Following up a previous post on ISIS, Atlantic writer Graeme Wood revisits his recent, influential cover piece to deal with reader reactions. Many of them, like me, also question whether every ISIS action really is guided by rational ideology or theology, as opposed to being motivated by baser emotions.
Wood points out this response by an actual Islamist. This anonymous source says “Many Muslims might agree, in principle, with the primary objective of IS” — I’ll have to come back to that later. But more important was this line: “I gain the distinct impression that many of the “fatawa” that are published are hastily concoted after-the-fact so to speak in order to provide the requisite legitimacy.”
I don’t think this can be emphasized enough. The “official” theology of ISIS may be rational or logical, if morally horrific, and yes, it does deserve an honest appraisal. But one gets the distinct impression that the ideology is there to serve the more primitive evil of the group, and not the other way around, as I kept hammering away at with my prior post.
ISIS is hardly unique in this regard. The Third Reich was another example: It had a sort-of-rational blueprint as outlined in Mein Kampf, true, but that didn’t stop Hitler from going off-script when needed, let alone his brownshirts in the streets. But it isn’t just the worst of the worst. How often do American leaders commit actions that go against its democratic, Enlightenment tradition in pursuit of some short-term goal? With the Cheney administration, the answer was any day that ended with the letter “Y”!
Wood also quotes an author from Brookings who says, “the religiosity of the group matters less than its importance as an identity movement, an aggressive form of defining membership in a group.” In other words, the same motivation that brings in recruits to the common street gang. This is also true of many groups: The Nazis (again) but also neo-Nazi gangs. Many, if not most, of the latter’s recruits are simply looking for a place to belong. Either way, this again is an example of more base desires or needs trumping rational motivations. It is a different need than the one to bully and murder that I talked about, but it is a base, animal and irrational need either way.
Consider if you are a young, disaffected Muslim. In Syria, Turkey, UK, Brooklyn — it doesn’t matter. Now here is this group ISIS calling you to its side, welcoming you with open arms, telling you that you can be one of their “brothers” if you just make the perilous journey to their territory. I can tell you first-hand that that does answer a deep longing in the soul unrelated to religious theology. I’ve never fit in with a “tribe,” “gang,” “family” or other such human grouping in my life either, and many of these young men feel the same way. Even if I were not willing to descend into barbarity to answer that longing, I certainly understand the pain of not belonging, a pain that ISIS exploits.
But it all comes back to the same theme of ISIS answering irrational, deep-brain urges of its members first, and coming up with rational, frontal-lobe justifications later. And this is why I really believe that ISIS will eventually try to bomb foreign targets, even if this contradicts their supposed logic. By that I mean, ISIS will try to actually orchestrate and finance a terrorist event, rather than egging on lone-wolf losers over Twitter like they do now. We should definitely understand the religious ideology of the ISIS leadership, yes. But we also should keep in mind that the ideology is there to justify the actions — and not the other way around.