Monday, February 9, 2015

Uh, Yes There Is Such A Thing As Radical Islam

A couple of days ago Dean Obeidallah wrote in The Daily Beast "There's No Such Thing as 'Radical Islam.' There Are Only Terrorists Who Are Muslim.' He writes:
How many Muslims does ISIS have to slaughter before people will stop calling the group “Islamic” anything? Seriously, can someone please tell me the number of innocent Muslim men, women, and children who have to die at the hands of ISIS before people will realize that ISIS is truly unIslamic and arguably anti-Islamic?
This is a problem: as noted in this blog before, liberals like Howard Dean saying "[ The Charlie Hebdo Shooters ] are about as Muslim as I am" just makes it look like liberals either can't face reality or just think that if they put out a belief-staggering argument strongly enough they can make you believe it.

Either way, it's a really bad tactic and leads to a storm of nonsense that prevents some important real conversations from happening. Which real conversations? Well, this one: If the west is at war with radical Islam* (and for reasonable versions of what those words mean, it is) then it is important that we employ theological weapons as well as conventional ones.

In other words: we've got the bombing down, guys. We need to try to kill the idea. This stuff--this Islam-has-NOTHING-to-do-with-it--stuff is not helping that. Why not? Well, while the The Atlantic makes an interesting case that our enemies are entities--not ideas (he compares America fighting the Soviet Union--good, effective--to America angry at communism: McCarthy) The Omnivore doesn't think that's exactly true.

ISIS isn't just an entity--it's a brand. Foreigners are not flowing into the Islamic State in large numbers because they're looking for jobs or want to live in the desert. They're going over there because it's an appealing brand to the right sort of person. What sort of person? Well, The Omnivore is going to give you a chance to, uhm, guess the religion. That's not the whole story but it certainly seems to be part of it, doesn't it?


Now, that's not all there is to it--but the idea that ISIS is a brand and the way you fight a brand is with brand damage. This can come from humiliating them (the link is to an excellent analysis of a YouTube'd video of a collation air-strike that, the author makes the case, was set up and filmed explicitly to make ISIS look like losers. The Omnivore <3's Gary Brecher). It can also come from American Muslims (and, erm, American conservatives--which might be harder in some cases judging from Internet comments on some sites) to join forces in denouncing ISIS as Islamic, yes--but a toxic, degenerate form of Islam. The Omnivore suspects that if American / westernized Muslims acknowledged that the way Islam is practiced in a lot of the world is, in fact, yes pretty contrary to American and western values, that they might be able to gain credibility with American audiences in a way that just denying it while people are getting incinerated alive on TV doesn't.

This is the part of the conversation Obeidallah is trying to shut out.

This Is The Deal: ISIS Is Islamic. They're Just The Worst Vision Of It
The Omnivore thinks this is, or at least should be, fairly noncontroversial. Firstly, the idea that there is "no such thing as Radical Islam" (just Muslims, who are terrorists) doesn't begin to pass the sniff test. Do we consider a fatwa calling for death against Salman Rushide to be something other than terror--or something other than Islam?

Or, uh, do we just kind of sit around and agree that it's not radical? The Omnivore isn't sure which position Obeidallah would take--but none of them seem to get him where he wants to go.

The problem with Obeidallah's position is that it doesn't seem to hold up to any scrutiny whatsoever. If the words 'radical <any religion>' make sense in the English language then, given a spectrum of Islam, some version of it must be an extreme outlier, right? That's just logic. When you look at the messaging position ISIS has staked out, it looks even worse.

Firstly, Obeidallah asks how many Muslims ISIS will need to kill before it's declared un-Islamic? Okay--but religious entities of all sorts, including Muslims, have been killing each other for all time. If that's a disqualifier then is every Muslim nation that has fought any other not Islamic? If we can find one (and we can, easily) that practices Sharia law, how credible is that argument going to be?

Secondly, the way that that ISIS kills people is intentionally abominable.  Certainly that cannot be part of Islam? Unless it turns out it is. Hassan Hassan of the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi writes that ISIS is using a form of Islamic doctrine that requires that continuing war start with a terrifying massacre that will deter the enemy from continuing any aggression. This doctrine, laid out in a Jihadi book, Management of Savagery, is part of ISIS's required reading:
Savagery is at the core of Isis ideology. But it is crucial not to play down that brutal acts have to be justified through sharia texts. Islamic fundamentalism is Isis’s ideology, so to speak, and every act has to be grounded in religious traditions. Muslim clerics who issue a “letter to al-Baghdadi” or a lengthy fatwa to delegitimise Isis miss the mark unless they understand the invigorating nature of this violent ideology. While Isis uses manuals such as Naji’s book, it references religious texts and stories. Muslim clerics should recognise that theoretical fatwas cannot sufficiently counter what I call “kinetic” sharia, consisting of stories and actions carried out by authoritative Muslim figures in early Islam, on which Isis relies heavily to justify its ideology. Statements such as “this hadith is weak” or “it is not permissible to kill prisoners of war” can be backed by religious texts, but how early Muslim leaders acted is similarly powerful, if not more persuasive.
In other words, ISIS is making its case--a case rooted in history and Islamic theology--to counter clerics who cite scripture against it (Obeidallah's article notes that 120 Islamic scholars and clerics have written a letter to ISIS denouncing it. While that's great, thinking it settles the score would be naive: there are probably few if any theological arguments throughout history that have ever been settled thus).

In truth, the fact that ISIS does go to lengths to justify its horrific actions should be seen as de facto evidence that it is an Islamist cause.

Indeed, the Sharia law that it establishes is part and parcel of Islam. Sharia law can range from barbaric to reasonably merciful depending on who is enforcing it and, erm, who it is enforced upon. ISIS is definitely at the more appalling end of the spectrum--but their version is not so far off the charts as to be unrecognizable either (The Omnivore can't source or verify the title graphic--but believes it is at least close to correct. Look at the Saudi Blogger sentenced to 1000 lashes getting 50 a week for 20 weeks).

And finally, while the comfortable, American Dean Obeidallah doesn't think their Islam is anything like his Islam, the question is "How far off is it?"

For example, would Dean happily fly to The Kingdom (Saudi) and . . .  declare himself an apostate? Surely nothing bad would happen to him at the hands of the religion of peace (Penalty for Apostasy: Death). No, huh? Well, that's just Saudi Arabia. How about the rest of the Muslim world? The fact is that by western standards Islamic theocracies are pretty harsh places and a whole lot of the Muslim world justifies some pretty shockingly bad behavior.

Here The Omnivore looks at a Pew Poll of the Muslim world. The best it got to denounce honor killing was 82% (Azerbaijan and Indonesia). In Iraq, though, 88% of respondents said it was okay to kill a Female who committed the offense--but, hey, only 77% agreed in killing the offender if it was a guy. The Omnivore will guess that Dean probably doesn't want to talk about all this--and, to be fair, this is at least as cultural as it is religious (The Omnivore has read that most modern Islamic scholars do come out against honor killings).

However, that elides the greater question: Just how popular is ISIS. ISIS, if it is Islamic, is certainly an extreme form of it. No reasonable person would say that ISIS is a good representation of ISIS--but not representative at all? That's a far harder charge to sustain. USA Today has an article that, even in Jordan, 'many' people back ISIS (these are also Muslims). A poll of European attitudes towards ISIS carried out by ICM found that 16% of French citizens had a positive opinion of ISIS--and 27% in the 18-24 age group. Germany showed 3% to 4%. It was 7% in England.

These are large enough numbers to put to rest the argument that ISIS is simply unrecognizable as an Islamic (Islamist) entity.

What Next?
The Omnivore looks at the necklace-clutching over the Sharia Tribunal opening in Texas. There is a complex and serious set of arguments to be made over how other religions and their 'laws' interact with American laws (both the Judaism and Catholicism have rules that can govern the lives of believers in various ways)--but the fact is that right now The Omnivore thinks that a driver of the concern over it is, at least partially, that frank discussions of the way Islam and Sharia are practiced varies a lot from ISIS to more moderate Muslim nations to how it is practiced in America.

These distinctions are meaningful if hard to discuss--but not having them at all isn't the answer.

* While theories abound about Obama's lack of use of the term 'Radical Islam,' it seems pretty clear to The Omnivore that Obama is practicing a kind of strategic ambiguity in dealing with ISIS. Whatever you may believe about Obama, it is utterly clear that ISIS wants to cast itself as the legitimate Islamic Caliphate in a religious war with the west. By denying them money-shot quotes, Obama makes their life a little harder.

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