George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq cracked the region open and paved the way for the Islamic State. The Bush administration tore Iraq to shreds and then demobilized Saddam Hussein’s army and dispatched its members to the unemployment lines of a wrecked country.

One of those shreds, al-Qaeda in Iraq, populated by disaffected officers from that disbanded army, would later transform itself into the nucleus of the new Islamic State movement. Indeed the U.S. nurtured the present leadership of that movement in American military prisons in Iraq, where we introduced them to each other, so to speak. The process was at least hastened, and perhaps ultimately caused, by the vehement anti-Sunni bias of the Shi’ite Iraqi government, which the U.S. installed in power and also nurtured.

To sustain our image of ourselves as innocents in the whole affair, we have to blot out this empirical history and replace it with a myth (not so surprising, given that any war against evil is a mythic enterprise). That’s not to say that we deny all the facts. We just pick and choose the ones that fit our myth best.

In that tale, the enemy is simply what Christians for centuries have called the devil, which brings us to…

Mistake Number Four: We assume that the enemy, like Lucifer himself, does evil just for the sake of doing it. Even the most liberal parts of the media often can’t see IS fighters as more than “lunatics” bent on “slaughter for its own sake.”

Under such circumstances, what a foolish task it obviously is even to think about the enemy’s actual motives. After all, to do so would be to treat them as humans, with human purposes arising out of history. It would smack of sympathy for the devil.

Of course, this means that, whatever we might think of their actions, we generally ignore a wealth of evidence that the Islamic State’s fighters couldn’t be more human or have more comprehensible motivations.  In fact, if you look hard enough, you can find evidence of just that.

The Atlantic, for instance, gained some attention for publishing an article by Graeme Wood that explored the complex religious ideas of the IS movement. In the New York Review of Books, Scott Atran and Nafes Hamid offered insights from people who had taken the time to actually talk with IS fighters or former fighters about its strategy and their own motives in becoming part of it. In this manner, Atran and Hamid helped explain the great mystery of IS (if you believe it is an inhuman organization): How can it attract so many young followers, especially from the U.S. and Europe?  Why do some disaffected young men and women find the movement “profoundly alluring”?

Olivier Roy, a leading scholar of political Islam, has answered that many of these youth, full of “frustration and resentment against society,” are lured by the fantasy of joining a “small brotherhood of super-heroes.”  But a recent study by the Program in Extremism at George Washington University, full of rich details on American IS supporters, concluded that “their motivations are diverse and defy easy analysis.”

Add up this sort of evidence and you’re likely to come to a startling and, in our present context, deeply unsettling conclusion. It’s not just that IS fighters are distinctly human, but that in some ways they are eerily like us. After all, we, too, have a military that uses an ideological narrative to recruit young people and prepare them to be willing to die for it. Our military, too, is savvy in using social media and various forms of advertising and publicity to deploy its narrative effectively. Like IS recruits, youngsters join our military for all sorts of reasons, but some because they are rootless, disaffected, and in search of a belief system, or at least an exciting adventure (even one that may put them in danger of losing their lives). And don’t forget that those young recruits, like the IS fighters, often have only the sketchiest grasp of what exactly they are signing up to die for or of the nature of the conflicts they may be involved in. 

Our state ideology is, of course, secular. But most of us are certainly familiar personally (or at one remove) with American religious fundamentalists whose beliefs share much with the IS narrative. On both sides, people want to turn back the clock of history and live according to a sacred plan supposedly etched in stone many centuries ago.

There are, in fact, striking parallels — and I say this as a professor of religious studies — between the evangelical mood and methods of our fundamentalists and those of the Islamic State.  Both agree that one must choose between God’s truth (derived from an ancient text) and the devil’s. Both offer the psycho-social comfort of a community supposedly living by immutable laws. Some of our fundamentalists, like the Christian Reconstructionists, would be happy to see this nation governed under religious law, as long as it’s their religion we’re talking about.

Whatever any of us think of our homegrown fundamentalists, we would hardly deny them their humanity, even if we often wonder what leads them to such (to many of us) strange beliefs. So here’s the question: Why shouldn’t we be just as curious about the believers of the Islamic State, even if they are our enemies?

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