This past March, the Atlantic featured a story by Graeme Wood titled “What ISIS Really Wants,” which Jack Jenkins responded to at ThinkProgress with “What the Atlantic Gets Dangerously Wrong about ISIS and Islam.” Their fight about whether ISIS is Islamic has proliferated with increased strength in social media, especially in the aftermath of the ISIS attacks in Paris on November 13.
Wood says ISIS is driven by Islam. Jenkins believes calling ISIS Islamic is dangerous. He says Wood “glosses over one of the most important components of any faith tradition: interpretation.” This interpretive aspect of religion, in his view, means a literalist view of Islam such as ISIS’s cannot be representative of the Muslim faith.
Wood does not deny that adherents of Islam must interpret their scriptures. In fact, he cites orders given by ISIS leadership to scholars to determine the proper exegesis of the Islamic scriptures. It is clear that ISIS’s literal viewpoint, contrary to what Jenkins asserts, requires just as much interpretation and resolution of conflicting passages as the views of more moderate Muslims. This makes it difficult to find a basis for singling ISIS out as non-Islamic.
Even though Wood gives a thorough account of the Islamic State’s history, proclamations, and geographical requirements for the new caliphate, his focus on the causal connection of Islam driving ISIS has spurred accusations of Islamophobia from many liberal commentators, including Jenkins. Much of this ire and fear has been primed by some, like Sam Harris, who have deliberately singled out Islam as having a scriptural tradition more violent than most any other religion.
The issue, though, is not whether Islam is uniquely violent (which it may be). The core of the matter is that devout adherents of all religions base their actions upon an ideology that includes imaginary and invisible agents who author holy, infallible instruction books. Because those books are inconsistent, vague, and contradictory, all adherents must apply interpretation and selective blindness to arrive at their theologies, ISIS included.
No adherent of any theistic religion can claim their interpretation is better than another’s, nor can they claim another’s interpretation is not true religion merely because it is more literal. The only arbiter of these interpretations is some subjective inner voice (the believer’s or God’s) telling them that their view is the right one. This, to some extent, was Wood’s point. If some Muslims are moderates because of their kinder, more benevolent interpretation of the Koran, who is to say that their beliefs are closer to the true Islam than the beliefs of ISIS, which are based on a crueler, more literal interpretation? There is no way to determine which is the true superstition. Jenkins’s insistence to the contrary appears entirely arbitrary.
The jihadist problems the world faces today cannot be solved by wishfully trying to distinguish ISIS’s motivations as non-Islamic. ISIS distinguishes itself by violating humanity and human rights. It differs from moderate Muslims by egregiously scorning human welfare and the common good. But ISIS comes to these inhumane acts through scriptural interpretation. To defeat them, we need to understand their scriptural motivations.
It is true that their motivations, being religious in essence, do sully the image that religion is always a bulwark against immorality, but to protect religion’s reputation to the detriment of effectively defeating an inhumane and cruel organization is perverse. Compassion for humanity is the antithesis of ISIS’s motivation and reason tells us we must understand the religious underpinnings in order to defeat the radical terrorist group.
We must give reason and compassion priority over protecting the desired peaceful name of religion. These values cannot be made subservient to protecting sensibilities when the result is continued atrocities. If some interpret their scriptures in a manner consistent with common good and human welfare, fine. But, if those like ISIS have interpretations leading them to destroy lives and impose injustice, religion cannot be denied as the motivation. Humanists as well as theists should stand up and say reason and compassion trump religion.