ISIS is a Religious Movement — and that is a controversial statement

Much attention lately has been going to an article recently published in the Atlantic Monthly, “What ISIS Really Wants,” by Graeme Wood.  Wood makes the case that ISIS cannot be explained except as an outgrowth of the Quran and basic Islamic theology — in contrast, say, to the protestations of President Obama (and other American presidents — see this excellent piece by David Brooks) that ISIS is inimical to the true Islam and has roots in social dysfunctions like economic dislocation. Wood shows that the group adheres strictly and deliberately to Islamic teaching, including in its cruelest exploits.

Wood’s piece is getting lots of criticism (see here for a good example), much of it arguing, like Obama does, that ISIS is at odds with mainstream Islam and that Islam strongly forbids its gory deeds.

I am inclined to agree that ISIS should not be portrayed as the inevitable or even likely outgrowth of Islamic texts and core teachings.   I would also caution though, against latter-day secularization theorists who want to reduce ISIS to poverty, economic flux, weak governance, the desire of young men for adventure, and the ill effects of western intervention.  All of these factors might contribute to ISIS, but Wood’s article makes clear that the group’s methods and motivations take Islamic teaching quite seriously.  ISIS is serious about a Caliphate, serious about the apocalypse, and serious about divinely sanctioned offensive warfare that makes little distinction between combatants and civilians.

In the end, it would be better to say (as Wood does) that ISIS strongly adheres to Islamic texts and teachings but also to say (as Wood does not, at least very strongly or clearly) that its interpretation of these teachings is a highly unusual one, held by a tiny minority, and strongly at odds with the broad expanse of the Islamic tradition, both today and historically. ISIS is a religious sect: genuinely driven by faith, esoteric, atypical, and very, very bloody.





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Daniel Philpott

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