After finishing up five years working in Japan, Cathy and I went on a holiday to Italy, France and England. That was in 2003. Twelve years later I find it hard to imagine that we did such a thing, that we had the money and the freedom, but we did and it was pretty wonderful. A persistent memory of that holiday was the time we spent sheltering in our hotel rooms from the fierce summer that year watching MTV Europe. On high rotate that summer in Europe was Sean Paul’s Get Busy and Beyonce’s Crazy in Love. In particular I associate the empty, straight arcades of Milan with the ghetto chic of Crazy in Love. The cathedral under scaffolding, La Scala closed, and the restaurant where we had dinner one night featuring a jaded, alcoholic jabbing a medley of schlock out of a synthesiser in the corner of the dining room. Maybe that jaded alcoholic limping flaccidly through – let’s say – Hey Jude helped me appreciate the fierce, urgent and driving Crazy in Love even more.
Which is my way of talking about ISIS. IS(IS) has been written about afresh recently in The Atlantic, to acclaim and approbation, the New York Review of Books, and –locally – in The Listener. In the rush to have an opinion on Islam it seems that the crux of the matter is whether you think Islam naturally leads to jihad and violence, or whether you think Islam is a religion of peace, or – I suppose – both, or neither. Having met a large-ish number of Muslims in New Zealand I would plump for neither. The Muslims I have met appear to be quite normal which means that they are not very violent nor notably peaceable in their day to day lives, but much more likely to sort of get on with things in a middling way. Which is how religion has to function if it wants to feature in the lives of large populations of people. Some might like to live in a monastery or renounce sex or take a vow of silence but most of us wouldn’t.
What you make of Islam is surely no different from what you make of Christianity. You could paint a picture of Christianity out of David Koresh, the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Jones. Or you could flick through the Old Testament and pick and mix from a pretty wide selection of brutal punishments, apocalyptic visions and merciless conquests. I have read, in New Zealand papers during World War One, a reverend opining that at times like these even Christ himself would be leading a bayonet charge against the Germans. It is difficult to think of anything more unlikely for the man who delivered the Sermon on the Mount to do, but such was this reverend’s vehemence against Quakers asking for exemption from conscription that this was the analogy he felt safe to draw.
Graeme Wood’s piece for The Atlantic makes the not un-useful point that ISIS is in fact Islamic, and that Islam isn’t a religion of peace. To me this is the best thing the article does, although it doesn’t do it as well as it could. It could have drawn more parallels. It could have said that ISIS is Islamic in the same way that Jim Jones was Christian. In the same way that, say, a cuckolded man who was arrested for stoning his wife and her lover to death could be called Christian. The Old Testament, I should add, is also very, very clear about how important it is to worship the one true God, and exactly how intolerant you should be of non-believers and apostates.
It feels best to talk about the Old Testament when we draw parallels to a certain kind of Islam, because it was the Old Testament and Judaism that Mohammed knew best and felt he was here – in part – to reform and revitalise. Many Old Testament punishments are clear about the need to kill the perpetrator of the crime and also what we might now think of as the victim of the crime (kill the beast as well as the man who commits bestiality). In one of the most shocking sections of The Looming Tower – a history of Al-Qaeda by Lawrence Wright – we learn the awful story of two sons of Zawahiri’s associates who are drugged and raped by Egyptian secret service men in Sudan and then blackmailed into spying on Al-Qaeda. When their horrific situation is exposed Zawahiri has the two boys tried and executed. One reason to reflect on this story is that it has the faultless logic of ancient law about it; another reason would be that Zawahiri’s actions alienated most of his remaining followers at that time. While Zawahiri may have been able to draw some kind of link to something mentioned somewhere in Islam for his actions those actions really didn’t jibe with what even his own Al-Qaeda followers could accept.
One possible interpretation of Islam is what most people in Islam would regard as barbarous savagery.
Then there is the idea that Islam is actually a religion of peace, which is a nice idea and can again be paralleled with Christianity. If you liked you could make your story of Christianity out of the Sermon on the Mount and Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther King. It would a coherent and compelling story, but if you went so far as to claim that this showed that Christianity was a religion of peace you might run into quite a few critics who could point to a lot of examples that tended to suggest otherwise. Those critics would have a point but the Sermon, and Francis and MLK still exist, they are still part of the vast and long-running set of ideas that can be said to belong to Christianity.
You might look to the Westboro (ex) Baptist Church, or you might look to the Quakers. Many would probably prefer the message of the Quakers, as some are drawn to Sufi rather than Wahabi Islam. Neither and both represent the whole of a religion, just a part. All is a seeking of a way of life that is “right” and makes sense of our senseless world. Some interpretations appeal more to the inner life.
The least appealing part of The Atlantic article is the apparently serious consideration given to the idea that inflicting a massive military defeat on ISIS would destroy its religious credibility and therefore the organisation itself. It’s a consideration that sounds a bit like helping ISIS to engineer the apocalypse they desire. Christianity itself is, of course, an apocalyptic religion so perhaps that’s the idea, but I’m fairly sure that in both traditions it is up to God and not people to determine the date for the final judgment.
Even if we step back from apocalyptic thinking and go for the “Clash of Civilisations” model, massive military intervention by the West still seems a bizarre idea. Isn’t it precisely out of these “clashes of civilisation” in the past that groups like the Taliban or ISIS have been created? Fractured, militarised, tribal populations savaged by warfare are brought under a kind of control by whichever group is the most well-funded and brutal. For a time, life under the Taliban or ISIS might feel better than the chaos that went before, a chaos brought about by Western military intervention in the first place.
Something that The Listener article does better than The Atlantic is break down the idea of ISIS as an entity ruling an anonymous and fervent citizenry whilst occasionally murdering foreigners. The area that ISIS is engaged in is very complicated. Ethnicities and religions are diverse and almost everything the West has ever done in the region has failed to grasp this point. The actual victims are always the ordinary people who are trying to live ordinary lives in which everything ordinary is virtually impossible or straitened by rules imposed from above and outside. ISIS is merely the latest dictatorship. When you watch the Vice News crew that toured around ISIS territory last year you will notice, unsurprisingly, that foreign jihadis are a minority and that the people hanging out in the town squares at night listening to the travelling ISIS PR show are locals: that teenage boys are excited by the message and that most of the other men (only men of course) sitting around are amused by the banter but a bit more guarded in their enthusiasm. You notice also that it is local men who are in the local prison and probably going to be executed or suffer amputation for their crimes.
The Islam of ISIS is impossible to free from history. The idea that it – or anything – is ahistorical is absurd. I would humbly suggest that the West (the “Club”, the “family”) consider the historical context of the Taliban, or Al-Qaeda, or ISIS and look to themselves when they draw up a list of causes for the agony of the Middle East. Karen Armstrong has a useful idea in her book Fields of Blood:
Religious extremism often develops in a symbiotic relationship with a virulently aggressive secularism.
Which should, but will not, give pause to the men and women training Iraq’s deeply corrupt and compromised army to fight a war the governments of their countries created but will no longer fight directly. In the meantime people argue about the nature of Islam. As if it is one thing, and its followers are one people. As that “debate” pitches back and forth the military might of the ideologically Christian-secular coalition rallies to save the Middle East once again with bombs.