What The Atlantic Left Out About ISIS According To Their Own Expert


Since Monday, much has been said in print, radio, and television about Graeme Wood’s recent front-page feature piece for The Atlantic entitled “What ISIS Really Wants.” The article, which is lengthy and highly descriptive, is essentially an exhaustive examination of the ideology that shores up the cruel vision, messages, and tactics of ISIS, the radical militant group currently terrorizing entire sections of the Middle East. But while the article was initially met with widespread praise, it has since become the subject of criticism and even condemnation from several groups, including Muslim academics, scholars of Islamic law, Muslim leaders and high-profile political pundits.

Critics have elucidated a slew of issues with the piece, but many are rooted in quotes by Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University who Wood quotes extensively to justify his claims. When ThinkProgress spoke with other scholars in Haykel’s field, however, at least one expressed surprise at his involvement with the piece, and indicated curiosity about the scholar’s thoughts on the final product.

With this in mind, ThinkProgress reached out to Haykel, who agreed to an interview to help dispel any misconception that he is trying to score “political” points, explaining, “my approach is a scholarly one and not motivated by an agenda.” He admitted that he had initially read Wood’s article quickly — “it’s a long piece,” he joked — and declined to directly address most of Wood’s claims other than to insist the piece was ultimately “[Wood’s] argument … not my argument.” Still, he didn’t shy away from expanding on some things the author left out or possibly misrepresented, and offered a revealing examination of what’s at stake when fighting ISIS.

ISIS is ahistorical, revisionist, but not inevitable

One of the oft-mentioned criticisms of The Atlantic piece is that it echoed the inaccurate belief that since ISIS’s theology draws upon Islamic texts to justify its horrendous practices, it is an inevitable product of Islam. Haykel didn’t say whether or not he thought Wood’s article says as much, but when ThinkProgress asked him directly whether Islamic texts and theology necessitate the creation of groups like ISIS, he was unequivocal.


“No,” he said. “I think that ISIS is a product of very contingent, contextual, historical factors. There is nothing predetermined in Islam that would lead to ISIS.”

He was similarly unambiguous when responding to the related critique that Muslims who disavow ISIS are somehow deluded or not “real” Muslims.

“I consider people … who have criticized ISIS to be fully within the Islamic tradition, and in no way ‘less Muslim’ than ISIS,” he said. “I mean, that’s absurd.”

Haykel’s position also helped explain several problematic constructions and omissions in Wood’s article. At one point, for instance, Wood quotes Haykel as saying, “The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid.” The journalist then adds the following conclusion: “That really would be an act of apostasy.”

I think that ISIS is a product of very contingent, contextual, historical factors. There is nothing predetermined in Islam that would lead to ISIS.

The implication, according to many who read the piece, is that ISIS’s theology is founded in Islamic texts that cannot be debated. Haykel, however, clarified that while he saw ISIS as rooted in authentic Islamic texts, those texts are not above interpretation, and it is only ISIS and related groups — not Islam as a whole — who would consider such challenges apostasy.


“If Muslims start criticizing these texts that ISIS is using, saying that they are no longer relevant or no longer applicable, ISIS would declare them apostate,” Haykel said. “If you start telling ISIS that following a tradition of the prophet has been abrogated, has been superseded by some other tradition or some other verse, or that it’s no longer valid, or that it applies only to the seventh century but not today because we’re modern, you will be declared an apostate on the spot by ISIS.”

The issue, Haykel says, lies in ISIS’s “ahistorical” theology, which justifies their horrific actions by essentially pretending the last several centuries of Islamic history never happened.

“This is something I did point out to [Wood] but he didn’t bring out in the piece: ISIS’s representation of Islam is ahistorical,” Haykel said. “It’s saying we have to go back to the seventh century. It’s denying the legal complexity of the [Islamic] legal tradition over a thousand years.”

To illustrate his point, Haykel referenced Mohammad Fadel, the Associate Professor and Research Chair for the Law and Economics of Islamic Law at the University of Toronto, who criticized Wood’s piece in a recent interview with ThinkProgress.

“Mohammad Fadel, for instance, would say when you talk about Islamic law, you have to talk about a tradition that is many centuries old and is extremely sophisticated, that has a multiplicity of views and opinions and is not cut and dry the way ISIS presents Islam, in an ahistorical fashion, and in a completely monolithic way,” Haykel said. “So ISIS’s view of Islam is … unhistorical. They’re revising history.”

Is ISIS Islamic?

Haykel expanded on some of his comments from Wood’s piece, but he also fervently stood by others, especially his belief that ISIS is, in fact, an Islamic group. Wood’s article includes the following paragraph citing Haykel as he expressed frustration with people — including President Barack Obama — who disavow ISIS as “unIslamic”:

But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

Haykel told ThinkProgress he still supported these claims, although he explained he was specifically referring to two groups of people who declare ISIS unIslamic: Muslims he says are “just ignorant” of Islam’s legal and political history, and Christians who engage in what he called “the Christian tradition of interfaith dialogue” and declare Islam a “religion of peace.”


Haykel singled out CNN talk show host Fareed Zakaria as an example of the former, who recently said ISIS’s public execution of a Jordanian pilot by burning him to death — which at least one prominent Muslim cleric in the Middle East also decried as “away from humanity, much less religions” — is “entirely haram,” or forbidden in Islam.

“That’s actually factually wrong — the burning apostates is in the [Islamic] legal code,” Haykel said.

(Zakaria, for his part, also took a swipe at Haykel in a Washington Post Op-Ed on Friday, saying the following of the scholar’s rejection of those who decry ISIS as unIslamic: “Haykel feels that it is what the 0.0019 percent of Muslims do that defines the religion. Who is being political, I wonder?”)

There’s no such thing as a religion of peace.

Still, Haykel said his frustration with people of faith who try to disavow religious extremists is not limited to Islam.

“[They] present Islam as ‘Oh, Islam is a religion of peace,’” Haykel said. “Well, what does that mean? I mean, Christianity is sometimes a religion of peace, and sometimes a religion of war, depending on what time we’re talking about. There’s no such thing as a religion of peace.”

“Islam doesn’t have a monopoly on violence, neither does Christianity. There are people who do things in the name of a religion and who really believe that they are doing God’s bidding. I think the Crusaders, when they were killing Jews and Muslims, really thought that this is what God wanted of them. Just like ISIS, today, when it does the killing of Shiites and Sunnis they consider to be apostates, really feel that they’re doing God’s bidding. They’re genuine believers.”

Haykel readily acknowledged there are numerous Islamic scriptures “that advocate a more kind of pacifist, less violent, and, in fact, an even tolerant and open-minded [religion that is] accepting of, let’s say, non-Muslims.” But he concluded that the texts ISIS pulls from still exist within the Islamic tradition, thus making them Islamic.

“ISIS draws inspiration from Islamic traditions and Islamic texts — a very particular reading of that tradition and those texts — and it should be described and labeled as an extremist Islamic movement, or an Islamist [political] movement,” he said.

ThinkProgress challenged Haykel’s assertion that people who declare ISIS unIslamic are unschooled in Islam, pointing to a lengthy letter signed by over 120 prominent Muslim leaders and scholars that refers to the Islamic State only in quotation marks and repeatedly rebukes their beliefs as “forbidden in Islam.” Several of the signers have openly declared ISIS unIslamic, and Egypt’s Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam — the highest official of religious law among Sunni Muslims in Egypt, the most populous state in the Middle East — told CNN in February that “everything ISIS does is far away from Islam. What it is doing is a crime by all means.” Dar al-Ifta, the premiere school of Islamic law and thought Allam oversees, has also launched a campaign asking journalists not to call ISIS the “Islamic State,” preferring instead “al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria,” or QSIS, which intentionally removes the word “Islamic” from the title.

Despite this, Haykel insisted this is actually a qualified critique by the scholars, not a wholesale rejection of ISIS as unIslamic. The difference, he contends, is in their approach.

ISIS is constantly saying that Fadel and others are not Muslim, because they don’t agree with them. Sunnis don’t normally do that.

“[The people who signed the letter] are not actually in the quote that I was mentioning,” Haykel said. “The [Islamic] jurists … of the world are not saying that ISIS is unIslamic, but that they have a perverted interpretation of Islam. But [ISIS is] rooted in Islam, and they are Muslim, and they are just either Muslims in grave error or they are Muslims who have strayed into heresy. People who actually know the tradition and who are engaging with this group from within the tradition are not in any way singled out in that quotation. It’s only people who say that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam — it’s unIslamic.”

Again, it’s debatable as to what exactly these scholars were doing in their letter, but Haykel noted an important religious nuance that frames his view: while there are theoretical issues for insisting on the “Islamic” nature of ISIS, which claims to be a subset of Sunni Islam, the reason many Sunnis resist calling the group unIslamic may be theological.

“Some Muslims are reticent to engage in a hereticization of ISIS because they feel that in doing so they would be doing what ISIS is doing,” he said. “ISIS is in a very strange and unique position among Sunnis in its kind of very deliberate and rapid and wanton use of hereticization of other Muslims. In other words, ISIS is constantly saying that Fadel and others are not Muslim, because they don’t agree with them. Sunnis don’t normally do that. Historically they don’t do that … You try to say that they’re errant Muslims, … that they’ve strayed from the straight path. Not to put them outside the veil of the religion.”

It’s about more than religion

Clearly, there are spiritual barriers to combating ISIS with religion. Their uniquely twisted theology draws on Islamic texts, yet their revisionist approach ostracizes them from the broader Muslim community. Haykel said the difficulty in shutting down ISIS, religiously speaking, isn’t limited to theological hurdles, but largely stems from something else he says Wood declined to quote him on: the current geopolitical situation facing the world’s Sunni Muslims.

ISIS is a bad group and [Sunnis] don’t agree with it, but there are also other bad groups that are just as bad if not worse — at least in terms of [number of people] killed.

“The Sunni Muslim community, under normal circumstances … [historically] had mechanisms for silencing or eliminating extremists who would emerge from among them,” Haykel said. “[But] Sunni Muslims feel really beleaguered today … It’s very hard for Sunnis to say, today, ‘Let’s go and fight ISIS militarily,’ when you also have, let’s say, the Assad regime killing hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims, or Iran and its forces in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon also attacking Sunnis at the same time. In a world where a lot of people are attacking Sunnis, it’s hard for Sunnis to say ‘ISIS is the only bad group.’”

“In other words, ISIS is a bad group and [Sunnis] don’t agree with it, but there are also other bad groups that are just as bad if not worse — at least in terms of [number of people] killed.”

Haykel said this sense of being under siege, when combined with several economic realities, is primarily why “a small sample of people” find ISIS’s ideology attractive. To the few who are able to get past ISIS’s obsessions with violence, their black-flag-waving conquests offer a sense of purpose — and, frankly, employment — amidst an otherwise frustrating existence.

“The reason ISIS emerged clearly has to do with the chaos in Iraq, the disenfranchisement of the Sunnis of Iraq (which is the result of the American invasion-occupation), and the chaos in Syria (which is a regime that has also disenfranchised Sunni Muslims),” he said. “We have two big Arab countries, side-by-side, both in chaos, both with large Sunni populations that are disenfranchised … With a lot of young men who have no prospects for employment and feel marginalized. And who then identify their sense of humiliation and marginalization with the larger Muslim world, which they claim is also being marginalized and being humiliated.”

“Let’s say you were an Iraqi, and you’ve had your entire family wiped out by the Shia government of Baghdad. Or you’ve seen your sister raped, or your brother tortured. Then you feel like you have nothing to lose, and the only way to respond to this is to resort to violence. And ISIS provides a ready-made ideology and package and movement to express that sense of rage.”

I see ISIS as a symptom of a much deeper structural set of problems in the Sunni Arab world.

This powder keg of issues is difficult if not impossible to defuse with theology. Yes, understanding ISIS’s religious motivations — which is undoubtedly the most illuminating offering of Wood’s article — is important if for no other reason than to understand how the group sees itself and its actions. There is a possibility of engaging them religiously, for instance, and Wood himself suggests that ISIS may have an ideological alternative in the “quietest” Salafi movement, or Muslims who share some similar theological views to ISIS but prefer to recuse themselves from politics.

Haykel, however, was skeptical about whether even this group could have any real impact on the psyche of self-righteous ISIS recruits.

“There are bits of the argument where [Wood] says that other types of Salafis, the quietists, could be an alternative to the jihadists,” Haykel said. “You know…Maybe, maybe. Perhaps.”

Haykel also expressed doubt that the issue of ISIS could be fixed with guns alone. Haykel told ThinkProgress he was opposed to American military intervention in the region, particularly the use of ground troops, which he believes would likely backfire. Instead, he argued the world needs a broader, longer-term plan to address the multiplicity of issues that fuel extremism in the region, where bad religion is just one among dozens of daunting concerns facing millions of impoverished Muslims.

“I see ISIS as a symptom of a much deeper structural set of problems in the Sunni Arab world,” he said. “[It has] to do with politics. With education, and the lack thereof. With authoritarianism. With foreign intervention. With the curse of oil … I think that even if ISIS were to disappear, the underlying causes that produce ISIS would not disappear. And those would have to be addressed with decades of policy and reforms and changes — not just by the west, but also by Arab societies as well.”

Taken together, Haykel’s comments appeared to argue that effectively combating ISIS will require more than discerning what “ISIS wants,” theologically speaking. Instead, it also requires a deep, abiding dedication to providing what most Muslims in the region want, and what Wood only briefly addresses in his article: stability, jobs, education, and, most of all, peace.