Several excellent articles have appeared recently on the nature of ISIS and terrorism, and some appalling ones have also been published. I normally prefer to share what I understand the experts themselves to be saying, but here I’m stepping back a minute to pause. Some (it sometimes seems like most) readers do not want to hear the experts, or they read into their words almost the very opposite of what they are attempting to convey. Discussions too often (not always but certainly very often) degenerate into exchanges where one or both sides are merely scanning for keywords from which to leap into their own polemic.
Jerry Coyne not so long ago wanted his readers to enjoy an article by Nick Cohen because, Coyne pointed out, Nick Cohen may be seen as an heir to George Orwell for his intellectual insights and honesty! So I read the article and had to rub my eyes into the third paragraph to grasp that Cohen set out with a complete distortion of John Kerry’s remarks about the factors underlying terrorism.
Cohen’s conclusion underscored his ability to see black where he had read white:
Every step you take explaining radical Islam away is apparently rational and liberal. Each takes you further from rationalism and liberalism. In your determination to see the other side’s point of view and to avoid making it “really angry about this or that”, you end up altering your behaviour so much that you can no longer challenge the prejudices of violent religious reactionaries. As you seek rationales for the irrational and excuses for the inexcusable, you become a propagandist for the men you once opposed.
“Explaining radical Islam away”?
“In your determination to see the other side’s point of view . . . you end up altering your behaviour so much that you can no longer challenge the prejudices of violent religious reactionaries.”??
“As you seek rationales for the irrational and excuses for the inexcusable”???
Who on earth does all of these things?
I once studied the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Germany and Italy in the 20s and 30s, and also the rise and history of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in Britain. Never once did it cross my mind that understanding how a host of international policies, economic and social turmoil, the particular psychologies of key individuals and social psychology more generally, and the history of specific ideas, — never once did it cross my mind that acquiring such an understanding, of coming to see the point of view of those who followed Hitler, Mussolini (and Mosley) so well, was an act of “explaining fascism away” or “seeking excuses for the inexcusable”.
I even came to a point where I found myself feeling uncomfortable with the controversies surrounding a film that emerged in which Hitler was said to have been “humanised”. Such a portrayal, it was feared, would somehow be a diminishing of the horrors for which he was responsible. On the contrary, surely we need to humanize Hitler in order to appreciate just how vulnerable to committing evil we are as a species. By continually demonizing him we are somehow removing his acts from the realm of humanity — not a wise course to take, in my opinion.
Isn’t one of the maxims of war to know one’s enemy?
If we are going to understand Islamic terrorism shouldn’t we be studying the biographies of the persons involved? Shouldn’t we be studying what they are talking about, what they are reading, what they are doing?
If we wanted to understand Hitler in the 1920s we could read his book. ISIS and violent Islamists today are poring over and talking about the writings of the likes of Awlaki and Naji. Anyone who reads this literature knows just how far removed violent Islamists are from what we should call mainstream Islam as a religion. There is very little spiritual religiosity in any of these writings: they are political; they are ideological; they are the expressions of a violent, political-social movement. They are not a religion in the normal sense of the word. They are a religion in the sense that the Branch Davidians were a religion and Timothy McVeigh was their avenger. (Maybe that’s not quite an exact parallel but it is not far off it.) The Quran is important insofar as it is a source of convenient justifying quotations to attach to the barbaric plans of Awlaki and Naji and others.
ISIS is a very religious outfit. It’s religious roots need to be understood. But we don’t find those in the Quran or mainstream Islam. We find them in their own writings and preachings. (By “mainstream Islam” I am not speaking of Wahhabism or the spread of Wahhabism in recent years.)
If one wants to see why mainstream Muslims are offended or shamed when Westerners associate Islam generally with terrorism, read the works in which we know the jihadis are immersing themselves.
Unfortunately the debate is full of confusion. Not only do writers like Nick Cohen read virtually opposite meanings into the intended meaning of those who are on the other side of the fence politically, but both on both the right and left we find views expressed that actually support the goals of the extremists.
In Britain in particular, as I understand from my distance, there are those (e.g. George Galloway) who defend political Islamism, even (falsely) equating it with Islam itself, and support the right of Muslims to practice some form of sharia law in the UK. (These are the true “regressive Left” — a term misapplied by Coyne and some other to anyone who tries to understand Islamism.) No, no, no — surely what’s needed is a vigorous defence and promulgation of the fundamentals of human rights and secularism as the foundation for all, and freedom of religion is necessarily constrained within those broad social parameters.
Others speak of Islamist extremism as if it is the true representative of the original spirit of Islam. — Exactly what ISIS and its supporters want everyone to believe! We thereby step into line and follow their script to foment social division — a condition on which their ongoing terrorist attacks prey to create more social division for them to exploit, and from which to enlist more recruits to their cause.
Both those who support a misguided multiculturalism (I am all for multiculturalism — but not where any one group is free to step outside the laws of society that must always apply equally to all) and those who blindly “blame Islam” are fanning the fuel for more terrorism, not less.