Just a quick piece to note a great discussion between Sam Harris and Graeme Wood, author of "What ISIS Really Wants," which appears online and in the current issue of The Atlantic.
Harris brings up a great comparison regarding the tendency of many to search for explanations other than the obvious one, even when the subject(s) of inquiry state very plainly and clearly what their motivations and beliefs are.
I just want to point out that this effort to get at root causes only ever runs in one direction. No one doubts the political and economic justifications that people give for their behavior. When someone says, “Listen, I murdered my rich neighbor because I knew he kept a pile of money in a safe. I wanted that money, and I didn’t want to leave a witness,” nobody looks for an ulterior explanation for that behavior. But when someone says, “I think infidels and apostates deserve to burn in hell, and I know for a fact that I’ll go to paradise if I die while waging jihad against them,” many academics refuse to accept this rationale at face value and begin looking for the political or economic reasons that they imagine lie beneath it.Sometimes you just have to accept that people believe what they tell us they believe. And as Wood notes, you don't even have to go far to find it. Mike has been writing plenty on this himself, without having to tag along on a Jihadi jalopy bouncing through the desert to join forces with the group in, say, Raqqa or Tikrit.
Wood notes -
I’ve had people come to me after the piece appeared and ask me how I got this information, as if the information were difficult to find. It was kind of them to assume that I had to work very hard to get it. But as anyone who watches the Islamic State closely knows, it manufactures propaganda at an industrial pace, and its members are eager to explain themselves. They publish fatwas in Arabic and many other languages represented among the foreign fighters. And they take great pains to describe why they do what they do.If this tendency was limited to bloggers and talking heads, it would be one thing. But it extends to some pretty disturbing places. Play it, Sam (emphases added) -
From the moment the Islamic State emerged, it felt almost as if I had invented it as some kind of thought experiment to prove that everything I wrote in The End of Faith was true. These people are a crystalline example of the problem I described in that book—as is the response of liberal apologists who have been saying that their behavior has nothing to do with Islam. Rather, we’re told that burning people alive in cages, crucifying children, and butchering journalists and aid workers is an ordinary human response to political and economic instability. Even representatives of our own State Department assert this. I can’t imagine how comically out of touch with reality we appear from the side of the jihadis. [...]You begin your essay by summarizing the confusion that many people experience on this topic, and you cite comments by Major General Michael Nagata, the Special Operations Commander for the US in the Middle East. He is on record as admitting, I believe in a closed-door session, that he didn’t understand the appeal of the Islamic State. Specifically, he said “We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.”I remember reading that in the New York Times and getting furious. I take your point in the article that jihadism is not monolithic, and there are both religious and political differences among many of these groups. But if there is anything in this world that is not a secret—if there is any intellectual or moral problem that just solves itself—it is this question of what is appealing about joining a group like the Islamic State for a person who actually believes in the Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad. It’s about as psychologically mysterious as my daughter’s wanting to go to the ice cream store. I can’t say that I’ve defeated the idea, but I absolutely understand it.
It’s one thing for the president to deny the link between religious belief and jihadism in public -- that’s a propaganda campaign that seems doomed to fail -- but it’s another to learn that our military leaders are expressing confusion about this behind closed doors. I find that terrifying.Definitely give the whole discussion a read if you have the chance.