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Defining Islam At World’s End

What Westerners don't get about the power of messianic religion

The more I think about it, the less impressed I am with the US government’s strategy to act as if the ISIS brand of Islam is not really Islamic, and to pretend that our problem is “violent extremism,” not a particular form of Islam.

How useful would it have been in World War II to say we were not fighting National Socialism, but “violent extremism”? In the Cold War, would it have helped anybody to say we weren’t fighting communism, but rather “violent extremism”? I’m not saying Islam = communism, or Islam = Nazism. What I’m saying is that denying the ideas driving the enemy, and denying that he is driven at all by particular ideas (as opposed to something as anodyne and non-specific as “violent extremism”) makes little sense, except possibly in the instrumentalist “noble lie” way.

Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa, both women and both self-described “moderate” Muslims, say that the “violent extremism” strategy is folly. Excerpts:

Doing a verbal tap dance around Islamic theology and extremism, even calling it “whatever ideology,” Obama and his policy team have it completely wrong. We have to own the issue of extremist Islamic theology in order to defeat it and remove it from our world. We have to name it to tame it.

Among Muslims, stuck in face-saving, shame-based cultures, we need to own up to our extremist theology instead of always reverting to a strategy of denial, deflection, and demonization.

While Rome burns in the war plans of the Islamic State and other militants, it is important to identify the enemy clearly. As sixth-century Chinese military strategy Sun Tzu said, “Know your enemy.” This is particularly important in the kind of asymmetrical war America has been fighting for 14 years since the 9/11 attacks. We know “America is not at war with Islam.” We settled that in the days after 9/11. But we are at war with an ideology and theology of Islam.

At the summit on “countering violent extremism,” Obama said that it would hand America’s enemy a propaganda victory if we called out the Islamic theology that is the underpinning of their violence, but the enemy will despise us no matter how politically correct we try to be. And by returning always to “historical grievances” and “root causes,” from the Crusades to colonialism, we only feed a culture of “wound collectors,” as former FBI agent Joe Navarro calls terrorists.


As Obama argues it, the murders of the Coptic Christian—or “Egyptian citizens,” as the White House spokesman first put it—following the immolation of Jordanian Air Force pilot Lt. Muadh al Kasasbeh and the beheadings of Japanese hostages, journalists and others reveal a “brutal, vicious death cult.”

But we, as Muslims, recognize every word in the Islamic State’s theology from teachings, ideas and interpretations we’ve heard through our approximately 50 years on this earth, from the living room chatter of “couch jihadis,” as one FBI agent describes “wound collectors,” to sermons, Facebook posts and Twitter messages.

Read the whole thing. They explain why ISIS’s theology and its actions are plausible within Islamic thought and tradition. They clearly do not agree with ISIS, but the case they make is that ISIS is, unfortunately, within the Islamic tradition — and, according to Nomani and Arafa, this must be stated even if it hurts the feelings of Muslims who are embarrassed by ISIS.

Charles Featherstone, who once converted to Islam but later left, and who retains a generally positive attitude towards the religion, writes about how Brother Ahmad, an ISIS-like Muslim, came to his Cleveland mosque once, and alienated everyone with his stridency. Excerpt:

The Atlantic piece points to a thoroughly modernized organization in ISIS — the sunnah says nothing about Twitter, passports, cellphones, license plates, tanks, and rocket propelled grenade launchers. It is impossible to escape modernity, and impossible to escape dealing with modernity. And ISIS is good at deploying many of the tools of modernity in service of its political and religious ideology. The fact they are an ideology, that they are state building, is itself a testament to the group’s very modernity.

But it also impossible to escape the group’s religious foundations as well. Muslims aren’t struggling with modernity — they are struggling with how to be modern.

This makes how Muslims cope with modernity different in many ways from how Christians cope with modernity. The state in the Christian West swallowed the church whole, domesticated it, placed it in service to the state, and then slowly released its grip once it knew bishops and pastors and congregations would readily come to heel (and those who didn’t weren’t strong enough or numerous enough to matter). This took several centuries, and is mostly done, though somewhat rough on the edges. It happened much more quickly (and roughly) in the Islamic world, was imposed on Muslims largely from the outside, and we forget how thoroughly secular the nation-states of the Arab Middle East were up until about 30 years ago. And they were even more secular in the 50s and 60s. (Which is why Qutub wrote a book in the first place, and got himself hung by Nasser.) Those secular states and the ideologies that gave them energy are largely gone, being undone by military defeat and economic failure. They are the past. They are not the future.

And how some Muslims cope with modernity is going to be religiously rooted. And violently opposed to an externally defined modernity. But modernity itself is not in question. This is what ISIS is — a toxic and lethal combination of religious piety and political ideology, a confessional church (so to speak) with a flag and an army. It is as facile and foolish to say that ISIS represents all of Islam as it is to say ISIS is not Islamic at all. It is a very modern entity. It is also a religious one.

Brother Ahmad was Muslim. A very observant one. And perhaps even a very faithful one; he didn’t invent his faith and practices on his own. But he also annoyed nearly everybody, and his Islam had very little appeal in that busy and crowded masjid. He could cause an awful lot of trouble, but that was about it.

This is where we will be for a while.

David Brooks wrote a good column the other day about how we do ourselves no favors fighting ISIS by imposing our own categories and preferences on the realities of the Islamic world. Excerpts:

Religious extremism exists on three levels. It grows out of economic and political dysfunction. It is fueled by perverted spiritual ardor. It is organized by theological conviction. American presidents focus almost exclusively on the economic and political level because that’s what polite people in Western capitals are comfortable talking about.

But Westerners don’t set the rules for everybody else. More:

But people don’t join ISIS, or the Islamic State, because they want better jobs with more benefits. ISIS is one of a long line of anti-Enlightenment movements, led by people who have contempt for the sort of materialistic, bourgeois goals that dominate our politics. These people don’t care if their earthly standard of living improves by a few percent a year. They’re disgusted by the pleasures we value, the pluralism we prize and the emphasis on happiness in this world, which we take as public life’s ultimate end.

In all candor, who can blame them? I would a thousand times rather live with what we have than with the death-cult Islam of ISIS, but when they look to the West and see what we have become, I can easily understand why they don’t want that for their societies. More Brooks:

This heroic urge is combined, by Islamist extremists, with a vision of End Times, a culmination to history brought about by a climactic battle and the purification of the earth.

Extremism is a spiritual phenomenon, a desire for loftiness of spirit gone perverse. You can’t counter a heroic impulse with a mundane and bourgeois response. You can counter it only with a more compelling heroic vision. There will always be alienated young men fueled by spiritual ardor. Terrorism will be defeated only when they find a different fulfillment, even more bold and self-transcending.

Brooks proposes nationalism as a healthier way of organizing and channeling this human urge. But as Featherstone says, Islamism arose as a response to the failure of Arab nationalism. Perhaps there can be a healthier form of Arab nationalism, but it seems unlikely at this historical moment. The cause of nationalism can be falsified, and has been for the Arab world, within historic memory; the cause of religion generally cannot be. The will to believe is more powerful than evidence.

A French friend sends an important letter from France. In it, he draws attention to the Washington Post‘s interview with Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris. From that interview:

WaPo: “…But the terrorists are all Muslims.

Hidalgo: In this war, yes. These are people who are lawless and faithless.

WaPo: But they all happen to be Islamic extremists.

Hidalgo: It’s terrorism. . . . There are other groups of terrorists but this group is trying to attack our democracy. This group also attacks Muslims — for example, a French police officer killed during the attack on Charlie Hebdo was a Muslim….”

My friend remarks:

Imagine commentators in the 1970s and 1980s describing the IRA, Baader-Meinhof gang, PLO, ETA without  mentioning the cause for which these outfits perpetrated terrorism (for our younger readers: Irish nationalism/unification, Communism, Palestinian nationalism, Basque nationalism/independence).

Hidalgo so blatantly omits the qualifiers  “Islamic & Muslim” that it makes me think she chose to do so not only because that corresponds to her a-religious mindset, but also because she chose to do so out of fear of the political repercussions of qualifying the terrorism as “Islamic” – or “Islamist” if you may – or, indeed, as related in any way to the religion of the oppressed minority of Maghrebins/ Arabs/ Muslims who the Socialist Party sees as one of its solid voting-block constituencies.

She goes straight to the abstract category grouping all terrorists as all the same kind of “lawless and faithless”. Faithless? Lots of faith in the ISIS. Bad kinds of faith, but faith no less.

Later in the interview:

WaPo: “…How do you view the Islamic State?

Hidalgo: It is a terrorist group you have to fight against. It is a movement that wants to attack democracies. It does not recognize women and their rights. It doesn’t recognize freedom of expression.

The French friend:

No word on Christians or Yazidis. Just democracy, women, freedom of expression. I think Hidalgo understands ISIS as only an ideology. Its as if the category “religion” escapes her totally. Well, if that’s what it takes to enroll the support of Leftists in the fight against the Islamist death cult, then so be it, I suppose, non?

What I find sad in this is that it reveals, once again, that the Front National – who I hate and loath and vomit and disdain – has cornered the market on saying things EVERYBODY else (outside the Parisian political-media circus) says and thinks : for starters, that the terrorists in Paris & Copenhagen were Muslims who were motivated by their faith in Islam – a twisted, dark, barbaric, backward version of a great religion that I, personally (again), recognize as a religion of the Book and as spiritual kindred as children of Abraham.
Hidalgo’s weltanschauung is the kind of worldview that Houellebecq is targeting. It’s an age-old problem: ideological blinders that incapacitate people from correctly naming reality.

My friend concludes:

In reading the article, one realization hit me and I feel kind of stupid and sad at the same time to admit it. Stupid, because, duh! it is quite obvious. Sad, because it is a sad thing to expect to happen eventually. That is, I believe that there will some day be suicidal terrorist attacks in France. The Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly were already half-suicidal in that they knew they would be going down after they gunned down people.
There have already been young French jihadists – one just recently – who’ve killed themselves and innocent victims in Iraq in suicidal attacks. Remember: not all French jihadists are of Muslim Maghrebin/ African stock. Some French jihadists/future terrorists are of good ole Gaulois stock. Little, stupid Johnny Talebans who grew up without the moral bearings or wherewithal to withstand the siren call of murder, adventure and a meaning that transcends their mundane lives.

I think it is only logical to assume that this will eventually take place here in France. The mind of someone willing to strap a bomb on himself (or herself) and kill themselves, and others, is a mind that is driven by something more ominous than mere ideology. For sure, there is something more than mere ideas that are at work.
Very sad, indeed, to reflect upon this.

Indeed. In my case, I honestly don’t know who in the Islamic community to believe. My experience in Dallas is that representatives of CAIR, and occasionally others, would come to meet with us on the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News, to complain about anti-Muslim bias (chiefly because they published my stuff). It was really astonishing to me to listen to these guys — and they were all guys, Muslim Brotherhood sorts — saying things that I knew were factually untrue, and could prove. But they were counting on the force of their indignant attitude, the goodwill of the editorial board, and the ignorance of Americans who didn’t read the top local imams sermons on his website (as I did), and who didn’t trouble themselves to dig into the kinds of things being promoted in the Dallas Islamic community, and the power of telling their audience what it wanted to hear, to dissuade us from concern.

I wrote over a decade ago about how Dr. Sayyid Syeed, at the time the president of the Brotherhood-backed Islamic Society of North America, came to meet with us and garlanded us with lovely generalities about peace and tolerance. I had done my homework on the guy, and when it came time to pose questions, I took his own belligerent past statements, and radical statements by Muslims within the ISNA leadership, and asked how he squared those views with the irenic message he prepared for our ears. I was calm in the interview, and so was he — at first. But when I pressed him on his evasiveness, he lost his cool, shook his fist at me, called me a Nazi, and said that I would “repent” of this outrage.

I learned that this was par for the course in dealing with the local CAIR people and their associates. Do they represent all Muslims? Of course not. But they were the only ones speaking at all — and they deliberately and repeatedly tried to take advantage of our ignorance (no editorial board can possibly be expert in all things) and desire to believe the best about Muslims. A friend who was involved high up in the counterterrorism community at the time said that this whole world is a hall of mirrors. She said that she worked with devout Muslims who hated what CAIR and its ilk were doing, but were too intimidated to speak out. They helped quietly. My friend told me don’t make the mistake of believing that the extremists speak for all Muslims, but also not to make the mistake of thinking that when a Muslim leader makes a statement about what Islam believes, that they are being honest. The agitprop of CAIR taught me to be reluctant to take statements from Islamic leaders for granted.

Clarity of thought, and clarity of speaking, is urgently needed now — but it seems that even 14 years after 9/11, we are no closer to thinking and speaking clearly about Islam than we ever were.

One more thing, about ISIS and its fever dream of the Islamic apocalypse. I was reading last night from a passage in the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) , who writes about the messianic urge within societies. Excerpts:

It is not only upon interpretation of the meaning of history, but also upon the formation of the very category of the historical, that messianism has its bearing. History is created by the expectation that in the future there will be a great manifestation, and that this manifestation will be a disclosure of Meaning in the life of the nations. It is the expectation of the appearance of the Messiah or of the messianic kingdom. The movement of history is also a movement towards that messianic appearance which will bring with it liberation from slavery and suffering, which will inaugurate for man a state of happiness. Messianic consciousness is born in suffering. When suffering does not crush man it is changed into a terrible power. The dynamic messianic myth is turned towards the future. It is in this respect a contrast to pagan myths, which were turned not towards the future but to the past It was characteristic of the Greeks to be concerned with the contemplation of the cosmos and its cyclic movement. This postulates that the world is eternal and has neither beginning nor end, a world, above all, in space and not a world in time. No philosophy of history is to be found either in Plato or in Aristotle. It is in ancient Israel that the philosophy of history begins, in the revelation of God in history, which found expression in the consciousness of the prophets, and in the Book of Daniel.

But it is within Christianity, Berdyaev says, that a philosophy of history first became possible because it “introduced disquietude about the future, a messianic and eschatological disquietude.” He means that Christianity accepted and extended Jewish messianic hopes, foretelling an End of History, culminating in the Second Coming of the Messiah. In this way, history has meaning. It’s not simply random or cyclical events; it is going somewhere. We can only understand the meaning of history if we have a vision for where it is going, he says. This is not something scientific; this is something “prophetic.”

Islam, which arose in the Middle East seven centuries after Christianity, is messianic in that it also sees history ending with an apocalypse. And Berdyaev observes that Hegel was also driven by a messianism, though of the post-Christian sort. So was Marx. And so are the Western democrats of today, who may or may not believe in God, but who do believe in liberal democracy as the End of History. The messianic impulse is part of what it means to be modern (as opposed to ancient). This is something that contemporary Westerners do not seem to understand. At all.

Berdyaev says that formal religion domesticates and stifles the messianic consciousness among the people. “The priest has more and more crowded out the prophet,” he writes. “Ritualism is dominant. But ritualism does not confer any understanding whatever of the meaning of history.”

What he’s saying is that people have a deep craving for the belief that what they’re going through means something. That their suffering is not in vain. That events are going somewhere, however random they may seem on the surface. This is an essentially religious impulse, but it was shared by orthodox Marxists as well as religious believers. This is at the heart of the meaning of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. We cannot let go of our sense that existence has meaning, and that the meaning will be revealed if we wait patiently and expectantly. More Berdyaev:

The messianic consciousness and expectation creates history, proclaims a meaning for it and holds it together, and yet at the same time, so to speak, breaks down history and seeks to overleap it. This contradiction has to be accepted as a part of experience. In the same way as the first Coming of the Messiah was prepared among the Hebrew people, so now among all mankind the way must be prepared for the Second Coming; and it is in this that history has its justification. The goal is no less than the attainment of the creative fullness of life and the realization of the Spirit not only in human life but also in the life of the cosmos.

It is nothing less than re-union with God, and the advent of Utopia. The end of all suffering, and the fulfillment of time. If you cannot understand why this vision has immense power, especially for the wretched of the earth, you are not looking hard enough. If you cannot understand why this vision has immense power for the bored, clapped-out, shopped-till-they’ve-dropped bourgeois children of the West, you are not looking hard enough.

Berdyaev’s words make me think of what’s going on in Latin America, with the turn of so many Catholics away from Catholicism and towards Protestantism of the Pentecostal or Evangelical sort. Could that be explained by the dynamic Berdyaev identifies? That the prophetic sense was ritualized and formalized within sacramental Catholicism, but over time became flat and dessicated. The messianic desire does not go away within individuals and cultures. People need to believe that there’s more to life than just the same damn thing over and over, to no apparent purpose. This may be an illusion, but it is a vital one (see Godot). It is a source of hope, and the foundation of action. It is no accident that the kind of Christianity — Protestant and Catholic — that is thriving in the world today is a prophetic, eschatological kind.

Is it really so difficult to understand where ISIS comes from? Remember Berdyaev: Messianic consciousness is born in suffering. When suffering does not crush man it is changed into a terrible power. The Islamic peoples of the Middle East have suffered terribly, and as people in shame-honor cultures (like the American South’s) always are, are particularly reluctant to examine their own consciences to discover the role that they themselves have played in their own immiseration. They become “wound collectors,” as Nomani and Arafa say. None of us are immune from wound collecting, but for people within shame-honor cultures, this is especially the case.

ISIS offers redemption from the suffering of humiliation (almost the worst kind of suffering from a shame-honor point of view), and the vision of bringing down the Islamic messianic age. How can the imams and scholars of Establishment Islam compete with that?

I could be wrong, but this sounds to me like the archbishop and the theological faculty of the local Catholic university issuing a pronouncement saying the Pentecostals aren’t real Christians, and expecting that to dissuade others from going to their revival meetings. It’ll work with some, but if the kind of Catholicism being preached is formalistic and devoid of charismatic power, it won’t work with many others. I don’t say this to pick on Catholicism; I have two friends who were raised in the Orthodox church, but who became Evangelicals for precisely this reason. And the Mainline Protestants know all about this.

My point is not that it is impossible to draw clear boundaries beyond which one can say, “This is [Christian, Islamic, etc.], and that is not.” Of course one can. But it is impossible to compel others to agree, and to obey. The religious believer is not motivated by only by propositions and logic, but also by the will. Seems to me that ISIS is a much harder problem to solve than we think.

I agree with Charles Featherstone: this is where we are all going to be for a while. We had better try hard to see the world as it is, in all its messiness, rather than as we would like it to be.

UPDATE: To clarify, I am certainly not saying that the establishment Islamic voices condemning ISIS do not speak for anybody. Plainly they do. My point is simply that we must also look beyond institutions, at what’s happening on the streets. To use a Christian example, I believe that what the leftie Catholics in San Francisco are demanding of their archbishop is not really Catholicism. Unlike Islam, Catholicism has a central authority that defines what it means to be Catholic. This is nice in theory, but in practice, it is much messier. But if the dissenters’ claim of Catholicism is, or becomes, the dominant expression of Catholicism in the Bay Area, and it is unchallenged, or effectively unchallenged, then “Catholicism in the Bay Area,” in whatever heretical form, becomes “what Catholics in the Bay Area do.” Do you see what I mean? The archbishop can denounce it as false Catholicism all he wants, and he may be 100 percent, you-can-look-it-up correct, but if the facts on the ground say otherwise, there’s going to be a serious and profoundly important struggle.