Scholar clarifies, walks back his comments in Atlantic ISIS essay

Scholar clarifies, walks back his comments in Atlantic ISIS essay February 21, 2015

In Graeme Wood’s Atlantic essay, “What ISIS Really Wants,” Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel offers a bit of pseudo-theological commentary that comes across as so glibly dismissive, reckless and shallow that his remarks have become the focus of a wave of criticism (including from me in the previous post).

Now those comments are even being criticized by the man Wood describes as the “leading scholar” on the subject of ISIS’s theology — Bernard Haykel himself.

Jack Jenkins of ThinkProgress asked Haykel to respond to some of the criticism of his commentary, and he took the chance to clarify and qualify what he meant: “What the Atlantic Left Out About ISIS According to Their Own Expert.” (Thank you, Shira Mary, for pointing me to this.)

Here’s the bit from Haykel in Wood’s essay that I found contradictory and, frankly, rude:

Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

That passage leaped out at me because that language is so very familiar. He is reading there from a hackneyed script full of stale cliches. It is the same old language that religious fundamentalists always use to try to delegitimize the faith of non-fundies. It’s the same language that white evangelical Christians constantly use to try to discredit mainline Protestants. It’s the same language used in most of the hate-mail I receive as a non-fundamentalist religious blogger.

Haykel hits all the usual buzzwords there — “politically correct,” and “embarrassed” (this is where Christian fundies always recite “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ …” as a way of accusing those illegitimate liberals of being ashamed of the gospel).

Jenkins asked Haykel about this directly:

He was … unambiguous when responding to the … critique that Muslims who disavow ISIS are somehow deluded or not “real” Muslims.

“I consider people … who have criticized ISIS to be fully within the Islamic tradition, and in no way ‘less Muslim’ than ISIS,” he said. “I mean, that’s absurd.”

It is absurd, which is why so many of us responded when Haykel was accurately quoted making that absurd assertion in Wood’s essay.

Jenkins’ interview with Haykel has a different agenda than Wood’s essay. The Atlantic piece was all about emphasizing that ISIS is, in fact, Islamic — that it occupies a place within Islam. Having established that, Haykel takes the chance in this interview to clarify what kind of place ISIS occupies within Islam. And here he provides some helpful discussion:

The issue, Haykel says, lies in ISIS’s “ahistorical” theology, which justifies their horrific actions by essentially pretending that the last several centuries of Islamic history never happened.

“This is something I did point out to [Wood] but he didn’t bring out in the piece: ISIS’s representation of Islam is ahistorical,” Haykel said. “It’s saying we have to go back to the seventh century. It’s denying the legal complexity of the [Islamic] legal tradition over a thousand years.”

I grew up within the evangelical Christian subculture, so I’m familiar with a-historical theology and naive primitivism. The problem with such theologies isn’t just that they say “we have to go back to the seventh century” (or the first century), but also that they imagine we can do so. They mistakenly imagine it’s possible to do so. And then they make the impossible mandatory.

In the interview with Jenkins, Haykel also offers an interesting discussion of how ISIS’s eagerness to anathematize other Muslims puts other Muslims off-balance:

“Some Muslims are reticent to engage in a hereticization of ISIS because they feel that in doing so they would be doing what ISIS is doing,” he said. “ISIS is in a very strange and unique position among Sunnis in its kind of very deliberate and rapid and wanton use of hereticization of other Muslims. In other words, ISIS is constantly saying that Fadel and others are not Muslim, because they don’t agree with them. Sunnis don’t normally do that. Historically they don’t do that … You try to say that they’re errant Muslims, … that they’ve strayed from the straight path. Not to put them outside the veil of the religion.”

Set aside the sectarian particulars and what he’s describing there is part of the dynamic that ends up privileging fundamentalist and separatist sects over more ecumenical, neighborly forms of religion. The schismatic separatist types aggressively ensure that the “authenticity” or legitimacy of everyone else is constantly being discussed and debated and, therefore, undermined. But because those others do not share the separatist fundies’ taste for dishonesty and fighting dirty, the fundies’ authenticity and legitimacy is never being challenged.

Thus bad behavior gets rewarded. The most belligerent, aggressive, schismatic, overheated forms of religion wind up being granted a presumption of authenticity — their expression of the faith is presumed to be a legitimate one, or perhaps even the legitimate one. But all other forms of religion are rendered more suspect. Their good behavior — their refusal to follow the fundies’ example of acting like jerks — is punished with a presumption of inauthenticity. Their expression of faith is constantly being portrayed as illegitimate — not just by the jerkhole fundies, but in the media and throughout the rest of society.

 

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