MRBlog | ISIS: What’s a Poor Religionist to Do?

MRBlog Featured ImageBy Aaron W. Hughes

ISIS presents scholars of religion with a real problem. Rather than use the Islamic State as an opportunity to nuance the way we talk about religion in public discourse, this self-described caliphate has instead exposed some of the failures endemic to the discipline as currently conceived. Squabbling over whether members of ISIS (or Boko Haram or al-Qaeda, and so on) are “real” or “fake” Muslims takes us to the heart of an intractable debate plaguing the study of religion.

What do we do with those social actors who appeal to a version of religion that we find uncomfortable? How are we to react to groups that operate on a completely different moral and theological level from ours? The study of religion gives us little to draw upon. This is why we see limited nuance and instead are bombarded by secular scholars of religion — and many scholars of Islam, in particular — who simply accuse members of ISIS of takfīr, that is, of being unbelievers or apostates. This, of course, is not unlike what such groups do to Muslims with whom they disagree.

The current doyen of the field, Jonathan Z. Smith, warned us years ago of academic dishonesty particularly of what he calls “little white lies”:

… I think there is very little to justify introductory lying. In the case of the introductory courses, we produce incredibly mysterious objects because the students have not seen the legerdemain by which the object has appeared. The students sense that they are not in on the joke, that there is something that they don’t get, so they reduce the experience to “Well, it’s his or her opinion.”

While one is entitled to one’s opinion, one is not entitled to one’s own set of facts. Most of the facts we possess seem to indicate that a majority, if not all, members of ISIS, in invoking the rhetoric and trappings of an earlier age, consider themselves not only Muslims, but also the only true and authentic ones. If this is who they consider themselves to be, who are we to deny it? Yet many do. Such denial comes with a cost. Our role as scholars of religion is not to deny members of ISIS of their “Muslim-ness,” but to understand them and what motivates them.

What do we do with those social actors who appeal to a version of religion that we find uncomfortable?

President Obama’s recent LA Times op-ed and his concurrent summit on extremism at the White House take the regnant approach in religious studies that elevates “good” religion at the expense of its “bad” despisers. On this reading, ISIS is a bastardized version of Islam. In the President’s own words,

Groups like al Qaeda and ISIL promote a twisted interpretation of religion that is rejected by the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims. The world must continue to lift up the voices of Muslim clerics and scholars who teach the true peaceful nature of Islam. We can echo the testimonies of former extremists who know how terrorists betray Islam. We can help Muslim entrepreneurs and youths work with the private sector to develop social media tools to counter extremist narratives on the Internet.

Such an approach not only problematically differentiates between the “twisted” and “true” nature of Islam, but also purports to offer an antiseptic through democracy and entrepreneurship.

Even with the quickest of glances we see that certain young people — converts and previously secular Muslims — from all over Europe and North America are going to ISIS-controlled areas precisely to fight against these Western virtues. I am not sure what scholars, if any, are advising the President, but his rhetoric on religion sounds a lot like the type echoing through the halls of the American Academy of Religion. While I certainly understand the President’s unwillingness here and his desire to tread carefully to avoid a war between Islam and the West, something ISIS is all too eager to hear, scholars of religion cannot get off the hook so easily.

Obama’s rhetoric was challenged in a recent Atlantic article, which has argued that we ought to try to understand the Islamic bona fides of the organization with an aim to defanging its theological zeal. Admittedly, I am much closer to this position than that of the President’s. Graeme Wood, the article’s author, cites approvingly the work of Princeton University-based Bernard Haykel. Of Haykel, Wood says:

He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” [Haykel] said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else”… All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

Haykel’s words here fly in the face of what most scholars of Islam and the President of the United States are saying. But they are words that need to be articulated. Yet by acknowledging these points — ones that should be obvious to even a freshman class of introductory religious studies — we somehow act surprised.

Here the standard caveats must be inserted. Certainly most Muslims find the rhetoric, tactics, and actions of ISIS to be repulsive and anathema. None of this is the issue. The issue, instead, is that members of the group consider themselves to be true and pious Muslims who are actively engaged in creating the conditions for an apocalyptic battle to usher in the end of times. If we say that they are not Muslims, we fail to understand what drives them, what they are thinking, and the ends they seek. It is really that simple. As soon as we say that they are not “real” Muslims we have neatly pushed them aside and made them unworthy of our scholarly attention other than, of course, to question their Islamic bona fides.

Wood’s article came under attack from numerous quarters, perhaps most notably Murtaza Hussain, who argued that Wood ignored the opinions of Muslim scholars who themselves have renounced the Muslim credentials of ISIS. Invoking the specter of the late Edward Said, Hussain accuses Wood — and presumably Haykel — of Western bias in ignoring these scholars. While Hussain is certainly right to say that groups like ISIS also embody other more modernist teachings, his link to the Wikipedia article on the 9th century Kharijite rebellion, is not particularly helpful. Again, though, we run up against the wall. Even if we talked to Muslim scholars, the same scholars that Obama welcomed to the White House, and they say that ISIS is un-Islamic, are we any better off?

The job of religious studies scholars is to contextualize religion as a social phenomenon, not to judge who is or is not a good practitioner of religion. Religious studies, as I and many others conceptualize the field, is not about articulating the “sacred” or finding eternal meanings of human existence in the world’s religion. It is, on the contrary, a critical enterprise, one wherein historically and socially embedded actors accomplish various political, social, and economic activities.

The job of religious studies scholars is to contextualize religion as a social phenomenon, not to judge who is or is not a good practitioner of religion.

One would think, indeed hope, that scholars who spend their time studying Islam within the secular discipline of religious studies would not be so quick to make pronouncements about what is or is not authentic Islam. Rather than judge the Islamic bona fides of ISIS, why not attempt to explain and understand such groups within the larger context of globalization, fundamentalism, apocalypticism, the intersection of politics and religion, the crisis of Islamic masculinities, and the rise of new religious movements? Such an understanding and contextualization would be much more helpful to students, to the media, and, I would hope, to the general population in the United States and other countries.

If we did this, we might say that groups like ISIS are engaged in acts of legitimation based on the manipulation of a set of finite symbols that the tradition of Islam considers normative (e.g., Quran, Sunna). In this, they are not any different than any other social group, including those that say such versions of Islam are inauthentic, that sits under the canopy we often label, monothetically and monovocally, as “Islam.” This is the simple point that Haykel was trying to make above. Groups like Boko Haram and ISIS, thus, create and perform their identities in the public domain based on what they perceive to be the actualization of timeless and eternal truths. These acts of identification, though their actors may perceive them to exist outside the realm of history, are preeminently historical and necessarily social.

Why do we insist on adjudicating between “authentic” and “inauthentic” versions of Islam or any other religion? Scholars of religion ought not to take sides in their analysis of data. On the contrary our goal is to analyze and explain through re-description — that is, taking native or indigenous reports and “re-describing” them in our own scholarly and analytic categories — as opposed to providing simple description or color commentary. This is a politically charged arena, to be sure. In dealing with Islam, in particular, the specter of Edward Said looms and at stake is who possesses the authority to represent Islam.

It is one thing to say that religious actors do good or bad things in the name of their religion, and that certain teachings within the religion help them to justify or legitimate their actions. In this regard Yigal Amir’s use of select rabbinic teachings to justify his assassination of the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin or of James Kopp’s use of the religious teachings of the Army of God to legitimate his murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian in my previous hometown of Amherst, NY are certainly grounded in Judaism and Christianity respectively. To claim that Amir or Klopp were crazy or lone “nuts” ignores the larger religious and political rhetoric that both creates and enables such actions. It is quite another thing, however, to say that only certain beliefs and actions — that is, the good ones or, at least, the ones with which we happen to agree — are legitimately religious, and that the bad ones are somehow not.

Every Muslim believes that the Islam that he or she practices is the real or authentic one. This is, after all, the reason they practice it. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the amīr al-mu’minīn (“Commander of the Faithful”) of ISIS, a term loaded in Islamic symbolism, is convinced that his understanding of Islam is the correct one and, because of this, the most authentic. The task for scholars of religion is to discuss the rhetoric of authenticity, not what or whose Islam is more authentic.

Teaching in public universities, subsidized by tax dollars in a country that makes a sharp distinction between Church and State, it is not up to us to create “good” religion and differentiate from so-called “bad” religion, even though many students and others want us to. We need to contextualize and explain, not to adjudicate and deprive. The moment we, as scholars of religion, say what gets to count as an authentically Islamic act, practice, or belief, all those who do not ascribe to them cease to be objects of study. In so doing, we actually end up depriving Muslim actors, whether existing synchronically or diachronically, of their agency. The critique of Orientalism, thus, turns on its head and engages in precisely the sort of essentialization of which it was so critical.

What is a poor religionist to do? To understand groups like ISIS, we do not need more solitary scholars opining that ISIS is not authentic, but an interdisciplinary group comprised of theorists of religions, historians of apocalypticism, scholars of new religious movements, scholars of Islam, political scientists, and others to work together to illumine groups like ISIS. The ends of such an approach will not only benefit the study of religion, but perhaps also the media and the government.