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The Clash of Civilizations That Isn’t - The New Yorker

2/28/15, 7:42 PM

The Clash of Civilizations That Isn’t

The leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, preaches during Friday prayer at a mosque in Mosul, Iraq.
Credit PHOTOGRAPH BY AL-FURGAN MEDIA/ANADOLU AGENCY/GETTY

Last week, the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen published a piece under the
headline “Islam and the West at War.” Something seemed amiss here. Surely a more-orless liberal columnist at the Times wasn’t going to say what even George W. Bush was
unwilling to say: that we are at war with Islam itself. Maybe this was one of those cases
where the headline is meant ironically, and the piece goes on to show as much?
No such luck. The point of the column was to dismiss as “empty talk” the claim that
we’re not at war with Islam. Elaborating, Cohen wrote, “Across a wide swath of territory,
in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Yemen, the West has been or is at war,
or near-war, with the Muslim world.”
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His critics. in this view. The article appeared right before President Obama hosted a conference on violent extremism. 7:42 PM You might ask: How could it be a war against “the Muslim world” if it’s confined to five countries that house only a minority of the world’s Muslims? Or: How could it be a war against “the Muslim world” if most of the Muslims even in these five countries are not the enemy? Beats me. Anyway.The New Yorker 2/28/15.com/news/news-desk/clash-civilizations-isnt Page 2 of 7 . were both Christians. starting to drift into the mainstream? The Cohen column isn’t the only data point suggesting as much. On the same day Cohen’s column was posted. Mother Teresa and David Koresh. took issue. excerpted Wood’s article and linked to it. there are also reasons that many scholars of religion look at the question differently.” The Fox News Web site. here’s a more pressing question: Is this a sign of things to come? Is the clash-of-civilizations narrative.The Clash of Civilizations That Isn’t . Wood quoted Obama insisting that the so-called Islamic State is “not Islamic. as usual. The Atlantic (where I was once a blogger) unveiled a cover story called “What ISIS Really Wants.newyorker. a contributing editor at the magazine. All major religions have changed so much over time. “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. among other venues. by Graeme Wood. So calling ISIS Islamic isn’t novel enough to constitute news. at which he again refused to call ISIS or any other extremists Islamic. Christian. was in part a response to President Obama’s longstanding refusal to use the kind of language favored by clash-of-civilizations aficionados. But what did Wood mean by saying that ISIS is “very Islamic”? http://www. While there are good reasons that a judicious President might not want to call ISIS Islamic. Very Islamic. The piece went viral. that a common rule of thumb is: if they say they’re Muslim.” The piece. then that’s what they are. or Buddhist and don’t reject the most essential tenets of the faith. and sprouted so many branches.” and wrote. long favored on the right. For purposes of virulence. indeed. and the Atlantic piece helped feed the conversation. the timing was excellent.

even if that means interrogating sources with inordinate thoroughness. “This is something I did point out to [Wood] but he didn’t bring out in the piece: ISIS’s representation of Islam is ahistorical. amid no small amount of anti-Muslim bigotry—are perfect examples. and how they interpret their texts. It’s denying the legal complexity of the [Islamic] legal tradition over a thousand years. the nuanced version of Haykel’s views will never fully catch up with the http://www. and I have no way of knowing how clear Haykel made his views to Wood. Haykel emphasized that the Atlantic piece as a whole represented Wood’s views.The Clash of Civilizations That Isn’t . After the Atlantic piece appeared. of Princeton. as they do. you would find its views more widely accepted by Muslims and Muslim scholars than has been the case in recent centuries.” Also: Wood had quoted Haykel emphatically dismissing the notion that “Islam is a religion of peace. Bernard Haykel. not his. It’s saying we have to go back to the seventh century. ISIS draws (if selectively) on the Koran and later Islamic texts. indeed.) In any event. My own view is that the questions of whether Islam is a religion of peace and whether ISIS is “very” Islamic— coming. and he qualified his views in ways Wood hadn’t. fleshing out his view more fully. Haykel said that what he had meant was that no religion is a religion of peace. because all religions can have violent manifestations. 7:42 PM He rested this claim about the deeply Islamic character of ISIS largely on the views of a single scholar.” (“As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what people do.com/news/news-desk/clash-civilizations-isnt Page 3 of 7 . (This defacing of an Islamic school in Rhode Island was reported the day before the Atlantic article was posted.newyorker. if you went back far enough in time. of ThinkProgress.”) In the ThinkProgress interview. Haykel’s main point seems to have been that ISIS isn’t just making up an ideology and grafting it onto Islamic beliefs. there are subjects and times that demand particular fastidiousness on the part of journalists. Haykel was interviewed by Jack Jenkins. Still.The New Yorker 2/28/15. Scholars often consider journalistic treatments of their work insufficiently subtle.

Japanese people as radically different from Americans—as Huntington’s book. In 1996. in the case of Islam. they can cite “even the liberal” New York Times. I’ve realized that. What value has been added if we grant Wood’s point that ISIS. and I wasn’t thinking about Islam in particular.The New Yorker 2/28/15. Order up another round of decapitations! Get Roger Cohen more freaked out! Maybe he’ll keep broadcasting a key recruiting pitch of both Al Qaeda and ISIS: that the West is at war with Islam! (Wood noted.The Clash of Civilizations That Isn’t .” it’s party time in Mosul. I fretted that Huntington’s world view could become “a self-fulfilling prophecy. Really? Long before last week. we knew that ISIS does a good job of convincing some young Muslims that its cause is authentically Islamic. a week after his article appeared. can quote selectively from Islamic texts and point selectively to ancient Islamic traditions? I guess this helps us understand one rhetorical advantage that ISIS has in its recruiting. in this case. when I reviewed Samuel Huntington’s book “The Clash of Civilizations” for Slate. what ancient people did—is something we can’t change.” and I was just making the general point that if we think of. such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. the forces that could make the clash of civilizations a self-fulfilling prophecy are particularly powerful. For one thing. When the Atlantic tells us that ISIS is “very Islamic” and the New York Times runs the headline “Islam and the West at War.com/news/news-desk/clash-civilizations-isnt Page 4 of 7 . Huntington’s book was about “fault lines” dividing various “civilizations. in doing this job. if they take the next step and describe a war between the West and Islam. themselves favor the clash-ofcivilizations narrative. encouraged us to do—we were more likely to treat Japan in ways that deepened any Japanese-Western fault line. say. Just as. I believed. our actual enemies. where do we http://www.” This was before 9/11.newyorker.”) People who insist on linking terrorism to Islam often say that only by doing this—only by seeing the problem “for what it is”—can we figure out what to do about it. 7:42 PM Graeme Wood version. Since 9/11. its “popularity among ISIS supporters. But since that particular advantage—what ancient texts say. The ever louder voices that depict Islam itself as in some sense the problem will thus find it easier to cite “even the liberal” Atlantic. and do their best to encourage it.

more than any other single factor. and so on. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that commentators who dismiss attempts to understand the “root causes” of extremism tend to be emphatic in linking the extremism to Islam. that should at least be added to the cost-benefit calculus. In other words: by killing lots of people. the economic and social status of European Muslims.The Clash of Civilizations That Isn’t . But. the wind is at their backs. By the way. perceived U. When people think of extremism as some kind of organic expression of Islam. It’s something that you can stop. if not warped. When recruiters for ISIS and Al Qaeda say that the West is fighting a war against Islam.The New Yorker 2/28/15.S. they cite U. only with physical counter-force. We may have less leverage over these things than over American drone strikes. and so on. Which leads to what may be the biggest problem with the views conveyed by Cohen and Wood—especially as those views seep into Fox News and beyond and become further simplified. a majority of Americans polled—fifty-seven per cent—favored sending ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria.newyorker. the belligerence of radical Muslims starts to seem like an autonomous. support for Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. when the policies help our enemies with recruitment. CBS News reported that. the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. policies: drone strikes in Muslim countries. created http://www. Last week.S. if at all. Haven’t we seen this movie? The Iraq War. the imprisonment of Muslims in Guantánamo. we shouldn’t abandon any policy just because our enemies criticize it. many other factors also feed jihadi recruiting channels: political and economic dysfunctions in some Arab nations. Obviously. Of course. but they’re worth understanding and working to change. intrinsically motivated force—something whose momentum doesn’t derive from mundane socioeconomic and geopolitical factors.com/news/news-desk/clash-civilizations-isnt Page 5 of 7 . for the first time. 7:42 PM go from there? The part of ISIS’s rhetorical power that seems more worth pondering is the part that we can do something about. and often favor a massively violent response to it.

The New Yorker 2/28/15. that ISIS is “a product of very contingent.The Clash of Civilizations That Isn’t . contextual. a Jordanian who led an obscure group of radical Islamists. Al-Zarqawi’s movement came to be known as Al Qaeda in Iraq. notes that a large majority of Muslims reject ISIS. the more likely our government is to react with the kind of undiscerning ferocity that created ISIS as we know it—and the more likely Western extremists are to deface mosques. And so on. And the process feeds on itself. in the ThinkProgress interview. when you’re freaking out. It’s natural. and then evolved into ISIS. as well as in the Middle East. Wood’s Atlantic article has some interesting details about ISIS.” and that “there is nothing predetermined in Islam that would lead to ISIS. explanations. 7:42 PM ISIS. And it’s here. And both ISIS and Al Qaeda have inspired atrocities far from their home bases.” No.com/news/news-desk/clash-civilizations-isnt Page 6 of 7 . there isn’t. After the 2003 invasion. ISIS wants to terrify us. As freakouts go. and neither Cohen nor Wood entirely dismisses political and socioeconomic contributors to religious extremism. Haykel confirmed by e-mail that the Iraq War was the kind of thing that he had in mind when he said. rebranded it as an Al Qaeda affiliate and used the wartime chaos of Iraq to expand it. For example: the group’s http://www. The more scared we get. this one is certainly understandable. And now we’re getting freaked out about ISIS. to accept simple and dramatic. and in the service of that mission has carried tactical atrocity to new heights of grotesqueness. in fact. thus leading to more atrocities in the West. historical factors. It’s a clash of civilizations! Deep within this alien thing known as Islam is an apocalyptic belligerence that is only now emerging in full form! Nobody at The Atlantic or the New York Times has put it this way.newyorker. in part.) But when élite and generally liberal publications start broadcasting dubious catch phrases that dovetail nicely with such explanations. or worse. I start to worry. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. All of which will help ISIS recruit more Muslims. But ISIS is here. and making the whole thing seem even more like a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. even melodramatic. because we got all freaked out about Al Qaeda and overreacted to it. (Wood.

But you could also argue that.newyorker. http://www. 7:42 PM leader believes that he is the eighth legitimate caliph. Wood considers a clear understanding of this apocalypticism very valuable—a primary reason that it’s worth dwelling on the group’s religious character. and that the apocalypse will happen during the reign of the twelfth. if something like an apocalypse is possible. putting undue emphasis on the group’s religious character could hasten it.com/news/news-desk/clash-civilizations-isnt Page 7 of 7 .The New Yorker 2/28/15.The Clash of Civilizations That Isn’t .