Ah, the punditocracy…..The only thing worse is religious studies people. Neither can fathom the nature of religion or how it relates to political control over the means of coercion and the public goods and bads that might be provided by modern states. Instead, we hear babble, concocted mostly by activists, ignorant dipshits, true believers, and people with no clue about how to understand or engage politicized religion.
All religion is politicized to some degree. All must at least petition for tolerance from the state, or they will be murdered by the members of the dominant religion who control the means of coercion. It’s hilarious to hear pseudoscholars like Reza Aslan—whose most famous journalistic book points to the politicized origins of Christianity—argue that because the Islamic State is political and has baggage in the political economic circumstances of its origin period and place, it is therefor not Islamic. This has always been true, everwhere, everywhen. Only in the most advanced and tolerant societies have religions been able to operate freely without intercourse with the state, and frankly, even in those religious regulation and discriminatory repression are the rule, not the exception (ask Scientology, the Moonies, the Family, ISKON, etc).
A really excellent piece in the Atlantic by Graeme Wood has set off a flurry of pearl clutching among liberal Muslims, religious folk in general, and hyperstructuralists who never think that religion is ever influential (“…it must be something else…”). Wood draws on the excellent work of Bernard Haykel, one of the few real scholars who has studied contemporary fundamentalist Islamic movements.
It is frustrating to see the disingenuous responses to Wood’s investigation, particularly when they come from people who are supposedly academics who study religion. The argument against classifying the ISLAMIC STATE as Islamic follows the typical 19th century script that Durkheim sought to erase-A’priorist orientations towards religion classify religion according to what the seer believes religion to be based on their own prejudices and commitments. From Obama to the Council on American Islamic Relations, the fact that the ISLAMIC STATE doesn’t fit their vision of what Islam SHOULD be nullifies its qualification to be Islamic. “Should” is not a sociological concept relevant for defining categories. There are many Islams, way more than the three that Geertz amplified in his classic work. As Durkheim identified in his first critical assumption, “all religions are true”, if believers collectively understand things to be a function of their interpretation of the nature of the sacred and profane as they have been taught in their interpretive communities, then that’s religious.
Nowhere did Wood imply that all Muslims agree with the vividly otherworldly and apocalyptic perspective that undergirds the ideology of the Islamic State, quite the opposite. Not all Christians agree with the vividly otherworldly apocalyptic vision of Pat Robertson or John Hagee, but what moron would claim that they aren’t Christian leaders? Wood goes to great lengths to separate IS from other radical fundamentalist Islamic movements like Al Queda, Wahhabism, and other Salafist fundamentalist sects. Never did he say that this is “popular” or “mainstream” or “inevitable” for Muslims to gravitate to such a radical medieval interpretation of the sacred texts of Islam. But, what he said was that it is inherently Islamic, and that is correct. There is nothing in the IS that falls outside of what might rightly be considered Islamic. If Al-Baghdadi declares himself the hidden Imam, then we have another story. Until he does something like that (and there is no indication that he is going there), there is nothing un-Islamic about declaring a Caliphate, nor holding slaves, murdering dissidents, executing “infidels”, chopping of hands, or any of those other things that were common in the original Caliphate–and many of those things continue in fundamentalist Islamic polities like the House of Saud.
What I really hate about this “debate” is how religious folk (Muslim and Christian and elsewise) dominate the discussion by claiming that because some religious people disagree, this movement is not of that religious tradition. It’s the classic “debunking” style used by bad journalists and pathetic humanities types. Not all X do Y! Therefore, there is no relationship between X and Y, and nobody may claim that there is even a correlation between X and Y or else they are an ethnocentrist racist asshole. Of course, structuralist types like to use the grand debunk to argue that these types of movements are totally explained by colonialism and such shit. Yet, when you talk to movement participants (as Wood did, in Arabic), their concerns are not about structural factors, but cultural ones. Indeed, the House of Saud had no problem with its transition from colonial mandate to dictatorial monarchy. Aramco actually did a bang up job on that front. The Wahhabi do what they do because of religion, and the IS is just taking that up a notch–and ultimately threatening the RELIGIOUS authority of the current occupiers of Mecca and Medina.