On the very idea of ISIS – Part II

In the first part of this post I argued that beliefs held by individuals are not a good basis on which to analyse geopolitical events. Both beliefs and their associated collective-level behaviours are the result of other forces operating in the environment within which individuals act. I conclude the argument by asking what ISIS is for.

If an idea has a use that serves an important purpose for a large group of people it is unlikely to be easily ‘defeated’ (whatever that means).

Nevertheless, it seems that even U.S. Generals think they are fighting an idea when they are bombing ISIS positions.

As I was reminded Sunday last, that recent article in the magazine The Atlantic by Graeme Wood titled ‘What ISIS really wants‘ rapidly spread around social media – passed on and ‘liked’ by those on both the left and right of politics.

The article quoted Major General Michael K. Nagata:

In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.”

The idea that wars are fought against ideas is not new, of course – at least in war rhetoric. Think of wars against ‘fascism’, ‘imperialism’, ‘communism’ and the like.

And, conversely, people like to think they are fighting for ideas – ‘freedom’, ‘equality’, ‘autonomy’, ‘the one true religion’, etc..

But let’s not get fooled by language. Wars are fought to change the brute facts of the world. As I’ve argued, ideas simply come along for the ride – largely by making themselves useful in that effort to change the world.

Towards the end of the same article its main point is made:

It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State “a problem with Islam.” The religion allows many interpretations, and Islamic State supporters are morally on the hook for the one they choose. And yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them.

It’s a more nuanced version of Harris’ argument. That claim is that what is of primary importance to understand about ISIS is the Islamic ideology it follows and that guides its behaviour (The clue to the centrality of this claim is in the article title – “What ISIS really want“. Apparently, what they really want is to fulfil scripture, at least in line with their interpretation of it.). And the natural consequence of that ideology, it claims, has been clear:

We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.

Misunderstanding the theological basis of ISIS, Wood argues, has “contributed to significant strategic errors” by ‘the West’ (particularly by the United States under Obama’s leadership) and, further, “has already led the United States to underestimate it [ISIS] and back foolish schemes to counter it.

This misunderstanding has two aspects:

We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al‑Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as “Sheikh Osama,” a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaeda’s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group’s priorities and current leadership.

We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature. Peter Bergen, who produced the first interview with bin Laden in 1997, titled his first book Holy War, Inc. in part to acknowledge bin Laden as a creature of the modern secular world. Bin Laden corporatized terror and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia. His foot soldiers navigated the modern world confidently. On Mohammad Atta’s last full day of life, he shopped at Walmart and ate dinner at Pizza Hut.

There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State.

In common with Harris’ viewpoint, the argument in this article is constructed around a central point – that ISIS is not of this time and place. ISIS is ‘medieval’. ISIS is not part of the ‘modern secular world’ (even if al-Qaeda may be).

Their motives are therefore inscrutable to the modern (especially liberal) mind. They are ‘other’ in a deep sense: creatures out of time, adrift in concerns that are those of a millennium ago and very different from “modern political concerns“. In other words, ISIS are ‘primitive’ and, because of that, barbaric.

(Of course, it is itself interesting, and consistent with the argument that I’m making, that ISIS has arisen after al-Qaeda has ceased to appear effective against the West.)

If my interpretation is correct, then there are two assumptions at work here.

First is the assumption that the modern world has quite different ‘political concerns’ from that of medieval times (or presumably from that of any other time).

Just what these concerns are and how they differ from political concerns of times past is not made clear. I presume, though, that it has something to do with the claim that ISIS wish to establish a caliphate and implement Sharia Law in a full and comprehensive manner. That, according to Wood, is not a modern political concern.

But surely that confuses a goal (establishing a caliphate) with a ‘concern’.

Predicting the behaviour of ISIS, according to the article, comes down to understanding this medieval theological impetus:

The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior.

The message is clear – the behaviour of ISIS has its primary origins in theological rather than political calculations. Predicting its behaviour therefore requires adopting the same medieval mindset.

The point is hammered home through reference to the West’s own past ‘theological disputes’ with the obvious implication that ‘the West’ is now well beyond such motivation (the West has ‘grown up’, so to speak):

Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes.

But, pause for a moment and notice some question begging going on with this historical account.

It is assumed that these “wars of religion” were mainly matters of “arcane theological disputes“. Yet, were they?

Put bluntly,  just who has decided that the causes of those past wars were principally “arcane theological disputes” rather than the economic and political circumstances of the time? Did the long-running power plays between the papacy, the Holy Roman Emperor and the numerous monarchs of Europe have nothing to do with the origins of these so-called “wars of religion“?

Was disagreement over ‘theological arcanery’ the main cause of men “dying in large numbers“? Or was the main cause the power plays between variants of theocratic rule whose ever so material interests were at stake (a ‘theocracy’ is a form of government – which has power and, like all governments, asserts its right to maintain and even extend that power – and should be distinguished from a ‘theology’ with its “arcane theological disputes“.).

To take one example, when Martin Luther pinned his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg’s church in protest at the sale of indulgences by the papacy was the near century of wars that ensued simply caused by an “arcane theological dispute“?

Or, was it more like throwing a match into a tinder pile of corrupt and repressive practices by successive Popes (such as the papal taxation via the selling of indulgences to finance the St Peters rebuild), the pre-existing political tensions between the papacy and various monarchies and the long-standing historical conflicts between different European states?

My money’s on the latter. Without those conditions Luther would have been seen as a noisome crank rather than the penetrating and persuasive voice of reform. Without those very material and historical facts of the matter, instead of razing cities to the ground and leading to continuous wars in Europe Luther’s theses would have raised little more than eyebrows.

In general, even major intellectual (or theological) disputes that have no impact on power do not lead to wars. By contrast, even the most trivial intellectual (or theological) disagreement can lead to war (or be used to lead to war) if it intersects with existing conflicts over power.

Now fast forward to today and ISIS. Is the lesson of the comparison with Europe’s “wars of religion” meant to be that thousands are now dying because of similarly “arcane theological disputes” (or, at least, ‘arcane theology’)? If that is the lesson Wood wishes us to learn then it is quite the wrong lesson.

The ‘ideology’ of ISIS may well be medieval but its appeal comes from very current and contemporary conditions. Without those nurturing conditions ISIS devotees would be as thin on the ground as skinny-dippers in a volcanic crater lake – the environment would not be remotely hospitable for their behaviours.

Speaking of ISIS devotees, there’s also the curious comments in the article from The Atlantic by “three ex-members of a banned Islamist group called Al Muhajiroun (The Emigrants)“:

Choudary [one of the members of the group]said Sharia has been misunderstood because of its incomplete application by regimes such as Saudi Arabia, which does behead murderers and cut off thieves’ hands. “The problem,” he explained, “is that when places like Saudi Arabia just implement the penal code, and don’t provide the social and economic justice of the Sharia—the whole package—they simply engender hatred toward the Sharia.” That whole package, he said, would include free housing, food, and clothing for all, though of course anyone who wished to enrich himself with work could do so.

Abdul Muhid, 32, continued along these lines. He was dressed in mujahideen chic when I met him at a local restaurant: scruffy beard, Afghan cap, and a wallet outside of his clothes, attached with what looked like a shoulder holster. When we sat down, he was eager to discuss welfare. The Islamic State may have medieval-style punishments for moral crimes (lashes for boozing or fornication, stoning for adultery), but its social-welfare program is, at least in some aspects, progressive to a degree that would please an MSNBC punditHealth care, he said, is free. (“Isn’t it free in Britain, too?,” I asked. “Not really,” he said. “Some procedures aren’t covered, such as vision.”) This provision of social welfare was not, he said, a policy choice of the Islamic State, but a policy obligation inherent in God’s law.

Social welfare and justice as the ‘missing bits’ of the “whole package” of Sharia? Social welfare as a “policy obligation” that is “inherent in God’s law“? Quite contemporary concerns and, according to one Dutch study, questions of social justice are actually uppermost in the minds of would be jihadist recruits.

What are we to make of it all?

In his book “Sapiens: A brief history of humankind” Yuval Noah Harari gives a pretty straightforward explanation of what ‘ideas’ (like religions) are generally for – what function they have.

In brief, they allow large groups to coordinate their action through imaginative ‘fictions’. By ‘large groups’ are meant those groups beyond the size of those that can be coordinated by personal gossip about, and knowledge of, each individual in the group (the tipping point is probably a group size of around 150 following Dunbar’s Number).

As Harari provocatively – and wryly – puts it (pp. 27-28):

How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold [in group size], eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imaginationChurches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights – and the money paid out in fees.

Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.

People easily understand that ‘primitives’ cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Take for example the world of business corporations. Modern business people and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. The principal difference between them and tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales.

[If you want a sense of Harari’s book, and writing style, here’s two reviews from The Guardian – here and here.]

It’s an interesting ‘idea’.

Today these ‘myths’ might be called ‘social constructions’ or ‘imaginaries’, but its the function that matters – they coordinate large groups of relative strangers.

And they provide a kind of cooperative ‘harmony’ amongst the group members through which they can carry out very practical projects (trade, generate social hierarchies and inequalities, create and defend large territories to exploit, etc.).

So what does the “very idea of ISIS” achieve for those who follow it?

I began this post with a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough‘. Sir James George Frazer’s work ‘The Golden Bough: A study in comparative religion‘ focused on ancient European religion, myth and superstition.

In those remarks, Wittgenstein was clearly annoyed with what he saw as Frazer’s complete misunderstanding of myths, rituals and magic as some sort of pseudo-scientific explanations of the world or as primitive ‘technologies’ to change the world (e.g., rain dances).

Indeed, the word ‘myth’ now – perhaps as a consequence of the view of them epitomised by Frazer – can have a minimising or even pejorative sense suggestive of some ‘irrationality’. That is, they can appear to have just the kind of “stupidity” Wittgenstein, in the beginning quote to Part I of this post,  believed Frazer was suggesting we should assign to ‘primitive beliefs’. Yet, as he put it, “it will never be plausible to say that mankind does all that out of sheer stupidity”.

Instead, Wittgenstein saw ritual and myth quite differently:

That is, one could begin a book on anthropology by saying: When one examines the life and behavior of mankind throughout the world, one sees that, except for what might be called animal activities, such as ingestion, etc., etc., etc., men also perform actions which bear a characteristic peculiar to themselves, and these could be called ritualistic actions.

But then it is nonsense for one to go on to say that the characteristic feature of these actions is the fact that they arise from faulty views about the physics of things. (Frazer does this when he says that magic is essentially false physics or, as the case may be, false medicine, technology, etc.)

Rather, the characteristic feature of ritualistic action is not at all a view, an opinion, whether true or false, although an opinion–a belief–can itself be ritualistic or part of a rite.

The ‘rite’, the ‘ritual’ or – as he came to call it – the ‘form of life’ is what we are confronted with. And beliefs do not explain these inherently human ritualistic acts. Instead, as he puts it, “a belief–can itself be ritualistic or part of a rite“.

As I said in the first post, beliefs do not explain the complicated actions involved in things like geopolitical events. Instead, they are themselves part of what needs to be understood. They arise along with and as part of the event.

And it is the event that needs to be understood.

ISIS, then, is not an idea – it is like a vast, collective rite or ritual.

While there are many types of anthropological theories of ritual – functionalist, structuralist, symbolic – all in one way or another see ritual as a means (psychological and/or social) to meet needs, resolve tensions, harmonise the actions of members of a group and perform some higher service. As Caroline Bell has argued:

Ritualization is “a way of acting that is designed and orchestrated to distinguish and privilege what is being done in comparison to other, usually more quotidian, activities.”

The question we should ask ourselves – here, in ‘the West’ – is what the ritual and rite we call ISIS is aimed at resolving, what needs it apparently meets, what service it aims to perform for those whose actions it harmonises.

In short, we should ask very plainly “what is being done” through the convenient vehicle of ISIS.

What is being done – beyond the horrors and the violence – is something far more important, far more fundamentally human, far more understandable than simply being in thrall to, and acting in accord with, some arbitrary and ancient medieval ‘beliefs’.

‘What ISIS really wants’ is actually very simple: It wants power.

If you like, it is a vast ‘ritual’ whose aim is to create and express the power of a group through coordinating members of that group. And it is a group that, in recent history, has had little power – and has suffered the consequences and the indignities of that position.

If you must still see it in religious terms then here’s another way of putting it: ISIS is not some strange, irrational medieval madness – it is a symbol of one of the oldest hopes religion (even in its secular, scientific variants) has offered humans.


Which leaves one final question.

If I’m right then consider this: If ISIS is the ‘salvation’ (the ‘solution’) then what on earth was the hell (the ‘problem’) from which it promises to save its followers?

My answer?

The ‘brute facts of the world’.

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One Response to On the very idea of ISIS – Part II

  1. Brilliant, for the 14+ years in Iraq our ‘club’ has not built a single school or hospital ( being in the brute nature of clubs!), yet Sharia under Isis has done exactly that, I can sympathise with those on the ground, choosing the apocalyptic armed zealots from Texas over the same from Isis, it’d be Isis every time: safer streets, fed, clothed and healthy kids, no three day (yes! 3 day!) waits at the petrol pump, no brown outs, running water and sewage. In every way Sam Harris’ indiviualised property obsessing West has failed the citizens of Iraq. Sometimes good OLD common sense like free food, shelter, education, clothing and health care is worth sharing: saves ALOT of bloodshed, unless you’re the one who isn’t in the firing line.
    Well done, always well considered, and a late reader here!

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