Talking ‘Bout The True Believers
Sam Harris and Graeme Wood discuss the Islamic State.
This story was originally posted on author Sam Harris’s blog.
Graeme Wood writes for The Atlantic, where he covers a wide range of subjects, including education, science, books, and politics, and he has reported frequently from the Middle East since the early 2000s. In the March issue of the magazine, he published a lengthy investigation of the ideology of the so-called Islamic State—which included the controversial claim that the Islamic State is, despite its deep unpopularity with most Muslims, Islamic.
Wood was kind enough to speak with me at great length on this topic.—SH
Harris: You’ve interviewed me at least once before, Graeme. I’m sure of that, because I remember physically choking you. So it’s fun to turn the tables and get a chance to ask you a few questions.
Wood: It’s my pleasure. And you’re right: The last time I saw you, you were in a position to murder me, but you resisted. I owe you a favor.
Harris: Well, it’s good to stay out of prison, if nothing else. However, I’m afraid the abuse won’t end there. It now strikes me that doing a proper interview is a little bit like cutting another person’s hair: It looks easy until you get the scissors in your hand. Given that I’m not a journalist, I think you should expect an impressive lack of professionalism from me here.
For those who may not be familiar with you, let’s start with your background. As I recall, you have a long-standing interest in the Middle East. You also have a habit of traveling halfway around the world to talk to obnoxious people.
Wood: I started in journalism at The Cambodia Daily, in Phnom Penh, when I was 19. In 2002, I moved to the Middle East and started freelancing. I traveled to almost every country in the region, learned enough Arabic and Persian to get around and do spot interviews, and spent most of my time in Egypt and Iraq. I was last in Iraq in late 2012, when I did a solo trip from south to north, from the Faw Peninsula near Basra all the way to Kurdistan, including into Mosul, before its invasion by the Islamic State.
Harris: Did you understand how dangerous that was, or was soon to be, at the time?
Wood: I had no idea that Mosul would soon collapse. But in the couple of days I was there, I visited a military base I had known during the American occupation. It had become a ghost town, as if the Iraqi soldiers who were supposed to be securing the city had been raptured up. Given how derelict it looked, I wasn’t completely surprised that ISIS, as the Islamic State was called at the time, was able to overrun the city. The Iraqi army didn’t even seem to be present where you’d expect them to be barracked.
Harris: So you’ve spent a fair amount of time in the region as a journalist. And the most recent product of these labors is the current cover story in The Atlantic on the Islamic State. Congratulations on producing such a fine piece. I must say it came as a relief to finally read the plain truth in print, which is a strange thing to say, given how horrible the truth is. But your article meets a need that was just not being fulfilled. Almost no one in the media has been willing to draw a straight line between the religious ideology that members of the Islamic State espouse and their barbaric behavior—which, while absolutely shocking in its details, isn’t remotely surprising, given what they believe. I recommend that our readers immediately read your Atlantic essay as background to this conversation, if they haven’t already.
How has the article been received?
Wood: I’m pleased to see that it has baffled a lot of people. Much of the initial wave of reaction has come from people who desperately wanted it to say one thing or another, and who reacted by assuming that it fell into their predetermined classifications of pieces about politics, Islam, or terrorism. It is gratifying to write a story so resistant to classification that people have to pretend it says things it doesn’t just so that it fits in their mental categories.
Many enemies of Islam, and I consider you one of them even though I exempt you from this charge of misreading, have wanted to read the story as claiming that Islam is responsible for terror, or that ISIS is Islam. In fact it denies these claims explicitly and has a long section about literalist Muslim objections to ISIS. Many Muslims have, ironically, read the piece in exactly the same way, assuming it blames Islam for ISIS. That misreading, I think, is because it’s easier to argue against the anti-Islam point of view than to reckon with the possibility that Islam contains multitudes, like other religions, and that some of them are very, very nasty indeed, even though they share the same texts as the not-nasty ones. People are also frustrated by the fact that the piece discusses religion but has no time for talk of a “clash of civilizations,” and in fact argues that one of our main policy goals should be to avoid this. Finally, some readers are desperate to see my article as a portrayal of Muslims as savages, and cannot process that I am actually arguing something like the opposite, and specifically about ISIS. Its members aren’t brainless brutes who cannot think—that’s the Orientalist view, and ironically it’s the view that a lot of people who would call themselves anti-Orientalists take when reading the piece. ISIS members are often highly sophisticated people, just as capable of intelligent critical thought as anyone else. They are simply evil.
Then, finally, there’s the very interesting reaction of people who condemn the article for being “Islamophobic” in effect if not in intent, because people who hate Muslims will use it and ignore the parts about Muslims’ overwhelming rejection of ISIS. I’ll just say that Muslims, of all people, should be wary of assigning guilt to texts because of how they’re invoked by hate-filled people.
Harris: We’ll get into all of those things. And I’m really looking forward to this discussion. But I should clarify this notion that I’m an “enemy of Islam.” Granted, I’ve not always been as careful as I now am when speaking on this topic, so I’ve earned the label. One could certainly say that as a vocal atheist, I’m an enemy of all religion. So, in that sense, I’m an enemy of Islam too. But for the purposes of a conversation like this, I’m actually an enemy of “Islamism,” not Islam per se. Islamism, as you know, is the desire on the part of a minority of Muslims to impose their religion on the rest of society (and jihadis are the minority of Islamists who attempt to do so by force). Anyone who’s not an Islamist himself must be an enemy of that project, whether he thinks about these things or not.
The distinction between Islam and Islamism is important. I’ve just written a short book with the Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance (Harvard University Press, June 2015). When talking to Maajid, my primary goal wasn’t to win the fight against Islam in favor of unbelief. Rather, it was to honestly discuss the problem of Islamism and to find some way of addressing it. Of course, I had a few critical things to say about mainstream Islam too, but I’m under no illusions that our near-term objective is to persuade 1.6 billion Muslims to give up their religion and declare themselves atheists. However, as with many religions, the boundary between beliefs that appear benign and those that suddenly prove dangerous isn’t so easy to find. My main concern is always to look at the role that specific unfounded ideas are playing in the world, and to counter the ones that seem most harmful.
Let’s talk about the Islamic State. As you point out, many people allege that it isn’t Islamic. Happily, your article makes it clear how delusional that claim is. As you know, I didn’t need any convincing on this point. From the moment the Islamic State emerged, it felt almost as if I had invented it as some kind of thought experiment to prove that everything I wrote in The End of Faith was true. These people are a crystalline example of the problem I described in that book—as is the response of liberal apologists who have been saying that their behavior has nothing to do with Islam. Rather, we’re told that burning people alive in cages, crucifying children, and butchering journalists and aid workers is an ordinary human response to political and economic instability. Even representatives of our own State Department assert this. I can’t imagine how comically out of touch with reality we appear from the side of the jihadis.
However, even for someone like me, who didn’t need to be convinced of the connection between jihadism and religion, there was much to learn in your article. And so, again, I urge our readers go back and read it.
You begin your essay by summarizing the confusion that many people experience on this topic, and you cite comments by Major General Michael Nagata, the Special Operations Commander for the US in the Middle East. He is on record as admitting, I believe in a closed-door session, that he didn’t understand the appeal of the Islamic State. Specifically, he said “We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.”
I remember reading that in the New York Times and getting furious. I take your point in the article that jihadism is not monolithic, and there are both religious and political differences among many of these groups. But if there is anything in this world that is not a secret—if there is any intellectual or moral problem that just solves itself—it is this question of what is appealing about joining a group like the Islamic State for a person who actually believes in the Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad. It’s about as psychologically mysterious as my daughter’s wanting to go to the ice cream store. I can’t say that I’ve defeated the idea, but I absolutely understand it.
It’s one thing for the president to deny the link between religious belief and jihadism in public—that’s a propaganda campaign that seems doomed to fail—but it’s another to learn that our military leaders are expressing confusion about this behind closed doors. I find that terrifying. Perhaps you can comment on this background set of facts before we get into the details of your article.
Wood: I’ve had people come to me after the piece appeared and ask me how I got this information, as if the information were difficult to find. It was kind of them to assume that I had to work very hard to get it. But as anyone who watches the Islamic State closely knows, it manufactures propaganda at an industrial pace, and its members are eager to explain themselves. They publish fatwas in Arabic and many other languages represented among the foreign fighters. And they take great pains to describe why they do what they do.
These fatwas and religious edicts are produced by a council of scholars. ISIS has learned men working on these issues and putting out judgments using texts within the discourse and traditions of Islam. They’re not discussing whether something is right in a vague, secular sense. They are using the language of Islam and drawing, indisputably, upon its traditions of religious discourse, especially the Qur’an and the hadīth (the sayings of the Prophet) and the lives of Muhammad’s first followers.
Because there have been so many kidnappings and public executions of journalists, it’s easy to assume that to report on the Islamic State requires some kind of derring-do, or a willingness to expose oneself to danger. I didn’t have to go to the Islamic State at all, and I think it would have been fatal to do so. Instead I went to London and to Melbourne.
There are people walking the earth as free men who speak with a voice that, as far as I can tell, is indistinguishable from that of the Islamic State. The discourse and language they use, the modes of justification, all fall within the traditions of Islam. I use the word “traditions” in the plural advisedly, because these are traditions they have chosen at the expense of others that are preferred by the vast majority of Muslims around the world.
To say that they are “Islamic” could mean one of two things. It could mean that they fall into this diverse and contradictory traditions of Islam, or it could mean—as I think a lot of people want it to—that they express the one true Islam. I take no position on that second point, but I can clearly say on the first one that they are well within the bounds of what has historically been considered part of Islam. They believe there is one god, and that Muhammad is his messenger, and that the holy texts are the Qur’an and the hadīth. By any rational standard, they are Muslims—maybe bad Muslims, but Muslims anyway.
Harris: I think I should comment on this distinction, because I’m often accused of taking that second line and alleging that the true Islam is the faith of the jihadis. Then I’m accused of doing the terrorist’s work for him by propagandizing for this intrinsically intolerant version of the faith. But that’s not actually what I do. I grant that there are many possible readings of the Qur’an and the hadīth. There’s simply no question that many different traditions have emphasized one reading or another. All I argue is that there are more or less plausible, more or less straightforward, more or less comprehensive readings of any scripture. And the most plausible, straightforward, and comprehensive readings tend to be the more literalistic, no matter how self-contradictory the text. So, for instance, when it says in the Qur’an (8:12), “Smite the necks of the infidels,” some people may read that metaphorically, but it’s always tempting to read it literally. In fact, a line like that fairly cries out for a literal reading. Of course, some Muslims believe that such violent passages must be read in their historical context. But it seems even more natural to assume that the words of God apply for all time. So it’s no accident that the Islamic State has made a cottage industry of decapitation.
In my view, one really can’t blame the religious dogmatist for resorting to literalism once he has accepted the claim that a given book is the perfect word of the Creator of the universe, because nowhere in these books does God counsel a metaphorical or otherwise loose interpretation of His words. In fact, many scriptures contain passages that explicitly forbid that kind of reading.
But, like you, I don’t take a position on there being one true interpretation of scripture. It’s just that there are plausible readings and less so, and to my eye the Islamic State is giving a very plausible reading of the Qur’an and the hadīth. That’s a terrible problem, because one can’t stand up and say that this behavior is un-Islamic. Of course one can do this, as President Obama repeatedly has—but his denials sounded about as credible as those of one former president the moment images of a semen-stained dress appeared on the evening news. One publicly flouts the obvious at one’s peril.
However, more important than the connection to scripture is the fact that the people who are devoting their lives to waging jihad really believe what they say they believe, however those ideas got into their heads. The psychological problem that secularists must overcome is the basic doubt that anyone believes in paradise. I’ve actually had anthropologists and other overeducated people look me in the eye and insist that no onebelieves in martyrdom and that even suicide bombers are merely concerned about politics, economics, and male bonding. Some experts on terrorism sincerely think that no one is ever motivated to act on the basis of religious ideas. I find this astonishing.
Wood: I am not a social scientist, but I see two important, contradictory tendencies in social science, and they’re relevant here. One is to not take literally what people say and to think more deeply about root causes, especially material ones, that explain people’s spiritual, theological, ideological statements—
Harris: Don’t lose your train of thought—I warned you, I’m not a journalist. I just want to point out that this effort to get at root causes only ever runs in one direction. No one doubts the political and economic justifications that people give for their behavior. When someone says, “Listen, I murdered my rich neighbor because I knew he kept a pile of money in a safe. I wanted that money, and I didn’t want to leave a witness,” nobody looks for an ulterior explanation for that behavior. But when someone says, “I think infidels and apostates deserve to burn in hell, and I know for a fact that I’ll go to paradise if I die while waging jihad against them,” many academics refuse to accept this rationale at face value and begin looking for the political or economic reasons that they imagine lie beneath it. So the game is rigged.
Wood: Yes. However, the countervailing current in social science is the tradition in ethnography and anthropology of taking seriously what people say. And this can lead to the exact opposite of the materialist, “root causes” approach. When Evans-Pritchard, for example, talks about witchcraft among the Azande, he’s describing exactly what they say and showing that it’s an internally consistent view of the world. This is something that anthropology has done quite well in the past, and it gives us a model for how we can listen to jihadis and understand them without immediately assuming that they are incapable of self-knowledge.
What I’m arguing for in the piece is not to discard either type of explanation but to remember the latter one and take the words of these ISIS people seriously. Even though at various points in the past we’ve ignored political or material causes, this doesn’t mean that ideology plays no role, or that we should ignore the plain meaning of words.
Of course, we don’t know what people actually think. Maybe they’re self-deluded; maybe they don’t really believe in the literal rewards of martyrdom. We can’t know; we’re not in their heads. But this lack of knowledge cuts both ways. Why do so many people instantly resort, with great confidence, to a material explanation—even or especially when the person himself rejects it? It’s a very peculiar impulse to have, and I consider it a matter of dogma for many people who study jihadists.
Harris: Yes, especially in cases where a person meets none of the material conditions that are alleged to be the root causes of his behavior. We see jihadis coming from free societies all over the world. There are many examples of educated, affluent young men joining organizations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State who lack any discernible material or political grievances. They simply feel a tribal connection to Muslims everywhere, merely because they share the same religious identity. We are seeing jihadis travel halfway around the world for the privilege of dying in battle who have nothing in common with the beleaguered people of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, or Somalia whose ranks they are joining, apart from a shared belief in the core doctrines of Islam.
The other side of this coin, of course, is that even the most grotesque, seemingly nihilistic actions of the Islamic State become perfectly rational—which is to say, straightforwardly self-interested—given the requisite beliefs. Once you imagine what it would be like to actually believe in paradise, and in martyrdom as the surest way of getting there, it becomes obvious why someone would want to join the Islamic State. If a person truly believes that the Creator of the universe wants him to wage war against the evil of unbelief and that the Islamic State is the very tip of His spear, he has to be insane not to join the cause.
Wood: And that’s really one of the things that social sciences have triumphed in doing: explaining that within certain boundaries, rationalities lie behind what at first looks like mere craziness or barbarity. Just calling behavior craziness is a trap that a lot of ISIS-watchers have fallen into. If you see members of the Islamic State as thrill-kill nihilists, then you’re not giving them enough credit.
It’s very difficult to sit across from one of these people and listen to his scholarly, often fascinating, view of history and then walk away thinking, “Oh, that person is simply crazy. He needs to be in an asylum.” Such a person has specific premises, and his conclusions follow plausibly from them. I think we should pay him the compliment of acknowledging his underlying rationality.
Harris: Yes, but nor are these people “simply evil,” as you stated at the beginning of this conversation. Calling them “evil” can be as misleading as calling them “crazy.” I’m sure jihadism is selecting for thrill seekers and psychopaths to some degree. But I doubt that it’s a large variable. If 1% of the general population is suffering from psychopathy, let’s nudge that up to 10% for the Islamic State—an increase that would still do nothing to explain the larger phenomenon.
I see no reason to think that most jihadis are psychologically abnormal. The truth is far more depressing: These are mostly normal people—fully capable of love, empathy, altruism, and so forth—who simply believe what they say they believe.
Wood: I take your point. But since what they say they believe in is the goodness of slavery, crucifixion, and public executions of street magicians, as shorthand I will continue to call them “crazy.”
Harris: Of course. We can call them “evil,” too—for they are guilty of immense evil. I just don’t want people to be confused about what’s really going on here. Normal people, under the sway of bad ideas, are capable of anything.
No doubt you saw that Vice documentary on the Islamic State that was released on YouTube. It seems to have been made just a few weeks before the Islamic State revealed how hostile it was going to be toward journalists. They hadn’t killed James Foley yet. Were those Vice guys the luckiest people on earth?
Wood: The Vice journalist was Muslim, and I think that matters. And the Islamic State is not totally shut off: When I started talking with its supporters in London, one of them asked me, “Why don’t you go there?” His second question was, “Why don’t you go there and take me with you?” He wanted to immigrate and to show me how wonderful life was there. I told him exactly why I wouldn’t go. (The conversation turned surreal very rapidly, about the time I patiently explained that I did not want to be beheaded. Sometimes these things seem to need to be vocalized.) And he understood. But he said, “Look, if you approach the Islamic State and you say, This is my purpose for coming: I want to see the following things; I want you to tell me about the following things; and I want your guarantee of safety while I’m there, they will give you that if they decide it’s worth their time to cooperate with you.”
Harris: That wouldn’t surprise me at all. However, I don’t recommend you put the theory to the test.
Wood: As you may know, in at least one instance they have made good on that promise. An eccentric German former magistrate named Jürgen Todenhöfer went to the Islamic State and returned with extraordinary footage. He came back agreeing that its members are serious about religion. They acted like true believers, and they didn’t break character during his trip.
Harris: I do remember that. Todenhöfer also made it very clear that the foreign recruits who are coming to join the Islamic State are not beleaguered, hopeless dropouts, but bright-eyed “winners,” as he put it, who are absolutely convinced of the truth of their religious beliefs.
Wood: Yes. There’s a lot of mystery about the day-to-day life of the Islamic State, despite all the social media messages that are coming out, and a lot of willingness to credit a view of these people as barbarians—not just moral barbarians but truly babbling, inhuman types. For example, the whole idea of this Jihad al-Nikah—the “sex jihad,” whereby devoted young women offer themselves sexually to mujahedin in Syria—I think is a fiction. I don’t think these people would do that. What proof do I have? Only that it seems out of character, and that the evidence that it’s happening doesn’t look strong either.
But journalists and other outsiders are willing to believe things about these people. Some commentators will just straight-up lie about ISIS. There was a widely cited op-ed in The Guardian by a sociologist named Kevin McDonald who argued that rather than trace the intellectual origins of the Islamic State to medieval Islam, we should trace them to revolutionary France.
Harris: I’m glad I missed that one.
Wood: You can make the argument that ISIS is reactive to modern borders, and that such borders are a construct of modern states that owed their existence to certain historical trends in early modern Europe. However, his argument was based on the claim that in his inaugural sermon in Mosul, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi quoted from Maududi, a Pakistani Islamist, at length. McDonald used the word “quoted.” That speech is everywhere. It’s very easy to find. There’s not a single quote from Maududi in it. There’s no quote at all. McDonald just made it up. This, as far as I can tell, is an example of a lie in the service of a predetermined dogma about a group that’s very easy to caricature and misunderstand.
Harris: I now have a rogues’ gallery in my mind of pseudo-liberals, both Muslim and not, who are reflexive apologists for theocracy. These people will deny, at every turn, the link between deeply held religious convictions and bad behavior. According to them, all the mayhem we see in the Middle East is “blowback.” Everything is a product of our callous meddling in the affairs of other countries. We have no enemies in the world but the ones we’ve made for ourselves by being bad actors and rapacious guzzlers of oil. Many of these people appear to have been bewitched by Noam Chomsky.
Wood: Part of this might be love of the underdog. Next to the United States, which is such a prosperous country and so lucky in so many ways, everyone looks like an underdog, especially anyone coming out of one of these terrible regions like Syria or Iraq.
Harris: I have no doubt that’s true, although I would then ask, Why don’t we hear similar apologies for North Korea coming from this same group of liberals?
Wood: That’s an interesting comparison. I think one clear difference is that it’s easier to imagine the Islamic State fighters wearing Che Guevara caps and acting as some kind of grassroots phenomenon. Whereas if you try to do the same with North Korea, the comparison is obviously inapt, because North Korea has all the styling of a fascist state, complete with uniforms and goose-stepping. The Islamic State is a fascist organization too. It exists only to forbid everything that isn’t required. But it does have recent origins in a Zapata-like movement, in the sense that some of its members are people of the land, who recently experienced great woe at the hands of their governments. It’s difficult to cast North Korea in that kind of light.
Harris: Do you have other ideas about why it’s so tempting for liberals to ignore the link between jihadism and religious belief?
Wood: There’s also a deep urge to deny agency to the Islamic State, and I think it’s fundamentally connected to a reluctance to see non-Western people as fully developed and capable of having intelligent beliefs and enough self-knowledge to express them. These people articulate well-thought-out reasons for what they do. And yet ignoring what they say somehow gets camouflaged in the minds of liberals as speaking up for them. It’s delusional.
Harris: Again, the fact that most jihadis are generally rational, even psychologically normal, and merely in the grip of a dangerous belief system is, in my view, the most important point to get across. And it is amazing how resolutely people will ignore the evidence of this. Justin Bieber could convert to Islam tomorrow, spend a full hour on 60 Minutesconfessing his hopes for martyrdom and his certainty of paradise, and then join the Islamic State—and Glenn Greenwald would still say his actions had nothing to do with the doctrine of Islam and everything to do with U.S. foreign policy.
Tell me a little more about what it was like to interview Musa Cerantonio and Anjem Choudary.
Wood: Anjem Choudary is a fixture on Fox News. He talks to Sean Hannity, and many people would say that those two deserve each other. He’s known for screaming about the greatness and supremacy of shari’ah.But I had no interest in the screaming. Instead, I wanted details. We had a lucid, friendly exchange about what he believed a fully shari’ah-compliant caliphate would look like. I found him articulate, informed, and pleasant company in this regard. When I say “informed,” I mean he had answers to all my questions. They might not have been the right answers, but he was able to answer pretty much everything I could come up with about the Islamic State, about how it looks and why it’s so wonderful.
And he did this unflinchingly, even when he was endorsing what I would call rape or slavery—what even he would call slavery, in fact. This was not a tough call for him. If he has any compunction about these practices, it was completely undetectable. That was not true of some others I’ve interviewed who have literalist views of Islam. To be in the presence of someone who can say, in this modern day, that slavery is a good thing and that to deny its goodness is an act of apostasy was a very unsettling experience.
Harris: Presumably, he thinks that in a normative condition of a caliphate, you would be put to death, perhaps several times over. But I can imagine that given the social demands of meeting a stranger and having an ordinary conversation, none of this intolerance bled through in the form of interpersonal ill will.
Wood: Well, the question of whether he thinks I should be put to death turns out to be a little bit more complicated. He certainly thinks that Americans are fair game, given that America is attacking the Islamic State. That said, he can imagine places for non-Muslims in the Islamic State. One place is slavery. Another place is dhimmitude, a condition of acknowledged subjugation for Jews and Christians, whereby they pay a tax and get the protection of the caliphate. These are the conditions that he could imagine for me.
But we had a cordial conversation, and he even bought me cookies and sweets. I pointed out to him, “Look, the Islamic State, which you seem to be entirely in favor of, counsels its adherents to poison infidels, and now you’re giving me food. Is this something I should be worried about?” And his answer, of course, was entirely prudential. He said, “Is Islam going to be better off if Anjem Choudary goes to prison for the rest of his life because he poisoned some journalist who just wanted to talk to him about the faith?” This was roughly how Cerantonio responded as well, and neither of them was rude to me, let alone violent.
Harris: Well, I’m chagrined that this was also the reason I gave for not choking you to death in our first interview. But I happened to be joking.
Wood: I’ve never heard Choudary disavow anything the Islamic State has said or done. So I assume he agrees with the proclamation that had recently been issued at that point, saying that those who pledged allegiance to the caliph should run down Frenchmen with their Citroëns, poison the wells of Brits, or at least spit in the faces of infidels if they were constrained from doing anything more serious.
Harris: Presumably, Choudary thinks homosexuals should be put to death, and polytheists as well.
Wood: Well, polytheists can be enslaved.
Harris: Of course. Interfaith dialogue is a wonderful thing.
Wood: And about homosexuals being put to death, there’s an interesting point there, too. Choudary and Musa Cerantonio, the Australian, are both prevented by law from saying what they really think. Cerantonio was most explicit about this: Saying that one supports the Islamic State is essentially copping to being a member of a terrorist organization, and then one can be put in jail. So they danced around the issue a bit. In Choudary’s case, saying that homosexuals should be put to death could be considered illegal in the United Kingdom. So he’d have to say it in a general kind of way, rather than say, “Let’s stone Stephen Fry.”
Harris: Why hasn’t Choudary gone to live in the Islamic State? Is there some hypocrisy there, or is he just legally barred from travel?
Wood: His passport has been confiscated. But he claims that he would go if he could. I think he very likely would. Certainly his followers have.
One of Choudary’s prize students, a man named Abu Rumaysah, was taken in by the police for questioning and told to return the next day with his passport. Needless to say, he didn’t go back to the police station. He got on a bus, went to Paris, and then made his way to Turkey. The day I saw Choudary, which was weeks after Abu Rumaysah’s departure from the UK, Abu Rumaysah tweeted out a photograph of himself with his newborn baby and a Kalashnikov. The hashtag read #GenerationCaliphate.
Harris: What is the solution to the problem of people like Anjem Choudary freely espousing terroristic views, propagandizing for a treasonous cause, advertising its merits, and effectively recruiting jihadis in the West? What do you think should be done about him, if anything?
Wood: I guess I’m exposing my American bias by saying that I don’t think he should be prevented from propagandizing at all. I think he should have the freedom to say exactly what he thinks, and I should have the freedom to listen to him. Having his speech curtailed would give him prestige.
Harris: Many people have wondered why Western governments don’t just deport people like this to the societies where they claim to want to live. Let’s forget for the moment the legal and diplomatic problems in doing that. If we could drop someone like Choudary in Iraq or Yemen or some other place and say “Good riddance,” do you think that would be counterproductive?
Wood: I think fulfilling his wish for a ticket to the Islamic State would be essentially neutral in effect. We would not miss him, and the Islamic State would gain very little—just a loudmouth who speaks fluent and articulate English and is beyond prime fighting age. But even if the balance were different, I’d still think it’s wrong to use the force of the government to police a person’s ideology or thoughts.
Harris: Yes, it would be a dangerous precedent to set, because which other ideas might become deportable offenses in the future? So I share your American intuitions here and think that people should be free to say absolutely anything they want to say. I think the laws against Holocaust denial that exist throughout much of Western Europe, for instance, are idiotic and totally counterproductive.
It also occurs to me that some governments may view people like Anjem Choudary as very useful, in that they act like bug lights for jihadis. I can imagine that if an intelligence service watched Choudary going about his day, it might get much more useful information than it would if he weren’t free to be a religious fanatic, calling for the destruction of the very society that guarantees him affordable medical care and safe working conditions.
Wood: This is a classic problem in dealing with terrorism. It’s a conflict between law enforcement and intelligence. If you let someone stay free and keep doing his stuff, however dangerous or illegal, he may lead you to bigger fish and so forth.
This tension comes up a lot when trying to study the Islamic State, because its members have such a robust social media presence that it’s a very useful way to get a sense of how they talk to each other and what they think about. However, the most common topic of conversation among their fanboys on Twitter is “Here’s my new account. It’s my 86th.”
Harris: Because their accounts keep getting deactivated?
Wood: Precisely. They’re unquestionably violating Twitter’s terms of service. Just as Twitter doesn’t want to show people having sex, it doesn’t want to show someone having his head sawed off. It’s not an unreasonable policy, but from the perspective of someone like me, who wants to know more about what members of the Islamic State think, it would be nice to be able to just read their posts.
Harris: We should note that the Islamic State has now called for Muslims to kill Twitter employees —including one of the founders, Jack Dorsey—in retaliation.
What do you think we should do about ISIS recruits who hold Western passports? Some have burned them, no doubt. And some will die over there, or simply never want to leave so happy a place. But what about the prospect that some hundreds, or even thousands, of Americans, Europeans, Australians, and so forth will return to their home countries fully steeped in the glories of jihad? What should we do about them?
Wood: I’m less worried than most about the Westerners who head over there. I absolutely guarantee there will be attacks in Europe, North America, and elsewhere perpetrated by returnees from the Islamic State. They will be horrific and will kill, I suspect, hundreds. But the orders of the caliphate are unequivocal: You should attack overseas only as an alternative to immigrating (what they call making hijrah) to the Islamic State. They are playing a long game, and are trying to stock up live bodies and talent in their state, so that they can prepare for an expansionary war and eventually the conquest of the Arabian Peninsula and Europe. This is a different project from the old al-Qaeda model of sending out suicide bombers from Afghanistan to the West to blow up trains, buses, and buildings. And although the Islamic State wants a civilizational war, of Muslims versus Crusaders, I think they’re consciously avoiding terrorist attacks on Western targets that would provoke too strong a response too soon. If they bombed the Super Bowl, they’d probably be looking at a ground invasion within weeks. They want the invasion, but on their own schedule.
There are two important things to be said about this. First, we have to get used to the idea that a certain number of people are going to be shredded or burned or shot to death in terrorist attacks. We should limit ISIS’s ability to attack, but also limit the effects of those attacks by not freaking out or disfiguring our politics or acting rashly just because some true believers shoot up a kindergarten. The attacks will be tragedies, but we have to accept that they are part of modern life, and keep their real effects in perspective.
Second, we should realize that many of those heading over there are going not to live but to die. Sure, some migrate with their families and intend to make a new life under a caliphate. But the most violent of them are put to use locally, as suicide bombers and soldiers for the Islamic State against its immediate enemies, such as the Iraqi army. That is bad for our allies but good for us, so I could even imagine a policy whereby Islamic State supporters are allowed to go and to fight, and we bomb them to smithereens, and everyone’s happy, especially the dead guys. One might even say that that strategy resembles the one implemented right now.
The ones who survive may well come back, and that will be a major security issue. I hope I’m not being unduly optimistic when I say that I think many of them will have soured on the caliphate after discovering how oppressive and iniquitous it is, and after realizing that there are no Crusaders on the ground to fight—just Iraqis and Kurds and Syrians. For some, these are perfectly adequate villains, but others will be surprised at how mundane, sterile, and empty of promise life under a theocracy can be.
Harris: Have you watched any of the Islamic State’s execution videos?
Wood: I’ve watched many of them.
Harris: I haven’t, and I’m a little surprised by that. At one point, I think I just decided that the trade-off between their information value and emotional toxicity didn’t seem worth it. From your perspective as a journalist, what is the value in watching those videos?
Wood: I would start by describing not the value but the cost. It’s a terrible thing. I feel diminished, permanently, by having watched them.
On the other hand, you can learn a lot. First of all, you can often tell by the language they’re using who their intended audience is. If it’s in Arabic, it’s for local consumption; French, obviously for French jihadis in the Islamic State or for possible recruits. And you can see how they tailor their message. You can see what they think motivates someone in France to come to Syria, burn his passport, and blow himself up. This is all very valuable information. They never just have an image of a guy drawing his knife across another man’s throat. It’s always: Here’s a speech, so listen up. All this rhetoric repays very careful study.
Harris: My understanding is that in the videos of the executions of high-profile hostages—the journalist James Foley, for instance—they don’t show the actual moment of decapitation. They show the start of the execution, and then they cut to reveal the severed head placed on the torso of the corpse. And yet in other execution videos, they show the entire process. Is that true? And if so, why do you think that’s the case?
Wood: Yes, that is true. There are many theories about why it’s the case. I think it would take stronger powers of deduction than I have to explain exactly why they do it, but one candidate hypothesis is that the guy we have come to call “Jihadi John” is not the one actually doing the beheading in these cases. Another is that decapitation by hunting knife is so messy that it doesn’t make great propaganda unless you edit parts out. If you’ve slaughtered an animal, then you know that there are certain autonomic responses that can prevent things from going as planned. And it could really ruin the video if someone gurgled unpleasantly, or kicked or bucked his head. It’s often thought that these hostages are drugged or have been promised that if they just behave as instructed, they’ll be killed quickly off camera.
Harris: That raises another point I’ve wondered about: Why is it that we always see these prisoners obediently going to their slaughter and in certain cases even expressing some final piece of propaganda? Why would they be compliant past the point where they know that they are going to be killed? Why don’t we see any last-minute attempt to defend themselves, to harm their attackers, or to just spoil the propaganda? Have we ever seen something like that?
Wood: Well, we have seen it, actually. There was one case, an Italian named Fabrizio Quattrocchi, who was kidnapped during the Iraq occupation. As his captors were about to kill him, he said, “I will show you how an Italian dies,” while tearing off the hood he was made to wear. They shot him dead on the spot, and the video was useless as propaganda. By now they’ve got procedures in place to keep that from happening.
The most obvious of those, and we know this from what released captives have said, is mock executions. These hostages have been through it before. They’ve sat there and not been killed. So up until the very last moment they may believe that it’s yet another sadistic trick from Jihadi John, and not a sadistic non-trick.
Harris: I’m amazed and ashamed to say that this possibility never occurred to me. I’ve known about mock executions, of course. But I never understood their purpose, apart from terrorizing people. What a diabolically brilliant way to control a person’s behavior at a moment when he would otherwise have no rational reason to comply with your demands.
Is there anything else that surprised you about your meetings with Cerantonio and Choudary?
Wood: I was surprised to find that I would happily have spent more time with them. In fact, they had more time for me than I had for them. They didn’t want me to walk away without having asked every question I wanted to ask. Again, the idea that you have to struggle to find out what the Islamic State wants, and what its ideology is, is a myth. They’ll happily tell you. Actually, they would probably consider it sinful not to.
Harris: One of the more interesting things you discuss in your article is the way in which the religious dogmatism of the Islamic State makes it strategically and tactically rigid. You write at one point, “Its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival.” Can you say more about that?
Wood: There are rules for being caliph, and when al-Baghdadi gave his inaugural sermon, he said, “This is a big burden. I hope to discharge it. I beg you to set me straight when I’m going astray.” This sounds like a pretty standard bit of humble political boilerplate you might hear from a senator, or Fidel Castro. But in this case, it’s more. I talked with Islamic State supporters who described certain kinds of acts that could be tactically or strategically useful for the survival of the state, but that would invalidate the rule of the caliph. For example, the Islamic State isn’t a member of the UN. Presumably, such recognition would be good from their point of view, but these supporters said that UN membership would invalidate the caliphate. In fact, it would not just invalidate it but compel them to fight against it. If al-Baghdadi were to meet his international counterparts in a Geneva conference room, shake hands, and be told, “All right, your caliphate is recognized, and you can occupy this new seat at the United Nations,” these Islamic State ideologues say that he would not only cease to be caliph, but he might even cease to be a Muslim, and they would be obliged to wage war against him.
You might think that a nascent state would be trying to get recognition in the international system. But it doesn’t have any option for that—at least not without doing away with the whole ideological edifice that’s proved to be so attractive to the people who have joined the cause.
Harris: Very interesting. Shouldn’t we exploit this dogmatism? If you had full control over US military and foreign policy, what would you recommend we do?
Wood: We have to think about this with some humility, with respect to what we can do—that is, with some understanding of what our tool kit consists of. And I think it’s abundantly clear that we are not good at massive occupations of countries we poorly understand. Not only that, we just don’t have the appetite for it. We ought to be very gentle in our turning of the knobs in this situation. That’s not to say there’s not an imminent crisis. We are, after all, talking about an organization that would be delighted to kill hundreds of millions of people. It’s not saying, “Oh, unfortunately we have to do this.” It’s saying, “We get to do this.” So there’s an understandable impulse to stop it immediately.
But I think we might be in a situation analogous to seeing someone writhing around on the ground in front of us, showing every symptom of having appendicitis. But instead of being surgeons, armed with sterile scalpels, we are just laymen who once read a first aid manual and have no tools other than a rusty soup can. There’s no good option, even though we recognize the problem. The overwhelming probability is that the patient will die a terrible death, and we will have to watch.
Harris: But consider their infatuation with apocalyptic prophecy, which you described in your article. Wouldn’t you be tempted to just align with it and draw them into the field at Dabiq? Why not score a decisive victory against the most energized jihadis on earth?
Wood: The prophecy you’re talking about, related to the city of Dabiq, is mentioned in what are essentially the footnotes to Muslim apocalyptic scripture. It’s not a major tradition, but the Islamic State dredged it up because Dabiq is in its backyard, and it’s been foretold that it would be the site of a battle that would be one of the steps leading to the apocalypse. Members of the Islamic State have taken so much interest in this place, and they constantly refer to it in their propaganda. I think that if we massed an army there and met them in battle, they would be routed.
Harris: It seems that they wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to engage us there, especially if we told them that we intended to build a gay-porn palace on the site, or some other sacrilege. It seems that these guys are telling us with every breath how to wage psychological warfare against them.
Wood: That’s roughly what they would like us to do: show up at Dabiq and fight them. But the way to wage psychological warfare against them would be not to show up there and fight them. This is what they expect and want. And they think they’ll win.
Harris: But isn’t that totally delusional? Our intelligence services have estimated that they have 30,000 fighters. The Kurds put the number at 200,000. Whatever the true figure, we have the most dangerous and incorrigible religious maniacs alive telling us that if we only make the right noises, they’ll show up in the middle of an open field at daybreak and just turn their credulous faces skyward, expecting to see Jesus swoop down from the clouds and declare that he’s been a secret Muslim all this time.
Wood: Jesus actually comes to the party later, in Jerusalem. But your point about their weakness is correct. The Islamic State does not have, for instance, an air force. So that alone would make it awfully difficult for them to vanquish the Crusader armies at Dabiq. They would not last long against U.S. Marines.
Harris: So why not act on this information? It seems to me that the psychological and propaganda value of our resulting victory is not something to wave away lightly. Imagine the effect this would have on true believers everywhere: They’ve created a new caliphate, and the new caliph is just swell. All the prophecies are coming to fruition, so an army of the purest jihadis to exist in a thousand years rides into this final battle and gets smashed by infidels. And God just sits on his hands.
Just as important, this would be a situation in which we could avoid creating a lot of collateral damage. This battle could actually take place in an unpopulated area.
Wood: It’s tempting, isn’t it? I think it’s a bad idea, for reasons I’ll get into. But it’s amazing that the suggestion hasn’t been more widely mooted already. I think one reason for that is that we don’t take them seriously when they talk about Dabiq. We think that it can’t possibly be the case that they would actually do that. And of course I don’t know what they would do. But they are constantly talking about what they would do, both among themselves and to us. It could be that they’re lying to themselves, too, or they’ll conveniently find loopholes in the prophecies when it becomes clear they’ll be routed. But I think there’s a basic incredulity on our side that they could possibly do something as suicidal as face off against NATO using the tanks that they captured from the Iraqi Army and haven’t yet read the manuals for.
But here is my main reason for thinking that our appearing to conform to prophecy would be a bad idea: The point of all propaganda is to create narratives about the world. Their view—and the view of jihadis everywhere, really—is that Muslims are under attack by a Crusader West. So if we say, “All right, we’ll take you up on that” and crush them in battle, that would confirm their narrative for other Muslims who are already inclined to believe that the West is at war with Islam. That’s not a view I would like to encourage.
Harris: That’s interesting, for a variety of reasons. First, it would seem to preclude our fighting the Islamic State at all, but we are already doing so. Or is it your view that we can fight them, but actually winning would be too provocative? Second, I think if you examine the underlying concern about inflaming the Muslim world against us, it rests on a remarkably pessimistic view about how close otherwise peaceful Muslims are to turning into jihadis. I’m not saying I know this fear to be unfounded, but I think we should acknowledge how grim a picture of the Muslim world that is.
Of course, the claim is not peculiar to you. And I may be reading into what you’ve said an opinion that I’ve seen expressed elsewhere many times before. The idea is that if we don’t walk on eggshells until the end of history as we fight jihadis, taking great pains to deny any link between the chaos they cause and the doctrine of Islam, then we’re doomed to provoke more-mainstream Muslims into choosing the wrong side in this conflict. Thus, when President Obama talks about this problem, he insists that we are at war not with Islam, Islamism, or even Islamic extremism but with generic “extremism” and with a “perversion” of a glorious religion.
One of the things that is so refreshing about your article is that you didn’t do that. But you now seem to be saying that we must be very careful not to do anything that could give fodder to a “clash of civilizations” narrative. Well, let’s spell out this concern. What are you actually worried about? Are you worried that millions of people who would never have been jihadis are suddenly going to become jihadis? These people are now living peacefully in the West and share our values, but the moment we smash these murderous lunatics at Dabiq, millions of dentists and taxi drivers and shopkeepers and business executives in the West are going to go berserk?
Wood: I’m worried that the outcome of a Dabiq rout would be as follows: A large number of mujahedin would be dead, much to the pleasure of both sides. The Islamic State would be militarily weakened. But it was already weak, compared to the U.S. or NATO. We’d have a situation slightly improved, militarily, and for our efforts we’d have granted the Islamic State’s propaganda its central premise, which is that Crusaders are out to kill Muslims and will come to crush them whenever they become strong. Over the long term, the military gains might not be worth the propaganda loss.
I certainly don’t think that “mainstream” Muslims are people we have to worry might choose the wrong side in this conflict. But I think that there is a particular type—and it’s quite segmented by sex and by age, as well—of people who are spoiling for a fight. They really are waiting for confirmation of this “clash of civilizations” narrative. They’re a small percentage of the Muslim population. Granted, the Muslim population is 1.6 billion, so even a small percentage is a lot of people. But it’s those people—a very targeted demographic—that we’re talking about.
Harris: Understood. But, again, let’s spell out the concern. If we’re talking about 1 percent, we’re talking about 16 million people. That’s a huge insurgent army, even if it’s spread over 50 countries. Is that what you’re picturing?
Wood: Well, I think 1 percent is an exaggeration, especially if we mean fighters, rather than just passive supporters. I grant that the numbers are large—that’s undeniable. Almost any percentage of 1.6 billion people is going to be enormous. But I just don’t sense that the buy-a-ticket-to-Syria appeal is there for any but a tiny minority.
Harris: Agreed. I’m not claiming that most Muslims, or even a significant percentage of Muslims find the Islamic State secretly appealing. But, as you say, almost any percentage of 1.6 billion people represents an intolerable number of aspiring martyrs. Even one tenth of one percent is a problem. Just imagine what would happen if there were 1.6 million active jihadis worldwide—people who were willing to put their lives on the line every day to destroy our open societies. That would be intolerable. So, one can only hope that there is a huge disparity between what people profess to believe, and what they truly believe, because the poll numbers on this topic are not at all consoling. No question posed about suicide bombing, shari’ah, or martyrdom is so retrograde or morally suspect as to win only 0.1 percent approval in the Muslim community. In fact, the lowest percentage I’ve ever seen in support of suicide bombing against civilians in defense of Islam has been 3 percent (in Pakistan). Most Muslim countries profess far greater approval than that. In fact, it would be conservative to say that 10 percent of Muslims worldwide support suicide bombing against civilians in defense of the faith—please note the terms “suicide,” “civilians,” and “faith” in that sentence. We are, by definition, talking about religiously motivated terrorism. A hundred and sixty million supporters of that worldwide is terrible to contemplate. Less polling on these questions has been done in the West, but the data from the UK is also not encouraging. In the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in the London, for instance, nearly one in four British Muslims felt that the bombings were justified. So we are essentially in the position of merely praying that our polls are wrong by several orders of magnitude.
As you can see, I share your concern about alienating Muslims on the basis of how we engage the Islamic State. I just want us to acknowledge how absurdly bleak a picture this is. We are talking about people who may be in danger of picking the wrong side in a war between 7th-century barbarians—who have enthusiastically reintroduced crucifixion, slavery, and the auto-da-fé to daily life—and Western democracy. The fact that we even have to consider this possibility is shocking.
This brings us to a distinction that you mentioned in your article, between currently active Islamists who are behaving badly, and those who are playing a longer game and appear willing to wait for generations to have their time in the sun. I suspect that the latter are the sorts of people you worry might be tipped into behaving badly if we aligned ourselves with prophecy and eradicated the Islamic State in such a way as to suggest that the West is at war with Islam.
Wood: You are referring to a group of Salafis known as “quietists.” The Islamic State leader identifies as Salafi, which means that he takes as his sources of authority the Qur’an, the hadīth of the Prophet Muhammad, and the actions of the generations immediately succeeding Muhammad. But his group is identified with jihadi Salafism, and it is opposed strenuously by a majority of quietist Salafis who generally don’t believe in killing people to impose their views on the world. In fact, they feel obliged to follow even unjust rulers.
The percentage of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims who identify as Salafi—who subscribe to this literalist version of Islam—is quite small, probably single-digit. The percentage of Salafis who would identify as jihadis is vanishingly small. And then, of course, within that population a lot are going to be noncombatants because they’re too old, or too young, or whatever. So we’re still talking about large, but perhaps now manageable, numbers.
The point of bringing up this quietist group is to say that the problem isn’t Islam, or even Islamic literalism. Most literalist Muslims are essentially harmless, or even better than harmless—nice people you would like to have as neighbors. So the specificity of interpretation that leads to the Islamic State is really quite narrow.
Harris: Well, I think you are being a little too sanguine about the prospect of having run-of-the-mill Salafis as neighbors. After all, we’re still talking about people who want to see their religious views imposed on the rest of humanity eventually—with woman veiled, and gays and apostates killed. That’s not a potluck I’d be so eager to attend. But even if I were to accept the rosy picture you’ve painted, it seems to argue for what one would hope could be our default position here, which is total lack of concern about narratives. Why can’t we say, “We recognize that Islam is a million different things and that some versions of it are tolerant, peaceful, etc. But a jihadi death cult is destroying Syria and Iraq right now, and we’re going to kill these barbarians tomorrow. Any of you peaceful people inclined to pick the wrong side here?”
What you seem to be expressing is a fear that there could be a mass changing of sides based on some secret sympathy, or some susceptibility to moral confusion, even in the face of the clearest case for a just war that may have ever existed. Whatever the underlying causes of this form of jihadism, at the end of the day we have pure, fanatical, implacable evil vs. basic human sanity.
Wood: The Salafi neighbor may not be the neighbor you’d choose, if you could pick from a menu of atheists and liberals and, more generally, people who didn’t care what you thought about god. I’d just point out that there are many religious people whose beliefs about a far-off apocalyptic battle, and mass conversion at the sword, do not affect their lives much at all. People are good at compartmentalizing, and if they weren’t, the world would hardly be livable.
This question of latent support for jihadism is complicated. There are some who have this style of religious impulse, I suppose we could say, who really want a kind of literalism, and some of those who might have gone a quietist route might in that case be induced to choose an actively jihadi one. All people, as far as I can tell, have a desire or need to identify with a social group, and the countries that we’re talking about that produce potential jihadis are places where everything has broken down. They are some of the worst and most hopeless places to live, so—
Harris: Wait. What about the thousands of recruits coming from the West to fight alongside these people?
Wood: It’s not poverty. But I think it is a lack of meaning or fulfillment in their lives, related to deep malaise and feelings of rejection or dissatisfaction with the worlds where they live. I don’t know why Birmingham or Marseilles has come feel so barren for these people. But you can hear the alternatives posed starkly by the Islamic State people trying to attract new fighters on Twitter: “Are you going to join the struggle? Or are you going to stay home and eat fried chicken?” If you think the high point of your life in England is going to be eating KFC, the promise of joining the greatest battle the world has ever known might be pretty attractive. In places like Syria, where even KFC is unattainable, the choice is even starker.
Harris: But, of course, many of us experience such existential concerns early in life. That is why I find these people so easy to understand. In my twenties, I spent two years on silent meditation retreats—which, however you look at it, is a fairly extreme thing to do. I wasn’t satisfied just eating fried chicken either. As it turns out, this was one of the best things I ever did. And I now see this strange behavior as part of an entirely rational project of understanding the human mind more deeply and becoming a better person in the process. But if I had been convinced at the time that the Qur’an was the perfect word of God, and that only paradise matters, who knows how fully I might have wasted my life.
I think Anjem Choudary is more representative of the type than you give him credit for. Let’s take him at his word and accept that he would join the Islamic State if given the chance. Needless to say, he’s not coming from a society that’s socially broken down. In fact, he’s on television more than almost anyone I can name at his level of notoriety. And he has a law degree. This isn’t about lacking options in life.
Wood: Oh, yes. If Anjem Choudary were not a preacher, he would probably be a very rich lawyer.
Harris: Right. So how do you explain that? Islamism is the man’s full-time obsession.
Wood: I think he is straightforwardly a true believer.
Harris: Right. And it is the true believers, irrespective of their socioeconomic background, that we should be worried about.
Wood: It is also interesting to note that Choudary was a real sinner in his youth. I don’t think he dwells on it, but nor does he conceal it. I think the fear of hellfire really does motivate him.
Harris: Wonderful. We have our next Saint Augustine.
Wood: Yes, right. So I think that there are multiple reasons why this narrative would be attractive to people, and they amount to a sizable number of people who would end up, at the very least, cheering on the forces of the Islamic State if we agreed to meet it adherents on their terms.
Harris: It strikes me as such a strange fear to be obliged to consider. And to have it be the primary concern that closes down specific military options just seems uncanny. Again, I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you. This may, in fact, be the very reason why we shouldn’t attack the Islamic State in a way that might actually defeat it. But to admit that is to admit that we are already hostages of a sort. It’s very depressing.
Wood: The decision not to attack them that way is a natural outgrowth of acknowledging that they mean what they say. If they really think there is a war brewing between Muslims and the West, then you don’t convince them otherwise by telling them to bring it on.
What you can’t do is pretend that they don’t think about religion seriously at all. Some of the things you hear said about the Islamic State include, “All scholars are opposed to them.” But that just isn’t true. There are scholars who are in the Islamic State. They’re not well-known, but they’re certainly engaging critically with the texts of Islam. And if you ask the Islamic State, “Where are all your scholars?” the answer will be, “Most of our scholars are dead,” or “They’re in a state of siege by Crusaders. Where are your scholars? They’re in palaces in Saudi Arabia saying things that are demonstrably false about Islam.” So what we’ve got here is a situation where anyone who’s intelligent enough to see what’s before his eyes knows that huge numbers of scholars have been co-opted by politics—either the politics of the Middle East or the politics of the United States. Hypocrisy is something people can sniff out.
Harris: It’s actually worse than that. Many of these palace-caged scholars articulate a brand of Islam that is indistinguishable from what the Islamic State is implementing. It’s just that there’s some fine print in al-Baghdadi’s caliphate user agreement that they can’t sign off on. Nevertheless, what they say about jihad, martyrdom, infidels, apostates, and so forth would allow them to check every other box. And these aren’t obscure figures. Some of these people have tens of millions of Twitter followers. When you watch translated videos from The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), you see that these preachers appear to be everywhere. They preach more or less exactly what the Islamic State is doing. Perhaps they say in other contexts that they don’t support the Islamic State, for one reason or another, but their reasons can’t run very deep.
Wood: These differences between the palace scholars and ISIS seem minor, but I would encourage you to see them as significant. Yes, these people want a caliphate. And yes, they want to implement shari’ah—which includes the stoning of adulterers, the beheading of apostates, and so forth—but they want to achieve these things in the fullness of time. That final distinction represents an important difference.
Harris: No doubt we want to encourage that orientation over the alternative.
Wood: In fact, I try studiously not to take a position on which one of these views is correct. I just don’t have any credibility as a non-Muslim to say whether one scholar or another espouses the best form of Islam. However, if I were able to choose what people believed, I’d hope it was the caliphate-later view. Of course, there are Christians who think about the end times, which are also not envisioned as very pleasant. If you ask them, “Is it happening now?” some of them will say yes. But very few of them will act as if they actually believe it’s happening now. If they’re envisioning a terrible bloodbath at some unimaginably distant time, I can live with that.
Harris: Understood. Well, Graeme, I really enjoyed speaking with you, and I appreciate your taking the time to have this conversation. Congratulations again on your cover story. It was extremely well done and much needed.
Wood: Thanks very much, Sam. This has been great.
This story was originally posted on author Sam Harris’s blog.