One of the perennial failures of modern Westerners is assuming that all who disagree with them must be crazy. Hitler: crazy. Stalin: crazy. Gadhafi: crazy. Saddam Hussein: crazy. Putin: crazy. Kim Jong-un: muy crazy. And on and on.
The problem with crazy is that if by that we mean someone clinically insane, we have a hard time explaining how they manage to take and keep power. In fact, given how difficult it has proven to hold together Libya and Iraq after the “crazy” despots were deposed and killed, one thinks they deserve a little respect for their ruthless abilities to retain power for so long.
What we mean by crazy is that they don’t do things the way we do them. And the implication is that when they reject the wisdom of our ways, despite our manifest superiority, they aren’t being rational. They don’t know what they are doing.
This is the laziest of assessments, and given how badly we have done at replacing “crazy” despots with anything approaching a capable alternative, it would be wise of us not to throw around the “C” word too loosely.
But here we go again. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has rolled into town with its beheadings and tortures, its rapes and its burnings, and we quickly conclude they are crazy. Even President Barack Obama compared them to a “JV” team, as if the sports metaphor explains we really don’t have to take them seriously. They are “beasts,” “madmen,” “animals.”
Yeah, and ugly too, but words will never hurt them and, in this case, sticks and stones and predator drones don’t seem to be rolling them back very easily, either.
The truth is, we don’t study our enemies with the attention they deserve. But a most remarkable article in the March issue of The Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants,” by Graeme Wood, takes a long and deep look at ISIS. What is apparent is that we have ignored what makes this doomsday cult tick at our peril, and we may even be playing into their hands as they march toward their desired apocalypse. The article is worth reading in its entirety, but its thesis about ISIS is summed up by the author thusly: “We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of — and headline player in — the imminent end of the world.”
To understand why Wood draws these conclusions, one must read the article (available at theatlantic.com), but it is enough to say that they offer a rigorous seventh-century worldview that sounds a lot like some of our fundamentalist cults, including an apocalyptic doomsday battle that brings Jesus down from heaven to slay the anti-Messiah and usher in a new age. In this vision, there are only three options: the saved, the dead and the subjugated. The number of those saved is scant, including few of their fellow Muslims unless they pledge allegiance to the caliphate of ISIS. All others are to be killed or enslaved.
I am not an Islamic expert, so while Wood’s thesis goes a long way toward explaining the heretofore unexplainable, I look forward to how other Islamic experts respond to his thesis.
How the West will respond to ISIS beyond lobbing bombs from a distance remains unknown. More to the point is how the rest of the Muslim world — most of them considered apostates or infidels by ISIS — will respond to what is fundamentally a challenge to their faith and their very existence.
One thing is clear: If we don’t start paying attention to why our enemies do what they do, then we are the crazy ones.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.