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.