Islamic State Part One: The Problem

People have been saying it for ages: before you can solve a problem you have to understand it. John Dewey said it: “A problem well put is half solved”. Albert Einstein said it : “The foundation of the problem is often more essential than its solution…. If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend fifty five minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about the solutions.” An accurate formulation of the problem is crucial to finding the right answer or answers.

And never has this been clearer than in the case of Islamic State. Confusion reigns supreme! The very fact that we refer to it as “IS”, ISS, Isil and Daesh is not only confusing. It may well be indicative of our reluctance to name the nature of the beast. Defining the problem is paramount in finding an answer.

So let’s look at the problem of “Islamic State”, beginning at the beginning.

Point 1. “Nature is red in tooth and claw”. Charles Darwin highlighted this. Life is essentially the survival of the fittest. This is what Karen Armstrong refers to as “our reptilian brain”. It is programmed to feed, fight or flee. It is programmed to survive. Nature really is red in tooth and claw. But it need not be this way. Even Richard Dawkins concedes this. In an interview with PBS Dawkins said “I am very comfortable with the idea that we can override biology with free will. Indeed, I encourage people all the time to do it. Much of the message of my first book, “The Selfish Gene,” was that we must understand what it means to be a gene machine, what it means to be programmed by genes, so that we are better equipped to escape, so that we are better equipped to use our big brains, use our conscience intelligence, to depart from the dictates of the selfish genes and to build for ourselves a new kind of life which as far as I am concerned the more un-Darwinian it is the better, because the Darwinian world in which our ancestors were selected is a very unpleasant world. Nature really is red in tooth and claw. And when we sit down together to argue out and discuss and decide upon how we want to run our societies, I think we should hold up Darwinism as an awful warning for how we should not organize our societies.”

Point 2. Some time in the last five hundred million years, there arose a phenomenon called “Religion” which is dictionary defined as “a set of beliefs concerning the cause nature and future of the universe usually involving ritual observance and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” The importance of religion should not be underestimated. It was an attempt to think about life and make sense of it. It was “cutting edge” in that it looked at life beyond the boundary of nature red in tooth and claw. It was (and is?) an attempt to make sense of life.

Point 3. In the last few hundred years a secular approach to life has been adopted based on Descartes’ dictum “I think therefore I am”. This is usually seen as “anti-religious”. The etymology of the word, however, points up its significance – a concern for this world rather than some other world postulated by many religions. This is not just a matter of semantics. Suicide bombing, for example, would be far less popular if it were recognized that that there is no other world to which we proceed when we die. We would do well to consider the words we use in this debate. The way many use the word “radicalize” for example is most odd. It means “to go back to the roots” but is used as a pejorative for those joining the enemy. To use language loosely simply confuses the issue

But I proceed too quickly! The point I am trying to make at this stage is that there are three basic ingredients in the situation we face – violence, religion and rationality. Take these three ingredients, mix thoroughly and bake in a hot oven and you have the problem we face in Islamic State.

Many, of course, do not agree. President Obama does not. He has on numerous occasions described Islamic State as “not Islamic” and wants an open ended war on terrorism. He sees Islamic State as “grievance based “and says its leaders are not religious leaders. “They are terrorists!” Jim Wallis, a well known Christian in the US, takes a similar line. “A religious component is a necessary part of defeating IS but … terrorism is always built on grievances….so addressing those grievances and correcting course along the way is essential to defeating terrorism.”

This reluctance to identify Islam with terrorism and vice versa was evidenced on the occasion of the Charlie Hebdo massacre when President Hollande declared “Those who did these acts have nothing to do with Islam”” The massacre morphed into the issue of freedom of expression. The crowds hit the streets with placards and within days dozens of people (including a comedian) were arrested for hate speech under Article 24 of the The Press Law. France has some of the strongest defamation laws in Europe – laws that criminalise speech that defames or incites hatred on the basis of religion, race and ethnicity. France’s laws make Australia’s 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act look puny. Advocacy of freedom of expression has a hollow ring to it when it even extends to what a woman shall wear! In the Charlie Hebdo massacre the cry of freedom of expression reverberated around the world with some of our journos being amongst the worst offenders. It was left, however, to one of our cartoonists to point out that we were being “right proper charlies”. Like every other freedom, freedom of expression is not an absolute freedom. As has been pointed out on so many occasions, for a person to shout “Fire” in a crowded cinema is not in the public interest. The debate around the Charlie Hebdo massacre raged for several weeks with the central issue being avoided, namely, that as the killers opened fire they were shouting “Allahu akbar” ( God is Great). This to me would seem rather compelling evidence that they were doing it for religious reasons, and that President Hollande was wrong.

How about our own great and glorious leader? Tony Abbot’s understanding is that what we face in Islamic State is a “death cult” (whatever that might mean!), that “the Muslims should lighten up a little”, and that the answer is to equip and train the Iraq army to confront the problem. The fact that this is precisely what we did in the last years of the Iraq occupation to no avail seems to have escaped his notice. The army that collapsed at Mosul and Tikrit was the army that had been trained by the occupying forces over a period of years. Our Prime Minister’s present approach reminds me of the old saying “Experience is a wonderful thing. It enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again”. As Einstein pointed out, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is not exactly the essence of wisdom. Tony Abbot would do well to listen to himself talking to Leigh Sales “We have to be very careful dealing in a powder keg like the Middle East that we don’t take well intentioned action which could end up making a bad situation worse”. He has no idea of issues involved and the Sunni/Shia divide that runs through the country and the conflict. Both his walk and his talk remind me of the Sheriff walking down the main street with hands at the ready for a quick draw to dispatch the baddie. If it were only that simple!

The central question facing us today is “Is Islamic State Islamic?” The answer is “It depends on what you mean by Islamic.” But there is no doubt that it is religious in nature and that it is religious fervor that drives them in their brutal actions. They see themselves acting in accord with the Islamic faith.

Graeme Wood, in a wide ranging article in the Atlantic Monthly, asks the question whether Islamic State is Islamic and comes to the conclusion that “It is very Islamic” and pretending it isn’t is being dishonest. It may differ with other people’s understanding of Islam but it is deeply infused with Islamic vigour. The very name “Islamic State” makes this quite clear. Their aim is to establish an Islamic Caliphate and it is this that drives them in doing what they do.

All too few people identify the problem as religious. An exception is the historian Tom Holland. “There are psychopaths aplenty loose in Iraq but not every head hunter ranks as a madman. The truth is altogether more disturbing. Victory cannot be secured militarily. This battle has to be fought and won by the theologians”.

It looks as if it’s going to be a very busy year for theologians! Islamic State Part 2 is in course of preparation.


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