Why It Does Not Matter Whether ISIS Is Islamic

Having written the prior piece arguing against the analytical dismisssal of religion, I will now do an apparent about-face. There is little utility in continuing the increasingly circular and ridiculous debate over whether the Islamic State is indeed Islamic. Here are my reasons.

How would we determine if we were right or wrong?

What does it mean to say that ISIS is or isn’t Islamic? Is that a discrete (yes, no) or continuous (gradients of Islam, I guess?) variable. How would we measure ISIS’ Islam-ness? There is no Pope of Islam (TM) that would issue decrees, as the religion has a structural schism between Sunni and Shiite. Jurisprudence and centuries of commentary on text could be used, but this makes the presumption that religion equates to rule-following. Very few people in general have read the major texts of their religion cover-to-cover or keep up with the latest religious commentaries by key scholars. There is also substantial regional variation in how religion, culture, society, and politics intersect. And how to disentangle all of this from non-religious factors? Agnosticism is far more justified than it may seem in this case.

Any explanation that uses religion as a key element has to deal with the problem of how it can deal with the fact that there was no ISIS prior to the Iraq War. There was, however, Islam in some shape or form for centuries. It may be countered, of course, that various passages exist on war and violence but one may also observe that any religion that did not issue some form of legitimation for the use of violence in war and social conflict would not be persuasive to its followers. We know that religion has been necessary for social cooperation and that it has led to and justified social conflict. But there are many other sources of explanation for both, such as warfare itself as a driver of social complexity or more fundamental ideas of fairness and reciprocity as drivers of human cooperation. Religion risks being simply a weak term for the interaction of a host of other factors that we have simply found a convenient aggregate causal variable for, as with “legitimacy” in politics.

In sum, people are far more interested in arguing whether ISIS is or isn’t Islamic than in telling us how we should argue about it and what standards of evidence are valid. It is much simpler to simply pay attention to what ISIS believes themselves to be, for reasons that I will develop over the next two sections.

Is a normative rather than descriptive approach useful?

Shadi Hamid makes another useful point here that I will echo:

But if the goal is to understand ISIS, then I, and other analysts who happen to be Muslim, would be better served by cordoning off our personal assumptions and preferences. What Islam should be and what Islam is actually understood to be by Muslims (including extremist Muslims) are very different things. For scholars of Islamist movements and Islam’s role in politics, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, there should be one overarching objective: to understand and to explain, rather than to make judgments about which interpretations of Islam are correct, or who is or isn’t a “true” Muslim.

To be a religious believer is to assume that a religious text represents a human transcription of a divine imperative, and that religious scholars and teachers are qualified interpreters and mediators that help guide the believer on the correct path. This is an idealized view of religion that everyone that believes takes seriously. It is why monotheistic religions honor scholars capable of the delicate art of hermeneutics, the interpretation of obscure and often highly ambiguous texts. Yet one need only look at the phenomonon of television preachers in the bible belt (as Olivier Roy argued, Islam has its own version of television preachers) to understand that this view is a normative idea of how religion ought to be understood and practiced, not a descriptive one.

The television preacher is a religious entrepreneur rather than a monastic scholar. Creflo Dollar and other prosperity evangelists do not depend on a high degree of education or capacity for rule-following among followers; in fact they count on the exact opposite. Before we dismiss prosperity gospel as a perversion of faith, however, we have to contend with Weber’s argument that it is in fact very old.

What is the operational payoff?

There are broadly two socially valuable roles for the analyst during a situation of terrorism. First, providing a simple explanation that helps guide the public. I have addressed this role at length. However, it is an at best limited role because analysts have a very limited impact on public sentiment and debate. Analysts have a larger role, and a larger responsibility, to provide useful explanation and analysis for policymakers. Policymakers want to understand the genesis of ISIS’ behavior, predict its future behaviors, and kill and capture as many ISIS followers as possible. It is difficult to see how an convoluted determination of how Islamic ISIS may be maximizes the function f(ISIS operatives killed/captured).

It would be one thing if analysts made an argument that understanding the sources of ISIS’ belief and strategy in regards to an idealized vision of what Islam is (e.g, Islam as some sort of higher-order concept that exists above the ability of human minds to modify its content, reception and application) did one of the following:

  1. Provided actionable information on ISIS recruitment or helped understand ISIS recruitment.
  2. Provided actionable information on future ISIS operations or helped understand ISIS operations.
  3. Some variant of 1–2.

In World War II, we employed some of the best social scientists and humanities scholars in America and Europe to understand the sources of Axis strategy so that we could predict, control, and defeat an opponent. So if determinations of whether ISIS’s beliefs about Islam are accurate and appropriate led to 1–3, it would be valid to spend our analytical energies focusing on the coherence and justification for ISIS’ beliefs. But do 1–3 hold?

ISIS is as ISIS does

ISIS is what ISIS believes themselves to be. As simple and reductive as it sounds, paying attention to what ISIS thinks they are satisfies my conditions:

  1. Provided actionable information on ISIS recruitment or helped understand ISIS recruitment. Suggests how ISIS markets itself to potential recruits, provides law enforcement and intelligence agencies with indicators for disrupting plots.
  2. Provided actionable information on future ISIS operations or helped understand ISIS operations. Helps understand how ISIS views its own policy and strategy, potentially leads to actionable predictions of future ISIS operations.

The coherency and justification of ISIS’ beliefs is only relevant if it helps us kill and capture more of them than not taking into account the coherency and justification of their beliefs. I have not seen many persuasive arguments that an answer as to how Islamic ISIS really is — if it is even possible in the first place — maximizes the function f(ISIS operatives killed/captured). Perhaps it may be a valid topic of scholarly debate but the burden is on those who engage in this debate to show that it serves the purpose of policy.