Mehdi Hasan wrote a very long piece for the New Statesman last week letting us know that Islamic State is not Islamic. The real, true, genuine, authentic, glorious Islam is a whole other thing altogether entirely.
The rise of Isis in Iraq and Syria has been a disaster for the public image of Islam – and a boon for the Islamophobia industry. Here, after all, is a group that calls itself Islamic State; that claims the support of Islamic texts to justify its medieval punishments, from the stoning of adulterers to the amputation of the hands of thieves; and that has a leader with a PhD in Islamic studies who declares himself to be a “caliph”, or ruler over all Muslims, and has even renamed himself in honour of the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr.
The consequences are, perhaps, as expected. In September 2014, a Zogby poll found that only 27 per cent of Americans had a favourable view of Islam – down from 35 per cent in 2010. By February 2015, more than a quarter of Americans (27 per cent) were telling the pollsters LifeWay Research that they believed that life under Isis rule “gives a true indication of what an Islamic society looks like”.
You know what, Mehdi? I don’t care. I do not care. I might care if there were some majority-Muslim country somewhere that was a paradise of fairness and egalitarianism and freedom and benevolence. But you know what? There isn’t. Not one. And it’s kind of disgusting that you’re more worried about the reputation of Islam than you are about its victims.
He talks to forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman, former CIA operative in Pakistan and current expert on counterterrorism.
Does he see religion as a useful analytical prism through which to view the rise of Isis and the process by which thousands of young people arrive in Syria and Iraq, ready to fight and die for the group?
“Religion has a role but it is a role of justification,” he tells me. “It’s not why they do this [or] why young people go there.”
Isis members, he says, are using religion to advance a political vision, rather than using politics to advance a religious vision. “To give themselves a bit more legitimacy, they use Islam as their justification. It’s not about religion, it’s about identity . . . You identify with the victims, [with] the guys being killed by your enemies.”
Right. I agree with that. I’ve been saying it for years. But that doesn’t equal “Islam is perfect and Isis members are just distorting it.” Religion as such is well adapted for use as justification and valorization of political visions because it is inherently peremptory and immune to negotiation. Secular ideas don’t work as well for that because they can’t borrow that absolutist note from god.
Religion, according to this view, plays a role not as a driver of behaviour but as a vehicle for outrage and, crucially, a marker of identity. Religion is important in the sense that it happens to “define your identity”, Sageman says, and not because you are “more pious than anybody else”. He invokes the political scientist Benedict Anderson’s conception of a nation state as an “imagined political community”, arguing that the “imagined community of Muslims” is what drives the terrorists, the allure of being members of – and defenders of – the ultimate “in-group”.
For sure. So, how does that mean we should have a more favorable view of Islam? Given that it works so well as social glue for a lot of murderous passengers in the vehicle for outrage, why shouldn’t we see that as something wrong with it?
“You don’t have the most religious folks going there,” he points out. Isis fighters from the west, in particular, “tend to have rediscovered Islam as teenagers, or as converts”; they are angry, or even bored, young men in search of a call to arms and a thrilling cause. The Isis executioner Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John” – who was raised and educated in the UK – was described, for instance, by two British medics who met him at a Syrian hospital as “quiet but a bit of an adrenalin junkie”.
For sure, again. Again, I’ve been saying that for years. I said it about the September 11 spectacle – it was a spectacle. It was fun for the perps, yes including the ones who knew it was their last fun. It was an excellent adventure. All this stuff is that. None of that makes Islam fundamentally benevolent or peace-loving. It can be those things if its adherents make it that, and I hope they will – I hope the Tehmina Kazis and Maajid Nawazes soon outnumber the furious young men out for an adventure. But fundamentally it is what people make it, and so far the record is not good.
It cannot be said often enough: it isn’t the most pious or devout of Muslims who embrace terrorism, or join groups such as Isis. Nor has a raft of studies and surveys uncovered any evidence of a “conveyor belt” that turns people of firm faith into purveyors of violence.
Religion plays little, if any, role in the radicalisation process, as Sageman and countless experts testify. It is an excuse, rather than a reason. Isis is as much the product of political repression, organised crime and a marriage of convenience with secular, power-hungry Ba’athists as it is the result of a perversion of Islamic beliefs and practices. As for Islamic scholars, they “unanimously repudiate” Isis, to quote Murad, while ordinary Muslims “universally condemn” Baghdadi and his bloodthirsty followers, in the words of Mogahed.
That’s nice. What do “Islamic scholars” have to say about Saudi Arabia? Do they “unanimously repudiate” that too? Does Mehdi Hasan? Does Mehdi Hasan claim that Saudi Arabia also has little or nothing to do with Islam?