So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities -- the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious [sic] for their own murderous ends?Probably to his surprise, this created a lot of backlash.
Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.
One reason is probably social media. There's nothing new about journalists getting to frame what remarks "really mean", but social media does encourage brevity and people don't necessarily click through and see things in context. Even if they do, the framing still influences how things are read. So if we've already read the headline "Obama compares ISIS to Crusades" it's natural to then read the fuller quote (which could be read either to compare the crusades and the inquisition as a whole to the actions of ISIS or as more modestly saying that during the course of the crusades some people at times did some bad things. This modest latter would be pretty undeniable, but people mostly took Obama to be saying the former. This is hardly crazy, Obama has in the past certainly participated in the black legend of religion somehow being a motivation to commit violence which is far more deadly than any other. For instance, in his Nobel Prize speech, Obama said:
And most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from Afghanistan. These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint -- no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or the Red Cross worker, or even a person of one's own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but I believe it's incompatible with the very purpose of faith -- for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.Of course, this is nonsense. The concept of "holy war" here, as something different from any other kind of war, is rather odd. People fight wars for a variety of reasons: to keep their territory from being invaded, because people like them (religiously, culturally, linguistically, racially) are perceived as being under threat, to protect or to conquer resources, etc. It's not clear why people fighting because of a religious identification rather than because of a racial or national identification would be more ruthless. Certainly, it's hard to identify people who've fought much more ruthlessly than 20th century communists fighting for an economic and political ideology or Nazis fighting for a racial and cultural ideology.
Nor is it clear that "every major religion" has at its heart the Golden Rule, unless one works backwards and insists that only those faiths that endorse the Golden Rule are "major religions".
But while I think that Obama's rhetorical trope of insisting that no one be indignant about ISIS burning a POW (who incidentally was a Muslim himself) alive in a cage unless they first took time out to beat their breasts about the crusades and inquisition is shallow and annoying, I'll grant that his comments can be interpreted in a way that, from someone conservative Christians didn't already have good reason to think dislikes them, would be both correct and uncontroversial. Unquestionably, people have, during the course of history, done wicked and despicable things while claiming they are doing it in the name of Christ. And it's notable that one of those criticizing Obama's remarks disputed this. The defenses of the crusades were all against the old anti-Catholic black legend view (given new life in the modern era by people like the New Atheists) that the sole purpose of the crusades was to slaughter non-Christians simply for being non-Christian, and to do so in the most brutal way possible.
Even more fascinating when it comes to the politics of cultural indignation has been the response to a very good piece at The Atlantic entitled What ISIS Really Wants. Author Graeme Wood interviews both experts on ISIS and also Muslims who are sympathetic to it (in order to keep his head in place, he focuses on Muslims living in Australia and the UK who share ISIS's theology and help boost them online.) What he presents is a fascinating picture of the variety of Islamic theology behind ISIS and how that puts it at odds with the rest of the Muslim world.
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.
Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.
At issue was Zarqawi’s penchant for bloody spectacle—and, as a matter of doctrine, his hatred of other Muslims, to the point of excommunicating and killing them. In Islam, the practice of takfir, or excommunication, is theologically perilous. “If a man says to his brother, ‘You are an infidel,’ ” the Prophet said, “then one of them is right.” If the accuser is wrong, he himself has committed apostasy by making a false accusation. The punishment for apostasy is death. And yet Zarqawi heedlessly expanded the range of behavior that could make Muslims infidels.
Maqdisi wrote to his former pupil that he needed to exercise caution and “not issue sweeping proclamations of takfir” or “proclaim people to be apostates because of their sins.” The distinction between apostate and sinner may appear subtle, but it is a key point of contention between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Denying the holiness of the Koran or the prophecies of Muhammad is straightforward apostasy. But Zarqawi and the state he spawned take the position that many other acts can remove a Muslim from Islam. These include, in certain cases, selling alcohol or drugs, wearing Western clothes or shaving one’s beard, voting in an election—even for a Muslim candidate—and being lax about calling other people apostates. Being a Shiite, as most Iraqi Arabs are, meets the standard as well, because the Islamic State regards Shiism as innovation, and to innovate on the Koran is to deny its initial perfection. (The Islamic State claims that common Shiite practices, such as worship at the graves of imams and public self-flagellation, have no basis in the Koran or in the example of the Prophet.) That means roughly 200 million Shia are marked for death. So too are the heads of state of every Muslim country, who have elevated man-made law above Sharia by running for office or enforcing laws not made by God.
Following takfiri doctrine, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from the region suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims. Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government. Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as the jizya, and acknowledge their subjugation. The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute.
Choudary met me in a candy shop in the East London suburb of Ilford. He was dressed smartly, in a crisp blue tunic reaching nearly to his ankles, and sipped a Red Bull while we talked.
Before the caliphate, “maybe 85 percent of the Sharia was absent from our lives,” Choudary told me. “These laws are in abeyance until we have khilafa”—a caliphate—“and now we have one.” Without a caliphate, for example, individual vigilantes are not obliged to amputate the hands of thieves they catch in the act. But create a caliphate, and this law, along with a huge body of other jurisprudence, suddenly awakens. In theory, all Muslims are obliged to immigrate to the territory where the caliph is applying these laws. One of Choudary’s prize students, a convert from Hinduism named Abu Rumaysah, evaded police to bring his family of five from London to Syria in November. On the day I met Choudary, Abu Rumaysah tweeted out a picture of himself with a Kalashnikov in one arm and his newborn son in the other. Hashtag: #GenerationKhilafah.
The caliph is required to implement Sharia. Any deviation will compel those who have pledged allegiance to inform the caliph in private of his error and, in extreme cases, to excommunicate and replace him if he persists. (“I have been plagued with this great matter, plagued with this responsibility, and it is a heavy responsibility,” Baghdadi said in his sermon.) In return, the caliph commands obedience—and those who persist in supporting non-Muslim governments, after being duly warned and educated about their sin, are considered apostates.
Choudary said Sharia has been misunderstood because of its incomplete application by regimes such as Saudi Arabia, which does behead murderers and cut off thieves’ hands. “The problem,” he explained, “is that when places like Saudi Arabia just implement the penal code, and don’t provide the social and economic justice of the Sharia—the whole package—they simply engender hatred toward the Sharia.” That whole package, he said, would include free housing, food, and clothing for all, though of course anyone who wished to enrich himself with work could do so.
This is a deeply fascinating piece, and I'd strongly recommend giving it a read despite the length.
I've been surprised to discover that a number of liberals are really indignant about it. ThinkProgress has had a number of pieces objecting to it. This one is particularly fascinating because it consists of an interview with one of Wood's sources, Prof. Haykel of Princeton. Haykel doesn't actually contradict anything that Wood wrote in his piece, though he does expand on it in some interesting ways. However, ThinkProgress seems to think that they've somehow struck back at Wood with the interview.
At the center of the objections seems to be a belief that because Wood roots the ideology of ISIS in their theology and their theology in Islamic texts and traditions, that the piece somehow accuses all Muslims as being ISIS sympathizers and supports prejudice against Muslims. This is odd, given that the piece describes how ISIS is killing vast numbers of Muslims because it considers most of the world's Muslims (including the heads of all other Islamic countries) to be apostates. But apparently in the politically correct world of modern progressivism it's unacceptable to try to understand ISIS if that can in some way be interpreted as supporting the shibboleth of "Islamophobia".