Richard Falk on ISIS and Islamic “Essentialism”

An Interview with Richard Falk, Truthout, March 19, 2015

It is crucial to understand the diversity of understandings and interpretations that are authentically present within each and every world religion.

Dan Falcone: I recently read Juan Cole writing for The Nation, and he cited Paul Wolfowitz as an "essentialist" with respect to Islam's reaction to the West. How do you perceive the use of the term "essentialism" when discussing the western perspective of groupings in the Middle East?

Richard Falk: "Essentialism," as used with reference to political actors and behavioral patterns in the Middle East, provides a way to link the upsurge of political violence in the region with the essential character of the Muslim religion. This link is insisted upon by commentators on the political right that attribute to Islam recent evil happenings in the region, such as the ISIS beheadings or the destruction of Assyrian artifacts in the Mosul Museum in Iraq. (While our own media failed to juxtapose our 2003 occupation, which resulted in the utter destruction of antiquities dating back to the Sumerian period)

By so generalizing, this form of essentialism contributes to Islamophobia and tends to make the view that we are in the midst of a "clash of civilizations" into a self-fulfilling prophesy. It is crucial to understand the diversity of understandings and interpretations that are authentically present within each and every world religion. Thus, the more violent jihadist readings of the Koran are neither the essence of Islam nor "un-Islamic," but rather one way that this holy text is being read by certain groups of Muslims who are acting politically.

What is the rationale for insisting on utilization of a phrase like "Islamic terrorism?"

By employing the language of "terrorism," there is implied an embrace of "evil," and a related implication that the political actor guilty of pursuing its goals by the reliance on terror is behaving beyond the boundaries of any possible political accommodation, and peace can only be established when the terrorist group is destroyed or surrenders. Of course, language can shift suddenly as it did with respect to the IRA in Northern Ireland during the 1990s, when a decision was made to pursue a political rather than a military solution to the conflict, and at that point the language of terrorism was no longer used or useful. In the present inflamed atmosphere of the Middle East, the terminology of "Islamic terrorism" are fighting words meant to demonize all forms of resistance to Western, and Israeli, encroachment with respect to the rights of the peoples living in the Middle East.

So long as governments and the media rely on this terminology to describe the adversary, all efforts to resolve conflict and restore normalcy will be completely dependent on a military approach. It should be noted that such a reliance on military solutions has proved very destructive, prolonged, and costly - as in Afghanistan and Iraq - without achieving the desired political outcome.

There is an added reason to question using "Islamic terrorism" to describe these extremist forces of violent resistance. In the most prominent instances, their existence was earlier nurtured by the West in relation to its own earlier political priorities. For instance, al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden were assisted and partially equipped by the CIA as a means of opposing Enemy Number 1, which in Afghanistan at the time, was the Soviet Union. The phenomenon, called "blowback" by Chalmers Johnson, also applies to ISIS, which seems to have emerged out of obscurity as a side effect of the American policy of regime change in Iraq, as abetted by a pro-Shiite occupation policy. In effect, by describing the enemy in the Middle East as instances of Islamic terrorism there is also present a motive to hide American responsibility for behavior that it is now struggling to control and to eradicate, if possible.

I don't often see (or ever see) Islamic legal experts or religious experts on television or in the popular mainstream press. Am I correct on this, can you elaborate? What are the consequences of this?

The media is generally compliant with the wishes of the national security establishment, and in situations of this kind, there is pressure to keep the narrative relatively simple. More specifically, to give attention to the view of many Islamic legal and religious experts would undermine the essentialist narrative, and make it seem arbitrary to blame Islam as a religion rather than to make it clear that there are many ways to read the Koran and the life of Mohammed, and unlike the Catholic Church with its pope, Islam has no religiously acceptable way to overcome this diversity; which is itself the source of some bitter conflicts within Islamic ranks. It is also a source of resilience within the wider conception of Islam as a religion.

Actually, there are some individuals of Islamic background that do appear quite often in the media, particularly if they are highly critical of some Islamic practices and policies or have been victimized by Islamic groups. For instance, Malala Yousafzrai, the Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 and is a most welcome presence on mainstream media, as is the Somali-born, hostile and opinionated critic of the Islamic treatment of women, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Such "Islamic personalities" are exceedingly useful in sustaining the credibility of the essentialist narrative and refuting allegations of Islamophobia.

Those scholars who take more nuanced and balanced views of Islam, such as the highly respected UCLA legal scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl or the influential political scientist and anthropologist Mamoud Mamdani, are rarely, if ever, given media space. Their understanding of the tensions in the Middle East subverts the reductive notion that Islam is inherently disposed to be extremist, violent and repressive. In the background is also the presentation of Israel as the victim of Islamic terrorism, and hence, deserving of unconditional protection no matter how directly its behavior shocks the conscience or disregards international law.

How absurd would it be to call the act of Zionists bombing the King David Hotel in 1946 "Judaic Terrorism?" or the Ku Klux Klan a form of "Christian Terrorism?" American Historian Eric Foner has cited how Klan terrorists committed shocking amounts of domestic killings. Can you comment on this?

The dramatic act of bombing the King David Hotel was clearly a violent tactic cleverly designed to induce the British to give up their role as mandatory power in Palestine. It was a tactic of the most militant factions in the overall Zionist movement, but to attribute such a tactic to the Jewish religion rather than to political extremism is truly absurd.

Such absurdity does help us understand that the readiness to associate violent political acts by those of Muslim persuasion as indicative of the true character of Islam is not an objective assessment, but an attempt to mobilize wider hostility to Islam and to make every non-Muslim feel threatened. Judaism, and for that matter Zionism, are, like Islam, a long tradition with multiple readings of what the true faith entails. The essentialist fallacy of associating Judaism or Islam with any single reading of religious intent is dangerous, misleading, and in certain circumstances, likely to cause hate, hostility, and magnify existing fears and conflicts.

The example of the KKK's violent racism in the South illuminates this polemical and conflict-generating, essentializing use of "Islamic terrorism" in the current political and civilizational setting that is rendered even more toxic by the interconnectedness of the 21st century globalizing world. The originality of the situation in the Middle East is a result of this interplay between religious and cultural identities, colonial legacies and memories, energy geopolitics, and the Israeli national and regional problematique.

How do Islam and Christianity compare in terms of the sociology of religion?

There are definite similarities in relation to the diverse schools of belief and practice that have grown up within both Islam and Christianity. Christianity only came to accept its internal diversity after a series of devastating religious wars. As Islam came after Christianity, it incorporated into its overall doctrine aspects of both Judaism and Christianity as precursors, but in the modern and contemporary circumstances, there are lines of interpretation in all three monotheisms that claim that one or more of the other two have been used in an aggressive fashion to harm the other.

We are aware of Islamic memories of the Crusades and Jewish memories of European anti-Semitism. Until the aftermath of World War I, there was no widespread sense of any generic Islamic hostility to Judaism or Christianity. Jews had been treated far better under the Ottoman caliphate than by the supposedly enlightened governments of Western Europe. As the Zionist settler enterprise gained momentum, threatening the character and established order in Palestine, hostility did emerge, but it was focused on land and rights, not on competing religious worldviews.

Why is the ISIS cult, as indicated by CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen, so much more powerful and widespread, then take say the Branch Davidians?

The ISIS emergence responds to some widely felt grievances among Muslims in the region and around the Western world and has attracted support. Such grievances include the perception that ISIS was providing the Sunni population in Iraq with a kind of liberation from Shi'ite and American oppression; as well, recruits to ISIS especially from Europe seem to be drawn from alienated youth who are not necessarily strongly religious. The appeal of ISIS is finding a well-paying job that confers a certain kind of dignity. Partaking in the struggle against the West also is an outgrowth of feelings of abuse and discrimination experienced by Muslims living in Europe. In effect, ISIS has flourished in an atmosphere in which it seemed to be addressing widely felt grievances among Muslims, providing an outlet for frustrations and hostile emotions.

In contrast, the Branch Davidians, were a narrow cult whose appeal was not widely experienced by most of those victimized by racism and discrimination in the United States. Perhaps, there was not an effort comparable to that made by ISIS to attract support and followers. ISIS has a sophisticated information network that makes skilled use of the internet, while the Branch Davidians were a relatively isolated community of American whites living in Waco, Texas. They seemed to have had wider ambitions to transform secular society, but they were concentrated in one place and although lightly armed, easily, if bloodily, subdued by bringing government force to bear.

Whether it is appropriate to consider ISIS as a cult in the same sense as the Branch Davidians is another question that calls for careful analysis. I think that at some level of generality both are extreme versions of their respective religious traditions, so extreme that the idea of "cult" is appropriate as a way to acknowledge their marginal status within the religion. Regarding ISIS as a cult is also helpful in responding to essentialist contentions that ISIS is expressive of the essential Islamic message.

Few other than members of the Branch Davidians would claim that its beliefs and practices are expressive of the essential Christian message. Nevertheless, because ISIS is a political actor with more of an appeal beyond its immediate ranks, despite its horrifying behavior, it is a significantly different kind of cult, being much more engaged in the world, posing wider challenges to the established order, and connected with a range of ongoing conflicts that exist independent of its existence.