The Western intelligentsia is very, very anxious to make sure that you have a positive view of Islam. Thus we see a steady stream of articles in the mainstream media assuring you that the Qur’an is benign, the U.S. Constitution is Sharia-compliant, and the Islamic State is not Islamic. These articles come in a steady stream, and they have to, because they are asking non-Muslims to disregard what they see every day — Muslims committing violence against non-Muslims and justifying it by referring to Islamic texts — and instead embrace a fictional construct: Islam the religion of peace and tolerance.
This takes a relentless barrage of propaganda, because with every new jihad atrocity, reality threatens to break through. It wasn’t accidental that Hitler’s Reich had an entire Ministry of Propaganda: lying to the public is a full-time job, as the cleverest of propaganda constructs is always threatened by the simple facts. This propaganda comes not just from the Left (the Huffington Post, Salon, etc.), but also from the Right, or at least the Right-leaning media (Forbes); it seems as if whatever divides Americans politically, they’re all united on one point: Islam is just great, and only bigoted, racist “Islamophobes” think otherwise.
Yet the pains that must be taken to establish this betray the futility of the enterprise. A sampling: establishment academic Juan Cole, a board member of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), which has been established in court as a front group lobbying for the Islamic regime in Iran, pointed out last Tuesday in The Nation that Rudy Giuliani and Paul Wolfowitz had taken issue with Barack Obama over whether Islamic terrorism was really Islamic, and asserted that this question was “actually about what philosophers call ‘essentialism,’ and, as Giuliani’s and Wolfowitz’s own interventions make clear, it is about absolving the United States for its own role in producing the violent so-called ‘Caliphate’ of Ibrahim al-Baghdadi.”
Oh, really? Yet I readily agree with Cole that Bush’s removal of Saddam Hussein and naive trust that a stable Western-style republic would take its place was ill-considered, as I argued back in March 2003. And the Islamic State filled the vacuum thus created. But this is an entirely separate question from that of whether the Islamic State has anything to do with Islam or not. Whatever Paul Wolfowitz or Rudy Giuliani said or did is simply irrelevant to the question Cole claims to be investigating: if Giuliani and Wolfowitz are right that Islamic jihadis have something to do with Islam, that does nothing whatsoever to absolve the U.S. “for its own role in producing the violent so-called ‘Caliphate’ of Ibrahim al-Baghdadi.”
As for “essentialism,” Cole added:
Essentialism when applied to human groups is always an error and always a form of bigotry. Zionists bombed the King David Hotel in British Mandate Palestine in 1948, killing dozens of civilians and some British intelligence officials. If a British official had responded then by arguing that ‘everyone knows that Judaism has something to do with what we’re fighting,’ it would be fairly clear what that official thought about Jews in general.
“Essentialism when applied to human groups” may be “always an error and always a form of bigotry,” but when applied to belief systems it is not. Cole is, perhaps deliberately, conflating Islam and Muslims, and claiming that to speak of what Islam is and is not, which is established by reference to Islamic texts and teachings, is to make a bigoted judgment against all Muslims. Islam in all its forms teaches certain things. Its teachings are knowable. To speak about Muslims acting upon them, when they themselves explain and justify their actions by referring to those actions, is not bigotry, despite the endless charges to the contrary from leftists and Islamic supremacists. It is simply to notice reality.
Cole then embarks upon a labored argument to establish that the Salafi jihadis are a “sect” and a “destructive cult,” charging anyone who disagrees with him with the cardinal sin of “Orientalism,” claiming that “it is now typically forgotten that in the early twentieth century the Ku Klux Klan was a Protestant religious organization or that it came to power in the state of Indiana in the 1920s and comprised 30 percent of native-born white men there. It was a large social movement, with elements of the destructive cult, in the heart of North America. More recent groups such as Jim Jones’s People’s Temple and David Koresh’s Branch Davidians may have begun as high-tension sects, but at a certain point they became destructive cults. The refusal to see ISIL in these terms is just a form of Orientalism, a way of othering the Middle East and marking its culture as inherently threatening.”
Cole here ignores, of course, the fact that the KKK, the People’s Temple and the Branch Davidians represented obvious deviations from Protestant Christianity, and were condemned as such. The Islamic State and jihadists have likewise been condemned by Muslim authorities, but these condemnations have all too often rung hollow: Tahir ul-Qadri’s vaunted 300-page fatwa against terrorism doesn’t even mention the passages of the Qur’an that exhort believers to violence against unbelievers; and the recent “Letter to Baghdadi” from Muslim scholars to the self-styled caliph of the Islamic State endorsed central concepts of jihad doctrine that Western analysts usually think are limited only to “extremists.” Cole likewise ignores the fact that all the traditional schools of Islamic jurisprudence (madhahib) teach that the umma has the responsibility to wage war against and subjugate unbelievers. It is not “othering the Middle East” to point this out — it is simply noting the severe limitations of Cole’s analogy.
Ultimately Cole’s argument rests on “essentialism” — that is, the idea that anything really is anything, as opposed to anything else. That this is nonsense, and that Cole knows it’s nonsense, is shown by this very article: Cole assumes that he and his readers both know what the KKK is and the People’s Temple and the Branch Davidians are, but Islam? — a mystery, and you’re a bigoted Orientalist Islamophobe if you think otherwise. In any case, even if one grants that Islam has no essence, nonetheless the Islamic State jihadis claim to be acting in accord with Islam, and make their case based upon an interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah that is well established in Islamic history and theology. The fact that other Muslims have a different understanding of Islam doesn’t negate this.
Even worse, Cole claims that the Islamic State “is put under the sign of religion, but it is in fact a form of nationalism appealing to medieval religious symbols.”
To claim that the Islamic State is a form of nationalism leads inevitably to the question: which nation? And that’s where Cole’s analysis is most absurd: the Islamic State is not nationalistic in any sense. It is neither Iraqi nor Syrian, for it has erased the border between the two. It is, in fact, the most internationalist of movements, with over 20,000 Muslims from all over the world traveling to Iraq and Syria to join it. The only nation that the Islamic State could conceivably be said to be fighting for is the international Muslim nation, the worldwide umma — but Cole can’t acknowledge that, as it would be granting the point he is trying clumsily to rule out.
Even clumsier, however, was Cole’s counterpart on the (relative) Right, Loren Thompson of Forbes. Thompson began his case that the Islamic State is not Islamic by noting that “when you do the math, it appears that the ‘addressable market’ for ISIS ideas is 5% of the global Muslim community, and as of today most of that market isn’t buying.” Yes, and the Bolsheviks were never a majority in Russia, and the National Socialists never won an absolute majority in a German election. But where is the Muslim pushback against this organized, energized vanguard? We have recently seen hundreds of thousands of Muslims demonstrate against cartoons of Muhammad; there have not been any Muslim demonstrations, however, against the Islamic State — much less efforts to teach against its understanding of Islam in Muslim communities.
Thompson’s case went downhill from there. His second point against the Islamic character of the Islamic State was that “non-Muslims have committed similar atrocities.” But of course, the fact that there is “nothing uniquely Islamic” about what the Islamic State does in no way establishes that its behavior isn’t sanctioned and justified by Islamic texts and teachings.
Still digging, Thompson added that
for many ISIS members, Islam is a pretext. ISIS isn’t the first militant organization that has attracted young men to its cause by claiming to represent a higher calling. Hitler’s early appeal to alienated young males in the beer halls of Munich — the notion of a thousand-year Reich, the need for lebensraum, the scapegoating of Jews, the rejection of cosmopolitan values – was similar to the appeals that ISIS issues today. It appears that every culture produces large numbers of young males who can be mobilized in the pursuit of millenarian philosophies, not because of the specific content of the vision, but because young men yearn for power and status and resources (not to mention mates).
To follow this logic, one would have to hold that Nazi Germany wasn’t Nazi because some of its followers were disaffected young males who had been mobilized in pursuit of millenarian philosophies. In other words, Forbes, like The Nation, is so intent on establishing that the Islamic State isn’t Islamic that it is straying into absurdity.
Thompson agreed with Cole that the debate over whether the Islamic State is Islamic is “highly partisan,” but this also is inaccurate: most establishment Republicans follow the Obama line that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam, which, after all, is just a variation on the Bush line that the Islamic jihadists had twisted and hijacked the Religion of Peace. This is unquestioned dogma in Washington, enforced by iron fist. There are a few blades of grass poking through the concrete here and there: the truth will inevitably defeat all attempts to stifle it. However, expect the media cement mixers to churn out a great deal more cement before the truth finally prevails outright against all this disinformation.