So Tell Me Whatcha Want, Whatcha Really, Really Want

I actually had asked Adam to write up something on the article AL linked to earlier, so here is his piece:

Some Thoughts on Graeme Woods’ “What ISIS Really Wants”

Adam L. Silverman, PhD*

John asked me for my take on Graeme Woods’ article “What ISIS Really Wants.” Before I start I want to make it clear that my understanding of Islam is that of an informed outsider. I have been studying Islam, or portions of it, since I was an undergraduate and conducted fieldwork for the US Army in Iraq that dealt with both religious and tribal identity. I have published articles dealing with jihad and shahadat, as well as the tribal and religious identity and its effects on US operations in Iraq.** I was even fortunate enough to have a counterpart cultural advisor who was both Muslim and had an advanced degree in Islamic Law and Jurisprudence that I could rely on as a resource to verify if I was correct in my understanding and interpretation of his religion. As I liked to say when I would brief on these, and related subjects, everything I am telling you is true and verifiable, except where it isn’t because I’m an outsider trying to make sense of someone else’s religion.

Overall I think Woods’ article is quite good and I highly recommend you click over and read it before proceeding. It is thought provoking and makes a number of points explicit that have rarely ever been made implicit regarding ISIS. For example, the millennial and apocalyptic components to ISIS’s theology. Woods also has an excellent section dealing with ISIS’s refreshing and recontextualizing long dormant components of Islamic theology and dogma. I was also impressed that Woods took the time to make it clear that al Qaeda was a logistic, support, and training network much more than it was structured like a company. One of the biggest errors in understanding al Qaeda over the past decade came out of the attempts to understand al Qaeda as a corporation or conglomerate.

There are a couple of items that I wished Woods had covered. Now it may be that there was only so much space and it simply could not be covered or his editor cut it as being potentially tangential. However, I think the real missing piece has to do with ijma. Ijma, the Arabic word for consensus, is how Sunni Muslim communities organize themselves. It is because of ijma that there isn’t a single, monolithic, and authoritative Sunni version of Sharia. While this was initially a secondary, guiding concept in interpreting and establishing Islamic Law, it ultimately became a binding and central approach to doing so (please see Ahmad Hassan’s book on this subject). Basically, think of Sunni Islam, with the exceptions of the Wahabbiya and its Salafist offshoots, like the way Protestantism was originally conceptualized – every man is a priest unto himself. No one needed an intermediary, whether priest, bishop, or Church to intercede with the Savior. So every community of Christians would organize their relationship to Christ slightly differently than all the others. To some extent this is still true for many Protestant communities and explains the variations within and between Protestant denominations. Protestantism has experienced a good degree of institutionalization as it has aged. According to the concept of ijma, many/most communities of Sunni Muslims organizes themselves around a consensus/common understanding of what it means to be a Muslim – in that time and place. This is, to be very blunt, what has allowed the Salafist communities to actually come into existence and thrive. This is true for both the original exports of Wahabbiya from Saudi Arabia and for the newer innovations that Wood’s refers to – the quietest Salafis and the violent Salafis like ISIS. The Saudis began to export their theology and dogma in service to the Kingdom’s support to our interests in subverting the Soviets in Afghanistan (h/t Digby) and the Saud’s interests in mollifying their subjects (who they had made into devout Wahabbis as a way to consolidate their control). By doing so the Saud’s demonstrated their piety in funding such righteous projects and by exporting their surplus young male population so they would cause problems in places other than the Kingdom. The freedom and variation that are the hallmarks of ijma/consensus in Sunni Islam leading to variants that seek to deny ijma and impose the one true faith is like providing one’s children the freedom to mature and make their own decisions only to wake up one morning to find they have returned home having developed their own identities. They then hold you at gun point while exclaiming “thank you for the room to find ourselves and determine how we should live our lives, now you will do things exactly how we think they should be done or we will kill you”.

By failing to account for ijma, Woods fails to give his readers an important part of the story. Moreover, it is a part of the story that provides part of the way to understand how to approach the problem set. Just as many Afghans did not like how the Taliban interpreted Islam and forced them to abide by it, they did, however, prefer that there was less chaos and upheaval under Taliban rule. So too will be the case with ISIS. As Woods correctly recounts, for ISIS, the only true Muslims are Muslims who do things ISIS’s way; everyone else is not merely wrong or a sinner in need of repentance, but a kuffar or apostate to be corporally punished or put to death. Such a narrow vision is a very fragile framework to build a caliphate on. This is evident in the article, when he presents his discussion with Musa Cerantonio, an Australian convert to Islam. Mr Cerantonio, a supposed leading ISIS recruiter, explains that he is already in opposition to some of the actions that ISIS is taking. Based on ISIS’s understanding of apostasy (takfir), either he is a kuffar/apostate or his Khalifa, al Baghdadi, is. When you take this reality of everyone measuring everyone else’s prayer mat to ensure it is the appropriate size, because everyone is an arbiter of what it really means to be Muslim and you combine it with the millenialistic/apocalyptic component, then for all its strength ISIS becomes quite weak. Baghdadi will eventually fail to do something that someone thinks he should do or he will do something someone thinks he should not do. Sooner or later someone will publicly charge him with failing to “promote the good and forbid the evil” and there will be a schism. Woods recounts that this has already happened within ISIS when he covers the break between al Maqdisi and ISIS. ISIS will eventually be at war with itself. When this happens the Sunni Muslims in Iraq, but I would also think in Syria and in other places, will stop being supportive. This is because ISIS will no longer be controlling the chaos, instead it will be part of its creation.

It is here that Woods’ article also misses something else important. Iraqi Islam, both Sunni and Shi’i, is tribal centric. The concept of ijma, in an Iraqi context, is related to Iraqi tribal dynamics. Most of the senior sheikhs and grand sheikhs are also the imams for the portions of their tribes where they reside and often for the greater community in their area. This is because of cross tribal ties. Only the three Shi’a Sayid Tribes (descended from the Prophet’s through his grandsons) are exclusively of one sect – Twelver Shi’ism. The rest of the tribes are all interrelated by marriage. For instance, one of the most senior Jabouris I interviewed told me that his mother was from the Utbi tribe and she was Shi’a, as was his sister in law. Moreover, I was told over and over that even if the Jabouris south and east of Baghdad are all Sunni, they have Shi’a Jabouri cousins in Basra, because everyone in Basra is Shi’a. The Shamori, which include tribes in Syria and Saudi Arabia too, are completely internally mixed according to sect. The tribe is so big and so far flung that it has both Sunni and Shi’a members prominently displayed on its tribal tree. As a result of not relating the complexity of the interaction between religion and tribe among Arab Iraqis, Woods does not take into account what helped cause the downfall of al Qaeda in Iraq – they pissed off the tribal leadership, especifically the sheikhs, sub-sheikhs, and their heirs. AQI did not seem to understand that tribe and religion was so intermingled. As a result they tried to do the same thing in Iraq that they did in Afghanistan – marry in to a kinship group (Pashtun khel in Afghanistan, tribe in Iraq). Once affiliated by marriage, they then made a play for leadership because they had money, weapons, and other resources. This worked in Afghanistan, because despite using the term, there really are not any tribes in Afghanistan, at least among the Pashtun. Pashtun kinship dynamics, when mapped graphically, are chaos – they look like a Jackson Pollack painting. In Iraq, the tribal dynamics map very neatly either on traditional family tree type of graphics or hub and spoke diagrams.

The problem set that we face with ISIS has several components. Among the biggest is that this is a problem internal to Islam. As a result Muslims have to resolve it for themselves. In many ways what we are watching in real time is the Islamic equivalent of the Reformation, counter-Reformation, and then the splintering within the Reformation that led to hundreds of years of struggle, conflict, and warfare in Europe. A lot of it had to do with which version of Christian theology and dogma was supposed to be correct and followed, but a lot of it used that as a motivating factor so elites and notables could control resources. Ultimately they became so intertwined, that even into the 1990s in Northern Ireland or the Balkans they could not be easily teased apart. The other big one for me is that America and its Western allies cannot really resolve this problem set. Even if we were to go in with overwhelming force and just decimate ISIS it would not resolve this dispute, which is multifaceted and internal to Islam. An appropriate response would be containing ISIS at the theater level within the Levant. To do this we should be empowering allies, clients, and friends within the region, including helping to forge new alliances. This includes engaging with the Iranians as appropriate in order to both reduce ISIS’s capacity and to allow the people that actually live in the Middle East to determine how they want to structure their own societies, economies, and polities. We should be assisting with Foreign Internal Defense and the building up and reform of the security sectors of these states as appropriate. We should also be working out ways to increase trade and opportunities between the states in the region. Moreover, we should basically make it clear to both the Israelis and the Palestinians, but especially the Israelis as they hold the power in that relationship, that a two state solution needs to happen immediately as the ongoing dispute is complicating the overall situation in the Levant. Finally, in Iraq we should be working to peel the tribes away from ISIS, organize them, and get them fighting against ISIS. Once ISIS is gone, then we can help mediate Iraq’s own internal crisis into an amicable divorce. It is no longer a coherent state and we should neither insist that it be one or force it to try to become one again.

* Adam L. Silverman most recently served as a civilian subject matter expert with the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Security Dialogue and US Army Europe. Prior to that he was the Cultural Advisor at the US Army War College from JUL 2010 through JUN 2014. He was deployed in Iraq as the Cultural Advisor for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team/1st Armored Division in 2008.

** Please see my “Just War, Jihad, and Terrorism: A Comparison of Western and Islamic Norms for the Use of Political Violence”, Journal of Church and State, Vol. 44, No. 1, Winter 2002 and “Preliminary Results from Voices of the Mada’in: A Tribal History and Study of one of Baghdad’s Six Rural Districts”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Vol. 23, No. 2, June 2010.

Adam also recommends this piece, which is far less favorable of Woods.

64 replies
  1. 1
    Pogonip says:

    Speaking of dog ma, Cole–how’s Ginger? All better now?

  2. 2
    Pogonip says:

    I’m with you, Adam. It’s an Islamic problem and we clueless Americans should stay out of it except for accepting refugees. I also agree that the scorpion will sting itself to death in due time as everyone strives to be holier than thou and they begin fighting each other–unless, of course, the U.S. government helpfully decides to provide them with a common enemy.

  3. 3
    Chris says:

    Wow, thank you.

    Just to pick out one thing –

    Finally, in Iraq we should be working to peel the tribes away from ISIS, organize them, and get them fighting against ISIS.

    How would the U.S. do that given the record of the 2000s? They already tried partnering with us against AQI, and what it ultimately got them was – as soon as we handed them over to the Iraqi government, the checks stopped coming, and they spent the next few years being either ignored or poorly treated by Baghdad. Why should they assume it’ll be any different this time?

    I mean, it’s possible that Daesh control will become so abusive that it’ll simply cease to be an issue – that a lot of the tribes will simply throw in with Daesh’s enemies because fuck it, anything has to be better than this. But that’s a dangerous thing to rely on.

  4. 4
    Jacks mom says:


    We need to stay out of it. We won’t but if we would the people that have to live there will/or won’t sort it out.

    Why do we have to be there at all? Oh yeah……oil or world domination or we know better because ‘Murica!!!


  5. 5
    Mike Furlan says:

    @Jacks mom: We need to stay out.

  6. 6
    jl says:

    Thanks. I read Silverman’s piece and the article about Awad’s reaction in link. I agree with Awad’s criticism of Wood’s characterization of IS as ‘Islamic’. In that link, Wood’s response to Awad’s criticism was

    ‘ ..I argue that ISIS is Islamic, in the sense of drawing on the long and varied traditions and core texts that Muslims share. They did not make these practices up out of whole cloth, even the ones like slavery and execution of homosexuals.” ‘

    I think that is pretty weak. A certain other religion, and cultures related to that religion, share a tradition that includes slavery and execution of homosexuals. I don’t think extreme Christianist sects who want to continue those traditions should be called Christian. Same for extreme and violent Christianist sects that believe some people are ‘mud people’ and no big deal if those people, and white ‘race traitors’ who associate with them are killed as well. Every group, religious or not, shares a tradition that includes some very unsavory practices and ideas from the past.

  7. 7
    a hip hop artist from Idaho (fka Bella Q) says:

    Thanks very much for the analysis.

  8. 8
    DWD says:

    Really interesting reaction, especially the tribal Iraqi piece. He’s right that ISIS is ripe for splinter movements (most pietistic movements are, especially in Islamic history), but I imagine they’ll cohere at least until Baghdadi is no more, then you’ll see fracturing around the succession.

    Adam isn’t quite right about ISIS and ijma, at least as I understand it. Ibn al-Wahhab didn’t discount consensus altogether, though he did de-emphasize its value for determining legal matters as compared to a close reading of Quran and Hadith. His argument was that the only consensus that had any real legal or religious value was the consensus of the early community that formed around Muhammad and his companions (or, I guess, his interpretation of that consensus). Most Salafi branches take similar positions (not surprising, since they, like the Wahhabis, trace their legal/theological roots to the same guy, Ibn Taymiyyah). ISIS, as a Wahhabi offshoot, is presumably also in this camp.

  9. 9
    jl says:


    I read a book on the history of Islamic law, and IIRC Ibn Taymiyyah is from the 12th century, 500 years after ‘early Islam’. From what I read in that book, early Islamic law, theory and practice, were more tolerant and humane than what goes on in Saudi Arabia today.

    I wonder if some conservative branches of Islam, like some conservative Christian sects, do not have a good idea of what really went on in the good old days.

    IIRC, the book claimed that Islamic theology and law became very rigd around 1000, when ‘interpretation’ of the texts was banned, mainly because critical thinking was considered a threat to the political power of rulers.

  10. 10
    jl says:


    This the guy?

    Ibn Taymiyyah

    Taqî ad-Dîn Aḥmad ibn Taymiyyah (born in Harran, January 22, 1263 – died in Damascus, September 20, 1328

  11. 11
    srv says:

    We’ve already abandoned the Anbar Awakening crowd and will not be rearming them – Shia death squads, Iraqi Army and ISIS will quell them. Their place is in a ditch they’ve dug for themselves (thx America!)

    As for ‘consensus’, ISIS is filled with well educated foreigners who are not Wahhabist, educated ex-Baathists and Chechens who wipe their asses with Rambo. See all the youtube videos. I mean, this guy was apparently from Chile:

    and he makes Che look like mouse. Tell me you didn’t want to grab an AK and join up. There is just no way ISIL/ISIS ideology is worrying about self-consistency right now, there’s too many of them spread across way too much territory. There is no turbanned SPECTRE guy stroking his cat and snapchatting edicts.

    Sure, when they go into KSA and capture Mecca and Medina and Lawrence from Birmingham is pounding the table in Damascus or Riyadh, there will be accounting. But that day is a long fucking way off.

    Egypt, Jordan and KSA will not step outside their borders. Erdogan might as well be part of ISIS. Who, exactly, is going to ‘Win the Morning’ here?

  12. 12
    catclub says:

    Moreover, we should basically make it clear to both the Israelis and the Palestinians, but especially the Israelis as they hold the power in that relationship, that a two state solution needs to happen immediately as the ongoing dispute is complicating the overall situation in the Levant.

    I am pretty sure that the Israelis are aware of the situation in the middle east, perhaps even more aware of various nuances in it that we generally are not. They may prefer the complicated situation.

  13. 13
    DWD says:

    @jl: Yep, that’s him. Ibn Taymiyyah developed the Hanbali legal school, which started to take shape in the 9th c around the teachings of Ahmad b. Hanbal and is the most literalist of the four main Sunni legal schools. Ibn Taymiyyah stressed the strict Hanbali code as the real-deal Islam at a time when the Mongols had executed the last widely accepted caliph and “Islam” was thought to be in a real existential crisis.

  14. 14
    catclub says:

    Both this discussion and Woods’ seem to forget that there is oil in the neighborhood.

  15. 15
    jl says:

    @DWD: Yes, as I remember there was a real struggle between liberal Islam that believed in interpretation, and conservatives, who were very literal in some senses, but also very liberal in their own way, when it was convenient for them (picking and choosing between Koran and the ‘sayings’, showing a lot of respect for authoritarian and patriarchal traditions that had only flimsy textual support). The book I read did not deal with political upheavals going on at the time: Crusades, Mongol invasions. But the message I took away was the a very rigid, authoritarian and socially conservative school of Islam was favored by the rulers and it became the dominant one, at least in Middle East.

  16. 16
    DWD says:

    @jl: The whole “closing the gates of ijtihad (legal reasoning)” idea is overblown in early Western Orientalist scholarship imo. Plenty of scholars kept debating law, theology, and philosophy after everybody supposedly stopped debating those things. In particular, the Hanbalis never accepted the idea that there was nothing left to debate, because they didn’t give consensus the same authority that the other schools did. Some Malikis and Hanafis in the ~11th century were saying that consensus could assume the role that legal reasoning had occupied previously, but the Hanbalis never bought that argument.

    But yes, the idea that these “pure” modern revivalist movements have any real idea what the community was like 1400 years ago is bunk. I doubt Baghdadi himself really believes that, but he knows he can sell it to his followers.

  17. 17
    BAtFFP says:

    Thanks for this fascinating article! i probably only understood 25% of it, but I’m happy to learn.

  18. 18
  19. 19
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @Chris: Chris,

    You’re correct that it’s an uphill push. However, it was reported that tribal leaders from Anbar Province were in DC last week requesting assistance. The other thing we can do and should do is lean on the Government of Iraq to actually provide the supplies to the tribes that they’ve promised to deliver and to lean on the Shi’a militias to lay off the Sunnis.

  20. 20
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @Pogonip: Pogonip,

    One of our best and worst characteristics as Americans is the desire to do something. One of the hardest lessons for the strategist to learn is sometimes doing nothing is advantageous. It provides perspective and allows for more careful considerations. There are a lot of things we could do, most of them would be tactically sound and likely tactically effective. They would, however, not be strategically effective.

  21. 21
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @jl: JL and DWD,

    There’s a lot of stuff in early Islam, just as in other religion, that is authoritative, authentic, and largely ignored. Abu Bakr, the first caliph, was, according to Hadith (the Hadith of the Portico of the Banu Saqifa), nominated for his office and elected to it. When was the last time you saw any Islamically inspired political movement use this as a call to some form of democratic governance? As for Ahmed Ibn abd al Wahhab – he was special. His family dropped him in the desert to die, where he was found by Ibn Saud’s men. His brother, an actual Hanbali scholar and mujtahid, wrote public statements condemning anyone who followed his brother as being apostates. Thanksgiving at the abd al Wahhab’s must have been tons of fun…

  22. 22
    steve herl says:

    I really don’t give a shit what ISIS wants. They may be for world peace, curing cancer and an end to poverty, but if their way of getting there is to burn people alive or lining up 21 hostages and sawing off their heads with a pocket knife then I say say kill the mfers on sight. But maybe i’m just being judgemental.

  23. 23
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @catclub: Catclub,

    I have no doubt. That said we’re the patron, they’re the client. Moreover, a real friend doesn’t enable the worst possible behaviors that can be engaged. Twenty-three years ago Aaron David Miller lectured to a seminar I was in as an undergrad. He said something I’ve never forgotten: “it is not in Israel’s real interest to be an occupier and it is not in the Palestinians to be occupied”. I have no illusions about either party to the dispute, and the real humanitarian concerns aside, my professional concerns are ultimately what allows for American policy to be successful and our interests to be achieved. It is not in our interests to let this dispute continue.

  24. 24
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @catclub: Catclub,

    I haven’t forgotten it, it’s not germane to a discussion of whether ISIS is or is not Islamic. It is germane to whether we should intervene and how we might best do so. To paraphrase from Frank Herbert “the oil must flow!”.

  25. 25
    catclub says:

    @Adam L Silverman: I agree. And thanks for the in depth analysis.

  26. 26
    Cervantes says:

    @Adam L Silverman:

    When was the last time you saw any Islamically inspired political movement use [the Abu Bakr precedent] as a call to some form of democratic governance?

    Islam-inspired political movements have submitted themselves to the democratic process before, yes? Given that you are aware of this fact, are you saying that in doing so they have never referred to the Abu Bakr precedent, and that this omission is significant?

  27. 27
    jl says:


    ” Islam-inspired political movements have submitted themselves to the democratic process before, yes? ”

    Depends on what you two are defining as ‘Islam-inspired political movements’, and where.

    We have Turkey. Malaysia… though can that system be called Islam inspired, or the British system as adopted by a Muslim country? Indonesia? Though Sukarno seemed to think his first election was enough democracy.

    How about the Middle East? Nassar’s Egypt? I don’t know enough about that to judge.

    Anyway, you typed ‘yes?’ so if you have some examples, please let me know.

    BTW, was curious about the first caliphates, and wikipedia says first three were elected, so a stronger precedent for democrat election of caliph that I first thought when reading AS’s comment.

  28. 28
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Jefferson, Madison, et al had this right.

    Fuck organized religion being intertwined with politics.

  29. 29
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @BAtFFP: BAtFFP,

    What can I clarify for you?

  30. 30
    jonas says:

    @DWD: IIRC, doesn’t the noted traveler and scholar Ibn Battuta run into him at some point and think he was a nutcase?

  31. 31
    Chris says:


    I assumed Cervantes was referring to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Palestine, both explicitly Islamic movements which are much too extreme for the West’s tastes, but nevertheless stood for election and, I believe, won them fairly.

  32. 32
    xenos says:

    @jl: The legal history of slavery (‘abd) and the sociology and understanding of race in Arabic culture is very complicated and really does not overlap much with European law and culture. comparing them is rather treacherous.

    This Arabic culture and legal structure within Islam makes it like like there is much more homogeneneity to Dar al Islam than there really is. I would compare what is going on in the middle east go the 30 years war. Outsiders coming into that would have a very difficult time negotiating their way through that conflict.

  33. 33
    Xenos says:

    @Adam L Silverman: Also, too: Abu Bakr was elected to Caliph as the latecomers were more numerous and better organised. It was the ancien regime reasserting itself, not really a function of democracy.

    Then again, I studied mostly with Shi’ites, so I may be biased.

  34. 34

    @srv: “Egypt, Jordan and KSA will not step outside their borders.”

    Well, the Saud family most likely won’t step outside their borders (unless you consider the ongoing stream of material support for Wahhabi groups — and considering that one of those groups managed to demolish WTC 1, 2, & 7 they’re not to be underestimated) but Egypt and Jordan are already stepping outside of their borders to swat at the near eastern version of the Khmer Rouge. So your fantasies of the holy cities falling to ISIS may be a bit optimistic.

  35. 35
    heckblazer says:

    @xenos: I agree that the Reformation in general and the Thirty Years War in particular. Like it says in the OP, there’s a whole tangle of religion, power, reform and opportunism that even insiders probably have a hard time tracking. ISIL specifically reminds of the Anabaptists who took over Münster.

  36. 36
    BruinKid says:

    Said this on DailyKos as well. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is right when he made the analogy that ISIS is to Islam as the KKK is to Christianity. And as with the KKK in his analogy, these people believe they are being true to their religion. Just look at the phone interview the Charlie Hebdo killers gave before their deaths. They truly believed they were being righteous by avenging Mohammed.

    About the piece you linked at the end criticizing Woods, I wish people would stop falling for the silly “No True Scotsman” argument, as Awad does. It’s beside the point. There have been countless interpretations of every damn religion out there. Who are you or I to say which is the “true” version of it? That’s a debate for religious scholars and college students with too much time on their hands. What matters more is what people who join ISIS think they believe Islam is all about.

    Lawrence O’Donnell tonight had an excellent discussion about this with Wood, along with Richard Wolffe and Michael Weiss.

  37. 37
    Villago Delenda Est says:


    I wonder if some conservative branches of Islam, like some conservative Christian sects, do not have a good idea of what really went on in the good old days.

    Would not surprise me in the least. Unfortunately both faiths provide a framework that assholes can warp to inflict their stupidity on everyone else.

  38. 38
    Cervantes says:


    I assumed Cervantes was referring to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Palestine, both explicitly Islamic movements which are much too extreme for the West’s tastes, but nevertheless stood for election and, I believe, won them fairly.


    Another example is the case of Algeria in the early ’90s. There was an election in progress and after the first round, when it appeared that Islamist parties were about to win outright, the election was canceled, the Islamist parties were banned, and the army took over. No question there about which side’s commitment to democracy was greater.

    Abu Bakr’s story is all very well but we have more recent cases to consider.

  39. 39
    Joseph Nobles says:

    So al-Bagdadi as Robespierre? Works for me.

  40. 40
    Cervantes says:


    You asked some questions. If they are not addressed here, do let me know.

  41. 41
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @steve herl: And you have a magic way of doing that without killing everyone else in the vicinity, antagonizing the very people you’re trying to help and creating the space for the next version of ISIS to pop up in the same neighborhood? That’s the whole problem.

  42. 42
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @BruinKid: Yeah, the KKK was very Christian in much the same sense: they adhered to the specific types of American Christianity that had been carefully constructed to justify slavery, and that Mark Twain was skewering in Huckleberry Finn. They threw Jesus’s name and cross imagery around all over the place while they committed terrorist acts.

    I think part of what Awad is objecting to, though, is Woods’ implication that ISIS’s version of Islam is in some sense more Islamic than most Muslims’, rather than a weird and brittle outlier. Woods doesn’t say it, but I get a sense of that as subtext: that these guys’ whole bloody ideology is just taking the Koran really seriously, and other Muslims (with the possible exception of the “quietists”) have sort of gotten soft. And while he disclaims the clash-of-civilizations narrative, the message feeds into it to some degree.

  43. 43
    D58826 says:

    After reading these articles and several others making the same points, the idea of American boots on the ground is even more insane. We don’t even know what particular plot of ground to put the boots on. The best we can do is help the non-isil locals contain the problem.

  44. 44
    Paul in KY says:

    Mentioned in lower thread on ISIL:

    I am disturbed that you aren’t calling them ‘ISIL’ with the “L’ as standing for Levant. The ‘S’ or ‘al-Sham ‘ is their term & encompasses a much bigger area than ‘Levant’.

    Bottom line, it pisses them off when you call them ISIL.

  45. 45
    Paul in KY says:

    @DWD: Early Islam (the kind the nutjobs all revere & whack off to) has never recovered from Hulagu Khan & his whupping of them.

  46. 46
    Paul in KY says:

    @Adam L Silverman: Likud Israel does think it is in their ‘best interests’. That’s because they are waiting for some kind of ‘gross provocation’ (in Palestinian terms, a great quasi-military triumph), to implement their plan for Eretz Israel. They can’t really do that if they are not an occupying power (or it would be much more difficult to do).

  47. 47
    DWD says:

    @jonas: Ibn Battuta claimed to have seen Ibn Taymiyyah deliver a sermon and accused him of committing tajsim, or anthropomorphizing God, which is problematic in Islam to say the least. The problem with his account is that it’s at odds with a lot of Ibn Taymiyyah’s own writing, so he was probably injecting some personal bias into his story.

    Hanbalis are more inclined than the other legal schools to accept as literal Quranic passages that seem to give God human attributes (like a hand, say, or the power of speech), but they still reject tajsim. Instead, they claim that it’s all beyond human understanding.

  48. 48
    DWD says:

    @Paul in KY: That wasn’t “early Islam” though. Groups like ISIS are talking about Muhammad and his Companions, who lived 600 years earlier. The ethos of that community had long since been lost to civil war and imperial excess, as far as purists were/are concerned.

  49. 49

    Another example is the case of Algeria in the early ’90s. There was an election in progress and after the first round, when it appeared that Islamist parties were about to win outright, the election was canceled, the Islamist parties were banned, and the army took over. No question there about which side’s commitment to democracy was greater.

    @Cervantes: Islam and democracy are not compatible, no more so than Christian fundamentalism and democracy are.

    I’m grateful for the Algerian army and even more so for the Egyptian armed forces. They’ve solved the problem, albeit with iron-fist totalitarianism, but hey, anyone have a better idea that’s actually been shown to work? Haven’t seen any.

  50. 50
    Cervantes says:


    Lots of people have found military dictatorships to be advantageous. Sorry to hear you’re one of them.

  51. 51
    EZSmirkzz says:

    Thanks for posting this John. You may have committed the modern journalistic sin of informing your audience.

  52. 52
    Chris says:

    @Adam L Silverman:

    Do we know if these tribal leaders actually have any support to back them up? A.K.A. that they’re not just a 2.0 version of Chalabi promising democracy and liberalism and rainbows, while actually being in no position to bring it about?

    I’m not assuming that they are. Just asking.

  53. 53
    Paul in KY says:

    @DWD: Good point. Thanks for the comment.

  54. 54
    Matt says:

    Notably missing: the idea that we should tell the House of Saud that they need to find a new way to work out their theocratic jollies.

    In a sane political environment, we’d do this with a crash program in renewable energy. Since the GOP has decided that common sense and practicality are actually a Commie plot, all we’re likely to get is ineffectual saber-rattling.

  55. 55
    MCA1 says:

    @srv: Egypt’s already done so. Well, not technically, I suppose – they’ve flown outside their borders rather than stepped, but still. And they’re actively helping their citizens get the f out of Libya pronto.

    I’d like to see more exploration of the upshots, strategically, of one of Silverman’s primary points: ISIS is a death cult that will inevitably eat its own and devolve into chaos. The question, in addition to the military question of how best to contain them in the meantime, is how do we accelerate that process of ISIS coming apart at the seams and turning into its own little Lord of The Flies. No doubt that’s a theme of the summit in D.C. going on right now. How do we go about sowing discontent within the cult (as well as turning off some of their recruiting spigot)? Do we infiltrate? Take to the twitter accounts? Squeeze one franchise so hard they turn on the mothership back in Syria?

  56. 56
    srv says:

    @MCA1: Well, I guess they can win the morning with courtesy bombs but they can’t win a war without boots. Perhaps an EU or UN occupation force into Libya – Egypt would go then. But on their own, doubt it.

    Like the ‘deadenders’ count kept creeping up in 2003, I notice we’re getting fewer statistics on how big ISIS is.

  57. 57
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @Cervantes: Cervantes,

    I was not intending to assert that Islamic Parties have not submitted to the process or participated or followed the rules. Rather that I’ve never seen any of them refer to this early form of democracy at the beginning of Islam. The larger point, however, is that religions carry within them a large amount of material. At different times and in different locations various pieces are foregrounded while other pushed into the background. This is to not only help adherents make sense of the times and places they find themselves, but also to ensure that the religion has relevancy. This is done by people, so its often quite garbled looking to those outside the tradition and sometimes to those inside too. Given this dynamic I would think that if I was trying to motivate a religious community to participate in the electoral process of even a transitional democracy, that I would at least partially emphasize this small d democratic tradition within the religion.

  58. 58
    Adam L Silverman says:


    This is an excellent question. Other than one or two quick trips into/across Baghdad City – usually and thankfully by helicopter – all of my deployment was spend outside of the big urban area in smaller towns and villages south and east of Baghdad. Everything I observed first hand demonstrated that the traditional kinship ties were very important in these areas and that the leadership or those they designated had significant authority. Some of this was because of the tribal dynamic. Some was because they were also imams – both Sunni and Shi’a. Some was because they controlled jobs, land, the flow of money, etc. As is the case in so many places, when stress is placed on a society traditional social networks of family and religion go from being weak to strong. Iraq has been under a lot of stress for the past twelve years.

  59. 59
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @CONGRATULATIONS!: Congratulations,

    Actually I’ve always found the Algerian case to be an interesting one. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) had pledged to the US, UN, and other international observers that it would submit to the rules of the political game and abide by the outcome of the election – good, bad, or otherwise. This was the price of admission to be allowed to participate. When it appeared that FIS had won enough votes/seats to form a government, the election was nullified, with French backing, and a military backed dictatorship was put in place. The FIS’s armed offshoot/wing, the Armed Islamic Group (AIG), quickly attacked legitimate military and government targets to try, by force, to reestablish the process. Even under western norms for revolution (Just Revolution Theory) that was considered a legitimate use of force. AIG, however, was not strong enough to win, but strong enough to hold on – so a classic Civil War, where two factions are fighting over succession of government, quickly devolved into a classic insurgency, where the challengers weren’t strong enough to win, but were strong enough to not be wiped out and the government was strong enough to hold off the challengers, but not strong enough to successfully conclude the war. This then devolved into terribly, heinous, and horrific acts of terrorism and crimes against humanity by AIG.

    The real unresolved question of the Algerian elections is, however, what would FIS done if it had been allowed to form the government? Would it have governed responsibly, though in line with as much of its platform that it could get passed and implemented and then submitted itself to a subsequent election and abided by that election’s outcome? Or would it have done what Morsi was accused of doing in Egypt last year: submitting to democracy one in order to get elected and then democracy was no longer necessary. Those questions will never be answered.

  60. 60
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @Matt: Matt,
    I am in complete agreement. Was just a bit outside the scope of what John asked me to read and respond too. Saudi interests are often inconsistent with our own. I have long argued that infrastructure and renewable energy projects should be spoken of as national security requirements to actually get traction on those issues. I’m honestly not that worried about a hacker collective or foreign government or terrorist group bringing down our power grid. I am worried about several squirrels and pigeons. We have a largely 1950s grid in 2015. Everything should be converted to the most state of the art transmission process and it should be buried – 1) removes the eyesore of power lines and 2) makes it easier to harden them as targets. Same thing for rail. We learned on 9-11 and the days afterwords that if America can’t fly, our economy takes a huge hit because we have no other high speed or quick alternatives to moving people and goods around. High speed rail isn’t just about getting to Disney World quickly and conveniently – its a national economic and security necessity. The entire rail system should be redone for high speed commuter and commercial loads. And, again, I’m not worried about some terrorist group bringing down a bridge or collapsing a tunnel, I’m worried that as so many are approaching or have surpassed there usability lifespans they’ll simply collapse on their own.

  61. 61
    Matt McIrvin says:

    And, again, I’m not worried about some terrorist group bringing down a bridge or collapsing a tunnel, I’m worried that as so many are approaching or have surpassed there usability lifespans they’ll simply collapse on their own.

    We could just blame the explosions on terrorists, like in the movie Brazil.

  62. 62
    dmbeaster says:

    We wont stay out of it because the war lobby in this country is just covered in sores from itching for a new war. So we will get involved because, well, WAR, and ISIS provides the convenient scary pretext for selling it. Just like 911 set the stage for invading Iraq — a country that had nothing to do with 911 and nothing to do with Al Queda. So what? The war gods must be served.

  63. 63
    Cervantes says:

    @Adam L Silverman:

    Rather that I’ve never seen any of them refer to this early form of democracy at the beginning of Islam.

    I have not looked, therefore cannot comment on the facts — but assuming you’re right, what do you think explains the omission? Is it just ignorance or something more cynical?

  64. 64

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