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ISIS: The 'Islamic State' between Orientalism and the Interiority of MENA’s Intellectuals

[Child at a protest in Paris after the 2015 Islamic State attacks. Image by Gyrostat via Wikimedia Commons] [Child at a protest in Paris after the 2015 Islamic State attacks. Image by Gyrostat via Wikimedia Commons]

Is ISIS all about Islam, or about geopolitics? This dualism has framed the debate about ISIS among Western analysts, especially American ones. They have formed two camps, one sees in ISIS and its practices an irrefutable evidence of the “true face of Islam”; another insists that ISIS has nothing to do with “real Islam” and reduces it to a telltale backlash against imperialism and Western policies in the Middle East and North Africa (hitherto MENA). This dichotomous approach is one of a few angles through which ISIS has been dissected and analyzed in the United States,[i] but it has more significance than others because it is more common and involves high profile American polemicists, activists and intellectuals who have shaped the contours of this debate. Yet both camps of the ISIS debate, we argue, evoke Orientalism as a discourse that privileges Western knowledge of the East and sidelines or patronizes voices from the MENA region. Their concerns are Eurocentric, revolving around Islamophobia, with the first camp promoting it and the second fearing and battling it, thus turning the ISIS debate into one about the West and its own battles and polemics.

This piece aims to deconstruct the polarized analysis of ISIS as either political or religious, either sacred or worldly, and suggests that, in fact, it could be both. By shedding light on some of the intensive debates raging in MENA concerning ISIS, we argue that ISIS is both a product of MENA’s politics, both local and foreign, and a symptom of a specific religious culture that reflects current developments, clashes and debates within the abode of Islam. These derive their potency from a legitimacy crisis within a fragmented Sunni authority since the collapse of the Ottoman state, rising sectarian politics, and amateur literal interpretation of religious texts, etc. All are major concerns threatening the MENA region and beyond, and with which Arab and Muslim scholars, intellectuals, politicians and activists in MENA have been deeply engaged. To invoke these modern historical crises is not meant to render the rise of ISIS inevitable or self-evident but dismissing them and the debates in MENA about them is dangerous and shortsighted, and has led to the polarized impasse in the West on how to understand the rise of ISIS. It is time we move away from religious and geopolitical essentialisms, and take seriously MENA’s contested intellectual and political ground on which ISIS has been operating.

Thus, the purpose here is not to devise the endgame of the ISIS debate, declaring whether ISIS is more about politics or about religion, especially as the debate has unfolded in the West. ISIS, we contend, does not only exist to pander to its opponents of different forms and shapes both inside and outside MENA, but is also made, unmade and constructed by Arabs and Muslims in relationship to Islamic history, Islamic theology and regional politics, altogether. 

The Double-Edged Sword of Orientalism

As aforementioned, the analysis of ISIS in the United States has mostly pursued simplified schema (is ISIS political or religious?), with analysts sharply divided between two opposite camps. One, fixated on ISIS as a religious phenomenon, uses ISIS to bash Islam and Muslims, intentionally overlooking the fact that a poll after another show the unpopularity of ISIS among Arabs and Muslims.[ii] This camp reduces the complexities of MENA’s politics to pure religious and cultural factors while overlooking the wider context in which such violent movements emerge. Worst, it adopts “a holier than thou” attitude, ignoring not only the West’ s own history of violence but also the West’s current practices of violence (or complicity in such practices) around the world, not least in MENA. This camp’s knowledge of MENA societies is very remote, superficial and impressionist at best. Its crudest articulations come from right wing pundits such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter et al who are best described as Islamophobes whose rhetoric is rooted in racism, intolerance and prejudice, rather than in a desire for open discussion. Not to underestimate or disregard their influence, we seek to open a discussion which transcends these limitations. Neither does it aim to engage with the New Atheist movement, another group within this camp. Championed by the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others, this movement has been particularly hostile to Islam and Muslims after 9/11. Harris’ statement that “Islam right now is the mother lode of bad ideas,” and Dawkins’ characterization of Islam as “the greatest force of evil today,” are products of Orientalist thinking in the Saidian sense. At their worst, the New Atheists, with their cultural supremacy and patronizing language, disguise an imperialist chauvinism. Asef Bayat qualifies this type of knowledge production in the West about the Muslim Middle East in particular as “neo-Orientalism,’” describing it as “more entrenched, multi-faceted, and harmful than its predecessor; it has fed into what is currently called ‘Islamophobia’.”

The other camp, alarmed by rising Islamophobia in the West and its poisonous and divisive rhetoric, sidelines Islam and the religious culture altogether from the discussion, foregrounding instead the analysis almost exclusively in MENA’s politics and economics, and in the Western powers’ foreign policies in the region. This camp is characterized by deeper knowledge of MENA’s history and societies and the complex nature of its contemporary politics. It consists of academics, journalists and online activists, both Muslims and non-Muslims. Yet this camp falls short of capturing all sides of the story informing the making of ISIS and does not cut deep enough into the various religious and intellectual milieus brewing in MENA. This can be due to ideological positions dismissing the significance and importance of religious worldviews, or to limited or partial experiences with the daily realities of MENA’s societies, or simply to lack of access to the different forms of local production of knowledge. Yet perhaps the main reason this camp is adamant about negating any connection between Islam and ISIS is the fear of pandering to Islamophobes. From that perspective, this camp risks practicing its own form of Orientalism in the way it discusses ISIS not so much as a problem in MENA but one about the West, its concerns, and internal politics. It speaks as an “authority” on the subject while overlooking voices and opinions from MENA that better represent the realities on the ground and offer a more critical analysis of ISIS that goes beyond the geopolitical dimensions. In sidelining such voices, this camp is denying the interiority that MENA’s intellectuals and scholars provide and is also painting a homogenous picture of MENA’s intellectual landscape, suppressing the variety and diversity of opinions and different levels of engagement in the region.

A good example of this camp’s narrative remains the debate that followed the March 2015 publication of the Atlantic article “What ISIS Really wants.” The article itself, with its generalizations and analytical shortcomings, suffers from crude Orientalism. For example, the author’s statement that “the religion preached by [IS]’ ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam,” is extremely flawed as it does not allow for different qualities of Islamic thought. To the contrary, ISIS’ interpretations are neither coherent nor learned, fall outside of juristic consensus and betray historical precedents. The author’s emphasis on ISIS’ “medieval religious nature” fails to see the complicity of modernity and modern institutions in the creation of phenomena like ISIS. But this article also revealed the shortsightedness of American critical commentary in general. The author, while acknowledging that nearly all Muslims reject the Islamic State, warns not to pretend “that [ISIS] isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted.” This characterization of ISIS as a religious group with a theology drew fierce criticism and raised the ire of many analysts, especially in the United States. Among those was the Iranian-American scholar Hamid Dabashi at Columbia University. His rebuttal best showcases this camp’s well-intended yet misleading and flawed analysis, and best captures how the IS debate in the West is not really about ISIS per se and MENA’s daily realities; it is more about the West’s internal politics and its own forms of knowledge production regarding MENA. Dabashi asked: “What utter stupidity might cause a person to ignore the world in which we live, and in which we have lived, and engage in the mind-numbing banality of searching for a ‘theology’ for the IS group?”[iii] That theology would even be considered as part of the identity and overall ideology of ISIS is an affront to him; it is dismissed out of hand. Surely, theology is not the main or only drive behind ISIS, but denying its existence denies reality. Regardless of the regional and foreign politics shaping the emergence of ISIS, ISIS defines itself in religious terms, it vies for and fiercely rivals other groups over religiously sanctioned authority, and dutifully and conscientiously anchors itself and its vision in religious texts. ISIS’ worldview, even if cultic, is a religiously-informed one par excellence while at the same time ISIS remains, first and foremost, a political organization with political goals. Not to acknowledge the presence of theology is not only an exercise in self-denial; it is also an outright dismissal of ISIS’ victims who are enslaved, maimed, tortured and executed, all in the name of the theology – as particular or extreme as it may be -- that ISIS adopts. Dabashi’s refutation was purely reactionary, lacking engagement and insight. It seems he wanted to deny ISIS a theology to challenge the Islamophobes nodding approvingly,  for their own sinister goals, at the Atlantic article.

ISIS and the Debate Within

To be sure, one can find parallel narratives in MENA to those in the West, insofar as they emphasize the political or the religious. While there is no shortage of voices in MENA that argue, not unlike many analysts in the West, that ISIS does not represent Islam, a closer look at the debates about ISIS among intellectuals in MENA reveals richer discussions that do not neatly fit the analytical categories of the political and the religious, the modern and the medieval produced in the West. They offer more self-critical analyses than, say, an official –and largely discredited- institution like al-Azhar does, and do not shy away from questioning the essence of the religious worldview informing ISIS and the significance of certain religious texts and interpretations --regardless of any lack of consensus around them-- in shaping groups such as ISIS.

Some of those critics belong to religious establishments but most of them do not; some of them are wedded, personally, to a religious worldview while others not necessarily so. Yet they all draw on discussions and terminology deeply engrained in Islamic history, jurisprudence and theology. They include Adonis, Sa‘d bin Tifla al-‘Ajami, al-Tahir Amin, Aziz al-Azmeh, Khalid Ghazal, Hasan Hanafi, Rosa Yasin Hasan, Ibtihal al-Khatib, ‘Amir Muhsin, Muhammad Shahrour, Sayyid al-Qumani, and others. The periodical Al-Awan alone, edited by George Tarabishi, has a whole slate of articles by Arab intellectuals dissecting the theological underpinnings of ISIS.

For these critics, theology is foundational to ISIS (as ISIS itself professes it to be) rather than decorative, thus continuing historically informed debates among Muslims regarding the tension between `aql (reason) and naql (transmission of knowledge), between a literal and an analytical interpretation of religious texts, and the influence of Wahhabism and proto-Salafi movements on contemporary Muslim societies. None of those analysts ignores or dismisses the impact of political and economic factors on the emergence of political violence in MENA, currently most strikingly embodied by ISIS, but they have no qualms identifying and criticizing the theology driving ISIS’ vision, and the religious culture that shapes and informs its acts, policies and behavior. Their analysis is built on the intertwining of politics and theology, not their dualism.

The arguments the authors make are not ad hoc or new. They are weighing in on a wider and older discussion concerning the authority of the religious text in Islam, the heavy weight of the religious heritage in the present, and the dangerous intertwining of religion and politics in Islam. While they may differ one from the other on some details, they are taking part in ongoing discussions about Islam and politics in MENA since the fall of the Ottoman order. One can trace a genealogy of this critical thought to the early history of Islam. But in more practical and pertinent terms, one can start with ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq (d. 1966) and his book al-Islam wa Usul al-Hukm (Islam and the Foundations of Governance), in which he refuted the idea of religious governance in Islam. This chain of reformist thought includes many, such as ‘Abd Allah al-‘Alayli (d. 1996), Nasr Hamid Abi Zayd (d. 2010), Muhammad Arkoun (d. 2010), Jamal al-Banna (d. 2013), Muhammad ‘Abid al-Jabiri (d. 2010), Nawal al-Sa‘dawi, and many others, Islamists or seculars, who have criticized both the sacredness with which the religious heritage is held and the dangerous implications of a theology tangled with politics. An acknowledgment of the current criticism by Arab authors of the theological underpinnings of ISIS should be seen as a tribute to a long-standing reformist thought indigenous to MENA and concerned about the region’s present and future.

MENA societies are too diverse for one or more groups to represent them, and their opinions too varied and too variable to be captured by one view or the other, by one writer or another. Therefore measuring the influence as well as the level of representation of those critical voices is a futile exercise. But what those debates and opinions reveal is a diverse and rich discussion of contemporary Islam and Muslim societies that defies the homogenous image of MENA portrayed by some of those who speak on behalf of the region in the West and that reflects Western concerns rather than local ones. Moreover, such a consideration betrays a critical analysis of MENA’s intellectual landscape at a time of colossal crisis in the region and preempts the desperate need for an appreciation of critical thought in MENA. In fact, ignoring or dismissing those voices not only undermines the scale of the crisis –and the reactions to it - within the abode of Islam but also perpetuates an Orientalist view of Muslim societies as static, apathetic and lethargic, as if lacking in a critical intellectual tradition that can engage contemporary problems in contemporary terms. By paying attention to what intellectuals in MENA are saying about ISIS, scholars and commentators in the West can develop a far superior framework for understanding and engaging ISIS than the two camps have managed.


[A longer version of this article will appear as a co-authored chapter by Amal Ghazal and Larbi Sadiki, in
The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Middle-Eastern and North African History, edited by Amal Ghazal and Jens Hanssen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).]



[i] One distinctive angle, mostly revealed on the pages of The New Yorker and The Guardian, has viewed IS through the visceral and personalized lens of families in the West impacted by IS and its propaganda of a utopian/dystopian idealism. This discussion is not focused on Orientalist representations or geopolitical metrics but on the real threat posed by IS as an actual organization. See, for example, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/06/five-hostages; http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/06/01/journey-to-jihad and http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/what-happens-to-former-isis-fighters; http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/18/isis-islamic-state-mothers-for-life

[ii] Even the Washington Institute for Near East Policy acknowledged that fact: http://fikraforum.org/?p=5608.

[iii] See also, along those same lines, the Salon article by Haroon Moghul, http://www.salon.com/2015/02/19/the_atlantics_big_islam_lie_what_muslims_really_believe_about_isis/

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