Many people have read Graeme Wood’s cover story in The Atlantic, What ISIS Really Wants, by now. I have, and I recommend you do so as well. You’ll learn a lot. And there’s much within it that I can assent to without hesitation. It overlaps in key ways with my post from last August, The Islamic State Is Right About Some Things. It does not trade in trite but satisfying demonology (politically correct liberal, or jingoistic conservative) or vulgar Marxist analysis. Rather than fitting ISIS into a fashionable Western ideology or filtering it through an emotional reaction, Wood attempts to sketch the movement out as a phenomenon informed by its own self conception. Before you can grapple with this new beast of our age, you have to take ISIS seriously in regards to the sincerity of its beliefs, and attempt to understand them. Wood does just this. Because of the dangers of going to ISIS territory he interviews those living in Western countries sympathetic to the movement, as well as engaging with scholars who specialize in topics which might shed light upon it. In particular, I think Wood conveys the “camelpunk” aspect of ISIS, a violent version of what you can see across the Gulf monarchies. Like steampunk camelpunk is a mash-up of mores, aesthetics, and technologies, across disparate eras. Anyone who reads science fiction won’t be entirely surprised by the juxtapositions of social media and slavery. Many less creative and historically conscious people live under the delusion that the world that is is the only world that could have been, or that it is the only world that will ever be. ISIS’ vision and reality offer up a window into a startlingly different, and radically objectionable, alternative world.
As a descriptive matter the piece in The Atlantic is a tour de force. But there is one aspect where I think it is misleading. Wood seems to imply that ISIS is profoundly anti-modern and neo-medieval. This is certainly their own self image, and superficially their fixations on conquest and slaving seem more fit for the 7th century than the 21st. But like fascism, another ostensibly anti-modern movement, it does not strike me that ISIS actually can be understood except as a reaction against modernity, engaging, assimilating, and co-opting. In a similar vein the attempts of the Amish and some Hasidic Jews to stop time and battle back modern innovation is a deep acknowledgment of the seductive power of modernity. Elements of the program of ISIS may seem medieval and traditional, but as a whole it is a radical movement, which is tearing a fabric in the organic development of modern Islamic tradition across its meany streams, which issue out of the evolution of the thousand year old madhhabs.
But that’s a secondary issue. The main point where I believe Wood’s a exhibits a weakness is in privileging reflection über alles. By this, I mean that as a whole humans are prone to accepting the primary causal role of reflective cognition, of beliefs avowed and rationales offered. We are confident in our conscious self control, despite a robust body of cognitive psychology which implies that much of our cognition is not under the control or constraint of rational faculties. This problem is particularly extreme among intellectuals, the very class which also attempts to understand human phenomena. Through the simple process of introspection and extrapolation intellectuals tend to reduce human action to the outcome of ratiocination, inference from eternal axioms. This is wholly inadequate to a phenomenon as complex as religion. Lutheranism is reduced to theses, Islam to Koran and the Hadith, and Judaism to the Torah. And so forth. Long time readers will know my shtick at this point. Let me highlight the particular sentence which encapsulates the disagreement I have with Wood:
The ideological purity of the Islamic State has one compensating virtue: it allows us to predict some of the group’s actions
In mathematics truths entail necessary inferences. This is generally not the case with truths in a religious sense. A simple set of distinct beliefs can imply a shockingly wide range of inferences through clever rationalizations, totally unpersuasive to outgroups, and totally persuasive to ingroups. To get a sense of what I’m talking about, observe that denominations still descend from the Millerites. That the Jews responded to their national dispossession in antiquity by blaming themselves, and not the god who had clearly abandoned them. Or consider that in Matthew 24:34 Jesus seems to make a prophecy which was falsified. Of course a little Googling will show that many “literalist” Christians have a ready explanation of what “generation” actually means. Religion is not infinitely pliable, but its adroit flexibility can be marvelous to behold. I recall years ago making the case to an Orthodox acquaintance that Jewish custom of matrilineal descent is clearly a Roman era innovation, as the sons of Joseph by an Egyptian woman were recognized as legitimate. She responded without hesitation that her rabbis had explained that in the “oral law” it was recalled that Joseph’s wife was actually adopted, and her biological mother was a Hebrew. My own supposition is that this tradition is a fiction quickly conceived to give an ancient patina to a novel practice in Roman antiquity. But, it illustrates the ease with which even the most punctilious of religious traditions in terms of text can turn the plain reading of the scripture on its head through interpretation or supplementary traditions and glosses. And that is just the clever elites. The self serving lack of ideological clarity is clear among the foot soldiers. Here’s a story from December in The New York Times of how a young boy joined, and left, ISIS:
Soon, though, he said, “I noticed things I saw that were different from Islam.”
Back home he saw the group inflict severe punishments on men who were caught smoking cigarettes, yet in the camp, he said, he saw fighters smoking. He said he saw men having sex with other men behind the tents in the desert night. And, he said, he was increasingly put off by “the way they are killing innocent people.”
The men having sex with men no doubt have a rationalization for their behavior. The details aren’t relevant, the point is that this sort of deviation from expectation is pretty common. If it is so among the foot soldiers, the same sort of hypocrisy and lack of consistency can apply to the elite. Wood argues that ISIS is hobbled strategically by its own millenarian ideology. That its very premises ensure its refutation. True. For now. It may come to pass that there is a parting of the ways at some point within the organization, and almost certainly the suicidal faction is less likely to outlast the pragmatist wing. ISIS is composed of individuals, who exhibit variation in belief and interpretation, even if on the whole they seem rather unhinged.
So where does that leave us? In terms of policy prescriptions I’m not far from Graeme Wood. But, I’m far more open to the possibility that ISIS will mutate, evolve, and adapt. Its ideology is not set in stone, but simply the blueprint for the current era. Like all religions Islam evolves and changes with the times, in unpredictable ways, because it is the aggregate of human actions. If you think we have a good science which would allow to us to predict the future of human actions, I’ve got a bridge to sell you….