Skip to content

What ISIS Really Wants

There is a somewhat long, but fascinating article in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood, which explains something that the mainstream media has gotten totally wrong.

What is ISIS (or ISIL, or Islamic State, or whatever the press is calling it this week)? What motivates them? Why are they beheading fellow Muslims? Why are some Muslims flocking to join them and other Muslims condemning them? Or as the article puts it:

The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.

If you have any interest in understanding what is going on in the Middle East, I urge you to read it. After all, we have no chance of defeating them unless we have at least a passing understanding of them and their motivations.



  1. ThatGuy wrote:

    Wood writes thankfully that Al Qaeda and IS are not of one mind. I’m left being thankful that IS and folks like that OK politician from the comic posted here the other day have a few serious disagreements. I think a spear-wielding Jesus is probably pretty attractive to some of our domestic nutters. Fortunately, the submission tax and having Jesus as second fiddle probably makes them incompatible bedfellows.

    Monday, February 23, 2015 at 8:50 am | Permalink
  2. Hassan wrote:

    And here is rebuttal for the article you mentioned.

    It is long, but goes to show why people (Atlantic jounralist) who pretend to be expert are not expert.

    Monday, February 23, 2015 at 9:56 am | Permalink
  3. Iron Knee wrote:

    Hassan, I had truly hoped that you would post a rebuttal so that we could see that there are many sides to this issue. Thank you.

    Monday, February 23, 2015 at 10:33 am | Permalink
  4. ThatGuy wrote:

    It is a good rebuttal, but a few things:

    Wood does note that the US created the vacuum into which ISIS stepped, and that their leaders spent time as detainees in US camps. I’m not sure why the MM article claims that Wood is deflecting responsibility when there are several passages going directly after the war that created this instability.

    Calling ISIS un-Islamic doesn’t help analysis of the organization. The same way calling Westboro Baptist un-Christian doesn’t help anyone understand them. Both groups bastardize and cherry-pick their religious texts to justify terrible behavior, but it doesn’t really provide grounds to say they aren’t inspired by whichever religion they base themselves in. Extremist Christian or extremist Muslim are tags we use to describe, but the important bit of each label is “extremist,” even when the following descriptive isn’t a religion. Wood could spend time explaining this, but I think most people taking the time to read such an article realize that ISIS is no more representative of the wider Muslim world than Westboro Baptist/Tim McVeigh/litany of extremist Christians is/are of the wider Christian world.

    Ultimately, I find the conclusion that ISIS will collapse under its own fervor to be compelling because I believe the vast majority of Muslims on Earth will reject it. Calling it Islamic or un-Islamic doesn’t really matter because it isn’t an adjective that will sway reasonable people, it’s the acts. The descriptive is just calling it what it is to give insight into possible motivations, but again it doesn’t make an extremist group of any sort representative of the much wider community.

    Monday, February 23, 2015 at 11:22 am | Permalink
  5. Hassan wrote:

    BTW I did not write the article, if there is some flaws in it, feel free to leave comments there.

    Monday, February 23, 2015 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  6. Mark wrote:

    I had just finished the Atlantic article when I saw that you posted this, and now I just finished reading the rebuttal that Hassan posted. I don’t think I actually disagree with anything in the rebuttal, but I also think it’s only touching on surface issues like how Muslims are being viewed in light is ISIS.

    Not that its OK to lump all of Islam in the same bucket or to just call is savagery or anything. But I didn’t see anything in the rebuttal that challenges the core assertions of the Atlantic article that Baghdadi and ISIS are establishing a caliphate intent on destroying or subjugating non-conforming (in their eyes) Muslims and non-Muslims. If there is another intention or end-game that the rebuttal writer sees, then it would have been more effective to focus on that. But even though the US in recent years and the larger set of world governments after WWI have played key parts in setting the stage for this, it doesn’t change much if there is this fervent belief in setting up their vision of an “apocalypse”.

    I would still see the group as Islamic in the same sense that a Westboro baptist church is Christian, even though the vast majority of people outside of that circle reject their actions. I have never read the Koran, so I don’t know the basis for their believe systems, but I am under the impression that it probably takes the form of the Bible’s Old Testament, which has some pretty harsh and violent guidelines, and if some group were to use that as the basis of their faith, they would be viewed as dangerous and extremist by the Christian world as well.

    And actually, if I recall correctly, the Christian Old Testament is the basis for both the Torah and the Koran, which might be the ultimate Irony in this situation. We have three religions, based on the same set of old scrolls, and many of the same players (Jesus as the ISIL savior is both shocking and ironic), but with divergent histories engaged in violent struggles from days of the Crusades until now. It is sad that religion has been used as the basis for death, violence and cruelty on all sides. If there was a God, I doubt that is what it had intended.

    Monday, February 23, 2015 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  7. Hassan wrote:

    Mark, the rebuttal article does not go item by item on how mainstream muslims are different than ISIS, as I understood it is suggesting that we do not need to, and the methodology that author used was flawed, for example the point number 10 the Coffee Shop.

    Anyway, if muslims were supposed to kill everything they see differing, they would have wiped out all minorities from areas they controlled for 1300 years. The fact that there were arab christians/yazidis/jews uptil very recently, and the fact that Indian subcontinent is majority hindu (70%+) despite being ruled by muslims for 1000 years.

    Only in last 100 years or so, things have gotten very crazy, and also from minority.

    Monday, February 23, 2015 at 5:58 pm | Permalink
  8. Hassan wrote:

    sorry, not from but For, in last sentence above.

    Monday, February 23, 2015 at 6:19 pm | Permalink
  9. ThatGuy wrote:

    Hassan, I think we’re all (including the Atlantic author, Wood) in agreement. ISIS obviously does not represent the vast majority of Muslims who are tolerant of other beliefs. The Atlantic article, from my reading, is just pointing out that ISIS isn’t un-Islamic. It is certainly not what people should look to for mainstream Muslim teaching, but much like hateful organizations in Christianity and other religions, their beliefs are based in scripture.

    Therefore, calling ISIS un-Islamic is less correct than pointing out that it doesn’t represent all Muslims. Noting that it has roots in Islam is necessary to understand what its leadership might do and how they may do it. Wood points out how their early pronouncements, if read correctly, could have helped the US, the larger West, and Iraq prepare for the onslaught.

    There certainly are folks trying to lump all Muslims in with ISIS, but unfortunately idiots will be idiots. It’s articles like Wood’s that can make clear that most Muslims, like Christians and Jews, live peaceful lives without taking advantage of the bloodier parts of their respective (and shared) texts for selfish or evil reasons.

    Monday, February 23, 2015 at 6:25 pm | Permalink
  10. Hassan wrote:

    THATGUY, I think rebuttal article may be exactly objecting to that.

    To us, majority muslims, ISIS is un-islamic to the extreme. Otherwise you are claiming that rest of muslims are un-islamic.

    Frankly vast majority of muslims, their scholars, and I condemn and consider ISIS un-islamic because of our religious scriptures, not that we have to appease anyone else. The whole refutations of ISIS from islamic scholars come from scriptures, not from US constitution or anything else.

    Monday, February 23, 2015 at 6:51 pm | Permalink
  11. ThatGuy wrote:

    I don’t think anyone said anything about the US Constitution. But with religion there are varying degrees of adherence, extremism, and fundamentalism. ISIS clearly violates the Koran but that doesn’t change the fact that they are a Muslim group. Many Christians would say that a lot of Crusaders, the IRA, and Westboro Baptists violate the religion these groups claim to defend. They’re still Christian extremists.

    Monday, February 23, 2015 at 7:36 pm | Permalink
  12. Hassan wrote:

    THATGUY, there are conditions and steps when Islamic scholars can deem a group or an individual outside fold of Islam.

    I am not sure (I have to research) if they have declared ISIS as non-muslims.

    Monday, February 23, 2015 at 8:29 pm | Permalink
  13. Michael wrote:

    I must say that I found the MM rebuttal unconvincing. For one thing, many of the points (2-5, 9, 14) are general cultural critiques or anti-Obama arguments that have absolutely nothing to do with Wood’s argument. But the real problem with the MM piece is that it is flawed from the beginning. It takes one sentence out of context and builds completely from that misinterpretation. They object to the claim, “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” They go on to state, “By characterizing ISIS as Islamic, Wood and Haykel in effect, if not intent, attribute cruel beheadings, wanton massacre, and all other manner of savagery to Islam,” and therein lies the flaw in their attempted rebuttal.

    To be specific, the sentence of Wood’s that they took offense to is immediately followed by this: “Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations [emph. added] of Islam.” That is, Wood’s article revolves around entirely around the claim that Islamic State’s theology is built on AN interpretation of Islamic scripture. Wood’s article never states that this is the only valid interpretation, nor that it is the best and most consistent interpretation. However, the MM rebuttal seems to be completely focused on countering a false claim–that Wood argued Islamic State theology is the only true Islam. Wood never made that claim, and the entirety of his article makes it clear that he wouldn’t make that claim.

    One part of the rebuttal that I found particularly illustrative of the authors’ failure to understand Wood’s argument is point number 16. It is patently absurd to talk about a literal versus non-literal interpretation of a document like the Constitution. However, religious scholars talk about such dichotomies all the time. Do Buddhists believe that Siddhartha Gautama emerged from his mother’s side to avoid the impurity of vaginal birth? Do Christians believe Revelation 14:1–5, which limits the number of Christians that go to heaven to be 144,000? Do Jews believe that one day’s supply of oil burned for 8 days? Do Hindus believe that Shiva beheaded Ganesha and gave him an elephant’s head? Do the Japanese believe Emperor Akihito is a direct descendant of Amaterasu, the sun goddess? Do Muslims believe that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the eighth legitimate caliph? The answer to all of those questions is some do, some don’t. In all cases, those claims are based on some interpretation of sacred texts, and the distinction is often whether or not the followers interpret portions of those texts literally or figuratively.

    Another key point highlighting the MM author’s misunderstanding of Wood: “The proper derivation of Islamic legal opinions, as practiced for centuries by Muslim jurists[emph. added]” Wood’s entire article is about how the Islamic State leaders reject those centuries of practice. Yes, Islamic State’s interpretation involves cherry picking and inconsistency. But that doesn’t change the fact that entire basis of the Islamic State is a literal interpretation of certain portions of Islamic scripture.

    Wood’s article is not of the same bigoted mould of the writings of people like Pam Geller, nor is it anti-Muslim propaganda a la Bill Maher. Rather, it is an argument built entirely on one idea: In order to defeat a force such as Islamic State, we must first understand them and their motives. The MM authors would do well to heed that advice when trying to argue against Wood’s article.

    Monday, February 23, 2015 at 8:50 pm | Permalink
  14. Hassan wrote:

    MICHAEL, you can post your objection on the mm site itself, and let the authors respond to you.

    From your comment, I will just object to following, “But that doesn’t change the fact that entire basis of the Islamic State is a literal interpretation of certain portions of Islamic scripture.”

    I would say out of context or mis-interpretation of certain portions of Quran.

    Monday, February 23, 2015 at 10:09 pm | Permalink
  15. Michael wrote:

    I do not disagree with you. I didn’t say it was a correct interpretation, particularly in light of historical and written context. I, like Wood, simply stated that it was AN interpretation.

    Tuesday, February 24, 2015 at 7:34 am | Permalink
  16. ralph wrote:

    Some scholar of the region once said the problem with the Middle East is that it has too much history to absorb. It doesn’t help that the West barged in to stir up the pot, mostly over the oil and other treasure.

    But it’s always informative and entertaining to watch the theater of absurd human behavior and cultures, which periodically clash and self-immolate over the selective interpretation and worship of (some but conveniently not other) Bronze Age morality codes written in stone by The Invisible Man in the Sky. ISIS is only the latest permutation, if one of the more violent and deadly ones.

    IMHO, here’s the ultimate irony that’s developed over time: The Enlightenment, which ushered in the scientific method – with the promise of empowering the Common Man and leading us out of the Darkness – and the technology (and fire power) we have today as a result, has asymmetrically empowered both the ultra-wealthy and ultra-orthodox extremes, with the Common Man pretty much caught in the cross fire between plutocracy and theocracy. Thank God we have our gizmos to distract us! (he said sarcastically)

    But I’ll never really understand this obsession some have with The Apocalypse. Who is this All Powerful Perfect Being who created this perfect world and us in His image, only to say to Himself later, “Oops, screwed up, let’s wipe it all out and start over.” What’s with the Death Wish?

    Here’s the only answer that seems to make any sense, to me anyway. It ain’t Him (because He doesn’t exist). It’s our lizard brain, still very much in charge. We are still very tribal, very covetous, greedy and vengeful, always wary of The Other. I don’t think we can ever evolve beyond that as a species, it’s baked into our biology. Or as Pogo would say, “We have met the enemy, and he is us”.

    Not you guys, of course, it’s just all the others 😉

    Tuesday, February 24, 2015 at 9:11 am | Permalink
  17. ThatGuy wrote:

    Ralph, I always figured the focus on the afterlife was because, in the times that these religions came to be, life was pretty nasty and pretty short. Promises of paradise in exchange for being good* probably sounded pretty excellent.

    *differs based on religion.

    Tuesday, February 24, 2015 at 9:24 am | Permalink
  18. ralph wrote:

    Thatguy – that’s the general theory I’ve heard too, it’s how we tried to understand and explain the world way back then. There was a god for just about everything (Sun, moon, stars, seasons, war, love, etc.) until we figured out the Sun was a star, not a god, etc. As we became aware of our own mortality, so the thinking goes, the afterlife was our coping mechanism (me die? forever? inconceivable!) and the soul our vehicle for getting there; that is, if you behaved according to the edicts of the high priests (who, of course, required payment for their blessings). Nice work if you can get it. There’s no better take on it than George Carlin’s bit on Religion is Bullshit (find it on YouTube sometime).

    To paraphrase the late great Christopher Hitchens, religion was our first attempt to explain the Universe and enforce the prevailing social order; but being our first, it was also our worst.

    We should be over it by now, but just can’t shake our love of ghosts, both good and evil. We seem to be utterly dependent on charismatic authority figures, both real and imagined.

    Tuesday, February 24, 2015 at 2:59 pm | Permalink
  19. Iron Knee wrote:

    Another somewhat scholarly article that doesn’t like Graeme Wood’s article —

    Tuesday, February 24, 2015 at 11:04 pm | Permalink
  20. Michael wrote:

    Ultimately, I agree with the big points Berger makes, but he starts from the same flawed premise as the MM writers. The comparison questions illustrate the problem perfectly: “How does Hinduism inform Abhinav Bharat, and how does Abhinav Bharat inform our understanding of Hinduism?” Wood’s entire article was about the former question. Readers have been layering the latter question on top of the discussion, but Wood’s article never went there and (unless I really missed something) it never said that Islamic State theology tells us anything about Islam.

    In the end, a lot of the anti-Wood arguments read like No True Scotsman arguments.

    Wednesday, February 25, 2015 at 8:33 am | Permalink
  21. Anonymous wrote:

    Remember the crusades in the 1300s: The Jewish Religion was invented. From it came the Christian Religion (“I am the one God”) Then the Muslim Religion. So the Christians went on crusade against the Muslims (sound like what is happening now in reverse?)
    And the Christians came back to England spreading the plague picked up on their crusades and wiped out 1/3 of England. “only lower animals kill” The Christians did a good job of killing 1/3 the Christians in England. Now the Muslims are killing Muslims. Its all animal nature. Ignorance.

    Thursday, February 26, 2015 at 3:57 am | Permalink
  22. redjon wrote:

    Is there a religious organization, anywhere, that does not “bastardize and cherry-pick?” I think not.

    Monday, March 2, 2015 at 2:49 pm | Permalink