Saturday, February 21, 2015

‘What ISIS Really Wants’ — A brief review of Graeme Wood’s Feature Article in the March issue of The Atlantic.

by Ralph H. Sidway

Graeme Wood’s 11,000 word article on the Islamic State hit the blogosphere like a bomb this past week. Thank God.

One of my friends and co-strugglers immediately posted a link to the online edition on his Facebook page. And Robert Spencer over at Jihad Watch posted this stirring assessment of its importance:

This is an extraordinary piece, as it represents one of the first, if not the first, mainstream media acknowledgment that... jihadis use the texts and teachings [of Islam] to justify their actions and make recruits, and make a case that obviously convinces many young Muslims, that they represent the truest and most authentic expression of Islam.

The publication of Mr. Wood’s extremely cogent and informed piece couldn’t be more timely, arriving the same week as the President’s “Summit to Counter Violent Extremism”, whose false premises it ably refutes.  Wood’s work is made all the more compelling through his in depth interviews and face time with ISIS supporters from Australia and Britain, through whom he conveys the supernatural allure, the “pull” which ISIS exerts upon Muslims who begin to buy into its end-times theology. This journalistic aspect of the article balances the analytical, and makes it real for us, putting a human face on ISIS. 

Wood begins with the following sub-title:

The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.

Mr. Wood’s three sentence subtitle is less publishing tag or hook and really more of a thesis statement, and he begins his defense of this thesis by asking a few “simple questions,” the what and where, and the motivation question, showing immediately he is not afraid to assign blame where the facts lead:

...Few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.

Wood sets out to “understand” the idea, the allure of ISIS, and determines fairly early on in his article:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic… the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Beyond this, through his research and his lengthy interviews and face time with dedicated supporters of the Islamic State in both Australia and Britain, Wood discovers that the very nature of the caliphate itself exerts an enormous pull on Muslims:

The caliphate... is not just a political entity but also a vehicle for salvation. Islamic State propaganda regularly reports the pledges of baya’a (allegiance) rolling in from jihadist groups across the Muslim world… The Muslim... who dies without pledging himself to a valid caliph and incurring the obligations of that oath, has failed to live a fully Islamic life…  
After [ISIS leader] Baghdadi’s July sermon [in 2014, announcing openly the caliphate], a stream of jihadists began flowing daily into Syria with renewed motivation.

After his exhaustive and far ranging analysis, he makes a case for supporting “quietist” Salafis, whom he defines as those who believe it is wrong to cause division among the ummah, the Muslim community, and therefore are very reluctant to get involved with politics, pledging allegiance to the principles of Islam, but not to a caliph.

Of course, Wood acknowledges that even quietist Salafis may discern at some point that a caliphate does have divine sanction, and would at that time give it their allegiance. Wood bravely tackles this hypnotic pull of ISIS and the caliphate for Muslims, drawing a surprising parallel with Hitler and Nazism:
In reviewing Mein Kampf in March 1940, George Orwell confessed that he had “never been able to dislike Hitler”; something about the man projected an underdog quality, even when his goals were cowardly or loathsome. “If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon.” The Islamic State’s partisans have much the same allure. They believe that they are personally involved in struggles beyond their own lives, and that merely to be swept up in the drama, on the side of righteousness, is a privilege and a pleasure—especially when it is also a burden. 
Fascism, Orwell continued, is 
“psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life … Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them, “I offer you struggle, danger, and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.” 

Nor, in the case of the Islamic State, its religious or intellectual appeal. That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.

The only hope as a secularist which Graeme Wood can give is that it will be a long, slow struggle against ISIS. But as Christians, we hope for something more decisive, more redemptive. But what does that mean for us? 

From within the living tradition of the Orthodox Christian Church, we have holy and revered recent elders who themselves prophesied that we are nearing the end of this age. Their message to us in our time of such apocalyptic incarnations of bloodthirsty Islamic jihad would be that it is only the faithful living of an authentic Christian life in the Church which imbues us with divine grace sufficient to see us through. 

Keying on the apocalypse, on signs of doom and gloom, are not what we are to be focused on, even though the entire world be engulfed in flames. Christ gives us general signs of His Coming to help us be prepared, telling us to “Watch.” But we are to watch so as to be ready for Him, and we are to persevere in faith and love however long that may be, for 
"He who endures to the end shall be saved." (MT 24:13)

In our age, when “men’s hearts fail them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth” (LK 21:26), it is Jesus Christ Who consoles and strengthens us with the promise of His return:
"Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near." (LK 21:28)

Graeme Wood’s article is definitely one of the most significant contributions to understanding not only Islamic jihad and ISIS, but the apocalyptic dreams of Islam itself, which will continue to convulse Middle East and indeed global politics and events for some time to come. I highly recommend it.