Graeme Wood’s excellent piece in The Atlantic has justly been making the rounds for the past week or so. It is well worth reading with a number of insights and points that strike at the heart of the contemporary conflict between modernity and religious violence. I commend “What ISIS Really Wants” to your reading. (Rasha al Aqeedi’s “Caliphatalism,” which looks more closely at the situation in Mosul, makes a great companion read.)
One of the elements of Wood’s piece that stuck out to me was this exchange with a couple of the “ex-members of a banned Islamist group called Al Muhajiroun (The Emigrants)” in London:
[Anjem] Choudary [48, the group’s former leader] said Sharia has been misunderstood because of its incomplete application by regimes such as Saudi Arabia, which does behead murderers and cut off thieves’ hands. “The problem,” he explained, “is that when places like Saudi Arabia just implement the penal code, and don’t provide the social and economic justice of the Sharia—the whole package—they simply engender hatred toward the Sharia.” That whole package, he said, would include free housing, food, and clothing for all, though of course anyone who wished to enrich himself with work could do so.
Abdul Muhid, 32, continued along these lines. He was dressed in mujahideen chic when I met him at a local restaurant: scruffy beard, Afghan cap, and a wallet outside of his clothes, attached with what looked like a shoulder holster. When we sat down, he was eager to discuss welfare. The Islamic State may have medieval-style punishments for moral crimes (lashes for boozing or fornication, stoning for adultery), but its social-welfare program is, at least in some aspects, progressive to a degree that would please an MSNBC pundit. Health care, he said, is free. (“Isn’t it free in Britain, too?,” I asked. “Not really,” he said. “Some procedures aren’t covered, such as vision.”) This provision of social welfare was not, he said, a policy choice of the Islamic State, but a policy obligation inherent in God’s law.
The emphasis on “economic justice” construed as “free housing, food and clothing for all” reminded me of a passage in Rev. Robert Sirico’s Defending the Free Market, in which he reflected up on the al-Qaeda attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. Rev. Sirico reads this selection in the video below:
Wood’s piece goes into some detail in describing the differences between al-Qaeda and ISIS, but this radically communitarian aspect of radical Islam seems to be an important point of agreement. Like ISIS, as Sirico writes,
In many people’s minds, Osama bin Laden was simply a holdover from a primitive form of Islam. But if you listen closely to some of the man’s own recorded messages to the world, a more complex portrait emerges. In what may have been his last recorded video message, released after he had been killed and just after the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attack, bin Laden said that “the path to stop the hegemony of capitalism is to carry out a real radical change” so that President Obama “will be liberated, and with him, everyone else, from the hegemony of these corporations.”
We don’t need to decide whether or not this interpretation of Sharia and Islam is authentic to recognize the danger that it represents to Western civilization. To the extent that ISIS’s vision of social justice resonates with the marginalized in the Middle East and across the world, it becomes a major challenge to the legitimacy and potency of Western regimes.