Graeme Wood on ISIS: No Such Thing as Objective Critique

The debate continues to deepen over Graeme Wood’s Atlantic cover story on ISIS: Murtaza Hussain has noted how Wood ignores debates among Islamic intellectuals, Juan Cole argues for the fringe status of the group, likening them to Kentucky snake handlers, and, most recently, Daniel Haqiqatjou and Yasir Qadhi have argued for the need to put the Atlantic article in the wider context of anti-Muslim discourse produced after 9/11.

Wood’s fundamental point is that the U.S. has misunderstood the ‘Islamic State’ because it ignores its ideology—one rooted in a specific implementation of Islamic texts. Wood relies, as he explains, on the work of an expert scholar:

Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

Via Haykel, Wood renders himself an objective critic of ISIS—while his opponents are nonsense-blabbering feel-good liberals. Even Muslim critiques of the ‘Islamic State’ are not authentic, but rather Christian apologies.

For Wood, what makes the ‘Islamic State’ Islamic is the invocation of Koranic verses. He reports that ISIS supporters “often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam,” and that they, “spoke with an academic precision that put me in mind of a good graduate seminar.” These people speak with authority, so they must be authoritative. So the logic goes.

In the article, Wood relies on the familiar Protestant notion that literalist reading of original scripture is a mark of authenticity—true Islam can be accessed authentically sola scriptura, by scripture alone. My point of course, is not simply that Wood reads as a Protestant. After all, there are plenty of Protestants who read well. What I want to say is that Wood uses the Protestant framework that says that a literalist reading is the best way to read a religious text… in order to talk about a non-Protestant tradition. (This ideology of reading was initially developed in the Reformation, but much more significantly developed in America in the 1920s.) Wood doesn’t use Islamic (or even sociological) tools to judge how Islamic the ‘Islamic State’ is, rather, he uses American Protestant ones to judge their authenticity, thereby ignoring the very real ongoing process that many Muslims are currently engaging in of delegitimizing the ‘Islamic State.’ In Wood’s judgement it doesn’t matter what Muslims say, as long as the ‘Islamic State’ continues to quote the original scripture, they will be legitimate in his eyes.

Wood repeatedly refers to the ‘Islamic State’ as medieval, a term that links his perception of the ancient status of the group with its violent behavior. (As in that famous declaration in Pulp Fiction:I’ma get medieval on your ass.”) Wood’s use of “medieval” takes the ‘Islamic State’s’ violence and projects it backwards in time, playing into the Protestant conception that authenticity is to be found in appeals to older texts. Wood constructs a large rhetorical apparatus to create this perception: They are opposed to us. They are old, we are modern. They are violent, we are peaceful. They are irrational and apocalyptic, we are rational and restrained. All these oppositions are contained in labeling the ‘Islamic State’ as medieval. (Perhaps we should reframe this binary: They broadcast their torture to the world, we discuss ours behind the close doors of the Senate Intelligence Committee.)

It is certainly important to take the language of the ‘Islamic State’ seriously, and Wood does this. But I would argue that it is just as important to take the language of scholars and journalists in describing the ‘Islamic State’ seriously, as they too have real effects.

Wood’s article has been so controversial precisely because he doesn’t seem to register his own status as a “definer” of discourse. An American Muslim who claims that the ‘Islamic State’ is un-Islamic is drawing boundaries, setting terms. Likewise when President Obama described the ‘Islamic State’ as “not Islamic” it was not necessarily because of a lack of understanding of the group, but because of an awareness of the power of his words to affect the lives of the millions of Muslims in America.

Wood does not acknowledge the power his words have in constructing the “reality” they depict. That is, he is not simply describing the Truth, but helping to construct it. In her essay “Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other,” Susan Harding has argued that the modernist narrative that erases the voices of those we call “fundamentalists” in turn reinscribes the fundamentalists in a strict binary opposition with modernity. She writes:

Fundamentalists create themselves through their own cultural practices, but not exactly as they please. They are also constituted by modern discursive practices, an apparatus of thought that presents itself in the form of popular “stereotypes,” media “images,” and academic “knowledge”…

Wood likens the ‘Islamic State’ to other ‘death cults’ that are easily recognizable to the average American reader, writing:

Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

Scholars of religion like Catherine Wessinger have spilt much ink over the events that lead to the tragic deaths at Jonestown and Waco, Texas. What has become clear in the years since those tragedies is that the true horror of them was avoidable, but only if those in power had both taken the groups’ language seriously and not defined them solely in opposition to us “moderns.”

Language matters, both “theirs” and “ours.”

 

Note: This article has been updated to reflect further editorial conversation.

 

 

 

22 Comments

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    I don’t think Waco and Jonestown were avoidable if government had approached them the proper way. The community in Waco had a big problem. Koresh had taken all the women and their daughters. This was evolving into a situation where the young girls were increasingly also his daughters. This was about to blow up in his face, so he set up the best possible outcome for him. A suicide of the compound that could be blamed on the government.

  • elizavieta@embarqmail.com' eliza says:

    Kentucky snake handlers, like Westboro Baptist, Jonesboro, Waco, etc. are tiny fringe people. ISIS and similar groups are sizable numbers of violent armed men running amok grabbing territory with massacre, as is recommended in Islamic scriptures.

    “They are also constituted by modern discursive practices, an apparatus of thought that presents itself in the form of popular “stereotypes,” media “images,” and academic “knowledge”…” Gah, what a sentence.

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    “…ignores debates among Islamic intellectuals”. Sophisticated theology is ignored by the vast majority of religious followers. This includes almost any religious denomination. To argue that the majority is somehow missing the point, is to actually miss the point.

    The larger issue is that we have these very old texts, which are often have calls to action that are violent in nature. There WILL be a subset of people that interpret them literally and therefore cause trouble. Remove the authority of these text and you get rid of the “unsophisticated” justification for violence.

  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    Agreed. I tend to gag when I encounter such nonsense. I’m not sure what the author’s point to those observations is. Of course an article in a major magazine will provide a viewpoint. That does not define the subject, however. ISIS seems busy defining themselves through barbaric executions and slaughter, without any help from the Atlantic.
    Nor does equating ISIS to Kentucky snake handlers seem even remotely equivalent. The snake handlers seem content with killing themselves with their snakes. ISIS wants to kill others. That, to me, negates the comparison right there.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    “Sophisticated theology” is a loaded term. I think it means selectively viewed so that the contradictions can be overlooked.

  • d.delong@peoplepc.com' David says:

    Good critique.

  • superfobby@aol.com' DontBeADumbass says:

    You are completely missing the point of the comparison. The point is, no one thinks “those Kentucky snake handlers are just doing Christianity, like Christians do,” even though we acknowledge that they are or consider themselves Christian. By the same token, the “Islamic” nature of ISIS is obvious to them, themselves, but that doesn’t mean everyone else should just automatically grant them their own claims.

  • elizavieta@embarqmail.com' eliza says:

    ISIS and similar groups are supported by those who would never do such things with their own hands. They are the vanguard, the martyr jihadis harassing the kuffar. The snake people are not the vanguard of anything.

  • jfigdor@gmail.com' jfigdor says:

    “Wood’s use of “medieval” takes the ‘Islamic State’s’ violence and projects it backwards in time, playing into the Protestant conception that authenticity is to be found in appeals to older texts.”

    Yeah, this is probably because ISIS is throwing gays off the roofs of buildings and literally decapitating its victims. So yes, they are medieval.

  • jfigdor@gmail.com' jfigdor says:

    This is a classic “no true scotsman” fallacy. People who describe themselves as Christian are Christian. ISIS is Islamic and snake handlers are Christian. They aren’t the only interpretations of those religions, but they are interpretations of those traditions.

  • jfigdor@gmail.com' jfigdor says:

    As if ISIS cares about the pronouncements of so-called sophisticated theologians (read: liberal theologians). They’re already content to consider Muslims from other sects as non-Muslims, so that’s their basic game plan for dealing with sophisticated theology.

  • robert.m.jeffers@lonestar.edu' Rmj says:

    True, but when was the last time anyone considered snake handlers to represent all of Christianity? Or when all Christians were called on to public denounce the activities of the snake handlers?

    The fallacy you mention doesn’t apply. It isn’t that snake handlers are not Christians, but that not all Christians are snake handlers. Similarly, ISIS may be “Islamic,” but not all Muslims practice Islam as ISIS does. That distinction is not a subtle one, but it is too often lost anyway.

  • robert.m.jeffers@lonestar.edu' Rmj says:

    We kill people with Hellfire missiles fired from drones, and with airstrikes that destroy entire blocks of buildings and all inside.

    We are modern. Much better…..

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    The drones were probably us, and the airstrikes were probably Israel.

  • elizavieta@embarqmail.com' eliza says:

    I think a more apt comparison is the KKK. Professes Christianity, attracts recruits, commits atrocities…

  • argaman01@gmail.com' Argaman says:

    Graeme Wood doesn’t claim that all Muslims practice Islam like ISIS. I don’t know how people have gotten that idea from his article – probably because they bring their own preconceptions to it, and believe that no one should ever criticize Islam.

  • maintour@yahoo.com' MainTour says:

    The problem with Islamic schools of religion (madrasas) is that they appear to be the biggest sources of radical jihadists as well as the theologians.

  • dgriffith906s@gmail.com' toomuchthinking says:

    Mr. Gurevitch writes: “What I want to say is that Wood uses the Protestant framework that says that a literalist reading is the best way to read a religious text… in order to talk about a non-Protestant tradition. (This ideology of reading was initially developed in the Reformation, but much more significantly developed in America in the 1920s.) Wood doesn’t use Islamic (or even sociological) tools to judge how Islamic the ‘Islamic State’ is, rather, he uses American Protestant ones to judge their authenticity, thereby ignoring the very real ongoing process that many Muslims are currently engaging in of delegitimizing the ‘Islamic State.’ In Wood’s judgement it doesn’t matter what Muslims say, as long as the ‘Islamic State’ continues to quote the original scripture, they will be legitimate in his eyes.”

    Why is it necessary to use a “Protestant framework” to describe Mr. Wood’s article? To put it another way, are Protestants the only religious group in the entire history of mankind that has believed that a “literalist reading is the best way to read a religious text”?

    Historically-speaking, this is nonsense. Many religious practitioners have, throughout time, read their sacred texts in a very literal way. Wood doesn’t need to use a “Protestant framework” to observe that another branch (Sunni) of another major religion (Islam) reads its fundamental religious text (the Quran) in a very literal manner.

    Nor is Wood necessarily wrong merely because “many Muslims are currently engaging in [a process of] delegitimizing the ‘Islamic State'”. Various denominations/sects/cults of religions have, throughout their histories, engaged in questioning the beliefs and practices of other groups within that same religion. Protestants and Catholics, both claiming to be “Christians”, have argued, fought, and killed each other ever since Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenburg. (Yes, I’m aware that whether he really did so is debated by historians.) The fact that one group within a religion questions (“deligitimizes”) another group doesn’t mean the group being questioned is not engaging in some form of fundamentalist theology.

    It’s entirely possible that I’m missing the point of Mr. Gurevitch’s piece. But, again, it’s also entirely possible that Mr. Gurevitch has completely obscured the point he’s trying to make. In short, I’m not sure Mr. Gurevitch’s article adds much to the ongoing conversation about what ISIS is about or what its goals are.

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    Your comment has me imagining a ground force of liberal theologians subduing ISIS with journal articles…

  • psicop@charter.net' PsiCop says:

    Re: “My point of course, is not simply that Wood reads as a Protestant.”

    Hmm. Here, Gurevitch seems to suggest Wood himself “invented” ISIS’ literalist approach to Islam. But is that really the case? Or is he, instead, merely reporting on ISIS’ literalism?

    Re: “What I want to say is that Wood uses the Protestant framework that says that a literalist reading is the best way to read a religious text… in order to talk about a non-Protestant tradition.”

    Hmm. Here, Gurevitch seems to suggest it’s not possible for any Muslim, including the people in ISIS, to have a literalist approach to Islam, because literalism is solely a product of Protestant Christianity. But is that really the case? Isn’t it possible for different religious traditions to be shaded by literalism?

    Re: “They are irrational and apocalyptic …”

    Wait … is Gurevitch saying ISIS is neither irrational nor apocalyptic? Really!? Wow. They must be truly rational, then, and unconcerned with any kind of “end times” thinking. Hmm. Maybe Obama is right about them, that the rise of ISIS is due to political repression and lack of economic opportunity.

    If that’s the case, then a sort-of “Marshall plan” including a vast jobs program is the solution, and will quell ISIS utterly. What are we waiting for, then? Maybe Gurevitch should tell us how he thinks this program should be set up, and head out there to get the ball rolling on it. Yeah, I’m sure that’ll work out real well.

  • sparry2@nycap.rr.com' westernwynde says:

    I’m not sure where to land about any of this, but I am glad to see people discussing why ISIS is doing what it’s doing, rather than just sticking on the ‘terrorist’ label and thinking that does the job.

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