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.