Three Theses on ISIS: The Universal, the Millenarian, and the Philistine

Nimer SultanyA warm welcome to Nimer Sultany who brings us a guest post on thinking about ISIS. Nimer is Lecturer in Public Law, School of Law, SOAS, University of London. He holds an SJD from Harvard Law School. He practiced human rights law in Israel/Palestine, and was the director of the Political Monitoring Project at Mada al-Carmel – The Arab Research Center for Applied Social Research. His recent publications include: “The State of Progressive Constitutional Theory: The Paradox of Constitutional Democracy and the Project of Political Justification” in the Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Law Review and “Religion and Constitutionalism: Lessons from American and Islamic Constitutionalism” in the Emory International Law Review.

The ruthless brutality of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) unfolds before our eyes on the screens. As commentators struggle to explain and understand it, it becomes convenient to revive old Orientalist tropes. Beyond the spectacular brutality, the reason that ISIS invites attention (both fascination and fear) is that it seems easy to fit in confrontational narratives of Islam (us v. them, anti-American, etc.). Muslims are clearly angry at something. In his infamous article “The Roots of Muslim Outrage”, Bernard Lewis simplistically explained that Muslims are envious of, and angry at, Western modernity and secularism. The U.S. magazine Newsweek illustrated this knee jerk reaction, and recourse to run of the mill thinking patterns, in a Muslim Rage cover in September 2012.


In his book “Covering Islam” (1981) Edward Said has effectively critiqued these binary simplifications that dominate not only journalistic discourse about “Islam”, but also expert-talk about Islam. For Said, all attempts to conceptualise other cultures are a value-laden interpretive exercise. He showed the deficiencies of orthodox writings on—and views of—Islam, and called for “antithetical knowledge” to challenge the orthodoxy’s claims of value-free objectivity.

It seems little has changed, however, since Said wrote his book in the wake of the Iranian revolution. In this brief commentary I want to examine three attempts to understand ISIS. These are long treatments in respected liberal media outlets. To use Said’s phrase, these are treatments that fit in different “communities of interpretation.” These three essays are all aware of the need to provide “context” for ISIS. However, their contextualisation differs. The success of this contextualisation in shedding a light on ISIS varies. Let me call these interpretive techniques: universalization; Millenarian confrontation; and intellectual bewilderment. These three attempts operate mostly on the ideational/ cultural domain.

Universalization of Cultural Demise

For Pankaj Mishra in the Guardian’s “How to think about Islamic State”, ISIS is a modernist creation. It is no more Islamic than Western, hence the folly of binary identitarian representations. He ties it to the crisis of modern individuals – a crisis that the Romantic movement of the 18-19th centuries expressed. But also to a post-modern critique of humanism and modernity after WWII: the critique of materialism, industrialism and instrumental rationality (but also science and positivism). It is the longing of modern man for meaning, and for emancipation; a longing that is shattered by hard realities. The promises of empowerment, security, and self-fulfilment remain unrealized. Modernity dislocates, stratifies, and alienates people. Violence is one reaction to this human condition. Unlike Bernard Lewis’ explanation of outrage at modernity as something specific to Islam, for Mishra this is generalized rage. It is not enough to defeat ISIS militarily because it is an example of “worldwide outbreak of intellectual and moral secessionism.” Whereas Lewis pits Muslims against Western modernity, Mishra sees the seeds for destruction internal to modernity itself.

Here Islam becomes an element in a grand narrative. It is part of a bigger picture. There are many elements in it. But overall, it is clear. ISIS is just a manifestation and repetition of a structure. The details of this specific phenomena and the societies in which it developed are immaterial and insignificant.

In fact, the article, despite its title and length, is not actually about ISIS at all. It is an article in the strand of cultural critique of modernity (as opposed to a political critique of modernity). ISIS is the occasion for writing it, to be sure. But it could have been some other group or country or religion. It is just a proof for an already existing thesis.

Mishra’s thesis, then, operates on a high level of generality. After all, modernity is better understood as modernities, and alienation may take different forms. The scholar Charles Taylor, for instance, complained a long time ago about the ethnocentric and Eurocentric conceptualizations of modernity as linear. This critique is true of those who endow this linearity with a progressive development as much as those who endow it with regressive development.

More specifically, the thesis asks, but does not answer, the question of the specific allure of the idea of the caliphate. Graeme Wood’s article “What ISIS Really Wants” in the Atlantic makes an attempt to understand the ideological mindset.

Millenarian Confrontation

If Mishra offers too grand a narrative to be helpful despite the apparent clarity, Wood offers a too narrow focus on the Millenarian and apocalyptic strand in Muslim societies. He seeks to explain the idea of caliphate and why it attracts all sorts of Muslims. Although other factors may be acknowledged, understanding ISIS comes down to one element, one big idea.

Unlike Mishra who insists on the modernist features of ISIS, Wood denies that it is a product of the modern era. He calls attempts to deny the medieval nature of the group a “dishonest campaign”. Of interest is the question whether ISIS is Islamic or Un-Islamic. This is a tricky question: ISIS claims it is Islamic, of course. But accepting its claim that it is a direct descendent, or a literal implementer, of the code laid down by the pious forefathers, involves several logical mistakes. First, the mistake of formalism: the assumption that words have a stable and self-evident, literal meaning. Second is ahistoricism: the anachronism of reviving medieval norms disregarding change of context. And third is the denial of agency and ideology: that literalism itself is an ideology and its claim for truth is an ideological one.

Nevertheless, no need to deny that it is a movement created by Muslims under Islamic rhetoric. The difficulty is when simplifications seek to elevate it to the “truth about” or the “representative of” Islam; or to employ it in self-serving oppositions between us and them. It is one thing to recognize that ISIS—a product of the contemporary modern world—is seeking to revive medieval codes; it is another to see it as purely medieval. It is one thing to understand their ideological claims; it is quite another to accept them at face value.

Wood declares

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Wood’s long article risks this kind of interpretation when it declines to provide a comparative context, to show that it is not specific to Islam (there is no shortage of Millenerian, apocalyptic movements in the US). In fact, Wood mocks President Obama’s good intentions in denying the Islamicity of ISIS (to avoid stigmatizing all Muslims). He ends with a confrontational recipe: ISIS is not a collection of crazy individuals but a determined apocalyptic and insidious group. They are dangerous, according to Wood, because their supporters (Muslims in the West) are like us but yet want to destroy us:

[They] could mentally shift from contemplating mass death and eternal torture to discussing the virtues of Vietnamese coffee or treacly pastry, with apparent delight in each, yet to me it seemed that to embrace their views would be to see all the flavors of this world grow insipid compared with the vivid grotesqueries of the hereafter. I could enjoy their company, as a guilty intellectual exercise, up to a point…

Wood, then, claims he is not demonizing them. He is not pathologizing them (and hence they are a representative of Islam). But he does not tell us why someone who shifts “from contemplating mass death and eternal torture” to “Vietnamese coffee” is not a psychopath. He does not tell us how to draw the line between “coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and “psychopaths and adventure seekers” attracted by these interpretations. Nor does he tell his readers whether he would consider learned interpretations of the Old or the New Testament that justify heinous corporal punishment and genocide very Christian and very Jewish.

Wood sees how these proponents of ISIS adopted some of the western life style and taste. And that is why they are extremely dangerous, Mr. Obama. The connection between knowledge and power, that Edward Said so frequently exposed, becomes apparent. Wood’s article is written as a response to alleged failings in U.S. foreign policy and seeks to provide advice to policymakers.

The limits of the mind

The crisis of modern human individuals and the loss of meaning on the one hand, and the allure of caliphate in the minds of a significant margin of Muslim societies, on the other hand, does not explain satisfactorily the quick, indeed astonishing, rise of ISIS and its successes. Many others are alienated and frustrated with modernity, but they did not join the fight. Many Muslims are enchanted by the idea of caliphate but have different ideas about it. It is not enough to focus on cultural, ideational, ideological explanations.

Anonymous’ article “The Mystery of ISIS” in the NYRB pays little attention to these issues and lacks the broader contextualization that Mishra offers. But it enumerates the different possible explanations for the rise of ISIS, including economic, militaristic, regional, etc. These considerations are not central to the narrative of cultural demise (Mishra) or the single-minded focus on a specific ideological-political creation – the caliphate (Wood).

However, rather than treating the different incomplete considerations as complementary, the NYRB’S article concludes that there is no explanation! This is a weird conclusion because the author makes three fundamental mistakes.

On the one hand, he declares that the abundance of information on ISIS is futile as it breeds confusion and invites inconsistency. He declares that he no longer certain that more information is good! It is difficult to take this kind of observation seriously. We live, after all, in information societies. Information about anything is abundant. Should we stop research and abandon critical scrutiny just because there is too much information? Should not we train our minds to dissect the information and produce an interpretation that makes sense?

Secondly, Anonymous—who defines himself as someone who was an official for a NATO country—ties between explanation and prediction. For the author, if you cannot predict you cannot explain. This is tenuous. Every imposition of law-like generalizations to grant false predictive power for social scientists is a great simplification and a doomed project. Here Anonymous might have benefited from the cultural critics of modernity (like MacIntyre and Arendt) who have highlighted the sources for unpredictability in modern conditions. But his NATO background seems to suggest that the obsession with prediction emanates for a governance-oriented thinking. If I can predict I can control. ISIS is beyond control.

Finally, even worse, the article ends with the following: “It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS.” Suddenly the article that promises a non-cultural explanation ends up with a cultural one! Whereas Mishra declares ISIS is us (it is a product of our culture), Anonymous declares ISIS is not us (it is beyond the comprehension of our culture). For Mishra, ISIS is clear because it not about ISIS. For Anonymous, ISIS is an enigma, because it is not about us. Maybe the Enlightenment cry “Dare to know!” was a lie and there are limits to human reason. Or maybe ISIS is an enigma because the mind is lazy.

4 thoughts on “Three Theses on ISIS: The Universal, the Millenarian, and the Philistine

  1. Pingback: Rassegna stampa su Isis/Da‘esh

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