfortably rape the umpteenth young mother who’d just witnessed her pre-pubescent daughter being raped. At some point, scoring another goal with an apostate’s severed head becomes not quite so enjoyable anymore. The unrelenting and utter barbarity that ISIS fighters are subjected to must, at least in some (and perhaps more than just a few), rekindle what little remained of their humanity when they opted for ISIS. Once inside ISIS, the wonder and magnificence of full-blown Shari’a is not necessarily as romantic to the twenty-first century jihadi as he (and sometimes she) had so energetically proselytised while still in the twenty-first century. But ISIS-held territory may not be the ideal place to start voicing your doubts.
There is perhaps room for a distinction between ISIS’s Western recruits and those from more hard-core Islamic backgrounds, such as Pakistan or Afghanistan. Those who have grown up exposed to at least as much human values as Islamic values might find it harder to keep up the bravado in the face of the daily slaughter of innocents. Exactly how high the pile of child corpses needs to be before it begins to corrupt belief will depend on the individual believer. Who knows? Even the unassailable Anjem Choudary, should he ever attain his strived-for Shari’a, might discover that Shari’a might not, after all, be “right for all time.” None of this is intended to detract from the power of faith to make monsters of believers, and to sustain nihilistic drives all the way to the seventy-two virgins, no matter what. Given what we know of much of non-ISIS Islam across vast swathes of north Africa and Asia, we can be fairly confident that most of the organisation’s recruits from that part of the world are very much at home within it.
But what are we to make of the conservative Muslim woman recruited to ISIS online? Of course she has plenty of privacy. Private access to a computer and a high level of computer literacy, suggest a middle class woman. To apply her considerable skills and unrestricted access to the outside world to locking women into seventh-century social and ethical conditions requires that she be aWestern Muslim woman. Only a Muslim woman brought up under conditions where she is legally and socially free, shielded from the quotidian horrors of full-blown Shari’a or other primitive social norms, dealing with the divergent tugs of an unresolved identity crisis, and ignorant of or idealising the Qur’an, can think it desirable to spend her energies in this way. It is not uncommon for such women to credit Islam with their relative freedom, rather than the social equality and human rights under which they practise it. When Wood describes such women as “physically isolated in their homes,” he offers an irrelevance that is also misleading. It casts such women in the same light as those subject to the restrictions of Shari’a. The broken, pathetic shadows that exemplify the Shari’a ideal are hardly in a position to arrange their own physical safety, let alone arrange secret passage for jihadis to Syria.
Such privileged Western support for ISIS is, of course, not restricted to women. Western Muslim men, if they are serious about following the Shari’a, may have heard the screams and cries of their own wives, sisters or daughters, and seen the blood and bruises appear all over them as they beat them or witnessed them beaten. They may be smug in their steadfastness and confident that Allah is satisfied with them. They may swagger down Western streets in packs and block pavements with ostentatious displays of piety. The Anjem Choudarys of this world do not stick to the obscurity of homes or niqabs, like their womenfolk. They swim without restraint in the ocean of freedom and human rights, boasting openly about their contempt for those freedoms and human rights.
When Wood says that, “The Islamic State’s ideology exerts powerful sway over a certain subset of the population,” referring to the likes of Choudary, this is misleading. The Islamic State’s ideology exerts no sway over them at all. ISIS’s ideology is already their own ideology and they’ve been patiently waiting for ISIS to come along. For them, life has no hypocrisies or inconsistencies. It is all very simple.
It is those for whom life is an uncomfortable mess of “hypocrisies and inconsistencies”, those who have not found a workable arrangement of deceit and pretence, for whom ISIS might appear to offer a stable home. I say, “might,” because it is by no means certain that they will resolve their inner struggles the ISIS way. This is where the bluster of Choudary and his ilk finish the job, for they understand the male sense of self and have their sophistry, red herrings, non sequiturs, track-jumping and other tricks of the tongue down pat.
Even Wood was impressed, too impressed, as shown by the following trick that slipped right by him: Choudary describes a quid pro quo involving the leader of ISIS: “The caliph is required to implement Sharia. …In return, the caliph commands obedience,” (my emph.). Let’s look at this. Who requires the “caliph” to implement the Shari’a? Allah, of course; not Muslims. Who, in return, has to obey the caliph? Not Allah, of course, but every Muslim. If Wood did see this trick of the tongue, and he thought it imprudent to confront Choudary with it, he would certainly have written about it. What comes across, perhaps unfairly, is that Choudary and his friends’ slick articulacy had overawed Wood. He confesses, “These men spoke with an academic precision that put me in mind of a good graduate seminar. I even enjoyed their company, and that frightened me as much as anything else.” They are not “froth-spewing maniacs,” says Wood. Of course they’re not. They are meant to impress precisely people like Wood, Western opinion-makers.
Wood argues, quite rightly, in my opinion, that ISIS is a “religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted,” the aim being to “help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal”. In other words, feed it what it needs to persevere, but deny it what it needs to sustain itself. “Properly contained,” Wood writes, “The Islamic State is likely to be its own undoing. No country is its ally, and its ideology ensures that this will remain the case. The land it controls, while expansive, is mostly uninhabited and poor.” So far, so good. Wood correctly places the dots, but then fails to connect them, leading him to conclude: “As [ISIS] stagnates or slowly shrinks, its claim that it is the engine of God’s will and the agent of apocalypse will weaken, and fewer believers will arrive.”
I do not share Wood’s confidence in the power of evidence to sway the religious, let alone ISIS. It is more likely that that “excessive zeal,” as he puts it, will drive increasing numbers to the defence of their precious and long-awaited “caliphate”. His prediction that, “As more reports of misery within it leak out, radical Islamist movements elsewhere will be discredited,” falls prey to the same mistake as that with which he charges Western policy-makers, viz., imagining that the ISIS ideologue thinks in the same way as his Western adversaries. ISIS doesn’t attract recruits because it offers five-star comforts; it does so because it practises Shari’a exactly as set out in the Qur’an and acts to realise the promise the Qur’an makes to Muslims. If anything, harsh conditions only affirm the religious in their commitment (you don’t need to be a fundamentalist for that). When Wood imagines a jihadist thinking, “No one has tried harder to implement strict Sharia by violence. This is what it looks like,” and supposedly being put off by it, he fails to add that most significant of affirming punctuations: “Allahu akbar!”
Wood correctly assesses ISIS as “Ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succour if it stays true to the Prophetic model.” Driving ISIS into Dabiq and then throwing a ring of steel around it without ever attacking it seems to me the most likely way of achieving the self-immolation of ISIS, not because conditions within will worsen, but because the next stage in God’s plan will be frustrated. To attack ISIS and destroy it in Dabiq would simply advance God’s plan to he next stage: ISIS in Jerusalem, regardless of the cost to ISIS. If the great Battle of Dabiq never happens, they’re stuck. For as Wood himself put it, “God has preordained the near-destruction of his people anyway.” The best way to destroy ISIS is to not destroy ISIS, but to leave that task up to their own mediaeval minds to accomplish. That means understanding how the mediaeval mind works.
On this note, I’m not sure it’s such a good idea to prevent Western-based ISIS supporters (not their children) from travelling to Syria to join up. Indeed, it might be worth considering offering free passage to anyone wanting to emigrate to ISIS. Once they go, they forfeit all right of return, save through a very strict and lengthy quarantine programme. None wanting to miss out on the big day, all ISIS fighters will eventually end up in Dabiq, which is exactly where they are to be contained.
That Choudary and others like him have had their passports confiscated is a victory for them, not a defeat, as the British authorities imagine. I have no doubt that that is exactly what their firebrand public utterances were aimed to achieve. They owe no allegiance to Britain whatsoever. In their eyes those passports are worthless. Being confined to the UK may appear like a setback for them, but ISIS’s aim is to take over the world, and they scoff at sissy stuff like flying planes into skyscrapers. Highly-articulate operatives in key positions in Western countries are all part of so-called offensive jihad and I don’t think Western security authorities are anywhere near serious enough in dealing with it. You cannot win if you insist on playing draughts while your opponent is playing chess. By this I do not mean that the West has to become repressive; I mean that it has to enter the religious mind and manipulate it, rather than rely on reason and logic that presume ethics and humanity, none of which means anything to ISIS.
In some ways Wood himself ducks the issue, trying to have it both ways. He asserts that, “It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State “a problem with Islam.” This comes after he had already declared the Islamic State, “Islamic. Very Islamic,” and his source, Bernard Haykel, had already described ISIS practises as directly based on the texts of the Koran and the Hadith.
How can it be exculpatory to lay blame where blame is due? He goes on to assert, strangely, that, “The religion allows many interpretations, and Islamic State supporters are morally on the hook for the one they choose.” Firstly, whom are they on the hook to? They answer to no-one but Allah. Secondly, the religion is Islam and Islam means submission to the will of Allah. The will of Allah is expressed in the Qur’an, as perfect as perfect can be. Submission (Islam, i.e., the religion) allows no interpretation. It is an all-or-nothing religion. When Haykel says of ISIS vis-à-vis other Muslims, “These guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else,” he is only saying that they all pledge allegiance to the same scripture. But it is ISIS’s absolute adherence to that scripture, as opposed to others’ greater or lesser departure from it, that gives it greater legitimacy, from the standpoint of the Qur’an, than others who call themselves Muslim.
Wood then goes on to consider the opposite: “And yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive.” Denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic is misleading and dishonest. Wood has just expended many column-inches showing that the Islamic State is, in his words, “Islamic. Very Islamic.” There’s something bizarrely convoluted going on here.
Another of Wood’s weaknesses is his contention that “Non-Muslims cannot tell Muslims how to practice their religion properly.” Whether this would be out of deference or presumed non-qualification is not clear. Either way, as an ex-Muslim, I do not agree. Wood has shown himself more capable than most Muslims in understanding Islamism, ISIS and the motivations of Western jihadis, and certainly more honest than most Muslims who care to wade into these waters. Many Muslims take offence at non-Muslims commenting in any way on practising Islam “properly”, dismissing them as unqualified by virtue of being non-Muslim. They fail to qualify not because they cannot possibly know enough about Islam (they often know much more than the average Muslim), but because they shouldn’t be meddling in matters that do not concern them.
It looks suspiciously as if Wood’s head has led him further than his gut will let him go, and that at the end he needed to roll back the implications of his own findings. Wood ought to realise that the notion that there can be “no doubt” is not confined to the Qur’an, and that Muslims, even Western Muslims, are steeped in a stubborn tradition of uncriticality. It is virtually impossible to say anything critical of anything about Islam without bringing Muslim opprobrium down upon yourself. A few minutes into what passes for “debate” amongst the 50-cent army of Muslim spokespersons that have invaded the Western media and fora, quickly reveals that the habit of stamping out dissent continues as a strategy of deliberately talking over whoever says anything against Islam. The object is not to persuade, but to stop others from persuading. Persuasion is beneath Islam — submit, or else; it is the final religion, basta!
Of course the counterpoint to the whole Islamist project, and that Wood doesn’t mention, is the explosion in the numbers leaving Islam in Muslim countries. Millions (including Arabic speakers) are, for the first time in their lives, actually reading the Qur’an, and with exposure to universal human values having eroded the effects of their stifling madrassa educations and oppressive social norms, are rejecting the Qur’an and Islam as fundamentally anti-human, a gross embarrassment that none other than ISIS, al-Qaida, Boko Haram, al-Shabab, et alia, are helping to bring to light. It was al-Qaida’s justification of 9/11 on the bases of passages from the Qur’an that set Ayaan Hirsi Ali on her way to atheism. She is far from unique.
Millions reject the notion that they were born Muslim. They assert, instead, that they were made into Muslims in a process over which they had no control, just as they had no control over which parents conceived them. So on what basis can Islam claim any prerogative over them at all, except the mediaeval social construct of submissive personal dependence? The Enlightenment and capitalism comprehensively dismantled the social order they see fighting for its life in their Muslim societies, and that still lives on in the pages of the Qur’an and in the dreams of those who would see the world subjected to it. So when Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, (that Wood quotes) admits, “We do not even understand the idea [of ISIS],” what he should say is, “We do not even understand the mind that sustains the idea [of ISIS].” That mind is not the mind of the free autonomous individual — the social construct bequeathed us by the revolutions that made the modern world and now sustain it — but the mind that precedes it, the mediaeval mind, the mind that sustained slavery and inhumanity, and had to give way to our world.
Graeme Wood’s critical contribution to the debate, not only on ISIS, but also more importantly on Islam, marks an important standard against which journalism can be benchmarked. There is, of course, a rapidly-growing academic and think-tank corpus examining the ISIS/ISIL/Daesh (Daish) phenomenon, as a quick search on Google Scholar will attest. Woods himself refers to the then work-in-progress on ISIS’s “apocalyptic thought” by Will McCants of the Brookings Institution. We ought to be grateful to Woods for setting the bar so high for a profession notorious for reducing crucial world-historical questions to either the sensational or the banal. I, for one, look forward to his next “take”.
* This essay was first published here.
 http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/ [Accessed 20 Feb 2016].
 See, e.g., Jonathan Powell, Negotiate with ISIS, The Atlantic, 7 Dec 2015http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/12/negotiate-with-isis/419157/ [Accessed 20 Feb 2016].
 See, e.g., H.A. Hellyer, Why ISIS cannot be negotiated with, The Atlantic, 10 Jan 2016 http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/01/what-to-do-about-isis-negotiations/423432/ [Accessed 20 Feb 2016].
 The way that Muslims during the early years of Islam contorted themselves over the Qur’an’s contradictory verses was a foretaste of today’s spectacular acrobatics to justify the Qur’an’s utterances on women.
 How often are we not treated to the ludicrous spectacle of a confident, highly-articulate London female voice accompanying a lively pair of eyes peeking through a slit in a niqab. No prizes for spotting the incongruity!
 Wood himself points out that, “They believe that they are personally involved in struggles beyond their own lives, and that merely to be swept up in the drama, on the side of righteousness, is a privilege and a pleasure—especially when it is also a burden.”
 This will both protect the children, and also settle the question of whether their wives are committed jihadis themselves, or merely obeying their husbands, as all good Muslim women are commanded to do. Look upon it as something Solomon might have done under the circumstances.
 Thankfully, as Wood points out, “most Muslims aren’t susceptible to joining jihad.”
 There are easy ways around that: use the passive voice: “Islam may be properly practised by taking care… etc.,” and throw in some citations to deal with lingering concerns; otherwise simply invoke freedom of speech.
 Wood makes further a mistake that is still all too common: the presumption that when someone is brought up to adhere to a certain religion, he or she belongs to that religion; that that religion somehow has jurisdiction over them. He does not mention having challenged any of his jihadi interlocutors on the notion that, “All Muslims are obliged to immigrate to the territory where the caliph is applying these laws.” To the Choudarys of this world, there is no such thing as freedom of religion. There is only religious obligation. If you have had the misfortune to be born to Muslim parents, you were born in original submission.
 William McCants, ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, 2015, St. Martin’s Press. At time of writing, I have not yet had the opportunity to consult this book.