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Is ISIS Islamic? Why it matters for the study of Islam

posted by Anver Emon

Recent months have witnessed considerable angst in the academy over what is and isn’t Islam(ic). Spurred by events from the attacks in Paris to Graeme Wood’s Atlantic article on ISIS, scholars of Islam have agonized over whether and how to apply the label “Islamic” or “Muslim” to characterize recent events. Reviewing various commentaries, there is a limited range of arguments that, by proffering competing positivist accounts of the Islamic, thereby play into a climate of moral panic about the threat Islam poses to domestic and international orders. By playing into the moral panic, such arguments, in the aggregate, preclude both critical interrogation of the scholarly production on Islam and Muslims and reflection on the possible contribution Islamic studies can make to advanced research more broadly.

I suggest that the study of Islam holds out the promise of a two-pronged capacity for critique. On the one hand, and as scholarship has already shown, the study of Islam allows critique of Muslim elites of varying political persuasions who claim an Islamic mantle. On the other hand, and most salient for North American producers and consumers of Islamic scholarship, the study of Islam offers a powerful vehicle for both interrogating the questions and parochializing the assumptions that inform North American scholarly production on Islam and much more.

Recent arguments on whether ISIS is Islamic reveal two approaches to defining and studying Islam and “the Muslim”: (a) an originalism that runs the risk of pushing Islam out of history, and (b) a representative liberal-cum-protestantism that, by reading the Muslim subject both atomistically and representatively, either upholds or subverts an aggrandizing state.

Rather than asking whether ISIS is Islamic or not, the better question is why it matters so much and to whom. To ask this question, though, requires that “we” (i.e. producers of knowledge on Islam) interrogate our understandings of religion, politics, law, reason, and the state, and the consequences that follow when we encounter others whose different understandings appear to be the inverse of our own. At its most provocative, the study of Islam, as Dipesh Chakrabarty might say, allows us to provincialize categories that we take for granted, and even to recognize the “us” in the “them.”

Is ISIS Islamic? A typology of arguments

The typology of arguments offered in response to Wood’s article might best be understood as Weberian “ideal types,” such that any actual argument will traverse the neat categories delineated below. But as Anthony Kronman reminds us, even in their unreality, ideal types illuminate what is at stake.

“ISIS is Islamic” I

One version of the claim that ISIS is Islamic focuses on their invocation of pre-modern Islamic scriptural and legal texts and concepts; this is what many claim is Wood’s principal argument. ISIS’s own leadership would probably make this argument. In its decree on the Christians of Raqqa, for instance, ISIS invoked pre-modern rules on the dhimmi (non-Muslim permanent residents) when it imposed the jizya (historical poll tax).

One cannot deny that ISIS’s language, concepts, and intertextual references have a pedigree in the Islamic tradition; to suggest, however, that the authentic meaning of Islam is captured by (literal) references to texts unduly reduces the dynamism of Islam across time and space and reflects an Orientalist predisposition to view and construct Islam solely by reference to texts and their demands upon the believer. As Naomi Davidson has brilliantly shown in her book Only Muslim, to reduce Islam—and thereby Muslims—to the ritual requirements that the Islamic textual tradition places on them saturates the Muslim with an exclusive “Muslimness” that can be seen as an analog to how some perceive race (e.g. natural, self-evident, unyielding), thus subjecting Muslims to the all-too-familiar dynamics of state regulation amid racialized politics.

“ISIS is Islamic” II

The second argument for considering ISIS Islamic relies on the fact that some Muslims support ISIS and consider it Islamic. Media accounts are rife with stories about young Muslims leaving North America and Europe to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq; the Atlantic story, in fact, features an interview with such a person. In the study of Islam, this focus on the experience of individual Muslims resonates with a turn in North American religious studies in general, and Islamic studies in particular, toward the anthropological and, more specifically, the ethnographic. Ethnographers, trained in participant-observer methods, increasingly dominate the study of Islam in North America. While ethnography offers important insights, it also has its own politics, such as an implicit (if not explicit) reaction against both the Orientalist priority of philology and an older style of anthropology that treated its subjects as primitive and unmodern. If the first argument is premised on the centrality of an Islamic textual tradition, this second argument is premised on the centrality of the voices of ethnographic Muslim subjects, as documented in field notes, and from which generalizations are made to construct “Muslim” as a group identifier.

Importantly, though, the ethnographization of the Islamic or the Muslim reveals a representative liberal-cum-protestant mode of analysis. Representative, in that the views of individual subjects are generalized as applicable to a group. Liberal, in that the ethnographic subject, before being ethnographized, maps neatly onto the atomized rights-holder subjected to state law. Protestant, in that what counts as Islamic is what any given believer says or does, without reference to an institutional or clerical authority. According to this approach, religion is analyzed atomistically, but is made to represent something more collective; given this, when Muslims in North America and Europe—however few they may be—claim that ISIS is Islamic, their claim is taken as authoritative, representative of a more general or widespread consensus. And when individual Muslims espouse ISIS-like ideology, or commit lone-wolf acts of aggression (as in Ottowa and Paris), they are viewed as anything but individuals. These Muslims represent, in their embodied performances and utterances, the threat of more violence to come, thereby providing support for those political elites who demand policies that would expand and enhance the already securitized state.

“ISIS is not Islamic” I

The first type of skeptical argument is simply the mirror image of the first “ISIS is Islamic” position: it defines Islam by reference to historical pedigree and replicates many of the same assumptions about where and what the Islamic is, but focuses on the various ways in which ISIS departs from the norms contained in an Islamic textual tradition that is presumed to capture the full normative content of Islam. According to this argument, whether something is or isn’t Islamic depends largely on its fidelity to (as opposed to simple invocation of) the textual tradition; ISIS is not Islamic, because it departs from an accepted literary canon of authoritative texts, misconstrues that canon, or cherry-picks from that canon without regard to the whole.

“ISIS is not Islamic” II

These skeptics vehemently distance Muslims and/or Islam from ISIS; their argument relies on the fact that Muslims around the world have condemned ISIS. Given the sheer number of Muslims who disavow ISIS’s brutal practices, so the argument goes, it is outrageous to suggest that ISIS is Islamic. But this reference to what Muslims do or say is, again, the mirror image of the second “ISIS is Islamic” argument—a representative liberal-cum-protestant approach, except that, in democratic fashion, the majority rules. A slightly different version of this argument asserts that Muslim scholars around the world have condemned ISIS. These authorities on Islam presumably embody a professional training (and thereby an intellectual elitism), which makes their voices count far more than ordinary Muslims and ISIS leaders, let alone untrained media pundits. Their voices, so the argument goes, carry considerable weight in defining what is and is not Islamic. This is more akin to a representative liberal-cum-high church approach that invokes the voice of certain Muslims who presume representative authority by virtue of their scholarly credentials, though without occupying a formal institutional office, such as the Vatican or Lambeth Palace.

These four arguments offer important insights into how scholars frame their understanding of “Islam” and the “Muslim.” But they also betray a missed opportunity to reflect on the value of studying Islam as a mode of critique in the North American academy. The first version of both conclusions associates the “Islamic” with the historical and textual. What counts as Islamic today (and thereby, as Muslim) are those acts and people who manifest some continuity with or loyalty to that earlier tradition. Discontinuity (or disaffection), on this mode of analysis, implies that one falls outside the ambit of the Islamic. As a historian I am not convinced that separating continuity from discontinuity is possible because attention to both necessarily situates Islam in history rather than out of history. If the study of Islam is to be more than antiquarianism, then one cannot discount the discontinuities with the past as having a claim on the label “Islamic” without running the risk of treating Islam as an artifact.

The second versions of both conclusions draw upon a view of religious experience in which the voices of individuals (whether many or few) stand on their own and are made to stand for the group, thereby collapsing the individual and the group. But analytically reading the Muslim subject as the collective “Muslim” precludes the possibility of answering definitively whether or not ISIS is Islamic, given the epistemic implications of sample size. The ethnographized account of the Muslim is made at a time when Muslims are under increased surveillance and scrutiny. For the political right, that surveillance and scrutiny reflects a view of Muslims as potential threats, based on what a limited sample of Muslims have said or done. For the political left, that surveillance and scrutiny are palpably unfair, again, based on what a limited sample of Muslims have said or done. To characterize these two arguments as representative liberal-cum-protestant is thereby to reveal their underlying politics about the state. Ethnographizing particular Muslims’ experiences to generalize about Muslims as a group or Islam as a religion can either uphold or subvert the securitization narrative that has informed so many states since the events of 9/11.

From Moral Panic to Islamic Studies as Critique

After the tragic events of 9/11, some universities and colleges immediately expanded their institutional capacity to teach and research about Islam and Muslims. Given this, it is not surprising that the stakes in the scholarly debate on ISIS and Islam concern the haunting specter of security and/in the state. Indeed, the arguments noted above either create moral panic (“ISIS is Islamic”) or refuse moral panic (“ISIS is not Islamic”) at a time when North American and European states are deciding courses of action in Iraq. But the moral panic principally provides cover to real-time decision-making processes that would otherwise have to account for a much more complex—and less flattering for all sides—political, economic, and social history of dispossession of those who now live in ISIS’ shadow. This dispossession has taken various forms, such as colonial administration in the service of an industrializing Europe hungry for natural resources; or the authoritarian nightmares that took the place of wishful anti-colonial dreams.

For the study of Islam to be a vehicle for expanding the scope of advanced scholarship, scholars of Islam might find greater intellectual payoff by focusing on the contest over definition, why it matters as much as it does, and to whom. Arguably, this contest over definition has everything to do with managing the borders between “us” and “them,” and determining what those borders imply about international aid, security and torture, and of course, war.

For instance, suppose instead of asking whether ISIS is Islamic, we were to say that ISIS is as much Islamic as it is a product of broken promises at the end of the British and French mandates; ISIS is as much Islamic as it is a product of the American interventions in Iraq; ISIS’s brutality is as Islamic as the Ku Klux Klan’s lynching of Black Americans was Christian, both Islam and Christianity having been used to justify violent brutality. To baldly pose these claims is to reveal the parochialisms that frame debates on Islam and Muslims, that inform certain politics of belonging and difference (read, Fox News), and that bolster the state policies that flow therefrom (e.g. Shari’a legislative bans).

To reveal these parochialisms illuminates how the arguments for and against moral panic artificially reduce the debate on ISIS to an unhelpful zero-sum game of Islamic/unIslamic. The label of “Islam(ic)” in the case of ISIS might be better appreciated as what James Scott in Domination and the Arts of Resistance would call a “hidden transcript” that is now made public. Scott writes about how the oppressed hew to “public transcripts” that might appear as their contented resignation to the status quo. But when they are able to avoid detection, the dominated employ “hidden transcripts” (like dragging one’s feet) to quietly subvert that same status quo.

But what happens when the dominated no longer want their hidden transcript to remain hidden? Unlike Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Manwhere the main character retreats from the public to find solace in a space all his own—perhaps ISIS’s followers either could not yield the public sphere to the status quo, or could not (in the wake of US invasions, the humiliations of Abu Ghraib, or the trauma of torture) find solace in a private space of their own. Suffering from domination, humiliation, and/or trauma—or co-opting others’ suffering to dramatize their own middling discontent—their invocation of Islam offers the language by which they can now transform their hidden, grumbling dissatisfaction about the status quo (whether in the Arab world or in the West) into an explosively subversive public transcript.

But by transforming their hidden transcript into a ferociously successful public one, ISIS has become the oppressor. Drawing again upon Scott’s “transcripts,” dominant powers both employ and often define the terms of the public transcript to which the oppressed must yield if they are to survive. ISIS’s public transcript of an Islam that sanctions violent spectacle has certainly created sufficient compliance for purposes of (per)forming its state.

ISIS’s violent spectacles in the name of Islam remind us that religiously justified violence is part of our shared history. As another Atlantic article recalled, Confederate leaders in the US Civil War invoked Christian justifications for slavery to legitimate the South’s utterly violent pursuit of secession. As much as we tell ourselves (hi)stories about nationalism and the self-determination of peoples, we cannot ignore how they—just like the question about ISIS and Islam—distract us from the unrepentant, spectacularly violent birth of a state. In the case of ISIS, though, the violence retorts the violence that preceded it. The history of ISIS is a history of political violence. And some of it was ours, which is presumably what ISIS, through its public transcript, wants us to repent.

If Islam is the language of ISIS’s public transcript, though, Scott notes that even oppressors have hidden transcripts. ISIS’s intentional and deliberate use of social media ought to alert us precisely to the likelihood that there is much we are not permitted to see. To dispute whether ISIS is or is not Islamic assumes the exclusiveness of ISIS’s public transcript as the only transcript. ISIS’s hidden transcript, though, will remain hidden for as long as we remain focused on whether ISIS is Islamic or not.

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One Response to “Is ISIS Islamic? Why it matters for the study of Islam”

  1. avatar james warren says:

    We need to be aware of Christianity’s own expressions of violence and terror–the Christian militias who are slaughtering innocent Muslims and the homegrown groups like the Christian Identity Movement and the isolated terrorists who kill abortion doctors and strike out randomly at their “enemies.”

    I pay an ambivalent attention to the mounting public criticism of both Christianity and Islam. Atheists, agnostics, humanists, mystics, former believers and those who self-identify as “spiritual, not religious” are speaking out more forcefully and publicly more than ever. The fundamentalism, patriarchy, homophobia, hypocrisy, elitism, other-worldliness and bigotry found in these two world religions is no longer compelling or persuadable to folks in a global culture.

    Of course these regrettable qualities are not the whole story. Most of us Christians would probably admit this about our own faith. But more and more are noticing these criticisms and are paying close attention to them.

    The good news (besides the gospel, of course) is that religions and faith claims can change when they no longer work and do not “fit” the dominant myth of the culture. The bad news (if history is the guide it should be) is that religions can disappear completely.

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