Recent weeks and months have witnessed a frustrated sense of déjà vu on the part of many Islamic Studies scholars in North America and Western Europe. In the wake of 11 September 2001, scholars of Islam were frequently called upon to explain the marginality of al-Qa`ida’s bellicose interpretation of the sources of the tradition and to argue against the substitution of this marginal vision for the whole of Islam. In his influential book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, anthropologist and historian Mahmood Mamdani articulated a comprehensive critique of “culture talk” about Islam, which seeks to account for Muslim politics on the basis of some ahistorical “cultural” essence. By tracing the political history of the United States’ sponsorship of the predecessors to al-Qa`ida in South Asia during the late Cold War, Mamdani argued that political violence demands a political explanation. Unfortunately, however, mass media depictions of Islam have yet to follow suit—in response to the media-savvy brutality of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known variously as ISIS, IS, and ISIL, commentators have trotted out the same simplistic, sensationalist clichés about Islam that were so pervasive in the years immediately following 11 September 2001. Bill Maher’s rant about ISIS, in which he characterized Islam as “the only religion that acts like the mafia,” is merely the most recent addition to the large roster of such caricatures.
It is thus unsurprising that many Islamic Studies scholars have experienced a sense of beleaguered exasperation in response to the latest round of media discourse about ISIS and Islam—has so little changed over the past decade? While there are undoubtedly multiple reasons for the persistence of Islamophobic clichés, they all depend on and recapitulate a fundamental assumption: that political violence on the part of Muslims expresses an essential characteristic of Islam in general. According to this essentialist logic, all specific instances of political violence are effects of a single underlying cause, and provoke the same, reductive question: “Why is Islam so violent?” This question engages in a sort of conceptual alchemy. It transforms a myriad of political questions about specific contexts and histories into a single moral question about Islam. Such moral interrogations of Islam are impervious to the insistence that groups such as ISIS do no represent Islam as a whole, precisely because they presuppose that the only possible representation of Islam in general is a violent one.
Moral interrogation of Islam in general cannot explain groups such as ISIS and their violence. On the contrary, it is incumbent on scholars and pundits alike to pursue the knotted political causes that give rise to political violence. In this respect, Mamdani’s argument concerning al-Qa`ida and political violence in South Asia is equally applicable to ISIS today. Just as al-Qa`ida was the outcome of a specific political history and context, so too is ISIS. Concomitantly, there is a political explanation for the violence committed by ISIS in the name of Islam. Such a political history is not easy to narrate, especially not in the lexicon of sound bites and pixels with which the mass media speaks. But in order to comprehend ISIS, this history must be told. Minimally, it entails an account of the decades of communitarian inequality and war in Iraq and Syria, where two Ba‘thist regimes—Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq and that of the Asad’s in Syria—yoked political representation and economic privilege to sectarian and ethnic identity, Sunni Arab in the case of Iraq and Alawite in the case of Syria. The sectarian resentments that have fueled ISIS’ advance stem from these two distinct histories: on the one hand, the reversal of political fortunes that Sunni Arab Iraqis have experienced since the fall of Saddam Hussein, and on the other, the grievances and sense of second-class citizenship on the part of marginalized Sunni subjects of the Asad regime. ISIS enjoys a degree of legitimacy in northern Iraq and Syria not because the resident Sunni Arabs of these areas are bloodthirsty lovers of beheadings—the moral explanation favored by the mass media—but because of their situation within these fraught political contexts and histories.
Beyond northern Mesopotamia, a second political context is also indispensable to understanding ISIS: that of the anomie and indignation experienced by many young urban Muslims, especially in Western Europe, who have responded to ISIS’ recruitment tactics. Although this collective sense of disenfranchisement subtends many of the events of Islamic terror over the past decade—the Madrid train bombings of 2004, the London underground bombing of 2005, the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013—its story has yet to be told in full. The political history of this disenfranchisement implicates multiple antagonists, and pivots on the role of social media and the Internet in broadcasting the spectacles of political violence to a global audience (even as the Internet has also offered a platform for Muslim leaders to speak out against ISIS). A fundamental aspect of this political context, however, is surely the multitude of limitations and failures of Euro-American multiculturalism and the keen awareness of these failures on the part of many Muslims. Unfortunately, criticism of multiculturalism—especially criticism sympathetic to the ambivalence that many Muslims feel in relation to its power—is anathema to most European and US audiences, for whom any unease over the dominant political arrangements in North Atlantic liberal democracies is tantamount to bloodthirsty barbarism, as the Rushdie Affair demonstrated long before 11 September 2001.
There is also a more mundane geopolitical point to be made in relation to moralizing discourse about ISIS and its political violence. Much ink has been spilled over the reluctance of “Western allies” in the Middle East—especially Turkey—to conduct military operations against ISIS. A chorus of right-wing commentators has even demanded Turkey’s expulsion from NATO as punishment for its waffling. Turkey’s AKP government has undeniably treated the siege of the Syrian border town of Kobani with an attitude of cynical realpolitik that has contributed directly to the renewed anguish and indignation of Turkey’s substantial Kurdish population. Nevertheless, it is naïve for American pundits and policy makers to expect Turkey and other regional actors to approach ISIS from the position of lofty moral indignation that characterizes Western media portrayals of the group. Such simplistic, moralizing discourse is not a luxury that actors at the center of this dense political quagmire can easily afford. One may agree or disagree with Turkey’s concern over the potential empowerment of the Kurdish-separatist guerrilla group, the PKK, as an effect of the battle against ISIS, and its insistence on toppling the Asad regime in Damascus. It is impossible to deny, however, that these are pivotal political issues—issues that cannot be addressed by moral panic over ISIS.
The difficulty of accounting for ISIS in political terms is a direct effect of the persistent force of moral discourse about Islam. There is immense pressure to react to ISIS’ violence on a purely moral basis, to be horrified by ISIS. This pressure does not result from the nature of ISIS’ violence itself so much as from the putative relationship between this violence and Islam. After all, violence committed in the interests of liberal democracy—the violence of drone attacks, to cite a pertinent case—does not provoke the same abhorrence and panic. Such violence is accepted as a political necessity, rather than condemned as barbarism. Conversely, violence on the part of Muslims is construed exclusively in moral terms; it is immensely difficult to articulate a political response to the violence of ISIS. This difficulty, this impasse, is the effect of a political context in its own right, one that has very little to do with ISIS itself (even as ISIS’ media mavens have adroitly exploited moral panic over Islam for their own political ends). Moral panic over Islam is politically effective in the United States and Western Europe, as it has been since 11 September 2001. To state this point clearly: A political response to ISIS is not politically viable in Western Europe and North America because moral panic dominates public representations of Islam. This political dominance of moral discourse about Islam accounts for absurd statements such as Roger Cohen’s insistence that “there is no why to the barbarism of ISIS.” Cohen’s assertion that ISIS is an avatar of pure evil only makes sense within a media environment already primed to essentialist caricatures of Islam and violence. In one respect, however, Cohen is right—there is no single why to ISIS. There are many whys. However, we can only attend to these multiple causes, these myriad whys, once we recognize the poverty of moral answers to political questions, and insist on proper political explanations instead.
[The author would like to thank Abdullah Al-Arian, Timur Hammond, Kimberly Hart, Kelda Jamison, and Noah Salomon for their precise commentary and advice on this essay.]