Fearing to Understand Terrorism and ISIS

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Fearing to Understand Terrorism and ISIS”

  1. My view of the IS is that it’s far more religion-based than the early Caliphates, and that it is completely unrepresentative of the “original spirit of Islam”. The “original spirit of Islam” was imperialist in nature and quite religiously tolerant compared with the Roman Empire of the time. The conquests of the early Caliphs remind me somewhat of those of Alexander or Cyrus. Religiously totalitarian theocracies like the Taliban and IS only emerged later. I am impressed by the lack of destruction associated with the early Islamic conquests.

  2. I am becoming more and more convinced that fanantics never act because of their Ideology or religious dogma. My opinion is they act out of greed, fear and anger ( particularly indignation ) and use religion as a justification. Their relgion could justify any action they want to do.

    1. I don’t know if we have evidence for greed and fear as motives. Have you read ISIS is a Revolution and any of the series on Friction? (Friction is an ongoing series discussing the various factors involved in radicalisation.) Most of them are highly idealistic and act out of altruism (in the sense of giving of themselves unselfishly for the cause) and/or just for the adventure — even giving their own lives. The cause gives their lives meaning and fulfilment. That’s why it’s so dangerous and doesn’t look like going away soon.

      The reasons people join religious cults are comparable in some ways.

    2. i want to know why European christians tell moslims in europe

      “jesus said turn the other cheek”

      “pray for those who persecute you”

      why would European christians tell this to moslims when

      1. they have police service like 999, 911 and other emergency numbers

      2. the european may have a very good income

      why play victim?

      who is persecuting these europeans?

  3. Epictetus–“If your brother wrongs you, remember not so much his wrongdoing, but more than ever that he is your brother.”

    If we are to understand “Justice” properly—we cannot do it without balancing it with Compassion and Mercy—without this balance “justice” can become hard and unforgiving and fall into oppression….For our own moral well-being — we need to understand so that we can build equitable and “just” societies….

  4. I can distinguish those Nick Cohen is writing about from Scott Atran. I had to read the Kerry quote several times however to make something of the mangled English. Whether Nick Cohen’s understanding of the quote was how John Kerry intended himself to be understood I cannot say but having untangled it I think the meaning Nick Cohen gave to it is legitimate. John Kerry is not Joe Bloggs being loose about something in a bar; he is of rather more consequence than that and should therefore have been more careful with his phrasing. He also has many advisors ostensibly employed among other things to ensure this kind of misspeaking.

    Nick Cohen may well be hearing something that is unintentional but he is not hearing something that isn’t there. Neither in the rest of the piece do I think he is having a go at those that set out to understand and explain extremism; rather those that would excuse it in the guise of explaining it. The latter are out to beat their own society over the head with whatever weapon comes to hand.

    When we have an explanation and an understanding, what then? What is to be done? Hand-wringing and blaming “The West” doesn’t cut it I’m afraid. Neither does any approach that tries to make omelettes without breaking eggs.

    I read what is on the page whether it is “There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that,” or Paul writing of “Powers and Principalities” and the Lord speaking to him through revelation; be that vision or scripture. I make no exception for the Koran. It says what it says: gainsaying it is eisegesis not exegesis; apologetic not explanation. Wahhabism and “mainstream Islam” are as indistinguishable to me as Catholicism and Dominionism. The differences are no-differences; and I have that from reading and speaking to both Muslims and ex-Muslims. A thorough-going Islam or Christianity, whether or not of a fundamentalist stripe would be destructive of all I hold close.

    So what is to be done? There probably isn’t anyway of avoiding not throwing the switch or chucking the fatman under the truck; so how do we make this as painless as possible? We have been here before. Kamikazes and a foe that won’t stop even when bombed back to the Stone Age; but this time there is no Mikado to call it off or be left in place as a figleaf for face and honour. Neither can we distinguish them from us; or the Wahhabi from the “mainstream”; or easily drain the waters these pirahna swim in. I wouldn’t bank on us not destroying our own freedoms, not abandoning our morality or not reaching for our nukes. Exaggeration? Not if I have understood what you have been excerpting and linking to these last several months.
    Daesh are intent on getting some massive over-reaction, no? On past form, one “spectacular” too far and they will get it. We will let “God” sort the innocent from the guilty.

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