I discussed yesterday what I referred to as the scourge of verbalism when it comes to what we call ISIS, al Qaida, their various subsidiaries, franchises or whatever else. I wanted to flag your attention to this new piece by J.J. Goldberg in The Forward. It is definitely on the verbalist side of the divide. But it’s also the best version of the argument I’ve seen. I would not even say that I disagree with it in its particulars. I read through it and I find myself saying, yes, yes, yes, that yes, this yes.
But on the global point, we’re arguing here with strawmen and making a grand battle over something that simply pales in comparison to anything that actually matters in terms of combating ISIS or virtually anything else. Is there someone out there who thinks that ISIS’s core recruits don’t think they’re involved in a religious war or pursuing a purified form of Islam, in fact the only true version of Islam? Who is this person? Is anyone shocked or have their basic strategic perspective shaken up by the thought that the jihadis who run ISIS think they’re trying to push forward an eschatological endtime?
In the much-discussed Graeme Wood piece in The Atlantic, Wood writes: “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” Now, is there someone out there who thinks that ISIS is like the early Nation of Islam, a purportedly Muslim sect which in fact had only a fragmentary grasp of what orthodox Islam was and had various other ideas about evil white scientists and space ships? I’m not trying to be funny. The Wood piece is a fascinating read. But did someone read this and think, Damn, these ISIS folks are really hardcore and they are seriously into Islam! It’s a fascinating read but that is because it showed me in more detail what I knew before mainly in generality. And I think that is the case for almost anyone who’s been paying even relatively close attention to the news about ISIS over the last year.
There is also a strong thread running through Wood’s piece which suggests that this is the true, unalloyed Islam. As I said, earlier, for those of us who operate in history as opposed to under the aegis of eternity, religions have little in the way of essence. I think there are good historical arguments that this is a deviation within Islam. But Islam is what Muslims do. Same with Christianity and Judaism and Hinduism and every other faith. Before the Saudi family took over Arabia and then had the amazing good fortune of finding an epochal motherlode of oil, Islam was quite different. Things change. For all practical purposes, Islam is what Muslims do.
So, Yes, they’re totally gung-ho about Islam, as they understand it. They’re really violent and perpetuate barbaric cruelties. There’s no negotiating with them like rational acting states or even nationalist movements that perpetuate terrible acts of terrorism but which nevertheless have concrete goals over which some discussion might be possible. But I think we know this. Presumably this is why we’re bombing them constantly and have been for months.
If President Obama were talking about reaching out to ‘moderate elements’ within ISIS or finding ways to accommodate them I might join people in thinking, ‘Hmmm, I think we may be fashioning policies around flawed premises.’ But we are not seeing anything like that.
For the people who are really exercised about this I think they imagine (or want to imagine? Not sure), Obama as some sort of latter-day Braveheart with flowing hair and clanking armor turning his horse before his assembled horde of blue-paint smeared warriors, hairy and wild, and instead of delivering the expected primal YARRRRRRR! against England starts talking about the need to combat the ethnic group in the lower half of the island of Britain which was formally annexed by Rome, later settled by the Saxons, has developed over almost a millennium ineradicably distinct folkways and culture, and must not be allowed to dominate the native Celtic community in the northern part of the Island. And you see the warriors looking around crestfallen and confused, maybe here and there, with an uncertain ‘yar?’
You can sort of imagine Monty Python in its prime playing out the scene almost to perfection.
Rhetoric is important. Important in general, important in a leader. For my money, one of Obama’s best qualities as a president is his steadiness, his lack of drama, both in the lack of drama emerging out of his inner circle and his steadiness, unruffledness in the face of new challenges. We had a man who was big on drama and announcing ‘we’re all …’ this or that new national group every few days who the country could have elected back in 2008 and we did not. Having said all this, there are of course pluses and minuses to this style of leadership. And perhaps when it comes to war cries, it is a limitation. I fully recognize the legitimacy of this point. I do not believe that kind of inspirational or more emotional leadership requires a specific focus on Islam.
I think Fareed Zakaria has the much better part of this argument. President Obama is not running a seminar on Islamic theology or the Rashidun period of Muslim history. He is trying to forge a broad coalition which necessarily must involve, must have at its forefront, countries made up overwhelmingly of Muslims. At least in the abstract that is a decent reason for avoiding approaches which tend to portray the clash or can be portrayed as a clash between Islam and the West. Whether the execution is right, I’m genuinely not sure. But even beyond those who are simply trying to score domestic political points – and I fully grant that’s not everyone – I have yet to see any actual argument about why this matter of word choice has any practical effect beyond a kind of righteous self-expression. In the absence of that, the plausible arguments for its benefits seem more than worth considering.