ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is a thing we have not seen before. Not only is it carrying out a reign of terror in Iraq and Syria: it also governs territory, has plenty of funding, and is displaying impressive military and logistical prowess. ISIS members have directly threatened Europe and North America. The threat is real, possibly dire, and Westerners are going to have to adjust, again, to many months of high alerts and possibly some attacks.
Expect, too, shifts in our discourse about jihadist terrorism and religion more generally. It is arguable that the catastrophic attacks of September 11, 2001, made Westerners more receptive to arguments against religion. It may not be coincidental that 9/11 was followed by the marked rise of so-called New Atheism – led by aggressive religious skeptics such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett – and of the percentage of Americans who identify as non-religious.
The decrease in incidence of terrorism in the West, and the American-led wars and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, drew our attention away from jihadism and its meaning and causes. Now we must pay attention again, and we can expect, once again, the predominance of three opposite views, all too simple.
First is the view that the fundamental problem is not religion at all, but material deprivation; poverty, many maintain, is the root cause of terrorism. Empirical social science has thoroughly debunked that claim, but many have not gotten the word. Second is the view that the fundamental problem is Islam. Yes, Islam has much violence in its history and the Quran has passages that can incite violence. But the same is true of other religions. Third is the view of the New Atheists and others that religion itself – which entails metaphysical beliefs not susceptible to empirical demonstration – is the problem. But of course religious people are often peacemakers and work for justice or freedom, sometimes in times and places when non-religious people fear to tread.
Better to see radical jihadism as produced by a conglomeration of forces, one of which is not Islam or religion per se but a religious ideology, Islamism. That ideology builds upon Islam but is particular to our historical moment. Islamism arises out of traditional Islam’s ongoing encounter with modernity as carried by Western imperialism and Muslim secularizers of the 20th century. As an ideology, Islamism is defined in opposition to various kinds of secularism. As an ideology, Islamism is, in some ways, much like ideologies that roiled the Western world in decades and centuries past. I will have more to say about this in the coming weeks and in my forthcoming book Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West’s Past.