The current criticism of Obama for defining the threat to America as “violent extremism” rather than specifically identifying Islam as the source of violent radicalism has focused renewed attention on the question of the relationship between the religion and the actions of ISIS or Al-Qaeda.
Fareed Zakaria offers an intelligent analysis of the issue in the Washington Post but J. M. Berger, writing in the Brookings Institution Brief, adds a distinct perspective that also deserves attention.
He frames the issue as follows:
A new article about ISIS in The Atlantic has reignited the perennial debate over the relationship between jihadist terrorism and the religion of Islam. The article, by Graeme Wood, repeatedly emphasizes the “Islamic” in Islamic State, calling out what it describes as “well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature.”
Berger argues, however, that the two key characteristics that define ISIS and other Islamic radical groups – a belief in their own superiority and an apocalyptic vision of history — are actually present in extremist groups within many religious and quasi-religious traditions.
…What is the relationship between Christianity and Christian Identity? What does being German mean to Nazi ideology? What about the neo-Nazi movement Golden Dawn, a Greek identity movement heavily influenced by German Nazism? How does Hinduism inform Abhinav Bharat, and how does Abhinav Bharat inform our understanding of Hinduism? The 969 Movement in Myanmar is led by a Buddhist monk, and its very name refers to the Buddha and his teachings. It is very Buddhist. But is its xenophobia very Buddhist?
…Whiteness and white supremacy are, in fact, intertwined, and it was Germany that gave birth to the Nazi movement. Islamic extremists arise from the Muslim world, and there is no question that a variety of conditions in the Muslim world have contributed to the problem.
Understanding whiteness is relevant to understanding white supremacy, just as understanding Islam is relevant to jihadism. And to be sure, religion matters to ISIS. A lot. But the concept of an exclusive identity matters far more, to the point that ISIS will engage in virtually unlimited theological gymnastics to justify it.
Berger argues that, regardless of the particular religion that is pressed into service as an ideological rationale for violent extremism, what unites such movements are two key elements: an exclusionary identity and a millenarian vision of being a chosen group that will survive an apocalyptic disaster
…While radicalization is a multifaceted process, with many dimensions and attendant complexities, the establishment of an exclusionary identity group is a nearly universal characteristic, whether the extremists are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist, and whether the extremists are religious, racial, or nationalist.
… Millenarian sects may (or may not) rely on religious texts as importance sources, but their defining quality, and what makes them dangerous, is an unshakeable belief that history is coming to an end. Millenarian beliefs are often wedded to identity-based extremism through the narrative device of a chosen group that will triumph in an apocalyptic war or survive an apocalyptic disaster. Again, the traits of these groups are remarkably consistent across a variety of belief structures. Their commonality is their Millenarianism, not the theological background from which those End Times beliefs are derived.
Therefore, Berger concludes:
To understand and counter ISIS’s threat and appeal, frame it properly. Identity-based extremism and millenarian apocalyptic cults provide a far more useful framework for understanding ISIS than Islam does.