Thinking about religion and ISIS

In his Atlantic article on “What ISIS Really Wants” last March, Graeme Wood insisted that “the Islamic state is Islamic. Very Islamic.” Wood’s detractors have been similarly emphatic, arguing that ISIS is a perversion of the Islamic faith.

For Wood’s critics, secular politics, far more than religion or religious ideology, is the key to understanding the existence and appeal of jihadist violence.

In the immediate aftermath of the Orlando massacre in June, the same arguments resurfaced. According to one line of thinking, the shooter Omar Mateen was a repressed homosexual and his actions are inexplicable without understanding the psycho-social—and hence fundamentally secular—roots of his hatred toward the LGBT community.

Correspondingly, “radical Islam” had little to do with the massacre, and Mateen’s professed allegiance to ISIS was merely a smokescreen and a way of aggrandizing himself. This would suggest that the Orlando massacre was about secular hate, not religious terror, not radical Islam, not ISIS.

An alternative viewpoint is that Mateen was a lone-wolf terrorist, whose actions were inspired, if not directed, by ISIS, and who took to heart the Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s injunction to carry out attacks in the West during Ramadan.

Moreover, according to this viewpoint, Mateen’s decision to target the LGBT community in particular, as opposed to unbelievers more broadly, is perfectly explicable in terms of ISIS’s murderous homophobia.

These discrepant positions—one emphasizing the secular origins of ISIS-related violence, the other emphasizing its theological roots in “radical Islam”—reflect a deeper difference over the role of ideology in social and political life.

In fact, the ongoing “is ISIS Islamic?” debate is, in effect, a debate between idealists and materialists, and it long predates the current controversies—or more recent ISIS-related atrocities in Bangladesh, Iraq, and elsewhere. Continue reading


  • Article by Simon Cottee, a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent, in The Atlantic.
  • Image: patheos
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