The IS cutthroats and the cotton candy professor

The IS cutthroats and the cotton candy professor
Comment: Islamic State commentary is everywhere. But one particular Atlantic article has made waves, particularly in the US. Hamid Dabashi dissects it here and asks what inanity sparked this search for an IS theology.
9 min read
02 Mar, 2015
Do Muslims have a cotton candy conception of Islam? Or is that woolly thinking? (Getty)

For the world at large that does not have the dubious pleasure of knowing what The Atlantic is and thus could not care less what nonsense it publishes regarding Islam, Muslims or the state of global violence, it would be only a matter of idle curiosity and entertainment to learn that in its March 2015 issue it published a long and languorous essay in which it argued that the Islamic State group (IS, formerly ISIS) is not incidental to Islam but in fact integral to it.


     Our world is ruled by psychopaths, interpreted by idiots and financed by Rupert Murdoch.

“The Islamic State,” the article declared in solemn fonts and as a perfect example of Yellow Journalism, “is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.” From which premise the author of the article then concludes: “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.”


Addressing the rather inconvenient fact of Muslims who actively distance themselves and their faith from this gang of murderers (there are only an estimated 1.7 billion of them), the author of this widely read article quotes a Princeton professor: such Muslims are “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton candy view of their own religion that neglects what their religion has historically and legally required”.


In other words, this particular Princeton professor knows more about Islam and Muslims around the world than Muslims themselves do. The professor even does a quick bit of remote psychopathology and declares them all “embarrassed”.


The decent and indecent


There are about 320 million Americans and they are not all as stupid as this article thinks them to be. There are tens of thousands of scholars from one end of this blessed Native American land to the other and not all of them are so out to lunch as this cotton candy professor from Princeton. I feel obligated to share these simple facts so that to people in Asia, Africa and Latin America we do not appear entirely a lost cause. I do not want a repeat of that naughty headline in the British Daily Mirror when George W Bush was re-elected that wondered: "How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB" — a reference to the number of people who voted for Dubya then and who are likely to love this article now.


This particular Atlantic article has generated much angst and discussion among Americans — Muslims and non-Muslims alike.


Caring and competent people quickly responded. “The Atlantic’s big Islam lie,” Haroon Mughal wrote early in Salon. Raw Story cited “America’s most prominent Muslim” –  Nihad Awad, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations – who argued that The Atlantic “is doing PR for ISIS”. Jack Jenkins for Think Progress pointed out “What The Atlantic Gets Dangerously Wrong About ISIS And Islam.” H. A. Heller was not mincing any words: "This stupidity needs to end: Why the Atlantic & NY Post are clueless about Islam: Pundits claiming that ISIS is emblematic of Islam ignore the intellectual traditions at the heart of the religion.”


More scholarly-minded critiques also published learned essays arguing against the inanities of the Atlantic piece and the claptrap of its choice cotton candy professor, instead offering evidence, for example, from American history to articulate a reading of ISIS in terms of “destructive cults” or from sociology of religion as “rituals” of violence.


In another excellent retort, published in the Atlantic itself, Caner K. Dagli captured the very essence of the ghastly racism at the heart of these sorts of essays on Islam and Muslims. “All of this puts Muslims in a double bind,” Dagli correctly concluded: “If they just go about their lives, they stand condemned by those who demand that Muslims ‘speak out’. But if they do speak out, they can expect to be told that short of declaring their sacred texts invalid, they are fooling themselves or deceiving the rest of us. Muslims are presented with a brutal logic in which the only way to truly disassociate from ISIS and escape suspicion is to renounce Islam altogether.”


Perhaps the best rebuttal (among many other excellent pieces) I read against the Atlantic hack job was a learned essay by Robert Wright for the New Yorker who in a simple and elegant prose dismantled the whole sandcastle of The Atlantic piece, saw its argument as integral to the kind of self-fulfilling prophecies that since Samuel Huntington have become integral to US imperialism, and sharply cut through the vacuous inanity of the piece.


I share these excellent rebuttals so that the world at large will not pity us living in the US thinking we are all at the mercy of such puerile jejunity.

Read also Azmi Bishara on statues and idols

But then who loved what The Atlantic and its cotton candy professor had to say about IS and Islam? Well the obvious ones. The notorious right wing thug Rush Limbaugh screamed in jubilation: “The Atlantic Nukes the Regime on ISIS.” He gleefully quoted the Atlantic article: “"The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”


Another lunatic on the right, Glen Beck joined the chorus: “‘The Atlantic’ nails it with fantastic ISIS piece.” Someone on his behalf declared triumphantly: “Glenn was optimistic today after reading a fantastic piece in left leaning The Atlantic about the group ISIS and their motivations. It’s exactly what Glenn has been saying for years, which he has been made fun of for, but truth no one on the left was willing to echo. Looks like they’re starting to play catch up — a good sign for us, bad for ISIS.”


As decent people objected to and indecent racists applauded The Atlantic piece, the learned professor from Princeton seemed to change his mind, started chasing after his own comments and modifying, altering, and explaining them away. But they were not explained away. He is stuck with them.


Modern or Medieval?


The Atlantic article has succeeded in putting people on the defensive. It argues that the IS group is not just Islamic but in fact “very Islamic”.


Well is it?


IS is indeed Islamic. It is Islamic precisely in the way that Spanish conquistadors were Christians when they were skewering Native Americans alive in the name of Jesus Christ. It is Islamic in the way the Crusaders were Christian when murdering their way to the Holy Land; in the way the KKK is Christian when lynching and burning African Americans alive or President George W. Bush was Christian when he presided over a military assault that destroyed an entire sovereign nation-state and his soldiers were slaughtering the Iraqi “savages,” as Clint Eastwood’s hero in “American Sniper” would call them – a film better characterized as “killing ragheads for Jesus,” as Chris Hedges did.


IS is indeed as Islamic as Baruch Goldstein was Jewish when he went on a rampage mass murdering Palestinians in Hebron, and precisely in the same way that Binyamin Netanyahu and all other Israeli warlords are Jewish when they slaughter countless Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere in Palestine. IS is as Islamic as militant Hindu nationalists are Hindu when they go on a frenzied furry and slaughter Muslims in India. IS is as Islamic as militant Buddhist monks of the “969 Movement” are Buddhist when seeking to cleanse Myanmar of Muslims by burning them alive.


A better question for The Atlantic journalist and his favourite cotton candy professor is in fact much simpler: What utter stupidity might cause a person to ignore the world in which we live, and in which we have lived, and engage in the mind-numbing banality of searching for a “theology” for the IS group?


Did Søren Kierkegaard have a cotton candy view of his faith along with the whole gamut of Latin American liberation theology, or should it be left to militant murderers, conquistadors, Crusaders, and imperial presidents to define Christianity?


Did Primo Levy and Martin Buber or the whole spectrum of Jewish activists involved in the American civil rights movement have a cotton candy view of Judaism or should it be left to Menachem Begin, the Irgun and the Stern Gang to define what is Judaism as they massacred Palestinians in Deir Yasin?


Do thinkers, poets and scholars from Rumi and Ibn Arabi to Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd and Wael Hallaq have anything to say about the Quran and what it means? What about those millions of Muslims from one end of the Arab world to another who have defied the rule of tyranny in their homelands? What about those Muslims forming a symbolic ring around a synagogue in Oslo, or those joining Christians in solidary during Lent to express their gratitude? Are they all just “embarrassed Muslims” chewing on a “cotton candy” view of their ancestral faith?


“Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” the cotton candy professor declared in the article. “Islamic State fighters are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”


Medieval? Really? Medieval is a term entirely internal to European historical periodization whose accuracy even European historians have started challenging. The term has absolutely nothing to do with Islamic history, which has its own internal dynamics and periodization. And if by that term any deeply colonized mind were to mean “barbarity”, “chaos” and “backwardness,” then any finger pointing at IS has ten pointed back at it invoking Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Base, Guantanamo Bay, Haditha Massacre and so on ad nauseam.


The manner in which this article manufactures authority for itself is by reporting that “every academic I asked about the Islamic State’s ideology” sent him to this cotton candy professor, which is of course a very poor excuse for a joke. All I need to do is to stick my head out of my office on Columbia campus in New York and greet at least half a dozen eminent and world-class scholars infinitely superior in their critical grasp of Islam and Muslims. The only problem is that none of these scholars would ever talk to a juvenile journalist who asks them inane questions — and right there is the conundrum of our predicament in a world ruled by psychopaths, interpreted by idiots and financed by Rupert Murdoch