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.