When reporting on the Islamic State, try reporting on more than its ties to Islam

We're told that on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, ISIS is consistently losing ground, thanks in the main to air strikes led by Russia and the United States. But here's something else, perhaps even more important.

Poll results released last week said that ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, and, in Arabic, Daesh) is also losing ground in the battle for popular support among Arab Muslims

This piece from The Washington Post details the poll in question. Here's the nut of it:

The new poll, based on face-to-face interviews with 3,500 respondents ages 18 to 24, suggests that young Arabs are both increasingly fearful of the terrorist group and less swayed by its propaganda, compared with previous years. More than half the participants ranked the Islamic State as the No. 1 problem facing the Middle East, and 3 out of 4 said they believed that the group would ultimately fail in its quest to establish an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
The survey suggests that religious fervor plays a secondary role, at best, when young Arabs do decide to sign up with the Islamic State. When asked why Middle Easterners join the group, the participants listed joblessness or poor economic prospects as the top reason. Only 18 percent cited religious views — a “belief that their interpretation of Islam is superior to others” — and nearly as many picked sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites as the chief motivating factor.
Young Arabs from countries with high unemployment rates were more likely to list economic hardship as a top reason for wanting to join the Islamic State, the survey found. The results align with the findings of other researchers who have noted that many recruits use religion mostly as a rationalization.

Now that's interesting. Economics is said to be the driving factor; not religious radicalization but religious rationalization. Which is to say that there's more to the problem of ISIS than its version of Islam, as some on the anti-Muslim right -- including you-know-which-presidential-wannabes -- loudly exclaim.

And that "more" is political because politics is at the root of economic policy.

Let me be clear.

I'm not saying that decent jobs and economic opportunity alone are the solution to jihadist debauchery or even to nonviolent Muslim conflicts with the prevailing values of liberal Western societies.

This recent piece from The New York Times, based on a survey of British Muslims, underscores that the differences about what constitutes moral behavior -- that is, what is culturally permitted -- remain deep seated even for Muslims living in the West.

I am saying that ISIS, despite what seems to me -- and many if not most in the West -- to be its medieval methods and mindset, is in its way a thoroughly modern, political phenomenon. And if that's correct, what does it mean going forward for journalists covering the movement?

Rather than focusing solely or even primarily on ISIS's relationship to Islam, might it be more helpful to understanding the motivation of those drawn to ISIS to report on the group's connection to globalization's economic underbelly?

Frankly, I'm not sure where to draw the line. Plus, good luck getting most editors to go along with you getting all wonky.

It would be bad government policy, and bad journalism, to entirely decouple ISIS from Islam's internal religious conflicts over pluralism (there's that Sunni and Shiite thing again) and modernity (women's rights and intellectual openness, for starters).

Yet I find intriguing this essay from the website of the journal Lapham's Quarterly, the creation of Lewis H. Lapham, the former Harper's magazine editor.

If you're not familiar with it, Lapham's is worth checking out. It's intellectually relevant in a deep background sort of way. It's stated motto is the Roman philosopher and politician Cicero's pronouncement, "Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child."

That's not bad advice for young journalists.

The essay's author, political philosopher John Gray, had this to say:

... ISIS differs from other jihadist groups in its lack of specific demands. While Al Qaeda aimed to force the U.S. to withdraw from the Middle East, ISIS is dedicated to the destruction of the entire existing world order -- a goal that suggests the group is more eschatological in its view of the world than its current jihadist rivals. None of these features go any distance toward showing that ISIS is other than modern. A transnational crime cartel, rapidly expanding apocalyptic cult movement, and worldwide terror network, ISIS could have emerged only in modern conditions of globalization. ...
This strange metaphysical fancy lies behind the fashionable theory that when people leave advanced countries to join ISIS they do so because they have undergone a process of “radicalization.” But who radicalized the tens of millions of Europeans who flocked to Nazism and fascism in the interwar years? The disaster that ensued was not the result of clever propaganda, though that undoubtedly played a part. Interwar Europe demonstrates how quickly and easily civilized life can be disrupted and destroyed by the impact of war and economic crisis.

Gray's argument is lengthy and complex and no paragraph or two extracted from it can do it justice. Do yourself a favor and take the time to read it in its entirety.

Of course Gray's not the only writer -- or GetReligion reader -- who sees ISIS as more than just a simple Muslim problem. Here's another piece published just this week authored by a Washington Institute for Near East Policy analyst. It also ran in The National Interest and it's a lot shorter and gets more quickly to the point, oped-style, than does Gray's essay. So read Jacob Olidort's piece if Gray's is too much.

Here are their take-aways: (Dont forget that they are academic/political analysts, not journalists).

The great failure of Western nations (putting aside, for now, the Muslim world's own failures in this regard) as they attempt to defeat ISIS, is the West's bedrock and unquestioned belief that history inexorably bends toward the betterment of the human condition.

However, what we consider civilized conduct is a fragile construct that's quick to collapse when challenged by political and economic dystopia.

Don't think of ISIS as just a momentary regression rooted solely in reactionary religion. Instead, think of it as a perfect storm of contemporary political/economic incompetence abetted by modern technology and cloaked, to be sure, in religious language and garb.

It's all heady stuff, no doubt, and perhaps even counter to journalism's currently metastasizing web model that offers readers more entertainment than insightfully reported and analyzed news that both reflects and shapes our world.

But who said quality journalism is supposed to be easy -- or inexpensive?

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