The Real Roots of Islamic State
A Kuwaiti immigrant in London has been revealed as Islamic State’s public executioner. The news attests yet again to the sinister global appeal of al-Qaeda’s successor. But the debate about Islam, most recently provoked by a long article in The Atlantic magazine, won’t help us identify the real challenge posed by radical outfits.
Those who conflate Islam with IS and those who protest that the murderous outfit has nothing to do with a “religion of peace,” are equally guilty of essentialism: the illusion that human groups share core properties, which illuminate their moral actions.
Islam is an ever-shifting practice as well as a long, diverse and adaptive tradition. Many mainstream commentators after 9/11 sought understanding in hastily purchased copies of the Koran. They might have found more useful a boosterish tract about globalization such as Thomas Friedman’s “The Lexus and the Olive Tree.”
With all its simplifications, Friedman’s book had the virtue of pointing to a real and momentous phenomenon unfolding in our own century rather than the seventh. The years since 2001 have revealed how fatefully globalization -- characterized by accelerated communication and quick mobilization -- has weakened older forms of authority, from European-style social democracies to Arab despotisms.
New forms of association came into being across Muslim countries while we were still thinking in terms of rivalries between sovereign nation-states. These solidarities were no longer confined to national boundaries.
Of course, Europe itself is no stranger to such a dispersal of political and religious authority, or its mixed results. In “Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648,” one of the most important books of history in recent months, the historian Mark Greengrass describes how radically Martin Luther’s stress on individual faith and personal interpretation of scripture disrupted Europe’s earlier community of shared belief and aspiration, and its underlying order.
He reminds us that the Reformation, or the undermining of Europe’s old order, caused decades of bloody chaos. Insisting on “sola scriptura” (scripture alone), Luther rehearsed a kind of literalism or fundamentalism that consciously set itself against all established authority. His view, Greengrass writes, was that “Christian people should act like children whose parents had gone mad,” and save the faith.
Islamic State, too, is obsessed with scriptural exegesis, and seduces self-appointed saviors and interpreters of Islam from all over the world -- not surprisingly, for it is the by-product of the Middle East’s own inadvertent Reformation, the destruction of its old political, social and cultural order.
The group emerged as rapidly as it did because of a vacuum of authority created by the undermining of Baathist regimes in Iraq and Syria. Intricate webs of loyalties and solidarities -- running through the military, as well as clans and tribes -- have unraveled. Civil war destroyed even the landscape of shrines and pilgrimage sites that, over a millennium in the making, had managed to survive two irreligious dictatorships.
Uncontrollable sectarian conflict and tribal militias across a broad swath of the Middle East and North Africa make some nostalgic for the days of old-style fundamentalist outfits, such as Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. However nasty, these groups were at least contained within national boundaries.
By contrast, the promise by Islamic State to restore the reign of virtue worldwide resonates far beyond such devastated nation-states as Syria and Iraq. It is also received gratefully among some angrily disaffected young citizens of crisis-ridden Western societies, non-Muslims as well as Muslims. As a result, Europe and America, too, face formidable threats in the form of DIY jihadism, and toxic prejudice manifest in rising anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
Much fresh thinking is required if we are not to destroy the delicately interwoven fabric of our societies. It would have to begin with the admission that the West’s original response to such epiphenomena of fragmented and divided Muslim societies as al-Qaeda and Islamic State trusted too much in the tunnel vision of military strategists, terrorism experts and interrogators with enhanced techniques.
The West today confronts the implosion of an old order on its frontiers while inequality, financial crises and failed wars undermine its own legitimacy and authority. The great challenges before it are as much political, ideological, economic and legal as military. That’s why the obsession with Islam makes Western liberal democracies seem too much like their present weapon of choice, the drone: programmed to find and exterminate supposed enemies, but incapable of thinking imaginatively.
There is some comfort in the possibility that Islamic State, which subsists on a desperate need for order, certainty and identity, will burn itself out when that need is addressed by a more stable authority.
But there should be no doubt about what it represents: an earthshaking shift in many societies where older sources of authority and legitimation have rapidly decayed. The search for new centers of gravity in a fragmented but deeply interrelated world will continue to assume fearsome forms, and we’ll need much more than amateur Islamic theology to understand them.
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