Countering extremism with truth and reason

Sometimes it seems like half of the people are desperately trying to leave Syria while the other half are trying to get there. News this week of another group of women leaving the UK for Syria was even more astonishing that the last because this group took young children with them. A society that condones slavery and crucifixion is not the sort of place I’d want to raise my children.

I just read Graeme Wood’s fantastic article – What ISIS Really Wants – and it sheds some light on why people are drawn to Syria. These are deeply religious people and the Islamic State are following the teachings of Islam with seriousness, obsessiveness, and astonishing literalism. The leading expert on Islam, Bernard Haykel, says Islamic fighters are not cherry-picking from the Koran when they condone things like slavery and crucifixion, they are “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

Graeme Wood says:

Muslims can say that slavery is not legitimate now, and that crucifixion is wrong at this historical juncture. Many say precisely this. But they cannot condemn slavery or crucifixion outright without contradicting the Koran and the example of the Prophet. “The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid,” Bernard Haykel says. That really would be an act of apostasy.

And on calling ISIS anti-Islam, Wood says:

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.”

Peter Singer wrote a good piece on Countering Islamic Extremism in which he concludes that the only way to counter extremism is to acknowledge its religious basis and to fight with reason. Supporters of ISIS are certain that their beliefs are correct and that all others are wrong. But every other religion in the world is equally certain that their beliefs are correct while everyone else is wrong. They can’t all be right but they could all be wrong.

The British mathematician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell, once said,

I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.


  1. I do find it hard to understand this; frankly all religion is a mystery to me these days but this retrograde view of this religion is beyond bizarre. If every religion stuck to a strict interpretation of its fundamental texts life would be like Game of Thrones.

  2. Unfortunately there are so many people who feel displaced in this world and seek a homeland regardless of cost. Perhaps it would help if we made more effort to make people feel welcome.

    1. Yes, I think that’s possibly a part of it. I’ve heard that part of the attraction to Syria for these women is that they feel persecuted here. If that’s the case then we can certainly try to improve things for them. However after reading Graeme Wood’s article I came away thinking this was not the primary reason for their departure. The real motivation is that they are deeply religious and they want to obey the rules of their religion which they cannot do here for obvious reasons. If this is their motivation then the only option really is to try to reason with them.

      1. To some extent, for some, religion is a sense of belonging and of importance (where they have nothing else to make them feel important) that can be used by those who would exert control. Nothing new in that, look at the fanatic right wing evangelists or the politics of fear/despite.

        Reason is good but I think compassion, respect, the offering of self esteem to another and a sense of belonging/inclusion, are the things which reduce their vulnerability to those who would indoctrinate.

        So perhaps it is the use of reason/perception upon ourselves first and then upon others which is most helpful.

  3. it has just occurred to me. Karl Marx: “Religion is the opiate of the people” to which I would add that like all addictive drugs it has it’s persuasive and unconscionable pushers. So, I think we need to provide an alternative comfort to prevail. 🙂

    1. Yes, they do say that people with a religion are happier. Or so I’ve heard. It must be comforting to know that when you die your soul will linger on. It’s just all a bit difficult for me to swallow so I have to live with knowing I’ll just be food for worms. It’s not so bad 🙂

  4. I’m sure there is an element of guns, power over others, and youth…
    how to explain the gruesome cartoon like beheading, torture, etc. let alone selling ‘non muslins as young as nine into sexual slavery – Not Islamic?

    1. Maybe, but I’m not sure which is worse: people attracted to the violence for its own sake or for sake of their religion?

      In any case, the expert on Islam, Bernard Haykel, says slavery and beheadings are an important part of the Koran and not something cherry-picked by the Islamic State. Here’s a relevant excerpt from Wood’s article:

      According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He 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.”

      1. Haykel’s reasoning is actually very easy to apply to Christianity. It’s instructive to consider that even Buddhism has a history of internecine religious wars.

        IIRC Scots were notably enthusiastic about witch-burning (per an old testament commandment) until rather recently, and we certainly think of them as having been fairly civilized at the time. That at least came to an end, but lynchings of blacks were common in the US until the 1960s and although now relatively rare continue to this day.

        The assassination and murders a few days ago in Charleston, arguably a kind of lynching, are also interesting to consider since they can have had no religious basis, although historically US Southern white racism was (and still is to a degree) steeped in religious justification.

        So I suppose I would sum up by saying don’t be distracted by the religious veneer, rather look to the underlying culture.

      2. I don’t think Haykel is defending other religions. His speciality is Islam so he would naturally know more about this than other religions like Christianity or Buddhism. I’m not sure whether you read Peter Singer’s article but he also pointed out that there is a similarity between these Islamic extremists and Christian fundamentalists in the US. This was really about understanding ISIS and why Muslims from places like Britain are attracted to Syria. Denying the Islamic basis of the cause is not helpful in understanding the problem. He also says:

        A further problem becomes apparent as soon as we ask why it is important that mainstream Muslim leaders stand up in public and say that their religion opposes killing innocent people, or that those who die when committing such acts are not “martyrs” and will not be rewarded in the afterlife. Why should Muslim leaders, in particular, make such statements, rather than Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, or Hindu leaders?

        The answer, once again, is obvious. But it is obvious only because we already know that groups like Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Taliban are not obeying the precepts of Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, or Hinduism.

      3. Graeme Wood gives a good interview here about the research for his article and the interviews he conducted with ISIS recruiters in Australia and Britain. One of the reasons young Muslims are attracted to Syria is that they think they’re joining an apocalyptic battle which was prophesied some 1400 years ago.

      4. “Denying the Islamic basis of the cause is not helpful in understanding the problem.”

        I would say the opposite is the case. That’s not to say that religion isn’t a factor, but mostly it’s just a convenient excuse.

      5. I’m not sure what you mean? Religion is just an excuse for the violence? That they’re not really religious at all? I suppose that could very well be the case but that’s not the view of Graeme Wood and he spent quite a bit of time researching this group. Apparently ISIS supporters and the fighters themselves view all other Muslims as apostates. They feel they are not being faithful to the religion while those who are living in the Caliphate are. They also think they’re living out a prophesy and are fighting a final apocalyptic battle.

      6. Maybe an example: In medieval times, there was extensive bad behavior that was justified with Christianity. Was that behavior because of Christianity? I would say not. People develop the interpretation of religion (or, in modern times, often non-religious ideology) they need to justify the behavior they have other reasons for wanting to engage in.

        Consider the current heat wave death toll figure in Pakistan. Basically it’s from deaths that can be specifically attributed to heat at the time they happen. But this leads to a massive undercount since most of the heat wave deaths involve people who are vulnerable for other reasons (e.g. age or pre-existing medical conditions). Later, an excess death analysis will be done that will produce a much larger number. The latter is the correct view.

        Current Islamic theology has its problems, but most of those have been shared by Christianity at one time or another (and to a great degree currently — check out e.g. Dominionists). (The lesson might be to avoid Jewish heresies were it not that the Jews themselves are engaging in the same crap these days.) If the root of the problem really was Islam as such, I would expect roaming bands of militant Sufis to be throwing fuel on the fire. Not so much, it seems. See this.

      7. Maybe an example: In medieval times, there was extensive bad behavior that was justified with Christianity. Was that behavior because of Christianity?

        No, I don’t think religion is justification for bad behaviour. I’m not defending Christianity here. But Jihadis are not cutting people’s heads off in the name of Christianity. They’re doing it in the name of Islam. Whether their interpretation of Islam is correct or not I have no idea. I am not an Islamic scholar and have zero interest in reading the Koran.

      8. Now I’m confused. Isn’t the point to try to understand something about the root of the problem?

    2. Now I’m confused. Isn’t the point to try to understand something about the root of the problem?

      That’s good. I’ve been confused this entire conversation 🙂

      For some reason whenever I try to say that the actions of ISIS jihadis have a religious basis you come back discussing the violence in Christianity. I don’t understand why that is relevant. I’m not disputing that Christianity has a violent past and nor am I defending Christianity. ISIS jihadis are not enslaving people under the precepts of Christianity. They’re not psychopaths chopping people’s heads off for the fun of it. They think they are adhering to the rules of their religion. That’s all I’m trying to say.

      1. Sorry to have not been clear: IMO religion is never a root cause. That was the point I was trying to make in noting that similar behavior has occurred under the banner of a variety of religions. The Serbs are a recent Christian example. Religion is great for allowing people to think well of themselves even as they engage in some very psycho/sociopathic behavior, so I suppose we can see it as a kind of lubricant making such behavior easier, but no more than that.

  5. Rachel,
    I enjoyed the Atlantic article by Graeme Wood. For sake of completeness, read ” What The Atlantic Left Out About ISIS According To Their Own Expert ” in ThinkProgress,by Jack Jenkins, posted February 20, 2015.
    There is a longstanding internal debate in Islamic scholarship between ” fundamentalists” or ” absolutists”, on the one hand and modernists or rationalists on the other. The former include the seventh century Khawarij, through Salafists and Wahhabists to Osama bin Laden, and ISIS.They reject any human mediation or interpretation of the Qur’an. The latter include Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-98), one of the founders of modern India and Pakistan, and a current African American Muslim leader, Imam W.D.Mohammed. They reject traditionalists and support a rationalist and progressive interpretation of the Qur’an.
    Professor Bruce Lawrence of Duke University explains it thus-
    ” The crucial criterion for interpreting the Qur’an is history. In a historical context the Qur’an becomes A Book of Signs, multilayered in its meanings, continuously reinterpreted by successive generations and diverse audiences. Detached from history the Qur’an becomes THE Book of Signs, singular in its meaning ,applicable across time and place , unchanging , univocal.
    Is the Qur’an plurivocal or univocal? Devout Muslims are divided.Those who assert that it is univocal occupy one perspective within the interpretive community of Qur’an users.They have been called fundamentalists but they are better understood as absolutists , since they see the Qur’an as primordial…..bin Laden decries the departure of Muslims from a single, ‘ true’ interpretation of Qur’anic revelation and social action. When he invokes the Qur’an he projects it as a single, unchanging message.
    ….Yet neither bin Laden nor other absolutists speak for all Muslims. Militant Muslims remain a fractious minority who stress the confrontational aspect of monotheistic faith.Other Muslims demur.”
    For W.D. Mohammed ( and scholars mentioned in Jack Jenkins article above) the Qur’an requires jihad not as an apocalyptic warfare but as an eternal battle between good and evil.The highest temporal pursuit for Muslims, in his view , is to be pragmatic citizens of a 21st Century community.Ahmed Khan (1884 CE) saw Qur’anic verses as either essential or symbolic.The essential offered the core of faith, while the symbolic were open to multiple interpretations allowing the believer to explain ages and circumstances far removed from those of the Prophet Mohammed in early seventh century Arabia. Symbolic episodes ( The Night Journey of Mohammed) are like parables in the Bible ( Jonah and the whale), etc.
    Why should your readers care about this? Because Reason and Education are the ultimate answer as Graeme Wood recognises, unless we are to face the endless anarchy ( not a Caliphate or Islamic State) of Bin Laden and ISIS, and a hundred year religious war between Sunni and Shia ( and the West). Only Muslim leaders can solve this, as calls for a Muslim ‘ Reformation’ will likely go unheeded.

    1. The article in Think Progress was great. Thanks for telling me about that. Here’s the link in case anyone else is interested:

      It was good to hear Haykel clarify a few things. It’s impossible for someone like me to know whether ISIS are being true to the teachings of Islam. I really have no idea. They say they are but I’ve never read the Koran so how could I possibly know? But it seems counterproductive to me to accuse them of being psychopaths and anti-Muslim when clearly they do not view themselves that way.

      The real problem to my mind is that people with religious views like this, and this includes Christian fundamentalists, is that their reason for behaving the way they do is “God said so”. How can someone who is not religious respond to that? I don’t believe in God so this is a meaningless argument for me.

      1. Right. I would think it would be almost automatic for an agnostic or atheist to want to look past religion to underlying causes.

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