This week Political Theology Today introduces a new regular feature known as QUICK TAKES. Quick Takes is a set of shorter, timely responses of our contributors to the most recent news that calls for comment by political theologians.
This past week, especially in light of the Copenhagen shootings, commentary about the White House summit on combatting “extremism,” and the publication of a controversial article in the magazine The Atlantic by one of its editors on ISIS, the big question in the news right now seems to be: “do the conflicts in Middle East mean we are fighting a global ‘war of religion(s),’ or at least a war with, as well as within, Islam?”
Several PTT contributors have their own quick takes in response to the question.
QUICK TAKES is a feature managed by PTT Current Affairs Editor Carl Raschke. If you would like to be part of the “rapid response teams” that responds in this section to news of the week, please send the editor an email along with a brief description of the general topics on which you would like to comment.
Yes, the Islamic State IS Religious and Is Fighting A Religious War Against Us
Graeme Wood’s provocative article What Isis Really Wants in The Atlantic this past week created a bedlam by breaking a taboo in the media with the claim that the “Islamic State is Islamic…Very Islamic.”
Wood’s analysis, which relies on investigative journalism and the scholarship of Bernard Haykel of Princeton University, concludes that ISIS derives from “coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” whose aim is “ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse” through their allegiance to the caliphate embodied in Abu Bakr al –Baghdadi.
This apocalyptic theology finds its basis in what ISIS spokesman Sheikh Adnani calls the “prophetic methodology”, which Wood defines as “following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail.” Wood’s article makes unambiguous the prominent role that religion plays in the beliefs and actions of the Islamic State by identifying ISIS as Islamic through their millenarian theology that refers “to specific traditions and texts of early Islam”.
To be clear, Wood states that the majority of Muslims reject the ideology of ISIS, nor did he play the theologian by saying ISIS is the ‘true’ version of Islam, nor drop the takfir card by claiming ISIS is the ‘false’, impure version. In one riposte to Wood released in Salon, Haroon Moghul of Columbia University argues in his The Atlantic’s big Islam lie: What Muslims really believe about ISIS, that to explain ISIS, “don’t bother searching Islamic texts, or examining Islamic traditions”, but rather look to “what keeps happening to Muslims”, that is, the political realities of colonialism, Iraq’s past of a “sadistic autocrat”, and interventionist American foreign policy.
Moghul maintains that, “it’s beyond a stretch to argue that ISIS represents Islam, is grounded in Islam, or justified by Islam”, and that their religious claims are mere pretense to revel in brutish acts of barbarous criminality.
For Moghul, “the only Muslims who think ISIS represents Islam, or even Muslims, are ISIS themselves”, an assertion that amounts to a paradox, since he admits that ISIS are Muslims in the end. Moghul submerges all critique of ISIS into material, social, political and empirical processes of Western colonialism and localized, dictatorial authoritarianism, which assumes an epiphenomenalism that rejects theology tout court as delusionary mental excreta.
By doing so, Moghul mirrors the Western, secular bias pointed out by Wood in his article, “that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul.”
Second, the ‘pie chart’ strategy, which is to object to ISIS as Islamic by pointing to what the majority of Muslims think of ISIS, is largely irrelevant as to what constitutes ISIS as an identity, since religious identity is found not in majority opinion, but rather in the self-determined identification of the subjects. This view is a consequence of the decline of centralized, religious authority through secularization, and the human fact of plural interpretations.
It is not so much the text in itself that establishes their identity, but what ISIS says of the text that makes who they are.
Joshua Ramos, a fellow with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Vienna is finishing his doctoral studies at the University of Denver. His research and publications focus on religion, demography, and globalization.
A Little Theopolitical Caution is in Order
There would seem to be little doubt that ISIS operates at least in part on the basis of a religious or, perhaps better put, theopolitical vision.
It should go without saying that ISIS doesn’t even come close to representing the views of most Muslims. But in a climate where the actions of an extremist few often translate into a generalized, xenophobic suspicion of the majority—a suspicion which, it’s important to point out, has at times resulted in its own violence—it’s worth emphasizing.
Nevertheless, the fact that ISIS doesn’t represent all Muslims doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t point out and parse the theopolitical motivations driving their actions, even if such motivations aren’t all-encompassing.
Although the faithful of various religious traditions may not like it, the simple fact is that individuals and groups do often act violently in the name of religion. That goes for Islam, but Christianity as well, and although the temptation is understandably to dismiss and disavow such actors as not “really” religious, such a response is as simplistic as the xenophobic impulse.
Specifically, it ignores the complexity of, and contradictions within, religious traditions, especially the violent interpretive trajectories within them, even if these aren’t necessary and most don’t follow them. If ISIS clearly doesn’t represent all Muslims, it’s not because its members aren’t Muslim but because Islam, like other religions, isn’t a simple, unified tradition.
That also means that the vast majority of Muslims shouldn’t be under any compulsion to condemn ISIS “in the name of Islam” or “on behalf of all Muslims.”
So, when confronting a movement such as ISIS, I it is important to take seriously its theopolitical elements without, however, feeding them.
ISIS may, in fact, consider itself as engaged in some sort of apocalyptic war that has a clear religious hue, but its political theology can only sustain itself ideologically through recognition, including the recognition of its stated enemies. More simply put, a “religious war” is only such if it’s recognized as such, by all parties involved. This recognition is, it seems, what ISIS wants.
The irony here is that many of the most vocal critics of the Obama administration’s branding of ISIS and the threat it poses fall right into this trap. Conceptualizing ISIS’s theopolitical designs in terms of a civilizational clash, one based on an assumed, though at times overt, distinction between Christianity (“good,” “enlightened”) and Islam (“evil,” “barbaric,”), adopts a similar apocalyptic mindset, one that plays right into ISIS’s hands.
To point that out is not to adopt some sort of moral relativism in regard to ISIS and its actions and, to be clear, something obviously needs to be done. But how we frame matters, matters. This is why I find Obama’s cautious approach up to this point more satisfying and, frankly, more sophisticated, which isn’t to say that it’s perfect.
Obama’s selective use of “Islam” and “religion” more generally as descriptors for ISIS’s actions simultaneously acknowledges theopolitical motivations without, however, generalizing these. Moreover, it refuses ISIS’s own framework. Perhaps Obama’s rightly trying to avoid the apocalypse, even if some of his critics don’t seem to be.
Hollis Phelps is Assistant Professor of Religion at Mount Olive College, Mount Olive, NC (USA). He is the author of Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-theology (Acumen, 2013). He holds a Ph.D. in the Theology, Ethics, and Culture Program from the School of Religion at Claremont Graduate University. He is also a regular writer for Religion Dispatches.
If We Are in a “War Against Islam”, We Should Not Call It That
We are in a “world war against Islam” but not in the way that folks like Bill O’Reilly are construing it in the media.
There are legitimate grievances against the West held all across the Arab world in particular, but also in other places as well. Those who want redress of the grievances by violent means require the use of religion as the great equalizer in the conflict.
When the West exacerbates the conflict in any form or fashion, be it by bombing ISIS or publishing satirical material about Islam, these actions set Muslims all over the world vibrating. When that vibration reaches a certain level within individuals or groups of Muslims, they radicalize, sometimes even without having been trained or organized or even recruited by any central authority, such as the case with the 7/7 bombings in London or Major Hasan in Texas.
Thus, with just a few hundred Muslims per week becoming radicalized around the world, the entire security apparatus of all of the western countries can be occupied.
So while we are in a war against Islam, and while it is a global war, since any Muslim anywhere might be radicalized towards martyrdom by what he or she has experienced, it behooves the West to go out of its way not to appear to be involved in such a war because it is precisely such bellicosity as one sees flowing daily from right-wing media outlets that is the fuel which drives the process of radicalization.
The President’s refusal today in his speech on violence to refer to Islamic extremists shows that he understands this to a certain degree and has no wish to feed the beast.
The Rev. Dr. Timothy Simpson is co-pastor of Lake Shore Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, Florida. He is the co-founder of Christian Peace Witness and currently serves on the National Committee of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. He is editor emeritus (2002-2012) of the journal Political Theology and author of Not “Who is on the Lord’s Side?” But “Whose Side is the Lord On?” (Peter Lang, 2014). He holds a Ph.D. from Florida State University.