ISIS, the Clash of Civilizations and the Problem of Apologetics

We live in bad times. American politics has become so toxic and disturbing that one reaches back to the 19th century and early 20th century for a real precedent for the structural demonization of Muslims currently ongoing. As a Jew I cannot help but recoil in abject fear and disgust when I hear Donald Trump talk about a “database” and special IDs for Muslims. We have come to the point where such rhetoric has been effectively mainstreamed, and Trump and others can effectively argue for an American equivalent of a judenrat and a yellow badge with virtually no consequences. The more that the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) continues to wreak havoc on the world, the more it seems that Trump and others will continue to rise in power and prominence and continue to proffer hatred and bigotry.

How did this happen? How did we go from generalized agreement during the Bush administration that the enemy is only the terrorists themselves to calls for a Muslim database? Marc Lynch has a piece up at Monkey Cage in which he talks about the eternal recurrence of “clash of civilizations” narratives and the increasingly disturbing rise of anti-Islam rhetoric among US politicians and the media. Lynch supplies a lot of of valid reasons for why this is the case, who is responsible, and how such filth has been legitimized. However, one important reason is missing — the way in which analysts have structurally obsfucated many of the important issues at play regarding the connection between religion and ISIS (and others’ political violence). In attempting to prevent bigots from validating a “clash of civilizations” narrative, analysts have paradoxically helped bring it about.

As a prelude, let’s begin with the phrase “clash of civilizations.” It’s often axiomatic among researchers that Samuel Huntington, the man who coined the term, is guilty of “profound racism.” But very few have ever read the book or the original articles in detail. Huntington had argued publically that civilizations as categories ought to be respected, and that a lack of attention and respect to their civilizational perogatives and differences would lead to unnecessary strife. Huntington argued that the only way coexistence was possible would be if the West could understand the rest despite grave differences. Huntington’s cultural relativism is not exactly novel; it appears in social psychology and has been a constant in anthropology and sociology to some degree since the founding of those disciplines. It has also found some parallel in area studies and regional international relations.

Of course, Huntington’s essentialism and cultural relativism reifies civilizational categories. Hence his call for coexistence based on the observation of those categories is inimical to human rights, as from a culturally relativist and essentialist perspective it can be dismissed as just a Western concern. But that was not the thoughtcrime, per se, that Huntington has been villified for. To be sure, Huntington’s biggest sin is simply that he committed grave sins against political science. He cannot substantiate his argument for the existence of separate “civilizations” nor the idea that they are more valuable than states in explaining the origin of international state conflicts. Huntington’s argument is incoherent, unscientific, and methodologically fantastical. But, again, that is not exactly what Huntington tends to get the most flack for.

I mention Huntington as a prelude into a larger problem: attitudes towards Huntington are a proxy for a larger inability to come to grips with motivations for political violence that challenge traditionally secular and rationalist conceptions of politics and society. Let’s start out by acknowledging something basic: religious terrorism poses a grave, unenviable problem for the idea of the scholar and policy specialist as public intellectual(s). When a terrorist attacks and claims that they did it for religious reasons, be the religion in question Islam or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the analyst is faced with a dilemma. They know that the phenomena in question is complex, has multiple valid causes, and that their ability to make hard, definitive claims about it is limited. Nonetheless, the analyst knows that they have an obligation, nay, a moral duty, to stop “those people” from inflaming bigotry and oppression. They understand that what they say has multiple audiences, all of which can twist or misrepresent pieces of their discourse and use it to argue that Islam is bad or that all Muslims are latent ISIS supporters, etc etc. They know that the media and Hollywood are chock-a-block with racist and fearmongering portrayals of Muslims and Arabs. So how does one balance this imperative to do no harm with the imperative to tell the truth as an analyst?

The response has often been what Shadi Hamid dubs the culture of “apologetics”:

The impulse to separate Islam from the sins and crimes of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is understandable, and it often includes statements such as ISIS has “nothing to do with Islam” or that ISIS is merely “using Islam” as a pretext. The sentiment is usually well-intentioned. We live in an age of growing anti-Muslim bigotry, where mainstream politicians now feel license to say things that might have once been unimaginable. To protect Islam — and, by extension, Muslims — from any association with extremists and extremism is a worthy cause.
But saying something for the right reasons doesn’t necessarily make it right. An overwhelming majority of Muslims oppose ISIS and its ideology. But that’s not quite the same as saying that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, when it very clearly has something to do with it. If you actually look at ISIS’s approach to governance, it would be difficult — impossible, really — to conclude that it is just making things up as it goes along and then giving it an Islamic luster only after the fact. …..
Often, religion matters a great deal. It inspires supporters to action; it affects the willingness to die (and, in the case of ISIS, the willingness to kill); it influences strategic calculations and even battlefield decisions. Insisting otherwise isn’t even effective at countering Islamophobia, since, to the unpersuaded, claims that Islam and ISIS are unrelated sound entirely divorced from reality.

This has not been unique to ISIS or terrorism. It has been the focus of a deep and rather divisive debate during the counterinsurgency era as well when we were heavily involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. Religion itself is not the only third rail of terrorism., but it certainly figures into other third rails. The role of our supposed “allies” in fueling the very horror we are fighting remains off-limits and is often minimized. It is also fair to say that the response to terrorism that analysts have taken is to dismiss religion as a causal factor, or as T. Greer has argued, to structurally trivialize it. As Greer has observed, many of these critiques, beyond being unsupportable, also reveal the sociological situation of the observer within a secular and rationalist (in the Weberian sense of the term) milieu:

The Vox writer’s intent here is of course to defend Islam, by advancing an argument that Islam possesses no intrinsic power to change lives — for better or worse. It’s all self-actualization, as if the world’s second-largest faith were a benign Californian therapy group with a run of bad luck on the clientele. Of course there are plenty of Muslims who will tell something rather different: by our lights, good men who became bad by their understanding of the faith, but also bad men who became good by the same process……Fisher argues that faith is incidental to both transformations. The men and women involved will declare it was essential to them. Here we see again the stunted intellectual universe of the elite drawing one of its leading lights, such as he is, into a defense of Islam that is in fact an infantilization of Muslims. They deserve better, but he is not equipped to know it, nor give it.

To be sure, not everyone has done this. Daniel Nexon and his compatriots deserve honor and recognition for taking seriously (though nonetheless with the requisite amount of skepticism) the idea that religion might be intervening variable in world politics. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has not ignored the importance of religion as a factor. But either out of a misguided effort to protect Muslims from the depredations of bigots or sincere belief in a quasi-Marxist view of religious motivations as a form of false consciousness, analysts seem unwilling to grapple with the problem of religious motivations for terror. For a while, analysts told that the public that Islam was a sideshow and that more secular analyses could explain terrorism, and that terrorism was declining and overstated/exaggerated.

Now, analysts are having to painfully confront the issue of just how much ISIS can draw on the disparate religious traditions and sociological milieu of belief that give it strength and potency. And it goes without saying that predictions of the decline of major organized terrorism of the AQ/ISIS sort or dismissal of them as the “JV Team” greatly exaggerated the death of the patient. Because analysts had exaggerated at best or told noble lies to the public at worst, and done so publicly through mass media fora, they helped lay the groundwork for a wave of reactionary sentiment. Would it have made too much of a difference if they had been more honest and candid? Likely not, for the reasons that Lynch talks about so persuasively. But they nonetheless bear some responsibility for what has happened due to their prominent role in speaking to the media on terrorism and in helping shape the public debate by giving them their talking points. Those talking points now lack much credibility, if at all, and cannot help fight the wave of reactionary sentiment crashing over the US (as it has in Europe).

Again, the burden of an analyst in a time of terror is unenviable. But the public cares for little about that burden or the nuances of an insider consensus. They want simple explanations and contextualizations, and like ISIS’ followers they will take them from anyone that seems prepared to give them. “Do no harm” ought to be the rule. Analysts should repeat the empirically correct proposition that ISIS is anathema to the vast majority of Muslims until the cows come home, but not engage in the no true Scotsman fallacy that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. In an era of media soundbytes and lightning-fast social media, we can only choose one message to send to the world. Repeating both, in addition to making a claim that we cannot justify, waters down the power and impact of the first claim — that the vast majority of Muslims want nothing to do with ISIS and in fact comprise the vast majority of ISIS’ victims. As Hamid said, there is a time and place for apologetics, but apologetics are not equivalent to providing explanations of ISIS’ behavior. Nor are apologetics going to help stop the rise of bigots and the furtherence of fearmongering.

As scholars and analysts of policy we have at best limited power. We must use it wisely by repeating what we know to be true (that ISIS should not taint a religion of a billion people) in the simplest way possible and eschewing the repetition of what we cannot ultimately substantiate (that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam whatsoever). Else, we will merely help the very people we want to thwart achieve their demagogic goals.