All Religions are True, and the Islamic State is, duh, Islamic

The Caliph will fuck no goats. He's got slaves.

The Caliph will fuck no goats. He’s got slaves.

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.

9 Responses to “All Religions are True, and the Islamic State is, duh, Islamic”

  1. schmielt Says:

    You’re starting to sound like a New Atheist…

  2. schmielt Says:

    Just finished reading the Wood piece, and several critiques of it, and every critique I read was misconstruing what he said, missing his point, or framing his article in such a way that he “should have” (for some unexplained reason) focused more on the OTHER interpretations of Islam instead of that one. Well, hey, guess what? The article was about ISIS and THEIR interpretation of Islam, so other than an aside confirming that this interpretation is not shared by most Muslims (which he did), no further discussion on that is necessary, or even appropriate, within the scope of the article. I think we’ve spilled enough ink claiming over and over and over again (rightly) that not all Muslims are the same, or have the same interpretation. Nearly everyone who has ever commented on the subject has prefaced their remarks with that. It’s been done to death. We get it. Criticizing people for not saying it MORE is intellectually dishonest, and they’re only doing it because they’re grasping at straws for a way to discredit the unassailable truth that these scary people absolutely ARE getting their grounding from Muslim texts. You can dislike their choice, but the words are there. Or, for an understandable, but still intellectually dishonest, desire to make sure no one thinks they’re being racist. Or, for yet another understandable, but STILL intellectually dishonest desire not to add fuel to any existing xenophobic or racist fires perpetuate by others.

    All of the criticisms of Wood’s article seem to come back to people not liking other people’s interpretations of an ancient text that has been left open to interpretation, by virtue of there not being any God around anywhere to set the record straight about what he meant. Well, okay, you may not like it (hence your having a DIFFERENT interpretation), but you don’t get to say you’re right and they’re wrong, any more than they get to say they’re right and you’re wrong. That’s the “INEVITABLE RESULT” of so-called sacred texts that can be interpreted multiple ways. Even relatively monolithic religions (Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses) – in terms of doctrinal interpretation – can’t keep their followers from subscribing to their own interpretations of some things and choosing which dogmas to follow and which to conveniently ignore. It’s like these well-meaning people can’t see that if THEY get to say someone else is “doing their religion wrong,” there is nothing to keep those same people from saying that THEY are doing it wrong. Who decides? Well, the convenient answer to that question is always – every time – ME, of course!

  3. sherkat Says:

    Yep. Unlike god, Wood exists, and yet still people read his text differently……based on their own politicized biases…..And, like god, he’ll never convince them of how they’ve taken it the wrong way….

  4. sherkat Says:

    Nice follow up with Haykel:

  5. schmielt Says:

    yeah, I read that one, but I didn’t think it was totally accurate, either. They say Wood says ISIS is the “inevitable result” of Islamic doctrine…not true. That was in another article, too. I don’t think he said that. It says, “He was similarly unambiguous when responding to the related critique that Muslims who disavow ISIS are somehow deluded or not “real” Muslims.” That implies Wood says Muslims who disavow ISIS are those things. He didn’t…he’s just saying ISIS’ beliefs are defensible based on Muslim doctrine, and that for other Muslims to say those things are unIslamic, they would have to ignore or somehow explain why they no longer follow parts of Islamic law.

    It also says: “Wood quotes Haykel as saying, “The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid.” The journalist then adds the following conclusion: “That really would be an act of apostasy.” The implication, according to many who read the piece, is that ISIS’s theology is founded in Islamic texts that cannot be debated.” He absolutely did not say or imply that anything in Islamic test “cannot be debated.” Obviously it can, and is. Anything can be debated. He’s pointing out what it clearly says and how it can easily back up what ISIS is doing, not saying everyone else must see it that way.

    Anyway, you probably weren’t wanting to read a research paper today. 🙂

  6. sherkat Says:

    Yeah, I agree the interviewer was trying to spin it as “wood got it wrong.” Haykel is not a native English speaker and his quotes don’t reflect his meaning sometimes. His “inevitable” statement should really have been “unquestionably” and “that really would be an act of apostasy” was taken out of the context of how ISIS sees liberal Muslims.

    Ah well, it’s not like I’m racing bikes today…..

  7. etseq97 Says:

    Jacques Berlinerblau coined the phrase “Pomofoco” to describe the current state of much of religious studies, particularly the “post-secular” critical theorists such as Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, Wendy Brown & Judith Butler (who gay married by the way despite spending most of the last two decades denouncing gay marriage as heteronormative assimilation!). The field has become so politicized that the very theory and methods used are proudly normative and thoroughly baked with anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, and anti-secularism values.
    Spending five minutes reading the main RS blog is enough to drive you crazy. The reflexive defense of islamic extremism by ritual accusations of islamophobia coupled with the relentless “critique” of secularism, atheism, or just modernity full stop is embarrassing. For example,
    Hell, even progressive movements like feminism and gay rights are routinely denounced as manifestations of western cultural imperialism.

  8. sherkat Says:

    Religious studies is dead. It won’t be resurrected until the religious types and wackos are out of the picture. Then, I think it will see a resurgence more within disciplinary lines—history, sociology, political science, anthropology, and across those in a meaningful way. We almost achieved that until the conservative Christians fucked everything up—which was easy for them to do given what you point out was the state of the discipline in many quarters on the left.

  9. Aslan Says:


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