On Islam, Headlines, and Definitions

This post’s topic might be the most controversial thing I’ve posted here ever. I hope the points I want to make aren’t.

One of the excuses for not blogging I came up with and then deleted while rambling about not blogging was that I’m getting more feelings about real-world real-person issues, things that people take heated positions on — it’s not topics like what food I ate or what games I’m playing in fourth grade any more — and my identity is pretty public here, so who knows what’ll happen. Oh well. I’m probably just paranoid.

It’s also delayed, as the articles I’m talking about are old; the latest two news items are the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and then the police shooting at the Dallas rally. That was also really sad, but I don’t think I have anything insightful to say about it. Let me point you to the MIT Admissions post, “Black Lives Matter”, and then for something a bit more optimistic out of a huge range of possible choices, this Medium article.

Although after I started writing this post, the story about a Muslim man preventing an ISIS suicide bomber came out, so now this is mildly relevant again. Anyway, I guess the delay is no different from how I put up life posts weeks after the life event happens. So today, I bring you two old news articles about Islam that my friends shared and discussed:

The second one first, whose argument is, to be frank, weak. I think this piece from The Atlantic by Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants”, is a better-researched overview of ISIS while still being pretty readable. One caveat is that it’s somewhat old. But its central claim is quite the opposite:

[The] Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. … [T]he religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

This is a long, long piece, so to get a feel for the evidence, here are some key quotes:

the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves … insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.
… the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous.
What’s striking about [leaders of the Islamic State] is not just the literalism, but also the seriousness with which they read these [religious] texts … There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.

For some more nuance, ThinkProgress has a follow-up on the piece — the key takeaways from this are that ISIS’s interpretation of Islamic texts is not the most valid or “inevitable” and that other Muslims can have theological ground for criticizing ISIS — but the central message still stands strong. If you prefer something more academic, here’s Bunzel on “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State” (PDF), a report from the Brookings Institute (a very highly ranked think tank):

The Islamic State, like al-Qaeda, identifies with a movement in Islamic political thought known as Jihadi-Salafism, or jihadism for short. The group’s leaders explicitly adhere to this movement.
Jihadi-Salafism is a distinct ideological movement in Sunni Islam … predicated on an extremist and minoritarian reading of Islamic scripture that is also textually rigorous, deeply rooted in a premodern theological tradition, and extensively elaborated by a recognized cadre of religious authorities.

Compared to these, King’s article really doesn’t argue its point very hard. It makes a lot of analogies that vividly explain why some newsworthy aspects of ISIS can’t be used to conclude that it’s Islamic, but barely tries to actually argue that it’s not. Against the one good point it makes, the bombing of Medina or “what many consider one of the holiest sites in all of Islam”, I think this BBC story, “Why so-called Islamic State chooses to bomb during Ramadan”, has a reasonable explanation:

IS adopts an ultra-literal and puritanical form of Islam that … believes the Prophet’s Mosque is actually a shrine, because the Prophet is buried within its confines. As a result, they regard it as distracting people from the worship of God alone and believe the site should be demolished.

More general allusions to this point from sources I don’t trust as much, but which at least seem consistent with the above and trustworthy in their specificity:

Wahhabists and Salafists believe that Muslim traditionalists go too far and see that even touching objects is considered iconic and thus is viewed as idol worship. (source)

[The destructive actions] go to the heart of the Salafi project: to return Islam to their perception of its condition at the time of Muhammad and his companions, and overturn bid’a (innovation) that has corrupted the religion since. …

This Salafi current is driven by a fervent desire to eliminate shirk: the association of others with God. This is mirrored by a desire to restore pure tawhid, belief in the one-ness of God. (source)

I couldn’t find any sources denying the legitimacy of the religious texts ISIS is based on, so I hope I’ve made my point. It seems quite wrong to me to say that ISIS has “no regard for Islam”.

And yet. Despite all this careful argument and research, something else seems off — I still completely agree with the article for its final call to action, the practical conclusion it draws from this analysis:

[ISIS is] a small, ugly group of evil, insecure, hyper-masculine men who do not represent the faith. … Talk of banning Muslims from entering this country isn’t just xenophobic — it’s fundamentally dumb and misinformed. … Now is the time we need to stand in solidarity and strength with Muslims who are being terrorized.

It took me a while to figure out why: the only conclusion King needed to make this call to action was that ISIS “[does] not represent the faith” of Islam: that its actions are not typical of Muslims as a whole, and furthermore, most of its victims are Muslims too. If you go back and read it and interpret Islam as “the majority people and teachings of people who self-proclaim as Islam”, then the argument becomes much stronger.

Bombing Medina might be consistent with Salafism (or it might not), but even if it were, Salafists are still a tiny minority of Muslims — Wikipedia cites a book that there are about 50 million Salafists worldwide, out of 1.7 billion Muslims, which is about 3% — so it would still be unfair to say Salafism represents Islam.

That’s all fine, but why wasn’t the argument just that? Why couldn’t he stop at saying ISIS was unrepresentative of Islam and discussing his reasons under that framework — why did he have to claim they “aren’t Muslims”?

I guess it’s perfectly understandable for many reasons. It’s just a better headline. Shorter, sounds more confident, more clickbait-y than the full explanation, drives the point home further. Simple, something you can hold in your head and walk away with and tell your friends about. You can’t really claim that this definition of Islam is wrong either; probably many people use it that way. But more on that later.

As a writer, I think the virtue I’ve learned to appreciate the most over the past years is brevity (“omit needless words”). But it’s not something I aim for on this blog because I want to be honest and real. And now I think that, if you want to have honest and deep political discourse, brevity is not a virtue any more.

Green’s article is a lot more well-argued. Its two big points are:

  • Islam does not program Muslims to be hostile, hateful, or violent toward the LGBTQI community.

    Popular Muslim groups are quick to condemn violence against LGBTQI+? folks and clearly the majority of Muslims don’t participate in such violence.

    He concedes “some Muslims are homophobic”, but when you look at the Pew survey, the percentage isn’t overwhelming; they’re almost evenly split, whereas some other religious groups that we don’t associate with similar tragedies have more negative views of homosexuality.
  • Many terrorists aren’t “inspired by deeply held religious convictions.”

    I should note here the link to What I Discovered From Interviewing Imprisoned ISIS Fighters (subtitle: “They’re drawn to the movement for reasons that have little to do with belief in extremist Islam.”) This is something I did not expect, but I believe it. Although there’s some tension between this and the other articles about ISIS, I don’t think they contradict — the core leadership and strategic decision-makers of ISIS could be deeply religious while many of their soldiers, and especially faraway people who claim allegiance out of nowhere, aren’t.

    In fact, Green actually concedes religion “factored into” the shooting; he just doubts it was the “driving force”.

    (By the way, this is not too relevant, but since at some point I saw and passed along the opposite rumor: snopes.com says the FBI found no evidence the shooter was gay.)

Great points, but then we come to the conclusion, the answer to the headline:

Islam is not the culprit behind the Orlando shootings.

I don’t particularly disagree with this, but I don’t particularly agree with it either and I know somebody who definitely doesn’t.

But once again: Why do we need to definitively settle whether this statement is true the way it’s stated?

Sometimes, the question of who’s responsible is important. Maybe you need to decide who to punish, or who to raise money for, or what system to push for legislative reform in. But here, the shooter is dead, the victims are dead, and you can’t change Islamic teachings by lobbying. Here, that’s not the question; the victims aren’t going to come back to life if you put the blame on the right party or combination of factors.

The real question is (or at least should be): what should we do, or not do, to prevent future tragedies? And the article’s ultimate practical goal is really to discourage the options on the table — “‘special treatment,’ including … surveillance, anti-sharia legislation, detentions, deportations, and torture” — and instead propose “greater literacy concerning Islam and stronger relationships with the larger Muslim community”.

That’s where the arguments and key claims should be. But once again, it doesn’t fit in the headline. “If We Tried Connecting More with the Larger Muslim Community Instead of Monitoring and Deporting Them and Other Stuff, Could We Make Them Friendlier And Also Maybe Have Prevented the Orlando Nightclub Shooting?”

Such a long headline would never fly. There’s not even a number of list items in it.

Is Islam responsible for the Orlando nightclub shooting? Are ISIS terrorists Muslims?

Any definitive answer to these questions requires you to first settle the foundational issues:

What is Islam? What does it mean to be a Muslim?

I think that, in addition to being exacerbated by pursuit of a snappy headline, the aforementioned problems all arise when you try to look at Islam and Muslims like a monolithic ideology and group of people, a scientific classification that you can just put people in and out of and then make generalizations about, like “mammals are warm-blooded” and “halogens are chemically reactive”. You can certainly find or come up with a definition for these terms. Your definition might even feel like the right one to you — I confess that including everybody who treats the sacred texts seriously does to me. but there’s no one obvious correct definition that everybody will agree on; and then when you present your thesis statement or headlines, other people are going to be upset at you because they have a slightly different view of Islam — not how they view the faith or whether they practice it, but simply what they understand the term to include and exclude.

None of this is necessary! There are many reasonable facts we can report, statements we can make, and practical conclusions we can draw without getting into that fight. Both articles did just that for nearly all of their arguments. The Pew survey, statements from U.S. Islamic organizations, the unpopularity among Muslims of bombing a holy site, the usage of sacred texts among ISIS leaders and the lack thereof among their fighters. The case for not passing blunt legislation against Muslims, and the case for responding to ISIS with an awareness of its theological narrative.

There are a lot of practical consequences to making those cases to our society. There are almost no practical consequences to convincing our society to label exactly the same group of people and ideas as you do with the words “Islam” and “Muslim”, and it could well be harmful.

I think the biggest loss from the blanket claims — “Islam is/isn’t responsible”, “the terrorists are/aren’t real Muslims” — isn’t just that we don’t need them or that they’re missing the point, it’s the number of people you anger or alienate because they define or understand those terms differently from you (plausibly, without realizing it), and the subsequent effort spent debating them.

These important issues are thorny and delicate enough as it is without getting into the second kind of argument.

None of this is particularly original; you can find all the general principles in the LessWrong sequence A Human’s Guide to Words. I’ve read it several times before, but LessWrong considers politics “the mindkiller” and stays away from it, and I realized I’ve never internalized these rules until I thought about these two articles and applied the rules to write this post.

Much could probably be said about similarly unhelpful arguments in other places. But reading so many tragic news stories is mentally exhausting and it’s late, so let’s just conclude that applying this to other social issues and movements is left as an exercise to the reader.

(eh, it’s still the weekend in Alaska and Hawaii and a couple places)

(note: the commenting setup here is experimental and I may not check my comments often; if you want to tell me something instead of the world, email me!)