Long, long ago -- 1982, to be precise -- I had a chance to talk with CBS commentator Bill Moyers soon after he returned from a lengthy stay in the Middle East. Americans were, of course, still reeling from the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Iran.
Moyers was fascinated with the role of the mosque in a typical Muslim community in the region. The local mosque was the center for religious life, but it was also where people went for help in every other aspect of their daily lives -- including many contacts with government aid and programs. The key thing journalists and other outsiders needed to grasp, he told me, was that "there was no such thing as the separation of mosque and state."
This is James Wright Foley, an American citizen of your country. As a government, you have been at the forefront of aggression towards the Islamic State. You have plotted against us and gone out of you way to find reasons to interfere in our affairs. Today, your military air force is attacking us daily in Iraq. Your strikes have caused casualties against Muslims.
You are no longer fighting an insurgency; we are an Islamic Army and a state that has been accepted by a large number of Muslims worldwide, so effectively, any aggression towards the Islamic State is an aggression towards Muslims from all walks of life who have accepted Islamic Caliphate as their leadership. So any attempt by you, Obama, to deny the Muslims their right of living in safety under the Islamic Caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people.
So the key word in that pronouncement is what? It would have to be either "Muslim" or "Caliphate." In this statement, is it possible to find evidence of the separation of mosque and state?
Please hear me: I am well aware that the Islamic State represents a radicalized, bleeding edge of Islamic life in that region and, perhaps, the world. This is not even the militant Islam being exported by the Saudis. My point is that Western elites -- as Moyers stressed long ago -- must grasp that it is impossible, in this case, to cover the ideology of this state without also addressing its theology.
Why the word "ideology"? Heed this definition:
NOUN -- 1 (plural ideologies) A system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy: the ideology of republicanism.
This brings me back to the struggle in Great Britain to understand the mindset of "Jihadi John" -- as opposed to Paul, George and Ringo -- and his role in this tragedy. Here is a key passage from a recent report in The Washington Post:
... The video released ... showing the execution of American journalist James Foley highlighted just how central foreigners have become to some of the most extreme behavior by militant Islamist groups in Iraq and Syria.
“Foreign fighters are often used for the most brutal acts because they are the most ideologically motivated,” said Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization. “The locals may say, ‘That’s not the kind of thing we do here.’ But the outsiders don’t know that.”
Neumann said the group probably selected a Briton to carry out the execution because he was willing and it knew that his voice would resonate across the West.
So what is the content of those words, "ideologically motivated"?
British papers are, of course, digging deeper on these issues. Once again, the emphasis is on these young men being pulled into a violent movement for motives that are primarily political or, again, "ideological."
Here is a typical passage from a story in The Guardian:
The FBI, MI5 and Scotland Yard's counter-terrorism command were all ... racing to identify the militant who fronted the propaganda video that showed the brutal murder of Foley, the journalist who had been missing in Syria since 2012.
Sources in Syria recognised the man as a point-man for hostage negotiations in Raqqa, where he is said to have held discussions with several families of jailed foreign nationals over the internet.
One former hostage, who was held for a year in Raqqa, told the Guardian the British executioner is intelligent, educated and a devout believer in radical Islamic teachings. The three UK-born militants were referred to as "the Beatles" by fellow hostages because of their nationality, the former captive added.
Experts in the the counter-terrorism and linguistics fields said the man appeared to be one of up to 500 British-born jihadists "brutalised" by Isis after fleeing the UK to fight in Syria and Iraq.
Here is my primary journalistic question at this point: What is the theological content of the system that is being used to "brutalize" these young British (and American, etc.) men? Obviously, I am willing to concede that -- because there is no separation of mosque and state -- that this message is political, as well as theological.
But will journalists be able to tell the story of this rising threat in the West without dealing with what its leaders are preaching about the holy, as well as the hellish? When dealing with true believers of this kind, is it enough to cover the political moves and the bombing raids, alone?