What ISIS really wants

If you only read one epic, exhaustive essay on the religious ideology behind ISIS, let it be this one from The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood:

The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/02/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

Know your enemy…

 

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Islam, terrorism, and the Westboro Baptists

I’ve been trying to steer clear of references to the Westboro Baptist Church because it does get dragged out as the half-baked Christian equivalent of “Islamic extremism”. But in replying to comments on my latest article at MercatorNet, I think the comparison is apt:

Why have Muslims not spoken out in criticism of terrorists who give Islam a bad name? That’s a very good question, and a very complicated question, because – as I’ve been suggesting – Islam is diverse and complicated.

I’m sure we can agree that some Muslims have criticised the terrorists. You don’t have to search far on the web to find examples. Why do these criticisms not seem sufficient? Perhaps because we do not understand the situation well enough? Perhaps we imagine that if all the Muslims stood up and protested against terrorism, it would end?

And I can appreciate your point, given that we have never seen worldwide protests by Muslims against the Jihadists. Hence the suspicion that they are secretly sympathetic to the Jihadists’ aims.

However, my suspicion is that for the majority of Muslims, Western perceptions of Islam are not as salient as they are for us. Let me offer an analogy: when the Westboro Baptist Church appears on the tv news in Australia, I find that people without much understanding of Christianity interpret it as merely the worst instance of fundamentalist Christian insanity in the US, and the onus is on other Christians to disavow them and their declarations of animosity toward homosexuality.

Actual Christians tend to respond differently – not with expressions of contempt and criticism for the WBC, but with criticism and contempt for the media, for presenting the WBC as though they are anything more than a bizarre little fringe group. In other words, they don’t blame the WBC for giving Christians a bad name, they blame the media for being so ignorant as to portray the WBC as Christians. They actually think the media reports of the WBC are indicative of deeper anti-Christian sentiment.

So when someone asks a Catholic, for example, “do you think ‘God hates fags'”? The answer is of course “no.” But then the follow-up question is something like “so you’re in favour of same-sex marriage then?” and the answer is “no” again; leaving some people with the impression that Catholics really do think that God hates homosexuals, they just don’t have the guts or the brazenness to admit it openly like the WBC and other such groups.

Very few people are willing or able to get involved in the more complex philosophical or theological discussion that goes to the heart of distinctions between different Christian denominations and their attitudes to homosexuality.

What I’m interested in is the detailed and complex discussions that take place within Islam; because I’m not content to persist with superficial dichotomies that don’t reward us with real understanding of the situation.

I suspect, but am yet to verify, that for many Muslims the equation of terrorism with Islam is primarily the preoccupation of Westerners who have from the outset only a dim understanding of Islam, and who view Jihadism as only the most extreme reflection of ubiquitous Islamic sentiments. We’re effectively saying “I think you’re all terrorists at heart; can you prove you’re not?”

The fact is that like the Catholic/WBC example, we may find the truth is not to our liking anyway. We probably don’t want to hear from various branches of Islam that: no, they do not support terrorism, but at the same time they do view our society as godless, decadent, and ultimately destined to convert or collapse. How well do you think that would go over?

Most Islamic nations have far bigger problems on their hands than bad press in the West. In that sense I’m not surprised that ordinary Muslims around the globe do not try harder to reassure us they do not support Salafi Jihadists.

Islam and violence: how stupid are we really?

My latest piece on MercatorNet is inspired by our collective ignorance of a religion that has, one might think, been of some significance to Western societies for the past decade or so. Our endless debates about Islam and terrorism are a little like debating the bellicosity of ‘Orientals’ at the turn of the 19th Century:

If only we took the time and the effort to get past our basic ignorance, we would find that the term ‘Islam’ does not refer to a single homogenous thing. ‘Islam’ refers to more than one thing, and our consternation and confusion arises from continuing to debate the matter without settling on a true definition.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/islam_and_violence_how_not_to_answer_a_question

Blaming Charlie Hebdo

It surprised me how keen some people have been to point out that the staff of Charlie Hebdo contributed to their own deaths. Not that they are responsible, mind you. No, of course the murderers are responsible for their actions. Nor would we say they quite ‘brought it upon themselves’, I suppose, just that…well if they hadn’t published such gratuitously offensive cartoons they might be alive today.

The more I think about it, the more this observation seems so utterly trivial. Yes, the victims of the crime acted in a way that provided motive to their killers. It would have been astounding if they hadn’t.

What is going on here? Are we so accustomed to ‘random acts of terror’ that we jump at the chance to identify the non-random nature of this massacre? Are we so deeply impressed by the long-standing notion that ‘they hate us for who we are’, we cannot help but get excited when it seems, for once, that they might hate us for what we do? Better still, that they hate someone else for something they did that I don’t particularly like or agree with either?

This is called having sympathy for the perpetrators, and as shocking as that may sound, it is not entirely unnatural or unwarranted. The killers didn’t like their religion being mocked; well I don’t like my religion being mocked. The killers weren’t impressed by crude and offensive satire; well who is impressed by crude and offensive satire? Of course we do not share the terrorists’ murderous intent and we must decry their despicable actions; this is not a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, so the best I can do is just sit back and helpfully point out that perhaps if they hadn’t been so gratuitious and offensive and blasphemous, well perhaps they would still be alive today?

The commentary I’ve read seems to be divided into two camps: “I am Charlie Hebdo”, and “I most certainly am not”. The reality is that most of us are not Charlie Hebdo. Charlie Hebdo is an ideologically driven publication with extreme anti-religious and anti-establishment political views. Its staff were not merely satirists with a crude sense of humour, like an off-colour version of ‘The Onion’. They were left-wing radicals, of an ideological stripe once viewed with trepidation across Europe.

But to stand in solidarity with the victims of the massacre is to nonetheless recognise that some expressions of extreme ideology are more tolerable than others. We can tolerate nasty cartoons. We can’t tolerate massacres.

The distinction between tolerance and support may be lost on many who take up the “I am Charlie” theme and view recent events as a more generic conflict between terrorists and cartoonists. But the distinction is equally lost on those who feel compelled to point out instead that the massacre would never have happened if the magazine had not engaged in such puerile and offensive satire in the first place.

This is, I think, an instance of allowing disdain for Charlie Hebdo to override and distort the broader context. After all, though disdain for crude anti-religious satire brings us into sympathy with the perpetrators, this sympathy is incidental to their deeper ideological perspective. Some have charged that Charlie Hebdo were performing a role akin to agents provocateur, yet such a charge implies that provocation is the driving force behind these terrorist acts. It might be more accurate, given the nature of Salafi Jihadism, to view Charlie Hebdo as canaries in the coal mine – the first, most obvious target in a broader campaign to impose a Salafist ideology by force.

It has become something of a cliche in conservative circles to say to the more outrageous and offensive critics of Christianity “you would not dare to thus offend Islam”. Charlie Hebdo did not discriminate in its offensive anti-religious propaganda, yet now the response is “they brought it upon themselves”. One might be forgiven for thinking that some Christian critics of Charlie Hebdo perceive natural justice at work in the massacre.

Aside from pointing out cowardice and double-standards among certain critics of Christianity, there is something unworthy of Christian Charity in the subtext “You’re lucky we’re not the type to go around killing blasphemers!” Likewise, if our disdain for offensive satire causes us to turn a blind eye to the moral agency of the Salafi Jihadists, then we are letting our sympathies rule not only our reason but our better nature.

Like it or not, offensive satire is part of the French political and journalistic landscape, while terror and massacres have not been for quite some time. There are excellent ethical bases for not intentionally offending the religious beliefs of others; an appeal to consequences is perhaps the lowest of these. Taking the massacres first and foremost as an opportunity to vindicate a consequentialist position against blasphemy is a pretty dismal offering from conservative Christian quarters.

Challenging Radical Islam

First Things has an excellent article on the inner divisions and conflicts within Islam, the heretical aspects of the contemporary Jihadist groups, and the failure of many in the West to truly engage with Muslims as moral agents:

We need to strongly resist the view that Islam is the problem, that the Qur’an is the problem, that Muhammad is the problem. To denounce Islam as a death-loving religion—or the Qur’an and Muhammad as a constitution and example, respectively, for terrorists—provides excuses for twisted zealots. It reinforces their deluded belief that they and only they are the true Muslims. Moreover, it inspires fear and mistrust among the great majority of Muslims, who are not jihadists. If the Qur’an and Islam are the problems, what is the solution? Drop bombs on the Ka’bah in Mecca? Ban the use of the Qur’an?

Those who argue that jihadi groups represent the “essence” of Islam actually reflect a very Western way of thinking. Wittingly or unwittingly, they presume a scripturalist interpretation of Islam, imagining that we can explain Islamic terrorism by drawing a straight line between authoritative texts and the actions of jihadists. To prove their point, these Islam-is-the-problem critics tend to link specific acts of jihadi groups to a string of references from Islamic scripture, traditions, legal texts, and Muslim scholarly opinions. Perversely, this sola scriptura approach is no different from the jihadists’ own “Qur’an and sunna alone” approach.

http://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/01/challenging-radical-islam

Blame and provocation

Throwcase in fully-serious mode has published a thoughtful and important reflection on the Charlie Hebdo massacre:

http://throwcase.com/2015/01/08/the-extremist-tail-wagging-the-whole-pig/

In some sense it is thoughtful where it shouldn’t have to be; ideally we wouldn’t have to think through exactly what is wrong with a situation where people are being murdered for drawing offensive cartoons – or more to the point, where murdered cartoonists are being blamed for bringing it on themselves.

The ‘blame the victim’ attitudes are indeed shameful. At the same time I can’t help but feel we’re missing the greater significance of this event. Or maybe I’m the only one who’s missing it?

From what I’ve seen of Charlie Hebdo satire, it was pretty crude and intentionally provocative. Islam aside, I think many Catholics would find the cartoon of Pope Benedict holding aloft a condom and uttering the words of consecration deeply offensive or simply puerile and contemptible.

Whether the publishers were trying to make a greater point about Islam through their satire, or simply carving out a niche and hoping to sell more issues (though this may be unlikely given the nature of the threat), the greater point is significant: when there exists a subset of Muslims who will respond to crude satire with murder, it is not enough to say “don’t provoke them”.

‘Provoke’ comes from the Latin provocare meaning ‘to challenge, to call forth’. In that sense it is true, their satire did call forth the violence; but more importantly I think their work was a challenge to the state and their compatriots to recognise that the existence of such a murderous ideology in the heart of a liberal nation is ultimately untenable.

In that sense “don’t provoke them” is a response that shamefully sees some measure of justice or natural law in these attacks, as though violent Islamic sects are just a part of life, like wild animals or bushfires.

Our focus should not be on the actions of the victims, but on the disturbing fact that the members of certain Islamic sects are willing to kill (and often to be killed) for the sake of offences that the vast majority of people would deem at most upsetting, and at least completely trivial.

Australia’s complex multi-culture

My latest article at Eureka Street examines the complexities of Australia’s multiple cultures, and the challenge of cultivating overarching, common values across society.

I wrote this piece some time ago, but news of the siege in Sydney broke just as it was about to be published. We can only hope and pray the siege ends peacefully.

Anyone who happens to live outside the predominant football and cricket cultures can attest that culture clash, exclusion, and alienation can be equally powerful within ethnic boundaries. It may seem petty to compare social and sporting interests to the divisions between different ethnicities, but we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of these phenomena. It is not hyperbole to refer to Australia’s drinking culture, barbecue culture, beach culture, business culture, consumer culture, and so on. We can quite often have more in common with people from different religious and ethnic groups than with people from our own ethnicity whose lifestyles and interests are totally divergent.

http://eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=42405#.VI4-qHs2YTw