Talking past each other…

… or, at least, not listening.


Late last week, Jack Jenkins writing for the liberal-left ‘Think Progress’, posted ‘What the Atlantic Gets Dangerously Wrong About ISIS and Islam’ . This was in response to Graeme Wood’s ‘What ISIS Really Wants’ which appeared last Monday in the Atlantic and has had widespread distribution on the net.

Since then a few other critiques have also sprung up taking different angles but sharing in common the misrepresentation of Wood at crucial points. Undoubtedly this speaks more of the liberal/ conservative polarisation which dominates discourse in the US and, to some extent, Europe. Whatever motivates these articles, I for one, do not find them helpful.

As someone who has lived and worked in the Middle East and maintained an active interest, as well as the leader of a small church with close links to a sister church in Cairo, I want to make just a few comments on Jenkins’ response as a way calling others to be careful as they also respond.

If we’re using labels to promote our arguments, as Jenkins does, I need to also say I am neither “a right-wing conservative” (and, clearly, not a “so-called “New Atheist”). Moreover, you would have to be a halfwit not to see that the causes of ISIS’s rise are complex, multi-factorial and long-standing. I do, never-the-less, contra to Jenkins and others like him, think that Wood is right in asserting that:

* Western governments must understand the world-view that ISIS are working from if they are to understand its appeal and respond effectively

* that this world-view is religious in nature and is propelled by its eschatological interpretative framework

* ISIS is legitimately Islamic.

I have no doubt that Wood’s argument will continued to be misconstrued, if not misrepresented, by many to bolster their own views – to the left and right, secular or religious. I also have no doubt that some academics, as quoted by Jenkins, will do this as much as the “right wingers” whom Jenkins loathes and, ironically, Wood firmly criticises in his article. This doesn’t make Wood’s views “dangerous” (as Jenkins asserts), though they are disturbing – especially for those whose identity, political commitments and careers are wrapped up in opposing points of view.

What is dangerous, as Wood convincingly argues, is when the West fails to understand who they are dealing with – what motivates them, what they believe and don’t believe, what differentiates them from other Islamist groups and what they want.

Why is talking honestly and openly and respectfully about this important? Because whilst it is difficult to do so and open to misrepresentation (à la Jenkins), the secular narrative that so dominates our thinking has manifestly failed us in the Middle East and needs to be challenged.

For instance, no doubt Obama had wider political considerations in mind when he made his recent remarks at the ‘White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism‘. Yet there is also no doubt he also believes and uses this framework in his strategy for countering ISIS.


For Wood, this is both dangerous and unproductive since it fails to take seriously the self-understanding, and therefore the thinking and actions, of the players themselves.

Wood gives an example: “Our failure to appreciate the split between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and the essential differences between the two, has led to dangerous decisions.” In the case of American aid worker Peter Kassig, this resulted in his severed head being splattered across the internet. Yet as Wood points out, while “Kassig’s death was a tragedy” the US backed negotiations using Al Qaeda as intermediaries “would have been a bigger tragedy… [since]… a reconciliation… would have begun to heal the rift between the world’s two largest jihadist organizations.”

Perceptively, Wood also points to a deeper danger: “I suspect that most Muslims appreciated Obama’s [“this is not Islam”] sentiment: the president was standing with them against both Baghdadi and non-Muslim chauvinists trying to implicate them in crimes. But most Muslims aren’t susceptible to joining jihad. The ones who are susceptible will only have had their suspicions confirmed: the United States lies about religion to serve its purposes.”

Jenkins’ article misrepresents Wood at several other points. For example, Wood never says ISIS’s understanding of their faith is the only valid expression of Islam. In fact he clearly underscores the diversity within Islam. Far from “overlooking [Quranic teaching] promoting equality and tolerance” (Jenkins), Wood puts the case for “quietist Salafism” as a powerful “Islamic antidote to Baghdadi-style jihadism”.

If anything, then, in putting his case Wood could be accused of bias in the opposite direction since, in asserting quietist Salafism as a mainstream Islamist alternative, he carefully avoids pointing out Islam’s historical expansion by the sword – something ISIS regards as a positive and uses to dismiss Salafis.

Wood also both humbly qualifies his argument and makes Jenkins’ criticism superfluous when he writes: ‘Non-Muslims cannot tell Muslims how to practice their religion properly. But Muslims have long since begun this debate within their own ranks… It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State “a problem with Islam.” The religion allows many interpretations… yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counter-productive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them…”

Wood does argue, however, that it is difficult for Muslims to counter ISIS since they have to deal with what the Quran actually teaches. Here Jenkins is right in asserting hermeneutics is a key issue that could have done with a deeper treatment by Wood.

Wood’s stating of the stark choice facing Muslims in their reading of the Quran, of either embracing a literalism that takes no account of context, or accepting “core texts traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid”, is too simplistic.

Christianity has faced this challenge since the rise of the Marcionites in the second century. Marcion recognised there were problems with embracing all the teachings of the Hebrew bible – including violence. His solution was to throw the Old testament (as Christians now call it), overboard. Few accepted this.

The real challenge for Christianity came with the enlightenment and its children, humanism and modernism. The shackles of primitive superstition were shucked off and a self-determining rationalism embraced. There were to be no more European religious wars justified by a holy book – only Auschwitz, as it turned out.

Yet many Christians, then and now, have retained a high view of scripture as “God breathed” and morally authoritative without feeling the need to jettison large chunks of it, or all of it, as moderns have. This hasn’t been an easy or consistent journey. Many backward steps and stumbles have been made along the way and tragedy has ensued at great cost. No-one can throw stones here. Yet few Christians today would seek to justify genocide by reference to the bible.

Egyptian President Al Sisi’s “new Islam” seems at odds with Obama’s understanding of what is wrong in the Middle East.

Recently, speaking at Al Aazha – the seat of Islamic (Sunni) teaching and jurisprudence in Cairo – Egyptian President  Al Sisi called for a “new Islam”. His strong critique, only weakly applauded by the clerics present, never-the-less seemed at odds with Obama’s understanding of what is wrong in the Middle East.


Al Sisi said, “It is inconceivable that the wrong ideas that we sacralise should make the entire umma [Muslim community] a source of concern, danger, killing, and destruction for the whole world. This is not possible.” Nonetheless, that is what has occurred: “We have reached the point that Muslims have antagonized the entire world. Is it conceivable that 1.6 billion [Muslims] want to kill the rest of the world’s population of 7 billion, so that Muslims prosper?”

Wood’s article is nowhere near this line of argument. Yet Al Sisi bears witness to Wood’s assertion that Muslims recognise there is a problem with what has become of their religion and have already begun a discussion on alternatives – faith that holds on to the best and lets the rest go.

Perhaps both faiths, then, have something to teach the other. One thing is for sure. This can’t happen while the beheadings and crucifixions continue. Neither can it happen when moderns insist on the dominance of their narrative of how things happen and what should be.


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