Why Graham Wood’s ISIS article needs correcting

Graeme Wood's lead essay

Graeme Wood’s lead essay

A fair number of people I know have posted and re-posted the article by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic in various social media contexts, as well as in academic circles.  Wood does several things rather well: significant interviews, connecting with scholars of some repute, and trying to offer a broader analysis.

I have not done this, but I had nonetheless wondered about whether to write something about his article, because whilst there was much to praise in it, there was too much about it that reduced the analysis to too simplistic a level for my liking, in part because I think Wood presumes a religion/secular binary as normative that I don’t think exists other than as an ideological tool (some of my online writing on this topic is available here).

My hesitation (procrastination?) was not in vain: it meant that in the meantime, a series of other more prominent and well-qualified authors have written on this topic, and I no longer feel the need to do so!

Given the coverage that Wood’s article received, I thought it might be useful, however, to collate some of the English language pieces that have come out in response to it, and I’ve added a couple more that are not directly arguing against Wood’s perspective, but nonetheless offer valuable correctives.  If you read the original article when it came out, do read at least the first of these to appreciate why Wood’s perspective is problematic.  If you have not yet read Wood’s original article, I would encourage you to do so.  And those of you who know me well might be surprised at my citing Zakaria and Fuller, but I’m always happy to offer surprises…!

If I know it, I include the author’s Twitter name in case you want to follow them for more comment.

28.2.15: New article by Juan Cole added at the bottom of this posting.

H.A. Hellyer: This stupidity needs to end: Why the Atlantic & NY Post are clueless about Islam

There will be those that will insist that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam or religion in general — that ISIS is primarily a social and political phenomenon, bereft of ideology entirely, or simply using Islam as a superficial justification. Counterterrorism studies indicate that for very many people in the broader radical Islamist universe, non-ideological factors certainly play magnificently important roles. At the same time, it is also the case that for radical Islamists, an ideological component not only exists, but is crucial in understanding their world views. In some shape or form, for ISIS supporters, religion certainly plays a role. But what religion, precisely?

The easy answer is to say “Islam” – but it is also a rather lazy answer. There are around 1.5 billion Muslims around the world. The vast, overwhelming majority of them, needless to say, are not members of ISIS — and, in fact, Muslims actually make up the majority of ISIS’s victims, its most active enemies on the battlefield, and its most prominent detractors.

Hellyer is on Twitter at @hahellyer

Murtaza Hussain: The Atlantic Ignores Muslim Intellectuals, Defines “True Islam” As ISIS

Wood is right in pointing out that there are people in the world today — including those carrying black banners in places like Raqqa and Mosul — who take religion very seriously.

But just as a failure to recognize this fact may represent the bias of a Western observer, there is also a glaring bias in dismissing or ignoring the great mass of established and recognized religious scholars of Islam in the Muslim world whose theological conclusions are starkly at odds with the radical revisionism of Islamic State. 

Indeed, there are actually people alive in our modern world who have spent their entire lives studying and practicing Islam in conjunction with philosophy, history and linguistics, and who also take seriously the idea of being “very Islamic.” They also happen to represent an established tradition of mainstream religious scholarship which millenarian groups like ISIS have made it their stated mission to eradicate.

Hussain is on Twitter at @mazmhussain.

Ramzy Baroud: ‘Islamic State’ mystery: The anti-history of a historic phenomenon

While violence and war radicalise people, the size and nature of the IS phenomenon doesn’t seem consistent with its rational historical context.

Even the sectarianism argument rarely addresses the point. IS victims come from every class, religion, ethnicity, gender and political group. Most of their victims are in fact Sunni Muslim. If one follows the blood trail of their actions, one can rarely spot definable commonalities, or a unified rationale, aside from the fact that it is all “barbaric” behaviour bent on instilling fear.

The easily defensible “barbarians,” “savages” and “psychopaths” theories are last resorts for those who cannot find a plausible explanation for this kind of behaviour.

Some find IS’s behaviour as a handy opportunity to bash Islam, to the puzzlement of most Muslims, who know full well that setting people ablaze goes against every value that Islam stands for. Even al-Qaeda rejected IS, because of its brutal behaviour, which itself is telling.

Baroud is on Twitter at @RamzyBaroud.

Mohamed Ghilan: ISIS and the academic veil for Islamophobia

Although Wood does make a number of cogent points about ISIS, he does make the all-too-common mistake of equivocating between the Islamic source texts, i.e., the Quran and Prophetic Hadith literature, and the Islamic legal texts, which are the products of scholarship that can at times grossly misrepresent the objectives presented in the original sources.

Moreover, he falls for what he accuses the majority of Muslims of: selective reading of the tradition. This has caused a great deal of confusion for many who try to put ISIS within a framework that places the group in a familiar category. Furthermore, Wood’s article and others like it can aptly be described as Islamophobic.

Fareed Zakaria: The limits of the ‘Islamic’ label

Wood’s essay reminds me of some of the breathless tracts during the Cold War that pointed out that the communists really, really believed in communism. Of course many Islamic State leaders believe their ideology. The real questions: Why has this ideology sprung up at this moment, and why is it attractive to a group — in fact, a tiny group — of Muslim men? Wood describes the Islamic State as having “revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years.” Exactly: The Islamic State has rediscovered — even reinvented — a version of Islam for its own purposes today.

Wood notes that the group’s followers are “authentic throwbacks to early Islam” — that is, Islam as it was practiced in the desert 1,400 years ago. Surely the most salient point is not that medieval Islam contains medieval practices such as slavery (which figures prominently in the Bible as well) but why this version of Islam has found adherents today.

Zakaria is on Twitter at @FareedZakaria.

Graham Fuller: Interpreting Islam to Muslims

We cannot blithely continue—as nearly all these US PR campaigns still do—to identify such shortcomings of the Muslim world as the sole source of the problem. From any objective perspective, western and especially American policies (wars, interventions) have contributed hugely to the current unprecedented state of anarchy, violence, chaos, dislocation, war, rage and radicalization. When our PR campaigns artfully point the finger back at Muslim societies, and offer American interpretations of “true Islam” (i.e., not anti-American Islam), we persuade few and anger many in the region.

Washington needs to begin to regain its credibility by examining and acknowledging—at least to itself—its own role in fomenting the exceptional violence of this last decade. (If there is to be a “long war” against terrorism in the region, as some neo-conservatives predict, it may in reality be the decade or more required for the US to change its image via concrete actions. More specifically, ending the actions that have been so incendiary in the region. First and foremost, begin with the removal of US boots on the grounds in Muslim lands. That’s the indispensable prerequisite before we get on to more complex issues.


28.2.2015: I’ve now seen this by Juan Cole, and couldn’t let it go by without adding it to this list – perhaps the clearest statement of all from a renowned scholar that addresses the flaws in Wood’s article.  It is also very close to the way of thinking of the Critical Religion Association of which I am an active member.

Juan Cole: How ‘Islamic’ Is the Islamic State?

Wolfowitz is arguing that Islam has an “essence” that “has something to do with what we’re fighting.” Essentialism when applied to human groups is always an error and always a form of bigotry. Zionists bombed the King David Hotel in British Mandate Palestine in 1948, killing dozens of civilians and some British intelligence officials. If a British official had responded then by arguing that “everyone knows that Judaism has something to do with what we’re fighting,” it would be fairly clear what that official thought about Jews in general. As for Iraq and Islam, there was no Al Qaeda or ISIL in Iraq in 2002, when Wolfowitz conspired to fight an illegal war on Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands, maimed millions, created millions of widows and orphans, and displaced at least 4 million of Iraq’s then 25 million people, making them homeless. As late as 2012, in a poll conducted by my colleague Mark Tessler at the University of Michigan and several collaborators, 75 percent of Sunni Iraqis said that religion and state should be separate (personal communication). The social maelstrom visited on Iraqis by Wolfowitz’s sociopathy produced radical movements like Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and ISIL, to which even secular Sunni Iraqis have turned out of desperation. Wolfowitz had no business in Iraq. His actions were illegal. Now this war criminal is blaming “Islam” for “what we’re fighting.”

Cole is on Twitter at @jricole.


8 thoughts on “Why Graham Wood’s ISIS article needs correcting

  1. Pingback: Commenting on ISIS | Michael Marten

  2. Have you read all of Graham Fuller’s article, a portion of which you quote above? Or all of his books? He misinterprets history as well as makes errors in his perspective. Example: in his article, Yes, It Is Islamic Extremism—But Why?, of February 22, 2015, he makes this startling statement (referencing one of his books):

    …there are a dozen good reasons why there is bad blood between the West and the Middle East today, without any reference to Islam or to religion. Most of these reasons are well known: the Crusades (a western economic, social and geopolitical adventure)…

    Anyone with an elementary knowledge of the Crusades is well aware that the Crusades were an attempt to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslims (motivated and guided by Islam) who had taken the land by the sword, normal Islamic/Muslim agenda and process. Conquering and occupying Israel was a Holy War in every sense of the word.

    I would think that using him as a source in the context that you did would be misguided and undermine the rebuttal you were making to Graham Wood’s article.


    • Yes, I have. I disagree with aspects of Fuller’s work, but not the portrayal here, as I suggested in my introduction to these articles.

      Anyone with an elementary knowledge of the Crusades is well aware that the Crusades were an attempt to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslims (motivated and guided by Islam) who had taken the land by the sword, normal Islamic/Muslim agenda and process. Conquering and occupying Israel was a Holy War in every sense of the word.

      I think the problem here is your ‘elementary knowledge’ of the Crusades – not only is your tendentious and partial account an example of classical Islamophobia, it’s also profoundly ignorant. Even your use of the language is wrong: given that Israel didn’t exist until 1948, it’s hardly possible for it to be a party to the Crusades. Might I recommend you start by reading Steven Runciman’s magisterial work and then you might be in a better position to comment on things that you at present clearly know very little about.


  3. It seems to me that Graeme Wood’s good article did not go far enough and is partially stuck in just what Wood is perceiving clearly in others but not in himself (and in all of us). It also seems to me that this global dialogue we are focused on is not so much a discussion between the sacred and the secular; rather, it is a dialogue between various global religions. I think that some glimpse into these issues can be seen through the way in which Wood uses the word, ideology. I ask Wood and others to observe his use of the words ideology, ideological, etc.

    In the West, I think perhaps the earliest consistent use of the word ‘ideology’ was employed by the late eighteenth century French philosophes, called, by some, ideologists. They were philosophers who in part were reacting negatively to traditional religion. They were materialists, convinced that there are no spiritual or religious processes in our universe, put off by discussions of metaphysics, more interested in epistemological issues, focused on the brains of persons and peoples, somewhat akin to (early ancestors of) modern day cognitive psychologists and sociologists. By the middle of the nineteenth century, I think the word ideology had been established in use as we understand it today. Marx used it is an appellation for ‘the other person’s’ social theory, or the lens through which the other person understood social and political processes. It seems that Marx was a materialist. For him, what was real (metaphysics) were the material (physical) processes of our world (our universe and our social world), understood mainly as economic processes. Political processes are less real, epiphenomenal to material (economic) processes. What were (are) called spiritual, or religious processes were of course even less real than political processes. They were illusion. Even though Marx wrote, “Religious is the opiate of the masses; it is the sight of the oppressed and the heart of a heartless world;” still, I think, for Marx spiritual processes were not real, as material processes are real, and he had little respect for persons and peoples who took religious processes seriously. Those people were taking seriously an illusion. In the context of Marx, and in the context of the cultural Marxism which pervades our global state religion and culture, Materialistic Science and Mechanistic Technology, I think that the word ideology is most often used in a polemical way, to at least implicitly claim that the ‘other person’s’ lens on the world is inadequate (and worse).

    It seems to me that religion is centered in faith. Faith is one’s focus of ultimate concern. Every person and every people possesses, or lives through a focus (a center) of ultimate concern, a faith, which focuses, or center’s one’s attention. Every person and every people is spiritual (as a center of psychological processes) and is religious (as a center of sociological processes). It seems to me that there is a global state religion, which is Materialistic Science and Mechanistic Technology. Like the caesaro-papism of the Middle Ages in the West, this religion has control of almost all of the world’s standing armies and polices forces; it has control of almost all of its central banks; it has control of almost all compulsory education (inculturation). Seven fundamental articles of this global faith are: the belief (assumption, hypothesis) that Infinite Being, Infinite Love (God, Allah) does not exist; the belief that all that exists is finite (our clerics who act as astrophysicists preach to us that our universe is finite and ever-expanding, consisting solely of material processes [E = m c2: energy and mass are both material, unified in the one solemn, magical chant], about 14 billion years old, and about 75 billion light years of scale); the belief that there are only material processes of our finite universe, and that spiritual and material processes are not real, are illusory; the belief that the image of the machine is more edifying for human consciousness than is the image of the organism, and, of course, more edifying than the image of a spiritual being; the belief that consciousness does not continue through death; the belief that, at base there is no meaning within these finite materialistic processes we call the universe- human beings can make up any meaning they want to, but, in the end, there is no enduring meaning to all of finite existence. It seems to me that this global state religion can be differentiated from all other world religions, including Islam, and especially including the faith and spirituality and religion of ISIS.

    I think that some hypotheses (beliefs, assumptions) of ISIS and of Islam are: 1.) Infinite Being, Infinite Love (God, Allah) exists and can be directly experienced, if one choose master the proper religious (spiritual, scientific) practice (spiritual technology). I think that for Islam (and ISIS) there is only One God (Allah), although there are many Names of God. It seems that the most frequent used Name of God (Infinite Being) in the Koran is The Most Merciful. Infinite Being exists and is Infinite Love. 2.) The universe is composed of material (physical) and spiritual (religious) processes. The universe is finite. Infinite Being, Intimate Love is more intimate to the whole of finite being than finite being is to itself. 3.) The images of spiritual being and Spiritual Being are more edifying for human consciousness than is the image of the machine. 4.) The whole of finite being and all its processes are, finally, meaningful because Infinite Being is Infinite Love is Infinite Meaning. 5.) Human consciousness endures through the experience of death.

    It seems to me that Wood’s use of the word, ideology is common to adherents of our global state religion. It seems to me that this use of ideology focuses on the way through which the other person perceives the world and is tinged with a sense of cynicism (mild or intense). It seems to me that another word (phrase) that might be used is ‘world-perception.’ It seems to me that the world-perception (ideology) of our global state religion assumes at least that Infinite Being (Infinite Love) does not exist and that human consciousness does not continue through death. It seems to me that the world-perception (ideology) of most of the various traditional religions, especially Islam and especially ISIS, assumes at least that Infinite Being (Infinite Love) exists and that human consciousness continues through death. It seems that as each and every one of us takes more and more seriously the world-perceptions (religious lenses) of others, then there begins to exist the prospect for something a little more comprehensive.


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