One Thousand and One Mights

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One of the great curiosities of our age is the uniform and universal commitment of so many of the enemies of America to bring about the end of the world. How exactly so geographically, linguistically, ethnically, historically, racially, politically, etc. diverse a group of bad guys ever managed this feat of doctrinal harmonization is one of the great mysteries; yet ever does it give me faith that all our schisms and differences may one day likewise be mended. Truly, for all our myriad differences and divisions, we are, each and every one of us, just dumb humans beneath the skin.

The latest of these is the Islamic State, or ISIS, or ISIL, or Da’ish, or DAESH—while our enemies all agree that the millennium is arriving any day now, our own deep thinkers are unable to agree on acronyms. ISIS—I’ll just use the commonest name for convenience—is the deadliest and most terrifying thing since the last deadliest and most terrifying thing, and the most recent edition of The Atlantic includes a long, dire, and encyclopedic treatment of all of the obscure religious beliefs that supposedly animate the group, which “already rules an area larger than the United Kingdom.” The Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas also rule areas larger than the United Kingdom, and are just as insanely violent, if not more so, but no one seems to believe this can be traced back to all those Santa Muerte candles. That cult, I think we’d all agree, is symptomatic rather than causal. But then again, those guys aren’t . . . The Muslims . . .

I’m going to skip to the end of a long essay to get to the meat of the matter. Graeme Wood, clearly worried that the obscurity of the foregoing theological exegesis and disputation will have failed to impress the casual reader with the magnitude of the threat, rummages around in the Serious Journalist toolkit before settling on the familiar hammer and nail, Hitler and Orwell. Which is which is really up to you. He finds Orwell confessing in 1940 that had “never been able to dislike Hitler,” then averring:

Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them, “I offer you struggle, danger, and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.

Orwell wrote at least three good books and a number of fine essays, but much of his political writing has come to seem, in retrospect, quite facile, and this brief analysis of the rise of Hitler is the kind of contemporaneous analysis that subsequent history and historiography rendered questionable and incomplete at best. And in any event, for all his other merits, are we really going to ground our Nazi analogy on the pre-Blitz musings of a man who says he’s never been able to dislike Hitler?

The analogy becomes more tenuous when you consider that a couple thousand words earlier, the same author now spooking us with the bloody ghost of Hitler said:

The humanitarian cost of the Islamic State’s existence is high. But its threat to the United States is smaller than its all too frequent conflation with al-Qaeda would suggest.

Which renders it rather lesser in either its ideological import or its historical significance or, God knows, even its “humanitarian cost” than the Third Reich, and I’m reminded, as I so often am when I read alarmist Anglo-American narratives of the rise of this or that existential enemy of the ever-beleaguered yet somehow still-standing West, of the charmingly sincere Charlotte York of Sex and the City:

Harry Goldenblatt: [talking about his mother’s insistence that he marry a Jewish woman] Keeping tradition alive is very important to her. She lost family in the Holocaust.

Charlotte York: [makes a face]

Harry Goldenblatt: What?

Charlotte York: Well, now I can’t say anything because you’ve brought up… the Holocaust.

***

Wood makes a few other risible historical analogies, perhaps the silliest of which is:

[ISIS]’s rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

This is silly, first and primarily, because it splashes like a tossed pebble into a lake of assertions about the zealously historical Islamism of ISIS; the article’s primary thesis is that we commit an egregious analytic error in assuming that ISIS’s fanaticism is somehow un-Islamic. Wood endeavors over thousands of words to convince us that, quite to the contrary, ISIS is very, very, very, like, very Islamic. Jones’s Peoples Temple had some prior antecedents and influences, but was largely sui generis; the Branch Davidians, meanwhile, were a 1950s offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventists, themselves a product of the foment of goofy Christianity in mid-19th century America. No one would ever think to write an article pointing to the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventist belief in a Saturday Sabbath as proof that it represented a pure strain of undiluted Christianity, although Graeme Wood doesn’t appear to hesitate before he informs us that ISIS’s allusions to the renewed practice of slavery represent a truer interpretation of Islam than that of the 1.6 billion other Muslims who say that this is not the case.

Incidentally, Koresh isn’t only a silly example, but an ironic one. The Branch Davidians were a natty, perverse little cult of guns and polygamy, but they didn’t really trouble anyone outside their own tiny compound until the United States Government went in, guns a-blazing. Remind you of anything?

Every few paragraphs you run across similar boners, designed to shock presumably secular-ish Americans, for whom religiosity outside of the bland, summer-camp sing-alongs that constitute most church- and temple-going among us anymore is dreadful and primitive:

These forefathers are the Prophet himself and his earliest adherents, whom Salafis honor and emulate as the models for all behavior, including warfare, couture, family life, even dentistry.

Even dentistry! These little OMG moments, along with the supposed Muslim propensity for conspiratorial thinking, are the bright acid in the otherwise mundane braise; they get the saliva glands going. Those crazy Arabs! We live in a country in which millions of people believe they can improve their health by flushing imaginary “toxins” out of their systems, a nation in which health insurance pays for chiropractors, and we are supposed to murmur in disbelief at a bunch of primitives who turn to religious sources on proper dental hygiene? But what do they think about MMR vaccines?

In fact, accusations of millennial religious motivation have been applied to the American project in the Middle East. There was General Boykin yammering about the tremendous size and girth of his . . . God; there was George W. Bush nattering about Crusades or telling a bemused Jacques Chirac about Gog and Magog. There is a whole subset of conspiracy theorizing that proposes everything from 9/11 (an inside job!) to the Iraq War to US support of Israel is in the direct service of immanentizing some particularly hocus-pocus brand of New-Age Christian eschatology. You will note that these views are not frequently published in The Atlantic.

Finally, and as we inevitably must, we return to Hitler. “Centuries have passed,” Wood tells us,

since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes. Hence, perhaps, the incredulity and denial with which Westerners have greeted news of the theology and practices of the Islamic State. Many refuse to believe that this group is as devout as it claims to be, or as backward-looking or apocalyptic as its actions and statements suggest.

The so-called wars of religion in Europe were no more simply men “dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes” than were the tens of millions slaughtered in the arcane theological conflict between Hitler and Stalin, which, by the way, occurred in the 1940s. Theological and ideological differences were in every case bound up with questions of politics, economics, land ownership, dynastic succession. How might we put it for the Facebook epoch: It’s Complicated.

And this, finally, is why analyses like Wood’s are so prominent (though they always claim to be voices in the wilderness), frequent (though they purport to be singular), and popular (though they imagine themselves boldly iconoclastic). Though they make every possible rhetorical gesture to suggest that their purpose is to discomfit their readers with terrifying and uncomfortable truths, they only ever serve to reconfirm what those readers are predisposed to believe: that far from complex phenomena inextricable from America’s—and “the West”’s—own inexorable militarist mucking-about in the Middle East, ISIS or al Qaeda or the Khorosan Group (remember them?), ad inf., each, at the moment of their middlebrow media apogee, represent a unique flowering of utterly alien religious superstition—a primitive evil which must be ultimately eradicated, or else.

But I happen to remember that, among other recent events, the United States and a few pals went in and smashed Iraq to smithereens, then warehoused a lot of its very angry young men in hasty prisons, out of which came the kernel of any number of currently belligerent groups, including ISIS. So when I read these inevitable articles, so full of worry about what we should do, I want only to remind everyone that for God’s sake, we made them; might we not make it worse?

20 thoughts on “One Thousand and One Mights

  1. The religious beliefs that “supposedly” animate the group? We have it straight from the horse’s mouth that they do. Are all those ISIS dudes just kidding about their motives?

      1. Those lies were completely different, because they were a deliberate campaign of misinformation (to the extent they were actually insincere — I think the DoD dudes probably *did* have irrationally optimistic predictions for the occupation, just because it’s such a common bias).

        Are you saying that ISIS is deliberately lying about their religious motives? To what end? Also, unlike the DoD, all their actions are completely consistent with their stated interpretation of Islam. Whether that interpretation is wrong in an absolute sense has no bearing on their sincerity.

  2. “Graeme Wood doesn’t appear to hesitate before he informs us that ISIS’s allusions to the renewed practice of slavery represent a truer interpretation of Islam than that of the 1.6 billion other Muslims who say that this is not the case.”

    Where does Wood say this?

    1. Right here, in so many words:

      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.”

  3. I’ve always been a fan of your writing, but your insistence of passing off human behavior, especially of the nefarious kind, as some sort of novel and uniquely american phenomenon has always been something I’ve found frustrating. “One of the great curiosities of our age is the uniform and universal commitment of so many of the enemies of America to bring about the end of the world.” Demonizing enemies is as old as the old testament, which is pretty old. What the hell makes you think there is anything about our age that is any different than any other age? There isn’t. Stop talking like there is. Humans are uniformly awful.

    I wish you could see the irony apparent in how you attack American exceptionalism as something exceptional.

    1. Your criticism sounds uncomfortably close to the progressive version of “Why do you hate America so much?”

      Sure, as far as great nations and empires go, American exceptionalism is unexceptional (though I am sure American exceptionalists left-right-and-center continue to state otherwise), but I don’t see where the author’s criticism is making the case that it is not. It is not unwarranted, however, to couch criticism in language that might seem exclusively aimed at the that which is being criticized, and insofar as he is an American with an American point of view, his familiarity with the phenomenon is crucial to the irony in the sentence you quote.

      If one were to write, say, “One of the great curiosities of ANY age is the uniform and universal commitment of so many of the enemies of THE RULING EMPIRE to bring about the end of the world.” it would be untrue. You see, the eschatological nature of the thing is the single most important aspect that makes the American version exceptional — or, at least, it also seems that way to me.

      And, anyway, especially in the context of the article being discussed, taking pains to mete out judgement with an even-handed historical perspective would be goggle-brained moderate-liberal do-goodery. Blahhhggg. I like to think the reason I continue to come back here is foremost that it is a prosaic undertaking, not a history lesson.

      But by all means, if you’re going to bother, why not lay out the examples beginning with the Old Testament wherein the dominant culture spent so much energy warning about the end of the world at the hand of the enemy.

      1. I’m perfectly happy to criticize America. It’s a horse shit idiocy same as any other nation. It also has some pretty awesome mountains for skiing.

        Maybe you’re right, it’s just a rhetorical flourish. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to know. If it is, what’s his point, then? Hating muslims is bad? Got it! And can’t we use the same defense of aiming language at that which is exclusively being criticized for our Muslim hating friend that IOZ is apparently taking exception with?

        As I said in my original criticism, the prose is strong, but the point is weak. Mundane at best, hypocritical at worst. Not really logically sound in the end.

      1. Jacob Needleman put it this way in his book Money and the Meaning of Life (he was born in 1934 – please excuse his use of the generic “man”) –

        “A Freudian psychoanalyst once summed up to me his vision of the human condition by saying that man is not as bad as he thinks he is, nor can he become as good as he dreams of becoming. The assumption of this book is precisely the opposite of the psychoanalytic view: man is in far worse condition than he believes, but he can become far greater than he imagines.”

  4. There are also, of course a fair number of American Christians (or “Christians” or soi-disant Christians or whatever) who appear to believe that the end times are approaching and that, if they are not obliged to speed them on their way, they should do nothing to impede them. Do these people hate America? Hard to say, when their understanding of “America” is so far at odds with the reality, but they don’t seem particularly fond of their fellow Americans, who are all destined to eternal damnation. What would it take for them to start shooting?

  5. “already rules an area larger than the United Kingdom.”

    Wood might have just made the most persuasive argument yet for Scottish Independence. Just think how much lower the bar would be for our future bogeymen, if they only had to rule an area the size of England, Northern Ireland and Wales, or better yet, England alone.

    Plaid Cymru, for a better hyperbole!

  6. I don’t plan to read Wood’s piece. I get the gist.

    I don’t think it’s a revelation of any kind to take ISIS at its word & accept that they believe that there is some kind of religious justification for their actions. But that seems to be a rather insignificant point in my view. Religionists of whatever creed have always been able to appropriate whatever version of their faith suits the their objectives. This was as true of certain strands of Marxism as it was of Christianity or even, strangely, Buddhism. I don’t suspect that the leaders of such groups are deep thinkers–although I give ISIS credit for its consistent bald-faced brutality. Ruthless brutality may be distasteful but it is also effective & perversely “pure”.

    There’s not much use in trying to keep a scorecard of the violence anymore. We pay taxes to support violence in the name of some fuzzy headed version of “freedom”. Our buzzwords aren’t tied to scripture so directly or consistently and so we are served a daily ration of obfuscation. But all we have to lose in the west is a bit of our treasure.

    I wish our Muslim friends nothing but goodwill. Their religion, so far as I can tell, is not much different in its theology from good old fashioned Calvinism. Our superiority is skin deep & it seems to me has more to do with our self-satisfied comfort than any lack of justification for violence at our disposal whether that comes from the Bible or the pledge of allegiance.

  7. I don’t think this post is a fair treatment of Wood’s article. Your conclusion, for starters:

    “I want only to remind everyone that for God’s sake, we made them; might we not make it worse?”

    …is somewhat weakened by this from Wood:

    ” Add the incompetence of our previous efforts as occupiers, and we have reason for reluctance. The rise of ISIS, after all, happened only because our previous occupation created space for Zarqawi and his followers. Who knows the consequences of another botched job?”

    This is the end of a longer paragraph explicitly arguing against escalation.

    Also, you made too much of the Hitler reference. Most online writing would be made better if you just purged Hitler’s name from it, but at least in this case Wood was only comparing Hitler’s charisma to that of the recruiters he met. He was quoting Orwell, I think, to give some ass-covering gravitas to his confession of finding these extremists charming and good company. He did not compare ISIS’s danger, reach, or evil to Hitler; did not compare al-Baghdadi to Hitler; and did not compare anything at all to the Holocaust. It was one small paragraph in a 10000 word piece. Making it the rhetorical centerpiece of your criticism is unreasonable, even if you think the article would be better without that particular paragraph (and I do!).

    More importantly, the article was well-written, even-handed and informative. I’m not remotely an expert in jihadism, and I learned a lot that I didn’t know. For example, routinely murdering apostate Muslims under their control but taxing Christians and letting them be is caused by a weird scriptural quirk, one that would not happen in an extremist Christian or Buddhist or Marxist regime. It’s a detail worth knowing. There are many details like that in Wood’s article, but virtually none in your review.

    It would be a better world if every article about the Middle East started with a four-paragraph to-be-sure explainer about Western adventurism’s role in creating and driving today’s extremism, but most of us casual readers already do know this. It gets frustrating watching very serious people talk about jihadism without mentioning the other side of the coin, and I can guess what you think about the Atlantic’s coverage of this particular topic over time. But there’s nothing in your post besides flogging of that old hobby horse, and getting worked up over the Hitler business.

    Is Wood’s analysis of ISIS’s theology and motivations flawed? Did the experts he quoted misstate their cases? If so, what other experts would you recommend that I read? Wood bent over backwards to let everyone know he wasn’t declaring Islam itself, or all Muslims, dangerous or an enemy. He only argued that understanding Koranic scripture and the particular interpretation that ISIS is running with is important to understanding what they will and won’t do, or what dangers they do and don’t pose. If you think he didn’t go far enough, or that a casual reader would come away from his article with a prejudice against all Muslims, tell us why, specifically. This is what’s needed if you’d like to correct the mainstream view, not just snark.

  8. dear lord the winks towards “not all muslims” at every step along the way was just him signalling to his audience that they’re not being Racist^tm there is something at the very heart of Islam that leads to extremism! neoliberal tripe. I’m awaiting his think piece on Muslim IQ’s and arrest rates.

  9. Of course all this leaves out the question whether Mr. Baghdadi is an American asset or not. Suspiciously flush with looted weaponry from Benghazi and cash from our “allies” and all pointed at our grand boogeyman, Iran. Israel treating them medically and Jordanian intelligence assisting them until they became conveniently, bad, bad, bad.

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