Graeme Wood has written extensively, and influentially, on Islamic State. Does he really believe that it is "very Islamic"—and that preachers are wrong in the way that they oppose it?by Nabeelah Jaffer / June 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
In the last two weeks, the UK has faced two terrorist attacks: 22 people were killed in Manchester by a British-Libyan suicide bomber, and then, on Saturday night, seven people died on or near London Bridge. Soon after the atrocities, social media accounts linked to Islamic State (IS) were gleefully claiming responsibility—and there have been reports that the attackers were, indeed, inspired by IS ideology. In trying to work out what the motivations of the terrorists are, attention often focuses on the explicitly Islamic language and framework used by IS. Muslims are frequently called on to condemn IS or demonstrate against them. Some commentators have even called on them to banish the religious texts IS uses to justify their attacks. But what role does Islam play in the ideology of Islamic State? And do Muslims have this special responsibility? In 2015, Graeme Wood wrote an influential article for the Atlantic entitled “What ISIS Really Wants?” and has recently published The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State. He spoke to Nabeelah Jaffer.
Nabeelah Jaffer: When terrorist attacks happen, there is often a rush to claim Islam for one side or another.
On the other hand, we’re also living in a time where our western approaches to radicalisation have focused more and more on Islam over time. So, for example, 15 years ago there was an early focus on violent extremists, followed by a growing focus on “non-violent extremists,” to the point where we’re now seeing Muslims in general increasingly caught up in the angry rhetoric—from Donald Trump, for example. What’s the best response to this?
Graeme Wood: Islam is capable of multitudes of interpretations, like any other grand religious tradition. If you talk about Islam as if it were not, then you’ll make it much easier for figures like Trump, or Sebastian Gorka, one of his advisers, to speak about Islam in their own essentialising ways. This is what happened: Barack Obama spoke about Islam in simplistic, essentialising ways, as a religion of peace. What do people hear? Maybe some of them hear: Islam is a religion of peace. Ok, fine. But they’ll also hear another message: Islam is one thing. And that primes them to hear Gorka say: “look! Islam is one thing! And here’s a bit of evidence—true evidence—that Islam is sometimes on a war footing.” That type of simplistic talk can be flipped instantaneously.
NJ: You think it primes the ground for a backlash?
NJ: When someone like Barack Obama says, “Islam is a religion of peace”—surely most people don’t hear that as: “IS can be accurately described as having nothing to do with Islam”, but as: “Don’t mix up your Muslim neighbour down the road with someone who goes and does this. Muslims who join IS are a tiny minority and have nothing to do with Islam as most Muslims practice it.”
GW: There is a slight danger even in that. If you’re saying that something has “nothing to do with Islam” because it is being practised by a minority—then you’re implying that Muslim minorities have nothing to do with Islam. Sorry, Ahmadis—apparently, you’re not in the club anymore. You are signing up for a majoritarian view of Islam, and that is very dangerous.
NJ: What do you think would be a more helpful way for public figures or Muslims themselves to speak about IS?
GW: Speaking truthfully would be a good start. Just say: “This is an attack by the IS. This is the connection that the person had to the group. These are the political claims that the person made, these are the religious claims.” That’s it. Leave it at that. Don’t say or imply, as governments or journalists, that one version of the religion is right.
NJ: Your Atlantic article argued that IS is a group with “carefully considered religious beliefs.” It seems fair to say that your recent book, The Way of the Strangers, is also preoccupied with—as you put it at one point—“the crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who travel to fight.”
GW: Yes, I’m very interested in the way that the Islamic State supporters think of themselves. And I do think that they think of themselves in deeply religious terms that are often well-considered. In the book, I describe who the supporters of IS are, and I try to do so in a way that they would recognise—and then to describe the intellectual environment they’ve come from.
NJ: How important do you think is the role of religion in motivating IS supporters, and in shaping IS itself?
GW: You ask: “what’s the role that religion plays?” or “what’s the role that Islam plays?” That’s often asked in a particular way—and I’m not claiming that this is yours—that assumes “religion” is this one big thing, clearly identifiable and with distinct borders. I’m asking: for IS supporters, what is the role of what we generally consider religious concerns— the nature of God, of ultimate concerns, of an afterlife, of good and evil?
So the answer to that is: I think this wide range of things that we call religion is very important to the Islamic State. The foreign fighters ask themselves about these issues all the time.
I don’t have any view on whether IS is the highest expression of Islam. I’m not a Muslim, so it makes no sense for me to have an opinion about that. But does IS ask religious questions—questions that Muslims have asked themselves for as long as there have been Muslims? Absolutely.
It’s kind of like asking: what part does Communism play in the Soviet Union? The answer is: it plays a significant part. If you had no idea what Communism is, you’d have found the Soviet Union pretty confusing. You’d have to know a whole lot more, but knowing about the official ideology would be an important start. Similarly, if you think the followers of IS are not motivated by beliefs about what is good, what is evil, what is the will of God, what is the nature of God—then I think you will really miss the point of IS.
NJ: I think you make the case quite well for saying that certain approaches to Islam—fuzzy-bordered and diverse entity that it is—have a part to play in all of this. As you mentioned, many foreign fighters do ask themselves religious questions—we can see that from their social media accounts. And we also know that IS itself uses religious language and ideas in its propaganda.
But is there a danger in making a jump from arguing that Islam plays a part in this to saying that it plays a significant part? When you say IS is “very Islamic”, for example, that implies a gradation. What’s your evidence that religion is more important to IS and its followers than other motivations?
GW: I did not know the “very Islamic” phrase would be as controversial as it was. I’m happy I used it, because it exposed a lack of sophistication in the way we talk about Islam. If you call a group that is crazily devoted to its version of Christianity “very Christian,” no one will blink an eye. To call a crazy Muslim group “very Islamic” should be the same. But instead it was controversial.
NJ: You’re arguing that all religions should be equally open to criticism—but that there’s a double standard at play?
GW: I don’t think I am criticising any religion. I am describing religious activity from what I would prefer to call a journalistic perspective, or a social-scientific perspective. I assume that Islam—like Christianity and Judaism—contains within its tradition multitudes of human activity, and contradictory views. But that’s not an assumption that is shared I think by the general reading public, Muslim and non-Muslim.
NJ: That argument you keep making—that Islam is not just one thing, it’s lots of different things—is a point made by Bernard Haykel in your Atlantic article. You quote him as saying: “As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.”
GW: Right, he’s exactly right, and he’s repeating a standard social science view of religion.
NJ: But is there a tension between that excellent point, and your idea that IS is “very Islamic”? IS is “very Islamic” relative to what? Relative to Shias? Relative to Ahmedis? If you’re saying that any way that Muslims choose to interpret their texts has an equal claim to being called “Islamic”—then how can you at the same time argue that one approach is more Islamic or less Islamic than another approach? The phrase “very Islamic” implies that Islam is a single clearly measurable thing—not a diverse discourse.
GW: When people hear “very Islamic” they understand it to mean “the best kind of Islam”—which is not what I mean at all. I have no view at all on what “the best kind of Islam” is. What instead I mean by it is: to what degree is IS drawing on traditions that we traditionally have thought of as being in the tradition of Islam? And yes, I say IS is smack in the middle of the discursive tradition of medieval and pre-medieval Islam.
There are things Muslims have done a lot, and there are things Muslims have done only a little. I’m saying IS—for example, in talking about a Caliphate—is somewhere in the fatty part of the bell curve, and is doing many things that Muslims have done a lot, in the history of Islam. I’m not at all in the business of saying: this is where the bell curve ends, beyond which it is no longer Islam.
NJ: Would you see groups who are less at the centre of that tradition—like Ahmedis—as being less Islamic?
GW: In a suggestion, yes—when Ahmedis make claims that are relatively new in the Islamic tradition. But I would have to qualify that claim a bit. I certainly don’t want to feed any Ahmedi haters. Let’s put it this way, when Ahmedis talk about a caliphate, in that sense they are still within the Islamic tradition, very much so. Like, they are not talking about, say: who is the Caesar within our community?
NJ: I think it’s fine to say IS and its supporters are “very Islamic”—if you can provide the evidence. But—coming back to my question about evidence—you do generalise a fair bit about IS followers. You claim in the book that there is “evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.” But no one has spoken to or studied the “vast majority” of those who have travelled to fight. We don’t know how deeply religion mattered to them or how far religious narratives played a part in motivating them—relative to personal factors, or political motivations, or a history of criminality, or even mental health issues in some cases. Isn’t it misleading to make generalisations about religion being very important, without very clear evidence to back it up?
GW: I don’t have any hesitation to make the generalisation. There could be mysterious people who are going there for reasons completely divorced from anything related to their understanding of Islam. The fact that, as far as I can tell, almost no one matching that description has been found, suggests that condition is rare.
NJ: In the book, you focus on ideologues—your sample doesn’t include anyone from the vast majority of rank and file supporters. For example, you interview an Australian named Musa Cerantonio who has translated IS propaganda into English, and you also talk to the family of John Georgelas, a man who allegedly writes for Dabiq, the IS magazine. These guys are quite distinct from the average IS supporter.
You actually seem to have two very different views on average rank and file supporters in the book: at one point they’re “dullards and goofballs, incapable of articulating the beliefs that rule their lives.” But elsewhere in the book you attack the “‘brainless jihadi’ cliché” by saying that they are not just “brutes and barbarians.” What do you really think of the rank and file?
GW: The vast majority of normal people of any background or religion have a very weak, unsophisticated understanding of theology. That’s true of IS supporters as well. Now, there’s I think a tendency to misinterpret this ignorance. Rukmini Callimachi put it this way: if you went to a small village in Italy and found people coming out of Mass and asked them about the finer points of canon law, nobody would be able to answer your questions correctly. And yet we wouldn’t hesitate to say that these are Catholics, and their Catholicism might matter to some of them a great deal. So, when people seize upon the religious ignorance of IS rank and file to argue that they aren’t devout, I think they’re making a remarkably stupid inference.
NJ: Being religiously educated and being religiously devout are not the same thing?
GW: Right. All these things are separable—whether they are believers, whether they are pious, whether they are well educated, whether they been Muslims for a long time. You can score high in one and low in another.
NJ: Is there a danger of taking what IS supporters tell you at face value, and parroting it back? This is an issue that’s often raised by academics working in this area. So, for example, in Dabiq, the IS magazine, one European woman tells a story about leaving her home and travelling to IS territory after her husband is imprisoned. She insists in the article that her journey is all about religious devotion—her belief in an Islamic obligation to join IS—and nothing else. But of course, it’s clear, reading between the lines, that her husband being imprisoned is a factor that shapes her religious belief, and shapes the pull of that belief.
NJ: And John Georgelas, as you discuss in the book, takes his wife and kids back to Turkey from Syria. This makes his broader claim that he believes all Muslims have a religious obligation to join IS seem kind of inconsistent.
GW: You mean because he didn’t force his kids to stay in Syria?
NJ: Yes. Is that something you thought about when you were writing the book? The importance of not taking what they said totally at face value?
GW: Yes, constantly. As a journalist, the only mode that I or any other good journalist would ever work in is listening critically to what people say. The book tries to represent the voices of the followers of the IS—but it is also written in my voice. I don’t conceal my opinions or analysis.
NJ: Some critics have asked how far your book can shed light on IS itself, given that the people you speak to are not people who are at the centre of things. You don’t interview anyone who has actually been to IS territory, for example—you speak to people who seem to support IS on some level, but haven’t travelled to join them. Would you say you can talk more authoritatively about foreign fighters who join IS, than about IS itself?
GW: I don’t have any direct line—I never have, never claimed to—to IS central. I say there are, in effect, two caliphates: a caliphate of territory and a caliphate of the mind. The caliphate of territory is a physical and political space, and it would indeed require travel to IS territory to describe accurately. You’d have to know where the lines of control are, who is ruling where. My work focuses on the second: the ideas that are part of the official mind of IS.
Many have assumed that the only caliphate that exists is a caliphate of territory, so all that really counts is the view on the ground. But you could know everything about Syrian and Iraqi politics, everything about the tribal dynamics, and you would not be any closer to explaining why 40,000 foreigners have gone to the Islamic State. They’ve gone because they share a set of ideas. They and their ideas are my subjects.
NJ: Your book talks a lot, in very rich detail, about the particular religious ideology of these foreign fighters. But the book doesn’t say much about why that religious interpretation is attractive to these people. What is motivating them to latch onto that religious narrative?
GW: I touch on that question, but I have partly avoided it, I have to admit. There is excellent social science work on Jihadism, like Steffen Hertog and Diego Gambetta’s Engineers of Jihad, which was excellent on showing a kind of mental style of jihadism, associated with binary thinking. I touch on that—but the question of why someone chooses one interpretation rather than another is one that I’ve not been satisfied with anyone’s response to, including my own.
NJ: What do you think is lacking?
GW: All my thoughts on that are very speculative. I would just say that most people believe what is placed in front of them. They never know anything else. It never occurs to them to question these things. But what about the small minority left over, which exhibits a questing behaviour, that might eventually be fulfilled by Jihadism or Mahayana Buddhism or Trotskyism or whatever. They are discriminating, and the basis on which they discriminate is very opaque to me.
We shouldn’t underestimate how hard this question will be. What makes Tories Tories, or Democrats Democrats, or Trump supporters Trump supporters? We have little hope of answering these questions in the general case. We shouldn’t assume it will be any easier to say, in the general case, what makes jihadists jihadists.
NJ: Do you have any thoughts on why foreign fighters latch onto the religious narrative that IS offers?
GW: Going back to Gambetta and Hertog—some people prefer a binary view of the world and are looking for a very hard-assed, binary interpretation of religion. They like what the IS is offering. Some people are simply nutbags who see a vast playground of other crazy people. And then there are other people convinced by—what you could call a more learned approach.
NJ: Do you think there’s a danger in emphasising the role of ideology without seeking to understand the soil from which it grows?
GW: I make a distinction between those two questions—looking at where something comes from and what it is. And I’ve focused on the “what it is” question rather than the “where it comes from.” I’m happy that other people are looking at where it came from. Mehdi Hasan is an example of someone primarily concerned with that question. I haven’t found his, or anyone else’s, answers satisfactory when they focus exclusively on the material conditions.
NJ: But your book doesn’t really gesture towards work addressing the “where it comes from.” Is there a danger that people will read your book and come away with: “wow, religion and ideology are really important”—without ever getting a sense of: “I wonder why it’s important, or what else is going on?” We do easily slip into essentialising talk of “ancient religious hatreds” motivating people, and your book could support that with its heavy emphasis on religious ideology.
GW: I think it’s a good point that we should be wary of “ancient religious hatreds” as a simple explanation. But my book doesn’t say any such thing, and it does discuss, in detail, the lives of individuals who support IS and who oppose it.
When I talk about John Georgelas, for example, you learn about his family dynamics, his politics, his hobbies—much more than just what he believes. So, I do talk in individual cases about non-religious aspects. But I so often just found the roots of attraction to IS to be idiosyncratic. I don’t think there’s a unified theory that would explain the people I looked at.
NJ: Do you think Muslims condemn or challenge IS or jihadist groups or terror attacks enough?
GW: It’s not their lack of condemnation that I take them to task for. I mean, I don’t know that I’ve ever met a non-IS Muslim who didn’t condemn IS, if I ever thought to ask. As far as I can tell, every religious scholar condemns the IS. And they challenge IS too. But they challenge it in many cases, I think, very poorly.
For example, when mainstream Muslim opponents say, “slavery has been abolished in Islam”, I think even from the perspective of an outsider, I can say the pro-slavery Jihadi Salafis are in a sense being more honest. Not because they’re right to endorse slavery, but because Muslim scholars, through history and in the present, do not universally regard this question as closed. So, when mainstream scholars claim that the question is closed, they are making a false descriptive claim.
NJ: Does IS not do the same thing in the other direction, when they say: “slavery is considered totally fine in Islam.” They’re also claiming to speak for all of Islam—when, as you say, very few things in Islamic law are considered totally closed questions. It’s not as if mainstream scholars are making purely descriptive claims and IS are making purely polemical claims.
GW: Well, except that IS don’t claim that other “Muslim scholars”—I’m using their scare quotes, not mine—agree with them. They are claiming that slavery is permissible in Islam, but they are not claiming that all scholars agree with them. If they did, they would be wrong, descriptively.
NJ: Would you like to see more Muslim scholars thinking about how they can be more persuasive to IS?
GW: I do get a bit exasperated when I see Muslim scholars engage with IS badly. It’s just dispiriting, you know? Like if you go to IS and say: “Well I read this poem by Rumi, and isn’t it awesome, and doesn’t that show that you’re wrong?”—then you’re not going to convince them. I’m caricaturing, but some of the arguments against IS are almost that naive. I’m glad they like Rumi. I like Rumi too. But, do they realise they are—as the David Mamet line goes—bringing a knife to a gun fight? If Rumi were enough, there would be no IS to begin with.
NJ: Surely most Muslim scholars who publicly challenge IS are not so much trying to convince IS as trying to convince potential IS supporters and non-Muslims? It’s a political point, they’re making, right? “Don’t go and join ISIS, they don’t have a monopoly on Islam!”—or “Don’t ban all Muslims from your country, we’re not like them!”
Because trying to actually change the mind of anyone within IS territory seems like a pretty impossible task. No IS leader is going to sit down with you for half an hour and go: “you’ve really persuaded me with that very convincing argument about the Qur’an!”
I also think this approach doesn’t really succeed with potential IS supporters. I tried things like this when I was interviewing IS supporters and it just didn’t work. They would usually just cut off the conversation, or refer me back to jihadist propaganda. They weren’t interested in arguments about what Islamic texts really say. Do you feel like most IS supporters are really open to being convinced about what is the best approach to Islamic texts?
GW: I think some of them are. I’ll refer you to the case of a friend of mine—Megan Phelps-Roper. She was part of the Westboro Baptist Church, a Christian cult that is very IS-like. She didn’t leave because she was convinced out of it purely through rational argumentation. She got to know a Jew who traded messages with her. So part of it was an emotional response: “I have a friend who’s a Jew who’s willing to talk to me about this, and maybe I can no longer think of Jews in general as evil.” But she also started to see differences in the ways that various families within the church interpreted rules about women, pertaining to modesty and dress. There was the cognitive dissonance of seeing the disparate application of the law. What moved her was a combination of rational and emotional doubt.
I think with IS you can see something similar. You’ll find some people who are moved or shamed, by empathy or horror. And others will be rationally persuaded. I would not be surprised if most cases require a bit of both.