The Atlantic magazine: ISIS is “very Islamic,” “apocalyptic,” and “avowedly genocidal”

As news breaks of further genocidal attacks by ISIS, a detailed article by Graeme Wood takes a long, hard look at the group’s motivations and goals

A photo of some of the 21 Coptic martyrs who were beheaded by ISIS on a beach in Libya on Feb. 15, 2015. (Photo: CNS)

When we published Sister Renée Mirkes’ article, “Why Fighting Against ISIL is Not Murder,” a month ago, we regretted that we hadn’t posted it earlier, as ISIS/ISIL—or at least news about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—seemed to have gone quiet. As it turns out, the lull was something of an eye in the hurricane, as recent events have demonstrated in horrific, bloody fashion.
Earlier this month, ISIS released a video “allegedly showing the burning alive of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, who was captured by the militant group in December after his fighter F-16 jet crashed.” Jordan’s King Abdullah said, in a televised statement: “This (is) cowardly terror by a criminal group that has no relation to Islam … It’s the duty of all citizens to stand together…”

Then, a week ago, Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil called for military intervention during a visit to the British Parliament:

Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil pleaded with Parliamentarians to do all in their power to persuade the Government to authorise the deployment of British troops to help to drive out ISIS fighters from the Nineveh Plain.

“It is hard for a Catholic bishop to say that we have to advocate a military action but we have to go for that. There is no other option,” he told a meeting in the House of Lords where he was a guest of Lord Alton on Liverpool.

He also stated that Pope Francis was also on board with “the moral case for international military action to defeat ISIS.”

This past Sunday, as CWR’s Catherine Harmon wrote:

ISIS released a graphic video showing the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya. The video, titled “A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross,” features one of the jihadists speaking in English and addressing himself to “crusaders” while describing the terrorist group’s “chopping off the heads that have been carrying the cross.” Once the captives, dressed in orange jumpsuits, are beheaded, the jihadist states, “And we will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission.”

Pope Francis, at the conclusion of his address to leaders of the Church of Scotland, said, “Today I read about the execution of those twenty-one or twenty-two Coptic Christians. Their only words were: ‘Jesus, help me!’ They were killed simply for the fact that they were Christians.”

A White House statement about the murders made no mention of the victims being Christian, but did say that “ISIL’s barbarity knows no bounds.  It is unconstrained by faith, sect, or ethnicity.” Except, of course, ISIL does not execute those who fall into line and go along with its agenda.

But what is actually motivating ISIL? That’s an essential question, especially as news is breaking today (via FOX News) that dozens more have been murdered by the group

Islamic State militants reportedly have burned to death 45 people in the western Iraqi town of al-Baghdadi on Tuesday, just five miles away from an air base staffed by hundreds of U.S. Marines. … Al-Baghdadi, which is about 50 miles northwest of Ramadi in Anbar province, is located about five miles from Ain al-Asad air base, where 400 U.S. military personnel are training Iraqi soldiers and Sunni tribesmen to take on ISIS. The base was raided last week by a small band of fighters, in what some experts believe may have been a probe in preparation for a full-scale attack.

This past Monday, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who converted to Islam as a young man in the 1970s) rejected the notion that ISIL/ISIS was motivated by religious beliefs:

Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” former NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said ISIS is not about religion, but instead “a play for money and power” and “any group can do this,” like the the Ku Klux Klan claiming they were Christian knights.

Abdul-Jabbar said, “It’s a play for money and power, and these people try to impose their will on people so people will listen to them, and they can be in charge. That’s all it’s about. It’s about  they’ve taken on a fascist attitude and a fascist approach to everything. You do what we say or you die.”

“You can make parallels to things that have happened here in America. Like the Ku Klux Klan saying they are the Christian knights,” he continued. “The Ku Klux Klan and did not practice Christianity.”

Earlier today, State Department representative, Marie Harf, told Chris Matthews of MSNBC that a root motivation for such acts of terrorism was “a lack of opportunity for jobs,” a curious theory that Matthews quickly dismissed. And rightly so: the premise that poverty and despair have led, logically and steadily, to a militant, fundamentalist, violent, bloody, and, yes, demonic movement is ridiculous on so many levels. Far better, actually, to take ISIS/ISIL at its word: it is motivated by a specific vision and understanding of Islam. Period.

Which brings me to an important article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” written by Graeme Wood and published in the March issue of The Atlantic. The subtitle reads: “The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.”  Here are just a couple of the key excerpts:

The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al‑Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as “Sheikh Osama,” a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaeda’s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group’s priorities and current leadership.

Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)

We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature. … There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.


The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.


Denying the holiness of the Koran or the prophecies of Muhammad is straightforward apostasy. But Zarqawi and the state he spawned take the position that many other acts can remove a Muslim from Islam. These include, in certain cases, selling alcohol or drugs, wearing Western clothes or shaving one’s beard, voting in an election—even for a Muslim candidate—and being lax about calling other people apostates. Being a Shiite, as most Iraqi Arabs are, meets the standard as well, because the Islamic State regards Shiism as innovation, and to innovate on the Koran is to deny its initial perfection. (The Islamic State claims that common Shiite practices, such as worship at the graves of imams and public self-flagellation, have no basis in the Koran or in the example of the Prophet.) That means roughly 200 million Shia are marked for death. So too are the heads of state of every Muslim country, who have elevated man-made law above Sharia by running for office or enforcing laws not made by God.

Following takfiri doctrine, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from the region suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims. Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government. Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as the jizya, and acknowledge their subjugation. The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute.


Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

And those quotes are from the first quarter of the article alone. There is much more. Read it.

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About Carl E. Olson 1220 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.