What ISIS Gets Right

Michael Metzger

“We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.” So says President Obama. Graeme Wood disagrees. In the February issue of The Atlantic, he argues that Islamic State is not a death cult that distorts Islam. Rather, it is “very Islamic.” In fact, ISIS gets something right that few Westerners recognize.

The first rule of war is Know Thy Enemy. Granted, ISIS “has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe,” writes Wood. “But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.” It is very Islamic.

So what is ISIS fighting? In a word, modernity. What’s modernity? In four words, it is suspicion of institutional authority. Modernity makes the autonomous individual the boss. I do what I want to do, when I want to do it. Period. It’s a 16th century development that upended institutions with the individual as the source and basis of all authority.

ISIS recognizes this. Its leaders know autonomy comes from the Greek auto (self) and nomos (law). Autonomous individuals are a law unto themselves. This is the prevailing paradigm in the West. Modernity turns its back on the past, wrote Daniel Bell, trespassing religion and moving “the center of authority from the sacred to the profane,” to the individual.1 C. S. Lewis saw the same thing. “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality.”2 Since the sixteenth century, Westerners have flipped that, seeking to shape society around self.

Colin Gunton sees the sixteenth century as a turning point, the age of Descartes and the Enlightenment. “Descartes and his successors have destroyed social and universal order.”3 The autonomous individual cannot be told what to do. This is, says Bell, the single theme of modernity. “The rejection of a revealed order or natural order, and the substitution of the individual—the ego, the self—as the lodestar of consciousness. The ego/self takes the throne as the center of the moral universe, making itself the arbiter of all decisions. There are no doubts about the moral authority of the self; that is simply taken as a given. The only question is what constitutes fulfillment of the self.”

Out of modernity came nonsensical ideas like positivism (dividing the world between facts and values), pushing faith to a privatized experience. Turning inward, faith became narcissistic—self-absorbed. Therapy replaced theology. Believers looked for “safe” gods and “safe” places to worship. ISIS sees this and repudiates it. So did Robert Bellah.

Robert Bellah was a sociologist who recognized that the autonomous individual “lies at the very core of American culture.” In his seminal book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Bellah notes how unfettered individualism rules the American church. He called it expressive individualism. It’s heard in such statements as: “This is my personal relationship with Jesus,” “I need to be authentic,” and “I want my church to be a safe place and meet my needs.” Expressive individualism is consistent with Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith’s conclusion that a “moralistic, therapeutic deism” has triumphed over historical creedal faith and practice in the American church.

ISIS sees all this. They get this part of the story correct. Any way you slice and dice it, modernity has created faith communities where the autonomous self rules the roost. How else do we explain anemic giving levels while claiming to adhere to the Bible? How else do we explain anemic church attendance when the Bible is quite clear about sharing in the sacraments? The best explanation is that Western Christians do what they want to do, when they want to do it. Period.

“I couldn’t believe that nine-hundred and ninety-nine religions were completely false and the remaining one true,” wrote C. S. Lewis. “In reality, Christianity is primarily the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, but also the fulfillment of what was vaguely hinted at in all the religions at their best. What was vaguely seen in them all comes into focus in Christianity.”4 Every faith system gets at least part of the story correct. ISIS, while abhorrent and ruthless, at least understands how modernity has turned religion into an individualized preference. Christians can agree with them on that point.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

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1 Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1978), p. 158.
2 Clive Staples Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, Macmillan, 1947).
3 Colin Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 14.
4 C.S. Lewis, God In The Dock, ed. Walter Hooper. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 54.

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14 thoughts on “What ISIS Gets Right”

  1. Rochelle Raimão

    This article has been the talk around the dinner table many times among my family and extended family. Thank you for your thought provoking and insightful contribution to the conversation! Rochelle

  2. Mike, Thank you again for putting these disparate pieces together to gain a better understanding and perspective of ourselves and our enemy.

  3. Mike Metzger

    Dave

    It’s as much the case that we have met the enemy – and he is us.

    Tim Keller says defines today’s church as individualistic and consumerist. That’s what modernity yields. ISIS sees modernity as insane. If every individual is the final arbiter, then there can be no order. We’re returning to what Genesis calls the “formless and void.” ISIS sees the West as so habituated in modernity that few if any can see this. This includes Christians as well Westernized Islamic believers, since Western culture is ubiquitous. ISIS seeks to impose order on Western individualized disorder.

  4. A self proclaimed caliphate seems more rooted in personal deception than self-control in a loving community.Sound bite narratives using technology and media seem to contradict ‘the anti modernity’ portrayal. Lack of genuine contact, connection and communication leave young lives vulnerable to binary visions of humanity.

  5. I dunno Mike. You portray ISIS as sympathetic to institutional qualities but all I see is an anti-instutional agenda. If mere thousands of them upset millions (billions?) of us – who are such cooperative drones that we’ll go along with whatever Western institution tells us is good, right & true – then they’re calling the kettle black if they’re supposedly against autonomy. We are hardly the autonomous people that you say that we are – we are about as sheepish as sheep can be: harmless, helpless and hungry all the time. Mike, more typically you are great at “following the money” – “cui bono” – to whom does it benefit? What do you want to bet that ISIS is funded by sources that don’t share this Islamicist agenda or this so-called supposed anti-autonomy agenda? ISIS funders benefit – and more probably in some far-sighted way, far different from the immediate destructiveness of ISIS.

  6. Barnabas’s post includes an extraordinary quote from an ex-Islamist: “The recruiters are adept at manipulating world events to present what I call the “Islamist narrative” — that the world is at war with Islam, and only a caliphate will protect Muslims from the crusaders. I was seduced by the ideology and drawn to its alternative subculture.” I think this succinctly suggests that the Islamist agenda is meant to protect a culture (otherwise known as an institution) from a countering culture or institution. One defends one’s people against a singularly identified enemy that is singularly identified as out to destroy your singular identity. So to an Islamist, he enemy is not an identity of many faces, many motives, and disparate autonomous cultures. The last thing an Islamist propagandist would dream of promoting is the thought that Westerners are driven by autonomous agendas. That would describe us as tame self-absorbed narcissists. We may BE that, but that would pose no threat to Islam. Islamist propaganda sees the West as singularly focused on destroying Islamist culture.

  7. Barnabas’s post includes an extraordinary quote from an ex-Islamist: “The recruiters are adept at manipulating world events to present what I call the “Islamist narrative” — that the world is at war with Islam, and only a caliphate will protect Muslims from the crusaders. I was seduced by the ideology and drawn to its alternative subculture.” I think this succinctly suggests that the Islamist agenda is meant to protect a culture (otherwise known as an institution) from a countering culture or institution. One defends one’s people against a singularly identified enemy that is singularly identified as out to destroy your singular identity. So to an Islamist, the enemy is not an identity of many faces, many motives, and disparate autonomous cultures. The last thing an Islamist propagandist would dream of promoting is the thought that Westerners are driven by autonomous agendas. That would describe us as tame self-absorbed narcissists. We may BE that, but that would pose no threat to Islam. Islamist propaganda sees the West as singularly focused on destroying Islamist culture.

  8. Clearly, people have strongly held feelings and beliefs when it comes to ISIS — their motivations and what to do about them. It is also true that monocausal explanations are most certainly wrong. There are numerous reasons why ISIS is attractive to many. But Mike’s general point that resurgent Islamic fundamentalism is in part a reaction to modernity and how that it is symbolically embodied in the United States, is a point worth remembering. Evangelicals are heavily aligned with the spirit of modernity and as such are as much a part of the problem as a part of the solution. This has been a thesis articulated widely by Os Guinness (“Dining with the Devil”) and myself (“No God But God” and “The Evangelical Forfeit”). Mikes view are also reflected in Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilization.” Marx was among the first to acknowledge that consumer capitalism is corrosive of traditional beliefs, “everything solids melts into air.” On this score see Marshall Berman’s book by the same title, “Everything Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity.” American evangelicalism cannot be understood a part from modernity and the Enlightenment. Both are woven into the moral imagination of American evangelicalism in ways that it is hard to them to acknowledge or sense.

    Rev. Thom’s explanation of ISIS in terms of market forces, i.e. “follow the money,” implies a reductionism of motives to economic factors that discounts any measure of serious religious commitment — however misguided. This is an analysis typical of Marxists not believing Christians. We should at minimum give Islamic fundamentalists the courtesy of taking their beliefs as beliefs seriously. We may disagree with them, but not with the validity of religious convictions. And why there are sweeping generalizations involved in any group characterization of motives, the general frame of Mike’s comments are certainly worth taking into consideration. We may learn ways in which American Christians are more complicit in an uncritical acceptance of modernity than we are prone to acknowledge. Like fish in water, we’re probably not in the best position to ascertain our surroundings. The ISIS counterpoint is instructive.

  9. Pingback: What’s the deal with ISIS? | Carl Creasman What’s the deal with ISIS?| Live Well blog; life insights with values

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