Enough about Islam: Why religion is not the most useful way to understand ISIS

A group of youths read Koran as they wait to break the fast during the holy month of Ramadan inside Istiqlal mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia June 9, 2016. REUTERS/Beawiharta - RTSGQSQ

A new article about ISIS in The Atlantic has reignited the perennial debate over the relationship between jihadist terrorism and the religion of Islam.

The article, by Graeme Wood, repeatedly emphasizes the “Islamic” in Islamic State, calling out what it describes as “well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature.”

“The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic.Very Islamic,” Wood writes.

The Ku Klux Klan is also white. Very white. The problem with framing discussions of extremism in this manner is that, for many people, it extends into causality and a too-intimate merging of a mainstream demographic with the identity-based extremists who claim to be its exclusive guardians.

Wood’s piece rolls out, coincidentally, the same week that the White House convenes a massive summit on countering violent extremism (CVE), which is uncoincidentally also focused on Muslims and Islam, albeit with gentle but disingenuous disclaimers. Actions speak louder than words, and the White House’s CVE strategy shows it is clearly only interested in tackling Muslim extremism.

What is the relationship between Christianity and Christian Identity? What does being German mean to Nazi ideology? What about the neo-Nazi movement Golden Dawn, a Greek identity movement heavily influenced by German Nazism? Should we understand that as German or Greek? How does Hinduism inform Abhinav Bharat, and how does Abhinav Bharat inform our understanding of Hinduism?

The 969 Movement in Myanmar is led by a Buddhist monk, and its very name refers to the Buddha and his teachings. It is very Buddhist. But is its xenophobia very Buddhist? Is a graduate-level understanding of Buddhism our only path to understanding the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar?

These are complicated issues, of course. Whiteness and white supremacy are, in fact, intertwined, and it was Germany that gave birth to the Nazi movement. Islamic extremists arise from the Muslim world, and there is no question that a variety of conditions in the Muslim world have contributed to the problem.

Understanding whiteness is relevant to understanding white supremacy, just as understanding Islam is relevant to jihadism. And to be sure, religion matters to ISIS. A lot. But the concept of an exclusive identity matters far more, to the point that ISIS will engage in virtually unlimited theological gymnastics to justify it.

For identity-based extremist groups, one function of extreme religious observance is to serve as an identity marker, a signal to establish who is part of the in-group and who is part of the out-group.

Religion is therefore of primal importance in the narrative created by an extremist group’s adherents, but a group’s extremism does not naturally proceed from its claimed religious basis.

While radicalization is a multifaceted process, with many dimensions and attendant complexities, the establishment of an exclusionary identity group is a nearly universal characteristic, whether the extremists are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist, and whether the extremists are religious, racial, or nationalist.

It’s important, even critical, to understand how ISIS’s religious beliefs inform its actions, particularly its apocalyptic elements, which again help distinguish it from mainstream religiosity. Millenarian sects may (or may not) rely on religious texts as importance sources, but their defining quality, and what makes them dangerous, is an unshakeable belief that history is coming to an end.

Millenarian beliefs are often wedded to identity-based extremism through the narrative device of a chosen group that will triumph in an apocalyptic war or survive an apocalyptic disaster. Again, the traits of these groups are remarkably consistent across a variety of belief structures. Their commonality is their Millenarianism, not the theological background from which those End Times beliefs are derived.

To understand and counter ISIS’s threat and appeal, frame it properly. Identity-based extremism and millenarian apocalyptic cults provide a far more useful framework for understanding ISIS than Islam does.