2015-12-16

ISIS is a Revolution, born in terror (like all revolutions)

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by Neil Godfrey

A long essay by Scott Atran comparing ISIS to past revolutions to find out what is new, and what likely can and cannot be done against it. . . .

ISIS is a revolution

World-altering revolutions are born in danger and death, brotherhood and joy. This one must be stopped

Excerpts follow —

Asymmetric operations involving spectacular killings to destabilise the social order is a tactic that has been around as long as recorded history

The revolution:

What the United Nations community regards as senseless acts of horrific violence are to ISIS’s acolytes part of an exalted campaign of purification through sacrificial killing and self-immolation: Know that Paradise lies under the shade of swords, says a hadith, or saying of the Prophet; this one comes from the Sahih al-Bukhari, a collection of the Prophet’s sayings considered second only to the Qu’ran in authenticity and is now a motto of ISIS fighters.

This is the purposeful plan of violence that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-anointed Caliph, outlined in his call for ‘volcanoes of jihad’: to create a globe-spanning jihadi archipelago that will eventually unite to destroy the present world and create a new-old world of universal justice and peace under the Prophet’s banner. A key tactic in this strategy is to inspire sympathisers abroad to violence: do what you can, with whatever you have, wherever you are, whenever possible.

The study:

To understand the revolution, my research team has conducted dozens of structured interviews and behavioural experiments with youth in Paris, London and Barcelona, as well as with captured ISIS fighters in Iraq and members of Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria). We also focused on youth from distressed neighbourhoods previously associated with violence or jihadi support – for example, the Paris suburbs of Clichy-sous-Bois and Épinay-sur-Seine, the Moroccan neighbourhoods of Sidi Moumen in Casablanca and Jamaa Mezuak in Tetuán.

While many in the West dismiss radical Islam as simply nihilistic, our work suggests something far more menacing: a profoundly alluring mission to change and save the world. . . . 

From J.M. Berger’s article in The Atlantic (my bolding)

ISIS is not succeeding because of the strength of its ideas. Instead, it exploits an increasingly networked world to sell its violent and apocalyptic ideology to a microscopic minority—people who are able to discover each other from a distance and organize collective action in ways that were virtually impossible before the rise of the Internet.

That reach, and the group’s disciplined approach to social-media incitement and online recruitment, allow ISIS to hunt among hundreds of millions of people and find a precious few thousand who are receptive to its message. It can identify and mobilize minute percentages on the margins of society; because society is massive, these numbers can sound impressive, out of context. ISIS is accomplishing some of its objectives in the ideas war, but that is not the same as winning on the merits. As Will McCants writes in The ISIS Apocalypse, “Reducing the mass appeal of ISIS is pointless, given that it doesn’t have mass appeal.” Instead, the focus should be on disrupting the process ISIS uses to mobilize its minority.

The ideology of ISIS will eventually meet its end like that of the Nazis did. Ideas are all well and good, but wars are won in the material world. Like the Nazis and the Soviet Communists, ISIS does not exist in an ideological vacuum. The ISIS insurgency emerged from and continues to be empowered by the wildly dysfunctional politics of Iraq and Syria, and the related machinations of regional and global powers.

And like Nazism and Soviet communism, ISIS’s brand of jihadism will not be vanquished by ideas alone. ISIS will continue to pose an ideological threat for as long as it holds territory and exists as a cohesive entity. The most decisive defeat of its ideas will almost certainly coincide with its defeat on the battlefield.

Success depends on . . . 

Treating the Islamic State as merely a form of terrorism or violent extremism masks the menace. All novel developments are ‘extremist’ compared with what was the norm before. What matters for history is whether these movements survive and thrive against the competition. For our singularly self-predatory species, success has depended on willingness to shed blood, including the sacrifice of one’s own, not merely for family and tribe, wealth or status, but for some greater cause. . . . 

Few revolutionary vanguards achieved success by first capturing a significant portion of the world’s population, or even the support of people in their home regions

Just since the Second World War, revolutionary movements have on average emerged victorious with as little as 10 times less firepower and manpower than the state forces against them. . . .

As history and empirical studies show, what matters in revolutionary success is commitment to cause and comrades. Even in the face of initial failures and often devastating defeats, this can trump overwhelming material disadvantages. . . . 

The chasm between values is compounded by alternate historical arcs. The West and the Arab and Muslim world have long lived mostly separate and parallel histories. . . . 

What inspires the most lethal assailants today is not so much the Quran but a thrilling cause and a call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends

All of the European political imports and even nationalism itself (except maybe for Turkey, Egypt and Iran, which are still more built around ethnicity and faith than national identity per se) have failed in the Middle East, and miserably so. People are longing for something in their history, in their traditions, with their heroes and their morals; and the Islamic State, however brutal and repugnant to us and even to most in the Arab-Muslim world, is speaking directly to that.

Yet the US and Western powers don’t seem to recognise that revival. The hackneyed solutions amount to a tired call to shore up the broken nation-state system imposed in the aftermath of the First World War by the European victors, Great Britain and France, and a reaffirmation of ‘moderate Islam’, which appeals to young people’s longings for adventure, glory, ideals and significance even less than does the eternal promise of shopping malls.

Still, the popular notion of a ‘clash of civilisations’ between Islam and the West is woefully misleading. Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse . . . .

‘The Caliphate… We dream of it like the Jews long dreamed of Zion. Maybe it can be a federation, like the European Union, of Muslim peoples’

At the East Asia summit in Singapore last April, some people insisted that the Caliphate was nothing more than a myth masking traditional power politics. Our research in Europe and North Africa shows this to be a dangerous misconception. The Caliphate has re‑emerged as a mobilising cause in the minds of many Muslims, and even has some appeal to Muslims who favour interfaith cooperation. . . . 

There are striking historical parallels in the history of modern revolutions ever since the Jacobin faction of French revolutionaries, led by Maximilien Robespierre, introduced the political concept of ‘terror’ and decapitation by guillotine; this extreme measure for the defence of democracy was seen as a divine form of violence. . . . 

The current rivalry between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State echoes that between the anarchists and Bolshevists

The Great Powers considered anarchism to pose the largest threat to the internal political and economic order, and to international stability. In the face of repeated anarchist attacks randomly targeting Parisians in ‘bourgeois’ cafés, theatres and the like, French leaders and the popular press demanded that the French people ‘awaken’ and ‘unify’ to fight a scourge that threatened civilisation itself. . . . 

What ultimately killed off the anarchist movement as a geopolitical force were the Bolshevists, who knew much better how to manage a shared political ambition through military and territorial management; they were also, on the whole, much more ruthless. In a series of recent interviews with Jabhat al-Nusra fighters from the Aleppo and Dara regions of Syria, it has become increasingly clear that ISIS is eating Al-Qaeda in much the same way that the Bolshevists co-opted and practically annihilated the anarchist movement. . . . 

In fact, there is a deeper connection between the Nazi movement and the Islamic State, an association that I noted some time ago. George Orwell, in his review of Mein Kampf in 1940, descried the essence of the problem:

Hitler knows… that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene … and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice… Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.

Before the revolutionary flame burns itself out, it can also burn away much in its path, and profoundly reshape the region

The core strategy used by the Islamic State to attract supporters and unhinge opponents is hardly a mystery, although few people engaged in policy and decision-making seem to have taken note. Its manifesto for action, a required playbook for the Islamic State’s emirs (religious, political and military leaders), is The Management of Savagery/Chaos. It was written over a decade ago, under the pseudonym Abu Bakr Naji, for the Mesopotamian wing of Al-Qaeda that would become ISIS. Think of the recent massacres in Paris, Beirut or Bamako, and then consider some of the book’s axioms. . . .

1) Hit soft targets. . . 

2) Strike when potential victims have their guard down to maximise fear in general populations and drain their economies. . .

3) Capture the rebelliousness of youth, their energy and idealism, and their readiness for self-sacrifice, while fools preach moderation and avoidance of risk. . . 

4) Draw the West as deeply and actively as possible into the quagmire. . .

‘The Extinction of the Grayzone’, a 12-page editorial published in ISIS’s online magazine Dabiq in early 2015, describes the twilight area occupied by most Muslims between good and evil – in other words, between the Caliphate and the Infidel, which the ‘blessed operations of September 11’ brought into relief. The editorial quotes Osama bin Laden, for whom ISIS is the true heir: ‘The world today is divided. Bush spoke the truth when he said, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”’, with the actual ‘terrorist’ being the Western Crusaders. Now, ‘the time had come for another event to… bring division to the world and destroy the Grayzone.’

In reality, last month’s Paris attack was just the latest, ever more effective, instalment for fomenting chaos in Europe, just as recent attacks in Turkey and Beirut sought to instigate more savagery and chaos in the Middle East. . . . We might wish to celebrate diversity and tolerance in the grayzone, but the general trend in Europe and the majority of the US political establishment and population is to collude in erasing it. . . . 

In areas under or adjacent to Islamic State control, the general populations likely do not support either the Islamic State or the Western (and now also Russian) forces arrayed against it. They are not zealots or samurai, and do not want to die as martyrs. ISIS knows this and entices its enemies to attack the population centres that it controls . . . .

Civilisations rise and fall on the vitality of their cultural ideals, not their material assets alone

If people are ready to sacrifice their lives, then it is not likely that offers of greater material advantages will stop them. . . . Instead, we must meet their psychological and aspirational needs. . . .

Even if good ideas find ways to emerge from youth and obtain institutional support for their development to application, they still need intellectual help to persuade the public to adopt them. But where are the intellectuals to do this? . . .  When I ask: ‘What ideas come from your own people?’, I’m told in moments of candour, as I was most recently by a Muslim leadership council in Singapore, that: ‘We don’t have many new ideas and we can’t agree on those we have.’

And where among our own current or coming generation are the intellectuals who might influence the moral principles, motivations and actions of society towards a just and reasonable way through the morass? In academia, you’ll find few willing to engage with power. They thus render themselves irrelevant and morally irresponsible by leaving the field of power entirely to those they censure. Accordingly, politicians pay them little heed, and the public couldn’t care less, often with good reason. . . . 

Responsible intellectual endeavour in the public sphere was once a vibrant part of our public life: not to promote ‘certain, clear, and strong’ action, as Martin Heidegger wrote in support of Hitler, but to generate just and reasonable possibilities and pathways for consideration. Now this sphere is largely abandoned to the Manichean preachings of blogging pundits, radio talk-show hosts, product-pushing podcasters, and television evangelicals. These people rarely do what responsible intellectuals ought to do. ‘The intellectual,’ explained France’s Raymond Aron 60 years ago, ‘must try never to forget the arguments of the adversary, or the uncertainty of the future, or the faults of one’s own side, or the underlying fraternity of ordinary men everywhere.’

Civilisations rise and fall on the vitality of their cultural ideals, not their material assets alone. History shows that most societies have sacred values for which their people would passionately fight, risking serious loss and even death rather than compromise. Our research suggests this is so for many who join ISIS, and for many Kurds who oppose them on the frontlines. But, so far, we find no comparable willingness among the majority of youth that we sample in Western democracies. With the defeat of fascism and communism, have their lives defaulted to the quest for comfort and safety? Is this enough to ensure the survival, much less triumph, of values we have come to take for granted, on which we believe our world is based? More than the threat from violent jihadis, this might be the key existential issue for open societies today.

The full article is at https://aeon.co/essays/all-revolutions-are-born-in-terror-can-this-one-be-stopped

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Volcanic eruptions stirred by the firebrand of word hurled among the masses

In Mein Kampf (1925), Adolf Hitler declared that: ‘All great movements are popular movements, volcanic eruptions of human passions and emotional sentiments, stirred either by the cruel Goddess of Distress or by the firebrand of word hurled among the masses.’ But the word must be framed within the spectacular theatre of the sublime. When Charlie Chaplin and the French film-maker René Clair together viewed Leni Riefenstahl’s visual paean to National Socialism, Triumph of the Will (1935), at a showing at the New York Museum of Modern Art, Chaplin laughed but Clair was terror-stricken, fearing that, if it were shown more widely, all might be lost in the West.

‘O soldiers of the Islamic State, continue to harvest soldiers,’ Baghdadi fulminated in 2014, ‘erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere’ and ‘dismember [enemies] as groups and individuals’ to liberate mankind from the ‘satanic usury-based global system’ leached by ‘the Jews and crusaders’ – an appeal that resonates with many, and stirs at least some to atrocity.

24 Comments

  • 2015-12-16 03:51:54 UTC - 03:51 | Permalink

    ISIS is not succeeding because of the strength of its ideas.

    -Yeah, it is.

    The ideology of ISIS will eventually meet its end like that of the Nazis did. Ideas are all well and good, but wars are won in the material world. Like the Nazis and the Soviet Communists, ISIS does not exist in an ideological vacuum. The ISIS insurgency emerged from and continues to be empowered by the wildly dysfunctional politics of Iraq and Syria, and the related machinations of regional and global powers.

    -Bingo. But my biggest problem is the IS as it exists today is clearly a creation of the U.S., which has the most powerful army in the world. In itself, the IS is militarily weak. With de facto U.S. protection, the IS is quite strong.

    Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse

    -In many ways, bingo. Though the IS has its antecedents in Libya, it is a modern entity superseding traditional institutions.

    In a series of recent interviews with Jabhat al-Nusra fighters from the Aleppo and Dara regions of Syria, it has become increasingly clear that ISIS is eating Al-Qaeda in much the same way that the Bolshevists co-opted and practically annihilated the anarchist movement.

    -Useful analogy. Though AQ holds territory now, too, and isn’t threatened much by the IS.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-12-17 06:32:58 UTC - 06:32 | Permalink

      ISIS is not succeeding because of the strength of its ideas.

      -Yeah, it is.

      You’re very good at these sorts of brick wall responses. Do you also have an argument lurking there somewhere? Or is it just a matter of whom we like to agree with?

      • pastasauceror
        2015-12-17 06:49:07 UTC - 06:49 | Permalink

        I know it’s not addressed to me but the answer is obvious.

        A “violent and apocalyptic ideology” is an idea (a dumb idea, but nonetheless an idea), and they’re selling it to the 0.5% (make up whatever tiny percentage you like, pew shows it’s much higher than this) of Muslims who accept that ideology; that’s 8 million Muslims ready and wanting to go, and with the internet they can find pretty much all of them.

        Happy to have 8 million ISIS wannabees following this weak idea?

        • Neil Godfrey
          2015-12-17 07:05:24 UTC - 07:05 | Permalink

          The original context of the point was summed up thus:

          ISIS is accomplishing some of its objectives in the ideas war, but that is not the same as winning on the merits. As Will McCants writes in The ISIS Apocalypse, “Reducing the mass appeal of ISIS is pointless, given that it doesn’t have mass appeal.” Instead, the focus should be on disrupting the process ISIS uses to mobilize its minority.

          It is pointless to simply say, point blank, “no that’s wrong, full stop.”

          As for your Pew data, you are conflating cognitive and behavioural extremists and manufacturing fantasy scenarios. Most people with extremist views of whatever, any or no religion, would never in a million years act on them. The literature and media and Islamic organisations are replete with cognitive extremists who regularly condemn the behavioural extremists.

          Expressions of sympathy for acts do not by any means necessarily mean excusing or justifying those acts. Many of us probably know of someone who has gotten into serious trouble by committing some horrid crime and because we know the person we may sympathise and understand why they did it, but at the same time we do not “excuse” them.

          I think this simple truism is more visible when we are discussing acts of terror and war and other forms of violence that do not involve Muslims, for some reason.

          • pastasauceror
            2015-12-17 07:18:50 UTC - 07:18 | Permalink

            OK, let’s just take Pakistan. 9% are favorable to ISIS

            Population 182 million = 16.38 million favorable to ISIS.

            Approx 1% of the population are psychopaths, let’s assume there’s no correlation at all between psychopath and ISIS supporter. (1% of 16.38 mill)

            = 163,800 psychopaths in Pakistan support ISIS. (that’s headline material I just came up with folks)

            Sounds much much better!

            • Neil Godfrey
              2015-12-17 08:51:59 UTC - 08:51 | Permalink

              I have no idea on what you base your percentages, or on what evidence you imply extremist jihadis are psychopaths, or why you equate “support” (undefined) for ISIS with active participation or willingness to actively engage in violence, or why you limit your case to Pakistan. Which part of Pakistan are you referring to? Why? What is the population there? What correlations are there between Pakistan and Muslims in the USA?

              Do you have any real data to work with, some actual evidence? You still seem to be conflating behavioural with cognitive extremists as an inevitable fact — which all that we do know about behaviour and beliefs refutes.

              • pastasauceror
                2015-12-17 09:35:59 UTC - 09:35 | Permalink

                9% is the pew figure for favorable to ISIS in Pakistan (I picked Pakistan because it was the first country to come into my head for some reason)
                1% psychopath is the approx number you hear quoted for those exhibiting some psychopathy in the general population. (It could be lower in Pakistan of course, surely not higher)

                I never implied extremist jihadis are psychopaths (note again my conclusion), also never said they’d engage in violence.

                I plugged all 3 numbers together and stated the exact conclusion you can get from plugging those three numbers together. Which is the likely number of psychopaths in Pakistan that support ISIS (should have said favorable to be more accurate, I apologize).

                If the figures are slightly different then the number will be different, but it will still be a freaking massive number. I was making no point other than even with small amounts of support/favor ISIS can generate massive numbers from the Muslim world just by dint of there being so many of them.

                I guess you drew the conclusion so readily that I was implying they were going to be killers because the general definition of psychopath is “a person suffering from chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behaviour”, you’re right we shouldn’t be worried about 163,000 of them walking around Pakistan favorizing (my sic) ISIS, how silly of me.

              • Neil Godfrey
                2015-12-17 10:35:27 UTC - 10:35 | Permalink

                A fun mental game if you like that sort of thing (a SamHarrasian?) but utterly void of any evidential basis for numbers willing and prepared to engage in jihadi violence. I’d prefer to go with Jason Burke’s estimation if you don’t mind.

              • pastasauceror
                2015-12-17 11:21:53 UTC - 11:21 | Permalink

                Totally agree, it’s not by any means an estimation of that. And yes, I do have SamHarrasian influences, how’d you guess, haha.

  • pastasauceror
    2015-12-16 04:17:18 UTC - 04:17 | Permalink

    More accurately ISIS is the Islamic Reformation.

    “The ISIS forces seek to restore, as they see it, the “glories” of the Umayyad caliphate of the 7th century, based on the fiercest and most literal interpretation of the Koran and of the sayings of Muhammad. ISIS forces are, among other things, extreme iconoclasts, who assert that all remnants of non-Islamic religion should be erased”

    “[Ayaan Hirsi Ali] asks for a Christian-style reformation [of Islam], but here is where the current crisis within Islam really strikes home. The Muslim Brotherhood and its violent offspring, the theocratic mullahs in Tehran and the rampant Islamists in Africa are the Islamic reformation. That, precisely, is the problem.”

    http://www.theage.com.au/comment/islamic-enlightenment-is-the-only-way-forward-20150518-gh4nq5.html

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-12-17 06:49:44 UTC - 06:49 | Permalink

      The Reformation was an attempt to return the church to a simpler and “purer” past. (And Paul Monk, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, are both very far on the political Right which shows in their ideological perspectives.) The Reformation led to savage persecutions and wars. No thanks.

      Besides, Islam already has (and has always had) the key factor that the Reformation introduced to Christianity — the freedom from a central papal type authority to pronounce uniform edicts for the entire body. Christianity was therefore the latecomer, not the vanguard, with its Reformation.

      It’s not a Reformation that is needed but something comparable to the eighteenth and nineteenth century era when the Christian Churches were forced to engage with the forces of Liberalism and Secularism. That period also saw fundamentalist reactions to the directions the mainstream churches were heading, but not the violence brought about by the Reformation.

      • pastasauceror
        2015-12-17 06:57:56 UTC - 06:57 | Permalink

        I agree, I never said a Reformation was needed, I put forward that ISIS is planning to be the Reformation

        Islam definitely needs an enlightenment, and that was the exact point of the article that I cited.

        (I won’t accuse you of not understanding my ULTRA short post, perhaps you could summarize it for me so I know you’re comprehending it)

        • pastasauceror
          2015-12-17 07:03:03 UTC - 07:03 | Permalink

          Ooops…my bad left of the winkie face 😉 It was meant to be a reference, not a harsh thing.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2015-12-17 09:07:48 UTC - 09:07 | Permalink

          Your criticism is not comparable, Mr Smart Guy. I did not just repeat my own point without reference to or attempting to engage with your own points — hence giving you the opportunity to clarify on the basis of what I demonstrated that I did understand/address.

          • pastasauceror
            2015-12-17 09:47:37 UTC - 09:47 | Permalink

            I argue (civilly discuss :D) that way in forums (not addressing the other persons points individually) because otherwise it gets too bogged down and unwieldy, I always tend to center back on my main point. Others may not find it an appealing method, but it gets the job done (well, for me anyway, I’m sorry to inflict it on you…see my PS)

            PS. I love your Bible/Mythicism posts, and have been following your blog for ages (can’t even remember how long, I’m very quiet when I agree with things), but I totally disagree with you on the terror issue, I skipped these posts for ages, until the Bernadino one. That one got me riled for some reason. Also, my comments about end of Western Civilization, etc are jokes, I’m not a calamity howler, or even remotely afraid of terror, because I think it will be stopped fairly easily once the powers that be start doing something about it. Of course, that’s exactly why I’m so down on getting the real cause of it wrong (which we of course disagree about, oh well).

  • Geoff Barrett
    2015-12-16 05:27:40 UTC - 05:27 | Permalink

    Ideas in revolutions are over-rated. Ideas always exist but the extent to which they can percolate to the point of boiling over depends on many socio-political factors. The main factor (see Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions) is the weakening of the “Old Regime.” In the absence of (or significant weakening of) state power to thwart and contain revolutionary movements, social discontent (which always exists in society) is able to coalesce into revolutionary movements. Applying that principle to the Middle East, it’s very clear: social content exists (as it always will) and the U.S. had directly destroyed the state institutions that bottled in that discontent (for better or worse, supporters of U.S.policy argue that removing Saddam Hussein was worthwhile regardless of the consequences). The destruction of the old regime with the subsequent proliferation of readily available arms from a) Soviet intervention; b) captured US arms; c) arms from disintegrating state forces makes this social movement almost inevitable. In the old days, maybe it would have been Marxist. The idea of jihad is what unites the passions and brings them together, but it certainly doesn’t have to be Islamic extremism. It could be the ideas inform the specific tactics utilized, but the social movement itself doesn’t depend on this or that ideology. It’s mostly window dressing.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-12-17 06:52:58 UTC - 06:52 | Permalink

      Spot on. Thanks.

  • j f d'auria
    2015-12-16 12:57:41 UTC - 12:57 | Permalink

    ideology is the antithesis of idea

  • anon
    2015-12-18 07:03:16 UTC - 07:03 | Permalink

    Atrans ideas are interesting…

    I agree with Geoff…

    The environment plays a part in human reactions/behavior—a harsh environment will encourage harsh behavior and beliefs…a peaceful environment is more likely to encourage more civilized beliefs/behaviors….and each effects the other circularly….

    oppressive environments (perceived or real) will lead to revolutions…in part because human nature has some characteristics that are predictably similar…we all prefer justice to oppression….a peaceful path towards justness/justice will be more preferable to a bloody one. Some say that had the Arab spring succeeded…there may have been an alternative vision for people to strive towards….but….

    Both western neocons and warmongers and ISIS offer destruction…people on both sides need to offer viable alternatives and solutions…any discussion of “reforming” Islam will not be enough as a solution without an equal emphasis on “reforming”— “Western values”(or Western extremism)— as well….

    Reformation—Some English language terms come with baggage (historical/traditional) and so their usage may create misunderstanding and resistance. The process of renovation/renewal (Tajdid) and rectifying a thing that has become corrupted (Islah) towards betterment—are concepts that do exist within Islam. There is a diversity of thought of what these concepts mean and entail…but one that I prefer is centered around the idea of peace (salaam). Societies that purposefully move towards peace would interpret Islah as “to restore oneself, to reconcile people with one another, to make peace…. and Tajdid as “to renew and reform society to move towards greater equity and justice”.

    …if “Islam” is understood as a path towards peace (salaam), then….”reformation” can also be used in a toxic way…in which peace is not the goal…rather it is the acquisition of power. Values, concepts, traditions are corrupted for the goal of acquiring and consolidating power…..revisionist versions of history are used as propaganda…exclusivist desires are encouraged to form strong group bonding….so, some Muslims who look at “Modern” Islam—see it as a “reformation”—unhinging “Islam” from its diversity of traditions and philosophy–to narrow and rigid interpretations that are only interested in gaining power and influence….

  • Mark Erickson
    2015-12-23 22:24:48 UTC - 22:24 | Permalink

    I wrote a comment on the post criticizing Atran’s last paragraph, saying it was off topic and cliched melodrama. Well, he replied, and from my reading of it, he is coming close to saying belief does equate to action. But mostly it confuses me. I’m very interested to get others’ take and/or respond to him directly.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-12-23 23:45:02 UTC - 23:45 | Permalink

      Sorry your comment got caught up in spam, Mark.

      I interpret him as saying that Islamic State/violent Islamism is the only voice in town that is offering a clear “insight” into the problems of Western society, a clear vision of a “viable alternative”, and the courage to take the apocalyptic type action necessary to achieve it. It’s offering “answers” (in the minds of too many) while everyone else is “lost and confused”. By lost and confused I mean too many young people are not sold on our our supposedly democratic values, but live in frustration with what they are offered by our society. There is no strong voice offering people a vision or hope for a more meaningful life. The Islamic extremists are the only voice in town and no-one has an alternative to rival their appeal.

      That’s my take. Is that confusing, too? :-/

      • Mark Erickson
        2015-12-26 22:58:07 UTC - 22:58 | Permalink

        I got that general gist, but it seems too simplistic, even facile, for Atran.

        Yes, young people live in frustration with what they are offered by our society. As were all youth since time immemorial. They get over it. This is not something to have existential worries about.

        Thanks for the hat tip – it’s Erickson with c and k.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2015-12-27 20:05:09 UTC - 20:05 | Permalink

          Simplistic or prosaic? It’s very human, agreed. It’s a common theme in what I have seen of the studies. Those who are most attracted to Islamism are generally from communities that are very poorly integrated into the wider society, and with the constant reminders of a sense of not belonging to either society, fall easy prey to the ideology they sense is palpably empowering.

          I would have thought the disenchantment with our democratic values (deeper than simply the common cynicism about the self-interest of politicians) was also something more than relatively newish.

          If it’s the same fertile ground on which gangs thrive, then we are talking about something common to human history, though far more critical at times when there is more than the common frustration of wanting something better and different.

          The comparison with the Weimar Republic is interesting. Social-psychological issues common to youth in all Western societies experienced the added pressures of a broader national humiliation and deeper awareness of failure or confusion all around them.

          Gangs — reading the bios of Nazaz (Radical) and Hussain (The Islamist) — the attraction of Islamism to a generation caught between two societies was like gang membership on speed, I guess.

          Thus my take….

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