This is point of inquiry for Monday, March nine, 2015.
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I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is a podcast of the Center for Inquiry. Last week, President Obama held a three day summit on countering violent extremism. In the same week, ISIS escalated its propaganda war with yet more horrifying videos of burning captives alive and sawing off their heads. Amid the cacophony of competing claims about the nature of Islamist extremism and what we should do, it might be helpful to hear from one of the more sane and knowledgeable people writing about the Islamic State. Journalist Eli Lake. He’s the former national security correspondent for The Daily Beast. He’s reported from Sudan, Iraq, Gaza, North Korea, Iran. He’s now a columnist for Bloomberg View. Eli, thanks for being here.
Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here.
So, you know, tens of thousands of young men, possibly hundreds of thousands, have joined ISIS.
And the burning question for people like me is why?
Well, I sort of posited this is partly based on a really brilliant feature in the Atlantic that just came out by Graham Wood that looks at sort of what is ISIS wants and how to stop them. And it looks at their ideology, which might be called Islamic fascism or radical Islam. But I think one factor, at least for the foreign fighters, the people who are away from the blast radius of the Middle East, who flocked to Syria and now Iraq is the promise to be part of changing history, to be part of a new caliphate. And so in some ways, it’s the contrast between the boring but comfortable life promised a lot of the time in the West, contrasted with a very exciting, historic and grand struggle promised by ISIS.
Now, of course, to get to the point where you view the beheading of random Coptic Christians and American journalists or the burning alive of a Jordanian captured pilot as something that would amount to resistance or something to be celebrated, I think it does require a bit of psychopathology and even to a certain extent, maybe some brainwashing. But I think that the general lore is that this is a group that’s making history, that’s defying the entire world, and that the entire world has still been largely powerless to stop them. And there is something intoxicating about that. And I think a factor that has drawn lots of young people to sort of drop everything and join all kinds of utopian movements, whether it be the struggle to create a Jewish state of Israel, which obviously has nothing to do with Islamic fascism or people who join the fascist or the socialist side of the Spanish Civil War or the volunteers of the late 1950s and early 60s who went to Cuba to participate in the new communist utopia in the Western Hemisphere. You can find all kinds of examples of people who do that. And in the case of ISIS, it’s obviously very, very small numbers compared to the general population. But I do think that that is a major factor, particularly for those who join ISIS from the West.
But in each of those other examples that you cited, there was an end goal that was at least comprehensibly desirable, with the possible exception of Spanish fascist, but even fascists.
I can kind of get my head inside in a strange way. Kind of version of utopianism where only the pure and the strong and the bold would survive and the corrupting influences of the sniveling cowards would be would be put to rest. Like, in some strange way, I can kind of imagine being crazy enough to believe that. What’s the end goal here? What is the practical outcome of the utopia that they’re searching for?
Well, I think it is an 8th century caliphate. They’re quite explicit about it. They have their own currency. They have boasted of dissolving the psych’s Pekoe borders that were created after World War One between Syria and Iraq. They say that these barbaric practices, which we all revile, whether it be beheading or taking child brides or sex slaves, are all have a justification in the Koran. And there is a promise. I mean, if you look at this in the context of almost a century of modern political Islam, going back to Hossan Obama, you have a hundred years since the fall of the last caliphate, which was in Turkey, and the creation of moderator of a hundred years of Islamists thinking and debating about how wonderful a truly Islamic society to be ruled again by an Islamic caliphate would be.
And now you have a group that has managed to begin to define themselves and sort of say, hey, we’re doing it right now.
In that context, as awful as they are, as much of a reaction in some ways as a system modernity, I believe that in that context, theory is something that they believe they’re building. And I think you have to sort of take it seriously to understand the draw.
How much do you think it matters what conditions the new recruits are coming from? There’s been a bit of debate over the past. Well, I guess couple of weeks about comments from the secretary of state spokeswoman who said that joblessness was one of the compounding factors here. Obviously, it’s easier to make that sound more simplistic than perhaps it was. But her argument, I think, is held in fairly high esteem by many, especially on the left, which says that if you have large suburbs of underemployed. Youths in the Bania of Paris or in the suburbs of Brussels, and they’re nominally Muslim and they have no expectation for a better future. And unemployment is very high. Then you’re more likely to have a swamp from which to draw potential recruits than if everyone’s prosperous. And that college in Boston?
Well, a lot of the data does not really support that. I mean, so the first point to make there is that notorious radical Islamic terrorists like Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri and Mohamed Atta, the name three, came from middle class, too.
In the case of bin Laden, well, to do families and also had plenty of access to education.
So, you know, there’s an argument that’s made in the States, I think, and also in other Western countries, that the way that you prevent kids from joining gangs is to offer them more opportunities. And I think there probably is I’m not an expert on it, but there probably is some wisdom there.
But in this particular case, I think it misses the point, which is that a lot of the people who do end up joining the Islamic State or other radical Islamic organizations are already coming from Middle-Class Backgrounds and usually have some higher education. And there was a recent study last year in the U.K. that measured sort of attitudes towards terrorism and found that if you were in college and you’re in schooling and you came from middle class or, you know, family money, then those were risk factors for being at least among the samples that they took of Pakistani and Bangladeshi Brits or citizens of the U.K., that that was a risk factor for being more sympathetic to terrorism than had not had those advantages. That’s not to say that it’s always the case. As I put it out in my column, sometimes you do have a case of like Abu Musab Zarqawi, who is the founder of al-Qaida in Iraq, but a sister organization to the Islamic State. And he came from a slum outside of Amman and was radicalized in prison. And there are plenty of people who do get radicalized in prisons just because I think that any kind of religion, but particularly Islam, and I’m not even talking about radical Islam, offers people who have screwed up their lives a very easy formula for getting back on the right path. It’s so easy to follow the rules. And there’s something, at least in traditional Islam, that I think is very appealing to people who have made poor choices in their lives, which is that you are at a very basic level. Everyone is a slave to all. Everybody who becomes a Muslim is kind of equal in the eyes of God. And that’s a very powerful idea if you’re a new recruit. And Islam is extremely aggressive, obviously, about recruiting people. And I think it’s one of its strengths as a as a religion that’s not always the same as radical Islam. In another column that I wrote recently, having just gotten back from Iraq. Is that a lot of times these foreign fighters who come in to Syria and Iraq, are they kind of cannon fodder? They’re either suicide bombers or the front waves of attacks against the Kurdish forces or Iraqi forces or Shia militias or other or the Syrian military, which means that they don’t have a very high, high chance of surviving. And the administrative posts, the more desirable posts where you become sort of the new emir of Mosul or Tal Afar or some of these other places that have been conquered usually almost always go to Arabs. And that, I think, is significant because in many ways you could say that the recruitment of foreign fighters and especially recruits in Europe and the United States and Canada and Australia and so forth, or even China and other places, those recruits, while being offered this sort of struggle, maybe are not being told the whole story about how risky their ultimate mission may end up being if they don’t possess more desirable skills like computer programing or engineering or something like that.
You mentioned the caliphate and the quest for territory is obviously what sort of sets us apart from its obvious ideological cohorts like al-Qaida, the desire to actually create facts on the ground where there’s genuine territorial conquest. Another part of what motivates them, presumably, is the theological reasons and apocalyptic ones. Can you just kind of give us a sketch of what the endgame is? Because it’s not just a caliphate, is it?
Well, I would push back a little bit on the al-Qaida idea because there were moments when al-Qaida affiliates did try to conquer territory they just weren’t good at.
Al-Shabaab had controlled various parts of Somalia during their conflict with the transitional government there.
Certainly there was a point at which al-Qaida in Iraq claimed to control territory. They just weren’t able to hold it.
Right. I mean, I take your point, but then no one big ticket issue was never like, let’s create the caliphate right now. It was we can get to the caliphate in a moment. But first, here’s this spectacular terrorist attack.
Well, I think that’s right. I mean, al-Qaida is like a was a global terrorism organization organized through franchises that sort largely terrorism and didn’t really concern itself with trying to create a more traditional army. But, you know, in Iraq, it came closest to me. Al-Qaida had a lot of influence on the predecessor of a sort of shadow government that at least had some pretensions to govern all of Iraq. And now they are covering a lot of Iraq and a lot of Syria. And I think that the difference is twofold. One is it’s the radicalism of saying we’re going to create the caliphate right now. And the new caliph is Baghdadi. That is a different. That was a. And bin Laden, by the way, bin Laden is praised in the ISIS literature a lot, never had the pretense to sort of declare themselves the Califf. And that is a big, big deal. The second thing, though, is actually and it’s and it sort of goes against that is that, you know, one way radical groups from the Bolsheviks to the Islamic fascist today, one way that they always get in trouble is that when you think you’re in year zero, you will recreate a lot of things that people already know how to do. And so what do I mean by that? So one of the problems that I know that some of these organizations have had in the past is that they wanted to put all of their people in charge of pretty mundane things like collecting taxes or taking care of the sort of city infrastructure or things like that. What the Islamic State has done is they have actually allowed a lot of people who were just sort of in charge of the technical side of governance to remain in their position and just accept the new rulers. They did not try to reinvent the wheel and that gave them. I think the kind of flexibility in some ways to hold territory. Whereas before I think when the sort of ill fated efforts of al-Qaida and its franchises to do that, they would really run into problems. They didn’t they couldn’t deliver any basic services. And there was always a kind of line that like, well, I’d like to see al-Qaida try to pick up the trash or something like that. Guess what? al-Qaida has figured out how to pick up the trash. And they’re doing it in Raqqa and Mosul right now.
Is there a parallel there with Hamas? I mean, not ideologically and no in terms of their extremism. But it just reminds me a little bit of this.
So there’s some similarity. I mean, Hamas or are Islamists, they’re from the Muslim Brotherhood and they, I think, are more pragmatic and that they negotiated with Israel. But I think ultimately, Hamas doesn’t subscribe to the idea that eventually they would like to be part of, you know, they believe in Islamic rule and they’d like to be part of a caliphate one day. That is a big part of who Hamas is. It’s also obviously at this point, after two generations, very much intermixed with just the Palestinian national struggle. But one of the arguments that was made by the more secular Palestinian groups in the 80s and 90s when Hamas was coming to power, was that Hamas ultimately wasn’t really interested in a secular Palestinian state or full independence. They were sitting in a caliphate. But there is in some ways, I guess, a similarity. But Hamas has not done a very good job of ruling Gaza either.
Right. I mean, just to clarify the on the only comparison that I was trying to draw there was that they are, at least in the practical business of ruling right there, not purely off the charts, ideological entity. They they do have to take out the trash. Will be it badly.
Yeah. Well, now they do. I mean, I think they started as largely just the terrorists where they call a resistance organization.
Yes. Since they won the elections in Gaza. So let’s just get back to the question of theology, because Obama has wrapped up this summit, which some Muslim groups felt was unfairly targeting Islam as the source of violent extremism. And some conservatives felt was obfuscating by not calling Islamist extremism or Islamic fascism or whatever you want to call it, by its name and simply using a generic definition of extremism. I think you and I both agree with the obvious fact that the vast, vast, vast majority of Muslims are peaceful people and don’t support terrorism. That being said, it’s potentially dangerous to pretend that there’s no theological basis, that no Islamic basis for what the extremists in ISIS are doing.
I do think that if it gets into this position where the president is presenting himself as an Islamic scholar, which is not his role and it’s not credible, I think it gets problematic because Obama doesn’t have credibility with us, the American people or the rest of the world that isn’t at risk of becoming a radical Muslim. So in some ways, he’s speaking to this audience than he’s forgetting. You know, it just doesn’t have much credibility. But that said, it’s like there are some who want to try to say that al-Qaida and the Islamic State are the true paragons or they’re more Muslim than more modern Muslims. And for me, I just find that to be kind of bizarre statements like they’re taking their word on this. And these religions contain multitudes. You can have lots of interpretations of any kind of religious text. And it’s kind of silly to get into the position of sort of saying that especially it’s usually an argument made by non-Muslims that there was somehow these terrible barbarians are more Muslim than modern Muslims, which is bizarre. But on the other hand, to deny that there’s any kind of Islamic basis to these groups is to, I think, deny reality at this point.
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Let me just push back a little bit on that. On the former point, because of what I think Sam Harris, for example, would say is that it’s not as if modern Muslims, modern, moderate, cosmopolitan Muslims are that way through a closer reading of the scriptures. It’s not like they’ve pored over the Hadith better than ISIS did. And they’ve they’ve read read the Koran and they’ve come out, say all I get it now. I’m supposed to love or at least tolerate gay people. So there are some grounds on which you could say that the closest healing just to the actual interpretation of the actual world view, as it’s laid out in the holiest texts that are supposedly written by the creator of the universe, would lead you more towards ISIS than towards a moderate Muslim in the United States.
Well, I have a lot of respect for Sam Harris and I read his essays, and I think he’s a really great thinker. And I think he’s also been unfairly kind of vilified by people like Glenn Greenwald and more recently, Ben Affleck. But I just would push back on this idea because I just think that if you go to any of these texts, the issue is if you go to the Old Testament, you can find absolutely grotesque stuff. And if you want to get into a situation where you’re sort of saying, well, this is the true interpretation of Judaism, that if God tells you you have to sacrifice your firstborn or that he told Joshua to go into Kanan and not leave any living remnant of the Canaanites, which is we would call modern genocide. If he’s just making an argument for sort of secularism that I agree with him. I am myself secular. But the key point here is that you have a much larger population of Muslims who are correct and literalists. And that’s the issue, which is to say that if there are modern Muslims who have interpreted their faith in such a way that all of these kinds of things in the Koran and the Hadith that we would find as moderns so offensive then if they want to call themselves Muslims. I know I don’t have a problem with that. That is the case for most modern Christians and most modern Jews and whatever. Why would someone like Sam Harris, who’s an atheist, get into that debate as if he would know these things better than the issue where I think he’s much stronger ground? And where I agree with him is that there are much larger numbers of Muslims who maybe and a lot of cases actually don’t support terrorism, but they do support blasphemy laws and they do support the idea that men are allowed for wives. They do support a Postino going after apostates and they do support these these absolutely bizarre and backwards ideas. And that is very troubling. But if you want to stop that, in my view, if you want to counter that, then your best allies in some ways are going to be the modern Muslims who can find the interpretation in their text, which I think you can interpret in all kinds of ways that would open it up and sort of move these populations against it instead of being in a position where, as an outsider, you’re saying, no, actually the fundamentalists, you’re right and the moderates are wrong. Why do we say that for Islam and that you have that argument with a reformed Jewish rabbi or a moderate Episcopalian priest or something like that? I’m sure they would say no, no, no. Let me explain why it’s like this. Yeah. My view is I’m sick of it. So I’m an atheist. I don’t believe any of it. For me, it’s really kind of irrelevant to pay.
Right. I mean, yeah, you could go either way, right? I mean, not to speak on behalf of Sam, but I know what he would say, which is that there’s nothing necessarily intrinsic to Islam that makes it more barbaric than the Old Testament, although it and the Old Testament both, as an aside, more barbaric than a lot of holy texts. If you read the text of Jainism or, you know, Hinduism, but I think he would admit that it’s culturally contingent and temporally contingent that Islam just happens at this point in time on this planet to be the one that has the largest number of strict scriptural literalists and that the extent to which I’m a secular atheist Jew, that doesn’t mean that I’m a better Jew than the the crazy fundamentalist Jew. The crazy fundamentalist Jew in some ways is a better Jew than me. He is he’s taking more literally what the creator of the universe has told him to do. But I think Sam’s point would just be, if we are atheists, then why not regard the bigger battle as being a battle against religion, per say? Whereas you would say as an atheist, why do we even care about that battle?
Why not just allow religion to sort out its own definitions?
My view of Jesus is that there are lots of people with whom I would disagree personally. Disagree who would say it wasn’t religion for me really does provide an important service. It gives me a sense of community, helps me deal with what is it, the sickness on the death to use the trigger guard phrase. There’s all kinds of things that people find in religion that are valuable to them as long as they’re not out there trying to conquer territory and kill editorial cartoonists and start a bunch of irrational wars. I don’t care. And I think that the wolf’s closest to the sled right now are the literalists. And getting into a position where you have nonbelievers tell pious people that they know their holy books better than them. You know, Sam is a brilliant guy. And, you know, I’m saying but I just that’s the one part of his project that I sometimes don’t understand. Who is he? Or for that matter? Others just sort of tell a Muslim who feels that they are in every way adherence to the faith. Please to say that bin Laden or Baghdadi is a better Muslim than they are, because in my view, that I think is a question that. Should answer themselves. And ultimately, I have a vested interest because I want to see the open society flourish. And I want to protect the open society. I have an interest in the modern side. The interpretation is side of that debate winning. So it just strikes me that when you have a bunch of atheist sort of get in there, say, no, no, no, no, your religion tells you that you should do this. It just to me, since I think that all these texts can be interpreted any way, it doesn’t really make sense.
The last clarification that I’ll seek on this particular point is what if there’s a third option? In other words, it’s not just will the fundamentalists win or will the moderate progressive Muslims win? It’s also will atheists win and convince a sufficiently large proportion of moderate religious people that they can do away with their religion altogether, as has happened in countries like Denmark and to some extent Australia and New Zealand as well. I guess the question is, is it possible that moderate religious people of any faith by buying into and subscribing to the fantasy and the traditions of their particular formal religion, sort of provide cover for the extremists? They provide lip service to a way of thinking that encourages fundamentalists to flourish?
No, I don’t think so. I think having modern people who still consider themselves to be people of faith undermines extremists because it provides rationale or belief system that can say that. I mean, I don’t first of all, I don’t like it when atheists, in my view, talk about trying to convert other people to atheists and try to win over more populations to atheists. And because in my view, part of the cool thing about being secular and atheist is that you make up your own mind. The one thing I like about the atheist club is they don’t care who else joins it. They’re not always trying to get people to think like they do. It’s one of the things I dislike about religion. So that always kind of makes me a bit uncomfortable. And I think that you could just as much argue that people who have moderate interpretations of their faith undermine fundamentalists as well by saying that, no, no, no, wait a second. You can still be Jewish or Muslim and do all these things and not have these attitudes and so forth.
And I know you mentioned that you’ve come back from Iraq. You’ve been several times. Right. Can you just give us a an impression, any kind of snapshot of the trajectory, the act that the country has taken in the time that you’ve known?
Well, like many Americans who went to Iraq in the last decade, I was hopeful that getting rid of Saddam Hussein would usher in an era of, you know, beginning seeds of maybe a liberal democracy.
And I know that sounds kind of foolish at this point, but that’s what I thought. And I’ve gotten to know a great many people who invest in Iraqis who invested in that project. And it just seems like this point. I’m not optimistic. One thing I’ll tell you that’s happened the last time I was there, I was just I just got back two weeks ago. The last time I was in Iraq was in the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010. Back then, you would not find in Baghdad posters of Khomeini and accommodate the X supreme leader and current supreme leader of Iran. And you find it everywhere now. And that’s really extraordinary because a lot of Iraqis, especially in their middle age, now fought a terrible war with Iran. And so even though the majority of Iraqis are Shia, they still consider themselves Arabs who fought Persians. And now you have a situation where many Arab Shia have volunteered for militias that are supported, armed and advised and some cases led by the Iranian officers. And there’s a real dissonance there. And I think it’s really dangerous. When I saw that, when I watched the frontline in Diyala, I think the silver lining is as somebody who considered the great fortune to be a friend of Christopher Hitchens and I consider him a mentor. The silver lining is that I think that Kurdistan is really coming about. And I do think the Kurds deserve a state of their own. And they, I think, are at this point really close to such a state of their own. And I think they’re playing it pretty smart. And so that was hopeful. But the other parts of it were really not very hopeful. And it does lead you to at least for me, it’s it’s chastening because I had a lot of optimism in 2002, 2003, 2004, that Iraq could be a place that would offer something a lot better than the kind of governance we’ve seen in a lot in the Middle East.
On the question of Iran, your comments just reminded me of something that Senator Al Franken said, which is the United States and Iraq went to war and the winner was Iran, which is kind of ironic.
I used to push back on that, I would say. Well, yes, but the Shia Prime Minister Maliki went after the special groups in Basra. Yes. But, you know, they had their elections. Yes, they did this. But now I do think that they have outsized influence. The one thing I can say from my reporting is that Haider al-Abadi was not the choice of Iran. They still wanted Maliki. So they don’t have total control, but they’re coming close to it, I think.
And if if we don’t want to see Iraq become a vassal of Iran, we really need to to, I think, consider getting involved much more than we are right now before the Iraq war.
I was on a radio show in Australia and said that if Bush put on the table a trillion dollars for a Marshall Plan to rebuild Iraq, and if I had confidence that that could be done, well, then I would support it. But I didn’t believe that they would. And I didn’t trust what kind of chaos might ensue if they. Bungled the reconstruction after the invasion.
Do you think in hindsight that that would have created the kind of vision that you’re talking about, the optimistic vision of a liberal democracy in Iraq? Or do you think that there was something fundamentally doomed about the project? Either way.
Doomed is a tough word. I do think that there were things that were learned over time that we got right. The alliance with the Sunni tribal sheiks and what became known as the Awakening did defeat the predecessor organization of the Islamic State. And they were able to kind of come back because of a couple of factors, including the misrule of Maliki. But I think also the negligence of Obama. I do think that ultimately there are there will be elections. I think for a while in Iraq, which I think there is politics there that there weren’t before. But I think also that the real winners have been the ultras. And so one thing that I saw when I was there was really dispiriting is that militia leaders often go on national television to explain that they’ve just liberated an area from the Islamic State. So those guys have political parties and they’re probably going to win because nobody has any faith in the institution of the Iraqi army that collapsed in June. So I just think it’s going to probably get worse before it really gets any better. And that’s that’s the point. Which is sad. And I don’t know if there was some way we could have done it that would have avoided these problems. I mean, keep in mind, Saddam Hussein tormented his population. So in some ways, it’s not that surprising that once that kind of lid was lifted, all hell broke loose. And it’s still breaking loose.
To this day, sadly, one of the ways in which the hell is likely to break continue to break loose is in the breakdown of the borders that have shaped that region since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. It’s pretty clear now that you’re probably not going to put back together the broken leg of Syria and Iraq. We’re not going to go back to the status quo ante. What do you think is likely to end up shaking out in coming decades? Do you have a sense?
I do think Iraq is going to break up. I think there’ll be a Kurdistan. I think they’ll be something of a rump Shia state. You know, you’re even hearing rumblings from Basra that they want to be their run city state, which is a Shia area as well. And I’m not saying that that there will be an Islamic state in the area that they control now. But I do think that it is in the way of breaking up. And the only way maybe to save it is to have a kind of very hyper federal republic where there really isn’t much of a central government.
When you look at the power that religion still has to compel people to do deeds like ISIS. When you look at the power of extremism, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the sort of trajectory of the world over the rest of this century?
That’s a tough question. I have to think about that more. My idea at this point when you’re talking about kind of coming full circle, is that we should get back to a point where if you once struggle, if you wanna be part of history, then, you know, there’s a lot worth fighting for in the West. So I don’t see why we can’t entice young Muslims and young people who are maybe listless to work to defeat Islamic fascism. I think the negation of an idea is just as powerful as the Spanish Civil War, going back to the Spanish Civil War analogy as the idea of building something. So you can sort of say, listen, we have a lot to protect here. We like our society that has produced Grand Theft Auto and Internet pornography and all the things that these extremists hate about it. But what I think is the problem is that oftentimes the liberals in the West, the people who are most inclined to sort of subscribe to those values, are really uncomfortable with defending them in a serious way and sort of saying at a certain point, these ideas of political Islam are completely antithetical to what we believe and we hold dear and we want to fight them. We don’t want to live in the same world with these people. And that, I think, is an idea that’s really uncomfortable for a lot of modern liberals in 2015 because of an emphasis on trying to see the world in very different perspectives and considering all kinds of things and multiculturalism and stuff. And I generally think all that is very good. Tolerance is all pretty good, but at a certain level, there are things that are worth fighting for. And I think, you know, we’ll see. But I think that there is a reaction to it. So maybe we can see, to borrow a phrase, some extremism in defense of liberty, if you will.
And we are trying to do our very small bit as you a successfully. Thanks so much for being on point of inquiry. Good to talk to you.
Well, thank you. Was a lot of fun. Thank you very much.