President Obama stands accused of political correctness for his unwillingness to accuse groups like the Islamic State of "Islamic extremism," choosing a more generic term, "violent extremism."
His critics say you cannot fight an enemy that you will not name. Even his supporters feel that his approach is too "professorial."
But far from being a scholar concerned with describing the phenomenon accurately, the president is deliberately choosing not to emphasize the Islamic State's religious dimension for political and strategic reasons.
After all, what would the practical consequence be of describing the group, also known as ISIS, as Islamic? Would the West drop more bombs on it? Send in more soldiers to fight it? No, but it would make many Muslims feel that their religion had been unfairly maligned. And it would dishearten Muslim leaders who have continually denounced ISIS as a group that does not represent Islam.
But "the Islamic State is Islamic. Very
Islamic," writes Graeme Wood in a much-discussed cover essay for The Atlantic this month.
Wood's essay is an intelligent and detailed account of the ideology that animates the Islamic State. These are not secular people with rational goals, he argues; they really do believe in their religious ideology.
Wood's essay reminds me of some of the breathless tracts during the Cold War that pointed out that the communists really, really believed in communism. Of course many ISIS leaders believe their ideology. The real question: Why has this ideology sprung up at this moment, and why is it attractive to a group — in fact a tiny group — of Muslim men these days?
Wood describes ISIS as having "revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years." Exactly, ISIS has rediscovered — even reinvented — a version of Islam for its own purposes today.
He notes that the groups' followers are "authentic throwbacks to early Islam." That is, Islam as it was practiced in the desert 1,400 years ago. Surely the most salient point is not that medieval Islam contains many medieval practices like slavery (which figures prominently in the Bible as well), but why this version of Islam has found adherents today.
Wood is much taken by the Princeton academic Bernard Haykel, who claims that people want to turn a blind eye to the ideology of ISIS for political reasons. "People want to absolve Islam," he quotes Haykel as saying. "It's this 'Islam is a religion of peace' mantra. As if there is such a thing as 'Islam'! It's what Muslims do."
Right. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and perhaps 30,000 members of ISIS. And yet Haykel feels that it is what the 0.0019 percent of Muslims do that defines the religion.
Who is being political, I wonder?
"The most interesting question about ideologies is why they succeed at any given time," says professor Sheri Berman at Barnard College. "An ideology succeeds when it replaces some other set of ideas that has failed." And across the Middle East, the ideas that have failed are concepts like Pan-Arabism, socialism and nascent attempts at democracy, economic liberalism, and secularism.
The regimes espousing these principles usually morphed into repressive dictatorships, producing economic stagnation and social backwardness. In some cases, the nation itself has collapsed. It is in the face of this failure that groups like ISIS can say, "Islam is the answer."
This battle of ideologies can be seen vividly in the life of one man, Islam Yaken, profiled brilliantly by The New York Times' Mona El-Naggar. Yaken, a middle-class fitness trainer from Cairo, was interested mostly in making money and meetings girls. "Every guy dreams of having a six-pack so he can take his shirt off at the beach or at the pool and have people check him out," he is quoted as saying in a playful exercise video shot two years ago.
But "his dreams began to crash into Egypt's depressed economy and political turmoil," the article notes. He couldn't get a good job and began dreaming about leaving Egypt. As the country's democratic revolution collapsed and its military dictatorship returned, his political alienation increased. Questioning his life choices, Yaken became drawn to a very different ideology, a version of Islam that is rigorous and militant.
Yaken, now 22, fights for the Islamic State in Syria. During the last Ramadan season, he tweeted a photograph of a decapitated corpse. His post read, "Surely, the holiday won't be complete without a picture with one of the dogs' corpses."
Islam Yaken is now a true believer. But the question surely is, How did he get there? And what were the forces that helped carry him along? Calling him Islamic doesn't really help you understand any of that.
Fareed Zakaria hosts CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS," and makes regular appearances on shows such as ABC’s "This Week" and NBC's "Meet the Press." He has been editor at large at Time magazine since 2010, and spent 10 years overseeing Newsweek's foreign editions. He is a Washington Post (and internationally syndicated) columnist. He is author of "The Post-American World." For more of Fareed Zakaria's reports, Go Here Now.
(c) 2015, Washington Post Writers Group.