roger cohen

Getting the Narrative (Robert) Wright: On Islam and the West

I’ve been trying to pinpoint what bothers me so much about Robert Wright’s new article in the New Yorker. I think it’s this: I respect Wright as a writer and thinker, and therefore, when he comments on the relationship between Islam and terrorism, I’m always mildly hoping to have my mind changed about one or another aspect on this issue–but it never is.

In, “The Clash of Civilizations That Isn’t“, Wright warns of the dangers of walking straight into a self-fulfilling prophecy—that is, by engaging in too much exaggerated rhetoric about the fundamental struggles between traditional Islam and Western values, we risk deepening fault lines and creating a true clash of civilizations that could lead to more violence and/or to us freaking out again (e.g. the Iraq invasion) and making things much, much worse. Who are the spreaders of said narrative? There are the obvious Fox News crazies and right-wing war hawks, but Wright is more concerned with traditionally left-of-center and credible outlets, going after, in particular, Roger Cohen’s “Islam and the West at War” op-ed in the NY Times, and Graeme Wood’s popular piece, “What ISIS Really Wants” in the Atlantic.

The immediate objection to get out of the way is Wright’s conflation of Cohen and Wood’s two different arguments. They are not, if you read them, saying the same thing or engaging in the same narrative. Cohen’s piece is more expansive, using blanket terms like the “Muslim world” and suggesting that the combined jihadist movement is a result of Islam the religion, politicized or otherwise. On the whole, Cohen’s piece is not as wrong-headed as Wright tries to make it sound—the broadness of its title is the most controversial part. If Wright had stuck to Cohen’s article, I wouldn’t have been so off-put, but he had to drag in Graeme Wood’s piece, which I think should be largely exempt from Wright’s criticisms.

Wood’s article is not a narrative about Islam and the West. It is not an op-ed. It is researched journalism that confines itself rather painstakingly to ISIS’s interpretation of Islam. It is not expansive, it does not pontificate on Islam itself, or Islam as a whole, or the Muslim world. It does not say the West is at war with Islam. It is about ISIS and their interpretation of Islam. The article is clear that this interpretation is exotic, an aberration even among jihadist groups (the most interesting part, for me, was seeing how wide a gap there is between ISIS’ ideology compared to, say, Al Qaeda’s), and an interpretation criticized by the majority of Muslims. One must exert much effort to misconstrue Wood or even Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel as arguing that ISIS’ interpretation represents “true Islam” (though true masters of misinterpretation can do it). So what is Wright objecting to then? That ISIS is motivated by religion? Is that controversial? Wright seems to think so:

But what did Wood mean by saying that ISIS is ‘very Islamic’?

He rested this claim about the deeply Islamic character of ISIS largely on the views of a single scholar, Bernard Haykel, of Princeton. Haykel’s main point seems to have been that ISIS isn’t just making up an ideology and grafting it onto Islamic beliefs. ISIS draws (if selectively) on the Koran and later Islamic texts; indeed, if you went back far enough in time, you would find its views more widely accepted by Muslims and Muslim scholars than has been the case in recent centuries.

First, this “single scholar” business. Does one need a scholar at all to tell you this? ISIS itself tells us, again and again via a social media infrastructure rivaling Silicon Valley start-ups, that its primary motivation is Islam (rather obviously an uncommon, “ahistoric” version of Islam, though Wright complains that this qualification was left out of Wood’s article).  ISIS explains, intricately, carefully, gleefully, that it’s doing what it’s doing because of deeply held, absolutist religious beliefs. To quote the Almighty Will Ferrell, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills when this is denied or questioned. I can entertain the argument that some jihadist groups might be exaggerating their devotion to Islam, using it predominantly as a tool without actually being all that devout—but ISIS? Have you watched, listened, or read a single thing about ISIS if you’re making that claim?

Yes, there is always a risk that, bolstered by an over-simplified narrative, the West will engage in more foolish military undertakings in the “Muslim world”—will freak out, will do something stupid, and more people will die. But the answer is not to shut down the narrative, the answer is to get the narrative right.

We are not at war with Islam, though there are clear, tangible divides between the values of traditional Islam and the values of the West (that’s why the over-simplified narrative exists in the first place). Just today, a poll was released showing that “24% of British Muslims say violence against cartoonists who draw Muhammad is justifiable“. (Incidentally, when Wright argues  that the most effective tactic against extremism would be to stop U.S. policies like drone strikes that promote radicalization, I wonder what he suggests cartoonists should do?). Rather, we are at war, as reformer Maajid Nawaz would say, with Islamism—or, the desire to impose Islam, any version, on others. That is the correct narrative. That is the prophecy which has already been fulfilled. And that is the ideology we have to understand, not ignore, if we want to successfully combat extremism.


Just so everyone understands that I do really like Wright, just disagree with him on this topic, I want to plug one of his books: if you like science, particularly evolutionary psychology, you will love The Moral Animal. I was sad to finish it.