Could there be an ISIS without an Islam?

Could there be an ISIS without an Islam? July 13, 2015

Speaking of catching up on things I’ve missed while I’ve been gone, I was asked my thoughts about a cover story from March’s issue of The Atlantic. It reminded me of another article from The Atlantic earlier in July, which argued that “is ISIS Islamic?” is the wrong question to ask (for the record: I wouldn’t disagree that ISIS is Islamic).

The important question, as posed by The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding’s Dalia Mogahed, is instead “would a group like ISIS, with all the other realities as they are, exist today and do the same things?” Kathy Gilsinan, continuing to quote Mogahed, continues:

“My answer to that hypothetical question is a resounding yes.” Discussing global terrorism at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Mogahed, who formerly led research on Muslims with the polling organization Gallup, said that extremist groups all over the world commit the same kinds of violence using what she called “the local social currency” to justify it. “That is sometimes Christianity. That is sometimes Judaism. That is sometimes Buddhism. And it is sometimes secular ideologies. So a world without Islam would still have a group like ISIS—they would just be called something else that may be less catchy.”

In the Middle East itself, she said, there was terrorism before there was a “pronounced Islamic social currency.” In the 1950s, the secular, left-wing fedayeen committed attacks on Israel in the name of Arab nationalism which, Mogahed said, was the prevailing social currency of the time. Given this history in the Middle East, and global history from Peru to Northern Ireland to Japan, in which terrorism emerges again and again from societies with no Islamic traditions to speak of, there’s a limit to the Quran’s explanatory power when it comes to political violence.

It’s shocking to look at photos from Afghanistan before the 1979 Soviet invasion. The place looked startlingly modern, but, demographically speaking, it was no less Islamic than it is now. It’s not as if the entire country suddenly converted to Islam after being invaded; instead, the way Islam’s public expression changed. Once we’ve explained why that happened—serving as a proving ground for a war between two conflicting global superpowers tends to have a deteriorating effect on the local populace—it’s not clear what there’s left for Islam, the Quran, or anything else religious to explain in terms of contemporary violence in Afghanistan.

The Quran didn’t change during The Cold War, but geopolitical conditions certainly did. Anyone who blames the former rather than the latter for violence hardly seems to be reasoning fairly. It’s easy to imagine a peaceful Afghanistan with a majority of the population influenced by the Quran; we’ve seen it already. What’s less easy to imagine, however, is an Afghanistan that remained peaceful after The Cold War ravaged it, no matter the prevailing religious beliefs of the area.

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