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?