ISIS and Jewish Experience: A Reaction to Atlantic

You don’t need me to tell you that Graeme Wood’s 10,000 word treatment of ISIS in the March Atlantic may prove to be a game-changer. Hard-hitting, detailed, well-researched, it is going to be a lightning rod for commentary and debate. And frum Jews will comprehend it a bit better than most.

No one outdoes the President in misunderstanding ISIS. He did it again today at a high-level three day conference on global terrorism. The folks at ISIS “are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists,” he said. Nothing, says Wood, could be further from the truth. ISIS is all about religion, and a religious leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who has assumed a role not seen in many centuries.

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

In other words, the language, aspirations, traditions of Islam saturate the soil over which the blood of those executed daily flows. Westerners don’t get, not just because they are into Pollyanna beliefs, but because they don’t take religion very seriously themselves. They don’t have a spiritual context in which to comprehend what animates ISIS’ devotees.

In the past, Westerners who accused Muslims of blindly following ancient scriptures came to deserved grief from academics…who pointed out that calling Muslims “ancient” was usually just another way to denigrate them. Look instead, these scholars urged, to the conditions in which these ideologies arose—the bad governance, the shifting social mores….Without acknowledgment of these factors, no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.

The President and others can refer to ISIS as a perversion of Islam – but one man’s perversion is another’s passport to Heaven. Lots of Christians bemoan the commercialization of Christmas, as Jews do the same about Chanukah. It would be foolish, however, to argue that however they are celebrated or misappropriated, that they have nothing to do with Christianity or Judaism.

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition….” Haykel…regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

What makes ISIS different – radically different from Al-Qaeda – is territory. ISIS has revived the caliphate, and in a form that has not been seen in centuries.
Before the caliphate, “maybe 85 percent of the Sharia was absent from our lives. These laws are in abeyance until we have khilafa”—a caliphate—“and now we have one.” Without a caliphate, for example, individual vigilantes are not obliged to amputate the hands of thieves they catch in the act. But create a caliphate, and this law, along with a huge body of other jurisprudence, suddenly awakens.

Achieving the caliphate is thus the fulfillment of centuries-long yearning of Muslims. And it is not just because the fullness of Islamic law can now be experienced, but because this return is a necessary precursor to the apocalypse and the subsequent era of universal salvation under Islam that will follow.

Heady stuff. More attractive to genuine believers than the promise of 70 burqas after detonating the suicide belt. If we fail to understand its power, its sources, and its weaknesses, we’re cooked. If we do understand, we may have a shot at allowing the caliphate to self-immolate through overheated zeal.

The Administration gives no indication of getting this, and every indication that it is looking for the wrong solutions in the wrong places. Here is where genuinely observant Jews – and, for that matter, serious practitioners of other faiths – can comprehend what the President cannot. We understand that religious faith is far more potent than others can believe, and can be expressed both positively and destructively. In particular, we groaned for decades as the nay-sayers in the Jewish establishment attributed the growing numbers of baalei teshuvah to nothing more than a sense of anomie in a changing world, and the subsequent search for stability though a community with rigid laws and expectations. Those of us who heard – and continue to hear – the amazing stories of people moving mountains to respond to the stirrings of the Jewish soul always knew that the Establishment was not only wrong, but wallowing in the bitter wine of their sour grapes.

Alas, we know this so well that some will be momentarily stunned by the description above. Some of it sounds familiar. Too familiar. Substitute a few Hebrew terms for some of the others, and you begin to see familiar phrases.

But no one should be taken aback more than momentarily, unless he is the President who got it wrong last week as well, when he implicitly compared the excesses of ISIS to Christian savagery during the Crusades. His point was that it could – and often did – happen to anyone.

The author missed a crucial point, one that we need to grasp firmly as frum Jews so that the sound-bites in the paragraphs above no longer haunt us.
It is true that both Christians and Jews have bred extremists and extremism. Where we are today, however, is in a place so different from Islam that any comparison is indeed obscene. Each religion possesses tools to contain the extremism, even if imperfectly.

Jews have a Torah she-b’al peh, an oral interpretive tradition. While parts of the Bible appear harsh to the external skeptic, they look very different when seen through the lens of Chazal. There is no literal eye-for-an-eye. We didn’t stone sinners unless they literally asked for it before the commission of the crime. Every line of Scripture takes on new meaning after the Sages get through with it, and frum Jews never read text without the guidance of Chazal. In the minds of many of us, we still have a problem with extremism, but nothing comparable to what Muslims have. Our interpretive tradition places some limits on the unseemly. While some of our chevra might be removing heads, they do so only digitally to women’s images, but never, ever detach heads from bodies.

Christians do not have this tradition, but they possess a different tool. They can and do simply walk away from the past. Speak about the vile, hate-infested language of one of the Church’s premier anti-Semites, St. John Chrysostom, and you will not get a rise out of many a serious Christian. You may get sympathy – but not defensiveness or white-washing. What you will usually hear is that it was awful for Chrysostom to say it; people fought with different weapons back then. Most importantly, you will hear something like, “He and others may have believed that. We don’t any longer.”

Varieties of Islam, however, possess neither of these tools. The past – the practices of Mohammed and his friends – are seen as the best possible way to live. And many Muslims understand those practices literally, without an interpretive tradition that might soften them or allegorize them. (Interestingly, Islam once did have such a tradition. But it doesn’t count for much among the Salafis.)

Islam may develop those tools in time – if it doesn’t first submerge the world in a tidal wave of murder and mayhem. The important distinction is that the other monotheistic religions have coping mechanisms, while major brands of Islam do not.

Wood’s prescription for dealing with ISIS struck me as disappointing, at least in the light of Jewish experience.

There is, however, another strand of Islam that offers a hard-line alternative to the Islamic State—just as uncompromising, but with opposite conclusions. This strand has proved appealing to many Muslims cursed or blessed with a psychological longing to see every jot and tittle of the holy texts implemented as they were in the earliest days of Islam…. They are, as Haykel notes, committed to expanding Dar al-Islam, the land of Islam, even, perhaps, with the implementation of monstrous practices such as slavery and amputation—but at some future point. Their first priority is personal purification and religious observance, and they believe anything that thwarts those goals—such as causing war or unrest that would disrupt lives and prayer and scholarship—is forbidden.

Wood hopes that this version of Islam might successfully compete with that of ISIS. That is not so likely. Stand two versions side by side. One offers Kalashnikovs, adventure, and looking death in the face. The other wants adherents to concentrate on their inner selves. There is no contest.

Lehavdil, we’ve been there. The 19th century saw the flowering of different ways of dealing with modernity. Two of the most important were chassidus and mussar. Many of us cerebral, Litvish types greatly preferred the latter. But mussar, for all its beauty and continued impact and relevance, never had a chance at becoming a truly mass movement. It was wonderful for the few, but too difficult for the many. Working on the inner person never proved to be as exciting to the masses as working on the neshamah together with singing, loud spirited davening, charismatic authority figures, special garb, and a sense of community and camaraderie. Without implying any resemblance between our communities, if we had to apply the raw lesson of history to the Muslim present, we would put our money on Baghdadi.

The magisterial article, then, provides us with some insight, some vindication of past attitudes, but little to be optimistic about. We can’t find a way out of this, other than rachamei Shomayim.

Which may not be such a bad thing.

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19 Responses

  1. Shimon Chaim Ben Michael says:

    I’m currently reading the ISIS article and am glad to have your comments in mind as I continue. I can’t help but wonder at your conclusion, however. Are you suggesting that we do nothing? Should we simply put up our hands and say “It’s in G-d’s hands; there’s nothing for me to do!”? Is that what Avraham Avinu did when faced with catastrophic famine? Certainly our response to any crisis should be a strengthening in our avodat Hashem and we should always bear in mind that everything boils down to G-d’s will. But surely we should also remember that G-d’s will requires us to act, to try to “find a way out of this”. Amalek won’t erase itself. In doing so, may we grow spiritually and positively. Chodesh tov.

    [YA – No, of course not. I was not advocating quietism. I was merely reacting against the author’s suggestion that he had a novel idea that might work, which an Administration unwilling to look at the religious roots of the problem won’t entertain. His solution, I believe, has less merit than we would like. The author agrees that the current policy of half-hearted military intervention may be imperfect, but the best we can do – besides his suggestion of bolstering a shitas yotzei dofen within Salafism.]

  2. Moshe Shoshan says:

    This article while correctly pointing to the great differences between Islam and Judasim ignores the significant parallel’s between Islamism and Charedeism, especially in the Israeli variety. Most devout muslims are not violent Islamists, just as most chardim are not “kanoyim” “mechablim” or “sonim”. But in both cases the mainstream community consistently fails to take a strong stand stand against the radicals and expel them from their broader communities. They will not join forces with those outside their community to take on the cancer with in. Both in both the charedi and devout muslim community, there is a very strong strand of rejection ism of Western culture, not just is materialism and secularism, but of liberal values like democracy and indeed science itself. In both cases excessive concern with tznius has lead to oppression of women and even misogyny in some quarters. We see “modesty squads” seeking to control the not only public behavior but public discourse. The list goes on. Here in beit shemesh, it is moderate charedim that use the term “Talibanization” to describe what has happened since the charedi world declared a holy war to re-elct abutbol, who has given free reign to the kanoyim. Charedim are thank God not nearly as violent as islamists, but here in Israel, from Ponovitch, to meah shearim, internal and external disputes regularly devolve into violent confrontations. The charedi world ignores these parallels at their own (and the rest of kalal yisroel’s) risk.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    What President Obama says about ISIS, Iran, or any Muslim group is pure disinformation. He is not oblivious of their beliefs and aims.

  4. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I am afraid that due to the general lack of ability of most people to read a long article and stay focused, the original 10,000-word article in the Atlantic will not be the game-changer that it ought to be. More’s the pity. I only wish I had the staying power to learn through the equivalent amount of Torah content in one piece. But I heartily recommend the article to those who have the sitzfleish for it.

  5. Shades of Gray says:

    “What you will usually hear is that it was awful for Chrysostom to say it; people fought with different weapons back then”

    R. Adlerstein elaborated on this in the article about Noah Feldman’s NYT article(“Feldman’s Folly (Part One)”, July 07):

    “… A question arose about John Chrysostom, the fourth century Church Father who put the charge of deicide on the map, and whose vitriol against Jews was surpassed by none, and embraced for centuries thereafter, including by the Nazis. Chrysostom remains a Saint in the Church, and many Jews get unhinged by the mention of his name. The priest, however, was completely unfazed by the question, and calmly related that in the fourth century the Church was fighing for survival, and felt very pressured by Judaism, and therefore used language and methods that contemporary Christians completely reject. Essentially, he said, “that’s the way we once behaved, regrettably. We’ve moved on since then.”

  6. DF says:

    Could be the most important thing you’ve ever posted here.

  7. Bruce says:

    One footnote to your addendum.

    Christian primary texts — the books of the Christian Bible — emphasize love and passivity. The pshat of “Turn the other check” and “love your neighbor” (I know, it is from Leviticus, but repeated and emphasized in Matthew and Mark) do not result in murder or hate. There is a whole of of intermediate non-textual reasoning that sits between the two. Christians can simply reject that intermediate reasoning, and in doing so can properly claim fidelity to the original texts. (Anti-semitism gets a little more complicated, given the accounts of Jesus’s death.)

    Thus, a Christian fundamentalist extremist is much more likely to be a complete passivist than a murdering terrorist.

  8. Charlie Hall says:

    “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war. ”

    George W. Bush, September 17, 2001.

  9. Charlie Hall says:

    Regardless of what you think of Obama’s statements, he now has nine Arab Muslim governments, plus the Kurds, actively fighting Islamic State at the moment. That is more than George Herbert Walker Bush got to fight Saddam Hussein in the first Persian Gulf War. And he has managed this by keeping the rhetoric down. Had he done what a lot of his political enemies wanted, and made this a Holy War against Islam, those countries might be fighting the US rather than IS.

  10. Mr. Cohen says:

    I intend to publicize this article on other web sites, blee neder.

    Not that I think it will do any good, but I feel obligated to TRY.

  11. ben dov says:

    “…Westerners don’t get, not just because they are into Pollyanna beliefs, but because they don’t take religion very seriously themselves.”

    I differ. Were terrorism being committed in the name of Christianity or Judaism, religion would be blamed. Those who give Islam a pass are tough on the West, not soft on relgion per se.

  12. Raymond says:

    The way somebody once explained all this to me, is as follows. The adherents to any given religion or ideology, tend to be reflections of the founders of that religion/ideology. So for example, Abraham challenged the status quo and was known for his home hospitality, Isaac had tremendous self discipline and was the keeper of the flame of Jewish traditions started by his father, Jacob was committed to the truth and Torah study, and Moses emphasized the importance of Jewish law. All of these traits just mentioned, are abundant among our Jewish people.

    Now compare this with the founders of Christianity and Islam, respectively. Us Jews have no reason to have any particular respect for Jesus, but at least it can safely be said, that he was not a violent man. He even went so far as to tell his followers to turn the other cheek. And so when Christians have acted violently in past centuries, it was not because of Christianity, as much as it was in spite of Christianity.

    But now compare this to the founder of Islam. The Rambam was extremely committed to the truth of things, and went out of his way to be very precise in how he expressed himself, so it speaks worlds that he referred to Mohammed as the Crazy One. Mohammed was not one to turn his other cheek. On the contrary, he ordered his followers to murder anybody who refused to convert to Islam. His special target were the Jews. He ordered his followers to look under ever rock and tree, to find Jews and kill them. So it is actually not accurate to call moslem terrorists extreme. On the contrary, they are practicing normative Islam. It is the few peaceful moslems, who are going against the teachings of their crazy founder Mohammed.

  13. dovid2 says:

    Obama is prepared to consent to any Iranian demands in exchange for Iran doing the fighting with ISIS. Obama sees Iran as a lesser evil than ISIS, just the Europeans and the Church (Catholic and Protestant) saw Hitler as a lesser evil than the Bolsheviks and were willing to look the other way when faced with the atrocities committed by the Nazis. When the Nazis turned against them as well, it was too late to stop them. In Obama’s case, one outcome of his policies if Gd forbid they are carried out and are successful, is the destruction of Israel, an outcome that Obama would blissfully countenance. And just the Nazis didn’t bring the Bolsheviks to their knees, nor will the Iranians bring ISIS to its knees.

  14. dovid2 says:

    Raymond writes: ” … so when Christians have acted violently in past centuries, it was not because of Christianity, as much as it was in spite of Christianity.”

    False. The atrocities and all the acts of violence that the Christians carried out against Jews were based on the Christian doctrine which Christians carried out with great zeal and fervor. Here is an illustration of Christian doctrine with regards to Jews: Monsignor Tiso, a Roman Catholic priest, who ruled Slovakia during WWII was approached by Rabbi Michoel Weismandel to save innocent Jewish children from deportation to the death camps. Tiso refused. He said there is no such a thing as an innocent Jewish child.

    BTW, can you give some illustrations of Christians turning the other cheek, short of situations when they didn’t have the means to retaliate?

  15. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    One of my rabbeim says that ISIS is not so bad. Because of ISIS all sorts of terrorists are killing each other while civilized people have compunctions about killing them.

  16. Reb Yid says:

    I nearly fell out of my chair last week when I saw Hamas condemn the latest ISIS atrocities.

  17. David Z says:

    While I tend to agree with a Raymond (and R’ Ad;erstein) point fo view, I would love to hear responses to Charlie Hall and Bob Miller because they have interesting points.

    As to the article, thank you R’ Adlerstein–amazing stuff. Analogies to Judaism are difficult because Islam is so rooted in violence (Judaism’ violent epoch was literally geographically and temporally contained–it could not expand beyond erets yisrael and the inhabitants thereof [plus amalek]). This is a huge difference between Judaism and Islam (and even Christianity) who want to convert/conquer the world, even in “mainstream” non-violent denominations.

    But that said, maybe the khasidim could be likened to the moderate Sufis. Of course even Sufism has its violent extremists. SAo maybe mix of moderate Salafism and moderate Sufism could do the trick. But that’s not something outsiders can really do, except through prayer, so ‘m nto even sure what the author intended with his “solution.”

    And getting back to the analogy/difference between Judaism and Islam, as I understand it (and I may even have learned part of this from R’ Adlerstein), the big difference is the Halakhic Process. Islam has no equivalent. Aside from the Medieval Sunni/Shia divide, there are multiple “schools” within Islam as to how to interpret Sharia. And they are all “legitimate” and can be called upon at any time. In contrast, while we certainly have our (at least apparent) execrable rabbinic positions over the past 2,500 years, none of them have survived the Halakhic Process whereby there develops basically one or two legitimate ways of living a certain halakha accepted by k’lal yisrael. Although people decry the homogeneity (and splinters like Conservative will try to revive “dead” opinions for their current fads), the benefit of this is that nobody’s going to be bringing back opinions rejected for their failure to follow d’rakheha darkhe noam. (To give one of the most extreme examples, nobody cites the ro”sh that we should cut off a woman’s nose if she marries a non-Jew and becomes pregnant (shu”t haro”sh 18:13). And there are many more.) ON the contrary, Islam has no such concept and extreme violence is equally legitimate for that reason. At lats this is my understanding.

  18. dovid2 says:

    David Z, you want to hear a response to Charlie Hall’s point because you found it interesting. It’s not. Just pro-Obama propaganda. He voted twice for Obama and takes pride in it. Before Obama, the Arabs feared the US. With Obama, both the Sunni and Shia Muslim countries loathe and despise Obama and the US. Charlie Hall recites Obama’s lines that “… he [Obama] now has nine Arab Muslim governments, plus the Kurds, actively fighting Islamic State at the moment.” Saudi Arabia is barely in speaking terms with Obama. Egypt totally ignores Obama. The Saudis, Egyptians, and Kurds fight ISIS not because of Obama, but despite Obama. Kurds who fight for their survival, got no support from the US in guns, money, and political support. Little Israel gave them more support than Obama. The Saudis are organizing a local commonwealth relying on Egypt for military prowess and paying for it out of their coffers, totally leaving out Obama and Kerry. They regard both of them impotent and clueless. And for compelling reasons. No one, absolutely no one in the Middle East takes these to characters seriously.

  19. One Christian's Perspective says:

    My heart is truly saddened by evil deeds committed in the name of Christianity.

    As a young person, just out of high school with college not on the horizon, I found myself working as a bank teller in a Jewish neighborhood. Other than my family doctor and dentist and a close friend from high school, I did not know many people who were Jewish. Needless to say, my experience was eye-opening and awesome. I heard humor like I had never heard before. I saw kindness given to a Gentile during Christmas – of all things. I wept when someone explained the numbers on so many arms represented their survival from the pit of hell at the hands of the Nazi regime. I searched for books about World War II and began reading to try to understand how could someone do this horror to another human being. At that time, I would say I attended church with my neighbor but I was not a Christian. I was never taught to hate anyone at home or at my neighbor’s church but I was shown great kindness by so many of the Jewish people who used my bank.

    Many years have passed since that time so long ago. I did attend the University and graduated while also working full time. It was much later that I became a Christian and began seriously studying the Bible. I even searched out Orthodox Jewish web sites because I wanted to learn everything I could about the G-d who drew me to His side. I learned more about Jewish Law which I really did not understand. I still kept reading about the Holocaust because it still bothered me terribly. I read books written by Gentiles who rescued Jewish people and even some written by Jewish people who survived the Holocaust. Even though, most were purchased on line, I have two of the entire lot that I treasure because they were signed by the author – one Gentile girl from Holland who saved all the Jewish people in her area when she was a teenager and one Jewish man who survived the Holocaust by repeating his devout father’s teachings from the Bible and suicide was not part of the picture. I kept up my religious studies and expanded out into theology and toyed with the idea of learning Hebrew but at my age thought it be best to stick with the Bible in English for the years I have left. As time passed, I learned about the Reformation and the printing of Bibles. In Bible study, I learned that Jewish people always had the words of G-d but Christians after the early years, only had the words of the Bible as taught by the Priests. I am thankful to live in a time when the Word of G-d is available to everyone in a printed copy and on-line. When it is limited to a few, you are not hearing the Word of G-d but the opinion of someone who may be wrong and maybe teaching others to do wrong. I know this does not explain why some did as they did but it does give me a pause to say “what if it did”.

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