Not a driver but a vehicle

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?


  1. Crimson Clupeidae says

    List all of the officially and unofficially (by way of essentially being run by islamic clergy/believers).

    Now, list all of the countries on that list that practice democracy (there are a couple I think), have freedom of religion, free speech, equal rights for all, etc.

    The second list will be very short, or non-existent.

  2. ZugTheMegasaurus says

    Arguments like Hasan’s irritate me because it’s lots of words and energy amount to exactly nothing. “It is an excuse, not a reason.” Talk about a distinction without a difference. Whether something amounts to an excuse or a reason depends solely on the person citing it. See, pretty much all religion-based justifications for things sound absurd to me. They sound like “excuses,” no matter how genuinely they’re meant, because I don’t find religious faith convincing. But to the very devout person who may be making that silly-in-my-view justification, it’s most definitely not an excuse, but a very good reason.

    Frankly, this is where discussions of religion completely break down because the one thing that makes sense is off-limits: your religion isn’t REAL. There is not one version of Islam, just as there is not just one version of essentially any religion. People who follow Islam can disagree about all sorts of things and none of them is being a better Muslim than the others; there’s simply no objective standard. And seriously, how could anyone actually claim that Islamic scholars UNANIMOUSLY repudiate ISIS without bursting into flames? You really don’t think that ISIS has even a single person who could call themselves an Islamic scholar among their ranks? Or their supporters? Or their sympathizers? It’s ludicrous.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    Fascinating article in the Guardian about the radicalisation of an Australian atheist:

    Tucked away in it, an amazing stat: “more foreign fighters have enlisted for Isis from Belgium (350) than from Indonesia (perhaps 70)”. Suggested reason why a majority Christian European country has supplied five times as many jihadis as the most populous Muslim country in the world? ” ‘It’s boring in Belgium.’”

    Islam has a major problem with the “No True Muslim” argument because they don’t have a Pope. They have, quite deliberately, set it up as a feature-not-a-bug of their religion that there is no single, central, infallible authority on what’s Islamic and what’s not – indeed nothing even close. So any “that’s not true Islam” argument fails at the first hurdle, because there’s no earthly authority they can turn to for answers that has any more seniority than any other. Which is not to say the solution is a hierarchy – that would just make someone’s delusions the authoritative ones. But it does make arguing with Muslims even more pointless than arguing with Catholics.

  4. karmacat says

    So is Mehdi ready to admit that the Koran was written to justify the politics of the time and to justify the power of some people over other people. The bible certainly does this. And these people justify their power because spoke to them directly. And if anyone dares challenge their power, then they use charges of blasphemy to shut them up

  5. nathanaelnerode says

    — Turkey (majority Muslim) is the only democracy in the Middle East, and is far more democratic and free than Hungary at this point. Even with Turkey getting worse, with the US sinking down the charts on all counts, Turkey may be better than the US on most counts pretty quickly. At least Turkey doesn’t have gulags like Guantanamo and hasn’t made anyone into a permanent exile like we did to Snowdwn.
    — Malaysia is majority MuslIm, democratic and was more or less free (about as much as most of South America), though the government has now resorted to censorship and race-baiting and harassment of the opposition. Which is the same thing we saw in the US under George W. Bush.
    — Indonesia is majority Muslim, big struggle over whether it will be democratic and free (very similar to the junta-ridden countries of South America).
    — Tunisia is majority Muslim, and as of very recently, democratic and free.

    The Muslim countries as a group are not any different from the Christian countries or the ex-Communist countries. We’ve seen a global downturn in civil rights, and rise in dangerous murderous cult types, unfortunately.

    Unfortunately, you can’t seem to get anyone in power in any country whatsoever to repudiate Saudi Arabia these days. I suppose it’s the oil money. Honestly, every impartial observer thinks they’re the worst country ever, and they’re spectacularly correct (as you already know).

    Saudi Arabia has, in fact, been demolishing ancient Muslim holy and archaeological sites in Medina, Mecca, and Jeddah, for years now — to enforce the Wahabbi history-free view of the world — so Daesh/ISIS is just copying them. For this awful destruction of their own religion’s history, Saudi Arabia is considered heretical and blasphemous by every major branch of Islam *except* the Wahabbi and some of the other Salafis.

    Now if you’re wondering why some countries seem permanently stuck in paroxysms of violence while others are operating a bit more peacefully — well, the countries which eliminated leaded gasoline earliest are doing somewhat better on the whole. This isn’t surprising. (There are also a lot of followups to that with added evidence for the lead problem.) Most of the Muslim world and Africa were very late to eliminate leaded gasoline, with some of the bigger oil-producing nations being last, due to bribery from Innospec. It’s not clear whether it’s been eliminated yet in Algeria, Yemen, and Iraq (all of which added it at *refinery* level), Afghanistan, Burma/Myanmar, or North Korea. The target phaseout dates for the refinery countries were 2014 & 2015, and this is probably happening, but I haven’t found an update. The whole saga of tetraethyl lead is one of the most disgracefully evil things in the history of the world.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    The whole saga of tetraethyl lead is one of the most disgracefully evil things in the history of the world.

    By that estimation (and I’m not arguing with it per se), then Hitler had nothing on Thomas Midgeley, Jr. He not only invented the addition of TEL to petrol, but also came up with the idea of using CFCs as refrigerants. J. R. McNeill, an environmental historian, has remarked that Midgley “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history”.

  7. RossR says

    he has even renamed himself in honour of the first Muslim caliph
    My impression is rather that he took a famous name to honour himself.

  8. lorn says

    Christianity went through their reformation. The result being that the Old Testament was repudiated and, even though it was only the Protestants pushing it, the direct relationship of each individual to the concept of Jesus would afterward act as a counterbalance to religious authorities.

    Islam is still unreconstructed and the verses pushing aggression against other religions, slavery, misogyny, and a whole lot of other atrocities, are still theologically active. Even as the majority of Muslims ignore them.

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