On the very idea of ISIS – Part I

The very idea of wanting to explain a practice–for example, the killing of the priest-king–seems wrong to me. All that Frazer does is to make them plausible to people who think as he does. It is very remarkable that in the final analysis all these practices are presented as, so to speak, pieces of stupidity.

But it will never be plausible to say that mankind does all that out of sheer stupidity.

When, for example, he explains to us that the king must be killed in his prime, because the savages believe that otherwise his soul would not be kept fresh, all one can say is: where that practice and these views occur together, the practice does not spring from the view, but they are both just there.

-Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough’

When it comes to chickens and eggs there’s probably no more politically revealing conundrum than the question of which comes first – the idea or the brute facts of the world?

To take one example, it’s been at the heart of the last couple of decades of debate (in ‘the West’) over ‘radical Islam’ and has come to its recent head in explanations of the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

I was reminded of this debate when I heard Graeme Wood – “a contributing editor for The Atlantic magazine and a Edward R Murrow Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in the US” – being interviewed on the Sunday Programme on National Radio (11 October, 2015).

The interview concerned an article Wood had written some months before – “What ISIS really want” – which at the time gained brief social media fame.

Sounds like a promising title.

And, certainly, both the article and interview were interesting enough – but mostly for what they reveal about the kinds of explanations of geopolitical events that many in ‘the West’ seem to find appealing.

But both the article and interview struck me as being almost completely beside the point when it came to understanding the emergence and appeal of ISIS.

(That item was followed up just last Sunday on the same programme by a similarly worrying ‘analysis’ of geopolitical conflict – this time by cognitive neuroscientist Emile Bruneau from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)

But, first, back to the conundrum.

Put starkly:

Is ISIS mostly a product of Islamic/jihadist ideas or of the brute geopolitical, economic and historical ‘facts of the matter’ in the Middle East?

How this question is answered will – or should – frame responses to ISIS.

And I think the answer is obvious.

Sam Harris, however, would probably disagree with me (I use Harris’ arguments purely by virtue of their clarity and representativeness of a general approach rather than because I have a particular beef with him):

Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder?

More British Muslims have joined the ranks of ISIS than have volunteered to serve in the British armed forces. In fact, this group has managed to attract thousands of recruits from free societies throughout the world to help build a paradise of repression and sectarian slaughter in Syria and Iraq. This is an astonishing phenomenon, and it reveals some very uncomfortable truths about the failures of multiculturalism, the inherent vulnerability of open societies, and the terrifying power of bad ideas.

I would not want to create the impression that most Muslims support ISIS, nor would I want to give any shelter or inspiration to the hatred of Muslims as people. In drawing a connection between the doctrine of Islam and jihadist violence, I am talking about ideas and their consequences, not about 1.5 billion nominal Muslims, many of whom do not take their religion very seriously.

There it is, fairly plainly stated: ” beliefs guide behavior“; “the terrifying power of bad ideas“; “ideas and their consequences“. The causal direction is clear, as is the responsibility. Ideas determine actions (give or take the usual pre-emptive qualifications with which intelligent people like Harris can pad out their central message).

According to this narrative, the ideas in Islam – not geopolitical history and facts – are the real problem with ISIS and jihadist movements in general. Given that, the solution to the problem, the challenge to “the civilized world“, is clear – although difficult to implement:

Understanding and criticizing the doctrine of Islam—and finding some way to inspire Muslims to reform it—is one of the most important challenges the civilized world now faces. But the task isn’t as simple as discrediting the false doctrines of Muslim “extremists,” because most of their views are not false by the light of scripture. A hatred of infidels is arguably the central message of the Koran. The reality of martyrdom and the sanctity of armed jihad are about as controversial under Islam as the resurrection of Jesus is under Christianity.

For Harris what is needed is a kind of mass doctrinal ‘fumigation’, a vast exercise in mental hygiene, to eradicate the invasive pest of Islamic doctrine with, “arguably“, its “central message” (original emphasis) of hating infidels.

And Sam Harris is not alone in embracing that causal picture of human action – that, as Harris states, “beliefs guide behavior” and “reliably lead” to predictable consequences. It’s a mainstay of much philosophy of mind and, if we’re honest, of most people’s understanding of what is ‘common sense’ about the causes of human behaviour.

We think/believe something and on that basis – and assuming that no external force prevents us – we then act.

Which is all perfectly understandable and reasonable except for the fact that the role of ideas in human action is not quite like that. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed in the quote at the start of this post, what people do and what they think/believe are all of a piece; they arise together as part of the same action.

The question, then, is not which comes first – the ideological chicken or the materialist egg – but why does it all come to be at a particular point in time?

Ideas can be thought of as being less the primary causes of actions than they are the escorts for actions – often, in fact, trailing behind like bridesmaids holding up a bride’s train. At most, they are riding shotgun for actions – ensuring the actions ‘get to where they want to go’ by fending off their enemies.

That, at least, is the story at the level of the individual. Ideas have a different role when it comes to the actions of a collective – a crowd, an ethnic group, members of a religion or of a nation.

The most significant question concerning the role of ideas for those who want to understand geopolitical events and the activity of organised groups is ‘What interests and what purposes do ideologies reflect and serve?’

Answering that question leads, inevitably, to the ‘brute facts of the world’. For want of a better word (and the word is a bit misleading as it connotes more than it means here), those facts are the material realities.

When it comes to understanding why ISIS exists – and what it really wants – there’s little point in exploring the arcania to be found in the exegesis of Islamic holy scripture. They are the tools used by ISIS rather than an explanation of what brought ISIS into existence or of why ISIS acts as it does.

And to pre-empt the argument that the causes of ISIS are evident in what members of ISIS say or write (e.g., that they want a Caliphate), I suppose I should add that this is the case – that religious ideology is a set of tools to achieve other aims – whether or not members of ISIS see it that way.

This is probably one of the hardest points for many people to accept. Put simply, individual motives just aren’t very useful in explaining social-level facts (i.e., facts about what groups do).

It’s a pretty involved argument that I’ll reserve for another post about explanations in politics, but basically what it means is that you’re not likely to get a good grip on a geopolitical event by interviewing the people involved in it. Their motives or expressed reasons for doing what they do – as strange as it might seem to say – are pretty much irrelevant to what needs to be explained (e.g., the rise of ISIS).

Now, this view of the role of ideas is clear from the simple observation that ideas can be ‘in the ether’ but lie strangely dormant for centuries, even millennia – impotent to, as Harris puts it, “reliably lead” to the behaviours that are their supposed natural consequences.

Why is that?

As Ian Mortimer points out in his brief history of the last millennium “Centuries of Change: Which Century Saw the Most Change and Why it matters to us“, ideas and inventions only catch on when the time is right:

What causes a significant social development? It is not that someone has a great idea and everyone else follows suit; it is never as straightforward as that. The social context has to be right for a good idea to take root. The compass was known for centuries before it was regularly used for crossing the world’s oceans; many people had questioned the practices of the Roman Catholic Church long before Martin Luther; Francis Ronalde’s telegraphic system was rejected by the Admiralty – and so on. As we have seen so often in this book, it is not the invention that results in a major change so much as the adoption of that invention by a significant proportion of the population. There has to be sufficient demand for the change in question in order for the invention to take off. That said, the ‘demand’ is not always consciously expressed. Few people demanded to fly long distances at high speeds in 1900. However, the advantages of airborne transportation were immediately obvious. Military commanders, for example, could attack an enemy’s capital city without a full-scale invasion.

What goes for “a great idea” or “good idea” goes for Harris’ bad ones too. And, importantly, for an invention or a good or bad idea to “take off” and be taken up by a “significant proportion of the population” (and so have geopolitical consequences) the time must be right for it – the demand must be there, whether “consciously expressed” or not.

Take Sam Harris’ 1.5 billion Muslims many of whom are, according to him, “nominal“. How come the majority of those Muslims are not gripped to the point of delivering oppression and murder upon the world by the same ‘ideas’ subscribed to by supporters of ISIS?

After all, as Muslims, presumably they do indeed believe in such things as blasphemy, apostasy, martyrdom and jihad, don’t they?

Well, suggests Harris, perhaps they don’t.

Or, in Harris’ words, perhaps they “do not take their religion very seriously“? (Which itself should raise the intriguing question – at least in an objective, enquiring mind – of why the majority of people who, despite often a lifetime’s exposure, oddly do not fall under the spell of “the terrifying power of bad ideas“?)

Does Sam Harris perhaps agree with ISIS supporters that such Muslims do not really believe in Islam, the Koran, etc. and so they are not ‘real Muslims’ (merely ‘nominal’)?

Is it only those Muslims who practice “oppression and murder” as a reliable consequence of belief in “jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy“, etc. who truly follow Islam? Who truly ‘get it’?

It’s all a bit circular – and a bit worrying. Harris and ISIS supporters appear to hold the same view about what it means to ‘truly believe’ in Islam.

For both, beliefs really exist (presumably inside Muslim’s heads) if and only if they lead to behaviours deemed to be reliable indicators of having just those beliefs. Otherwise, people don’t really have those beliefs. (They’re ‘nominal’ as Harris would put it, or they’re ‘apostates’ as ISIS supporters might put it.)

No true Scotsman‘, so to speak.

And, conveniently, both Harris and ISIS supporters have a pretty clear – and remarkably similar – view of what those indicators are (e.g., a willingness to behead nominal/apostate Muslims). True believers in Islam just must be brutal – otherwise they’re going against their own ‘doctrine’.

Why such similarity in ‘beliefs’  between people who claim to be deeply religious and someone (Harris, amongst many others) who claims to be deeply atheist?

I think I know why.

Harris states:

Yes, many Muslims happily ignore the apostasy and blasphemy of their neighbors, view women as the moral equals of men, and consider anti-Semitism contemptible. But there are also Muslims who drink alcohol and eat bacon. All of these persuasions run counter to the explicit teachings of Islam to one or another degree. And just like moderates in every other religion, most moderate Muslims become obscurantists when defending their faith from criticism. They rely on modern, secular values—for instance, tolerance of diversity and respect for human rights—as a basis for reinterpreting and ignoring the most despicable parts of their holy books. But they nevertheless demand that we respect the idea of revelation, and this leaves us perpetually vulnerable to more literal readings of scripture.

Let’s pick through that for a bit.

Muslims who tolerate their neighbours’ apostasy and blasphemy, etc. are behaving in ways that Harris believes “run counter to the explicit teachings of Islam“. What does he mean by “explicit” here?

My guess is that Harris – like some philosophers – believes that the meanings of words, sentences and propositions are pretty much in the words themselves and, because of that, are easily ‘decoded’ (given sufficient training in logic, of course). Belief then simply becomes accepting the truth of the meaning that is self-evidently in the words (or in the individual, stand-alone ‘propositions’ as philosophers might put it).

There’s no ‘context’ or normative practices that might refract that meaning (or without which there would be no meaning), no reflection that might distil deeper meanings – there’s just the ‘plain and simple’ words. And words, like cameras, simply ‘don’t lie’ – at least for Harris and ISIS supporters. They portray meaning transparently and unequivocally.

Harris is as confident in claiming that tolerating ‘apostates’ is non-Islamic as are ISIS supporters because they are reading the scriptures in the same literal way.

‘Explicit’, then, is just another word for ‘literal’.

Those who do not read such texts in this literalist manner are either “reinterpreting” the texts or, simply, “ignoring the most despicable parts of their holy books” (or, presumably, for ISIS supporters, those parts that present God’s most challenging requirements of one’s faith in Him).

‘Revelation’ then itself becomes a simple matter of reading texts literally. God’s mind is, almost ‘literally’, ‘an open book’. God, so to speak, is Himself a literalist and so His words can be read sentence-by-sentence in a literal manner to receive the revelation that I guess must be just ‘in the words’.

That’s why Harris can accuse ‘moderates’ in every religion who demand “that we respect the idea of revelation” as leaving ‘us’ (him?) “perpetually vulnerable to more literal readings of scripture“.

The irony that seems to escape Harris is that his apparent understanding of what amounts to ‘revelation’ doesn’t just leave us “perpetually vulnerable” to literalism but is itself predicated on a literalist reading.

One has  already to be a literalist with a literalist notion of ‘revelation’ in order to see it as leaving one vulnerable to literalist readings of  divinely inspired scriptures.

In fact, any claim that meanings beyond the most literal even exist – via context, normative practices and reflection – is probably just part of what Harris calls “a large industry of obfuscation” that attempts to deflect blame from Islam and its scriptures. They are, that is, not ‘real’ meanings themselves, just attempts to avoid the ‘real’ meaning.

Our humanities and social science departments are filled with scholars and pseudo-scholars deemed to be experts in terrorism, religion, Islamic jurisprudence, anthropology, political science, and other diverse fields, who claim that where Muslim intolerance and violence are concerned, nothing is ever what it seems. Above all, these experts claim that one can’t take Islamists and jihadists at their word: Their incessant declarations about God, paradise, martyrdom, and the evils of apostasy are nothing more than a mask concealing their real motivations. What are their real motivations? Insert here the most abject hopes and projections of secular liberalism: How would you feel if Western imperialists and their mapmakers had divided your lands, stolen your oil, and humiliated your proud culture? Devout Muslims merely want what everyone wants—political and economic security, a piece of land to call home, good schools for their children, a little leisure to enjoy the company of friends. Unfortunately, most of my fellow liberals appear to believe this. In fact, to not accept this obscurantism as a deep insight into human nature and immediately avert one’s eyes from the teachings of Islam is considered a form of bigotry.

The way I’d put it is a bit different from the way that Harris’ straw-men ‘secular liberals’ would put it.

The “incessant declarations about God, paradise, martyrdom, and the evils of apostasy” are not masking motives to gain “political and economic security, a piece of land to call home, good schools for their children, a little leisure to enjoy the company of friends.”


What those declarations express are far more basic motives of anger, hatred, desperation, a sense of injustice, assertion of power, etc.. They are, that is, exactly what they appear to be – declarations aimed at those they blame for the current state of Muslim society and current status of Muslims, especially in that part of the world. Jihadist ‘ideas’ allow that anger, hatred and desperation to be expressed and articulated with some appearance of power.

But notice that, understood in this way, it is very likely correct to identify the causes of such behaviour as the numerous ways in which “Western imperialists and their mapmakers had divided [Muslim] lands, stolen [Muslim] oil, and humiliated [Muslims’] proud culture.

Put simply, when social, political and economic circumstances conspire to make us angry we’ll more than likely find some ideology to justify and channel that anger. When social, political and economic circumstances – perhaps more rarely – conspire to make us feel quite content and in charge of our own destinies we’ll probably find some ideology compatible with that comfortable and secure social state.

Without that socio-historical reservoir of anger, violent and literalist interpretations of Islamic scripture wouldn’t have had a chance of appealing to an apparently significant proportion of (young) Muslims. And that’s the case irrespective of the invention of the internet or social media or whatever.

In more or less this way, the “real motivations” of members of ISIS need not be the same as the reasons they give for their behaviour.

Beliefs, as Wittgenstein was at pains to argue, do not motivate behaviour – even though we have an interesting tendency, as humans, to characterise behaviours in terms of beliefs.

(Beliefs do, however, do something else that is just as important – they coordinate actions amongst a group. I’ll explore that in more detail in Part II of this post.)

For now, we could do worse than contrast Harris’ literalism with a more nuanced encounter with the verses of the Koran. As an example, here’s a short TED talk by Lesley Hazleton called ‘On reading the Koran’:

I’m not sure that Sam Harris – or the many other people who subscribe to some version of his argument – have spent three months parsing the Koran in detail with the aid of four robust translations and the original Arabic (as Hazleton has done). But then why should they when they are convinced that the meaning is right there ‘in the words’ for all to see – especially themselves?

And bearing on the same point of the strange synchrony between Harris and some Jihadists when it comes to scriptural interpretation, there’s the report on ‘radicalisation’ of Muslim youth in the Netherlands: “Global Jihadism: Analysis of the Phenomenon and Reflections on Radicalisation” (It can be downloaded from the documents made available in this Dutch Government Press Release from The Netherlands ‘Coordinator of Security and Counterterrorism’ in the Ministry of Security and Justice).

Of particular interest in this report is the role of individualism in jihadist movements. Oddly, for a supposedly ‘non-modern’ and ‘medievalist’ movement, the very modern focus on individualism is just what allows freedom from dominant collective interpretations of scripture.

Or, to cut to the chase, it seems to be the strong strand of individualism in Jihadism that provides succour and support for literalist readings of scripture.

In fact, literalist readings may well be all that remain once collective interpretations – embedded in context, history, culture and, no doubt, no little amount of wisdom – are dispensed with and made illegitimate (pp. 11-12 – all bold emphasis is in the original; all red-coloured emphasis is mine):

Individualistic approach

While Islamists regard religious education as a prerequisite for building a superior and just Islamic order, jihadists [by contrast]  offer the individual a ‘short cut’.

To them [i.e., to jihadists rather than Islamists], religious zeal, in the form of a willingness to fight (and die) for Islam, is much more valuable than the possession of religious knowledge.

Paradoxically, while jihadists claim to act in the name of the umma [the “collective community of Islamic peoples“], in reality they break with existing communities out of concern that they might restrict their activities. Jihadists focus on the power of the individual, rather than the community, to act. They not only accord individuals (lay people) the right to decide whether violence is permissible and legitimate, but also supply the arguments that justify the individual’s taking this right into his own hands. This individualistic approach, the ‘privatisation’ or ‘fragmentation’ of the monopoly on the use of force, is an essential element of the threat posed by jihadism.

If this analysis is correct, then perhaps the danger that comes from cult-like groups of jihadists owes rather more to our very own, home grown Western ideology of individualism than it does to some supposed medievalist form of Islamist ideology.

All a bit mind-bending and complicated, perhaps, for the modern western mind to grasp but it would explain a lot. Radical movements always need both to undermine prevailing –  and challenge pervasive – ideologies and splinter individuals off from the mass who, by definition, live within and under the dominant ideology.

The ineffectual and even impotent power of established collective wisdom and ideology to counter the “Western imperialists and their mapmakers [who] had divided [Muslim] lands, stolen [Muslim] oil, and humiliated [Muslims’] proud culture” probably goes some way to explaining the appeal of the more individualistic strain of Islamic jihadist ideology.

When collective wisdom no longer works it makes sense for a society to shatter into many ‘go their own way’ movements. At the level of an entire society it may even be an adaptive – as well as predictable – response (an attempt to ‘find a solution’ by ‘innovating’ at the socio-cultural level).

It’s also worth noting in passing that the West’s experience of the emergence of the centrality of the individual (i.e., individualism) as a cultural default setting was itself fairly gruesome. Luther’s protestantism was, after all, a ‘protest’ against the established order which sparked a hundred years of bloody wars (and the Counter Reformation with its Inquisitorial horrors).

Further, the Protestant Reformation was itself based on a highly individualistic religious doctrine: It gave licence to individuals to come to their own interpretation of scripture and have a personal, unmediated relationship with their God (rather than through the ‘Vicar of Christ’ – ‘vicar’ having the same etymological root as ‘vicarious’).

Then there was ‘The Terror’ that was part of the continuing saga of the 18th century French Revolution. It was a brutal crackdown on perceived external and internal threats to the Republic, all done in the name of “liberty, equality, the inviolability of property, and the right to resist oppression” – a revolution that was forever symbolised by ‘Madame Guillotine’, the pre-eminent beheader in European history.

Like jihadism today, ‘individualism’ was an idea that was ‘in the air’. It was ‘in the air’ of course for perfectly understandable, material reasons.

Merchant adventurers and early capitalists were chafing at the bit of the established feudal order yet building considerable wealth. At the same time working people in Paris and peasants in the countryside were subject to enormous hardships. The stitching that held the Ancien Regime’s “confusing patchwork of local privilege and historic differences” together and that was the base for its social, administrative and legal systems was rapidly undoing.

The individualistic nature of the ‘community’ of jihadists is presumably also why social media has played a facilitative role in both recruitment and in providing a sense of being part of a larger group. Adherents are disparate individuals usually at the margins of the social and cultural communities within which they live and so can only ‘cohere’ through that highly individualistic and privatised form of social interaction called ‘social media’ (in which each individual has more or less total control over the form of their social networks).

But why should such a literalist, individualistic, cult-like and violent form of religiosity ‘grip’ large numbers of individuals at certain times and in certain situations?

By contrast with Harris’ insistence that it is ideas themselves that lead inexorably to behaviour, I’d argue that the main cause of our behaviour is the world we find ourselves in.

It is that world that leads me or anyone else to be ‘gripped’, or otherwise, by particular ‘ideas’ and ‘beliefs’ (and that gives rise to those ideas and beliefs). It is that world that pushes my beliefs into the ‘short cut’ of unreconstructed literalism (or not).

That is, the ideas that ‘take hold’ in a person, in a group or in a socio-historical moment are the ones that the environment selects. And I use the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection quite deliberately here.

As mentioned above, an idea can be around for a long time before the environment is such that it takes root, spreads – sometimes like wildfire – and even comes to dominate thought (and talk) around a topic.

When that happens it is extremely tempting to think that it is something about the idea itself that has caused it’s striking popularity – perhaps its ‘self-evident truth’, its ‘simplicity’, its ‘inspirational’ nature, etc.. All the while we forget that such supposed causal properties within the idea have only just rocketed it to fame despite presumably being part of it for as long as it’s been around.

And, if it is something about the idea that makes it appeal we must, of course, go to war against it. That is, if we don’t like the idea – and the behaviours to which we think it “reliably leads” – we sometimes respond by trying to ‘kill’ it or ‘defeat’ it.

A quixotic exercise, of course. You can no more ‘defeat’ or kill an idea than you can defeat or kill the air. You can argue against an idea, thoroughly refute it on any and all ‘rational’ grounds, comprehensively destroy its logical foundations and, at the end of it all, make absolutely no dent in its popularity.

So how do we respond?

[To be continued …]


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