Consider this post a kind of complement, maybe, to my anti-anti-Crusades commentary of late. The big foreign policy piece that everyone is talking about this week, and deservedly, is Graeme Wood’s deep Atlantic dive into the religious premises underpinningthe Islamic State’s vision and grand strategy. Wood’s argument is rich enough to defy easy summary, but his core point is that Western analysts tend to understate not only the essential religiosity of ISIS’s worldview, but the extent to which that worldview has substantial theological grounding. It isn’t just a few guys making up a cult out of random bits of scripture; its political-religious vision appeals precisely because it derives “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.” And we ignore the coherence of those interpretations at our peril: The Islamic State’s “intellectual genealogy” is intensely relevant to its political strategy, and its theology “must be understood to be combatted.”
As a longstanding believer in a “theology has consequences”approach to world history and current affairs, I agree with all of this … but I would append an important qualifier as well. Specifically, in taking Islamic-State theology seriously as a form of Islamic thought, we also need to take seriously the Islamic case against ISIS, and the reasons why the soi-disant caliphate’s interpretation of its faith, however internally coherent and textually-rooted, represents a stark departure from the way the faith has been traditionally interpreted and widely understood.