Graeme Wood

Still watching the Las Vegas dice: Did Stephen Paddock leave a note? Was he taking Valium?

Still watching the Las Vegas dice: Did Stephen Paddock leave a note? Was he taking Valium?

Still waiting. Still reading.

Still watching, every now and then. And I remain convinced that some kind of religion/beliefs shoe is going to drop in the Las Vegas massacre, no matter that Eric Paddock says about his brother Stephen's lack of political or religious ties that bind.

However, I will add this concern, even if it is only receiving attention on right-wing news sites and in a UK tabloid that is consistently NSW quality.

The question: Did the gunman leave a note behind in his suite at the Mandalay Bay? There is discussion, with a photo, at The Daily Star:

Images have leaked showing Paddock lying dead on the hotel room floor with blood pouring from his mouth. The gunman appears to be wearing a brown shirt, black slacks, loafers and a pair of gloves.
Chillingly, he appears to have left some kind of note on the side table.
Paddock’s motives remain a mystery, with the millionaire property developer having no criminal history. He appears to have checked into the high roller hotel days before in a meticulous plot to kill.
A note left by the gunman may offer clues to his reasons for slaughtering country music fans at the Route 91 Harvest Festival.

Readers cannot tell, of course, what kind of information is in the note seen in the photo. It could be Paddock's room-service form, for all journalists know. Still it will be interesting to see if and when this discussion is validated by investigators and, thus, breaks into mainstream media. (I have not visited the world of 24/7 cable news in several hours.)

In most discussions of the "Why?" factor in this story -- click here for a typical list -- it is also clear that reporters are taking seriously some kind of inherited mental illness, in light of the FBI most-wanted list history of Paddock's father.

Several GetReligion readers have asked if investigators are checking medical records, to see if the gunman suffered from a fatal illness or even a brain tumor that might steer him into madness. The Las Vegas Review-Journal has published a story in which sources say Paddock, in June, was given a prescription for Valium, which raises questions about anxiety attacks.

Then there is the Islamic State.

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AP shows that ISIS recruits know little about Islam; but what about top ISIS leaders?

AP shows that ISIS recruits know little about Islam; but what about top ISIS leaders?

Do you remember the controversial Atlantic cover story by Graeme Wood -- "What ISIS Really Wants" -- that caused waves of online clicks and almost as many heated arguments in major newsrooms and on university campuses?

Here is that link again, in case you've lost it. It's clear that this essay remains highly relevant, especially in light of that recent Associated Press "Big Story" piece about the degree to which many ISIS recruits do, or do not, understand the basic tenets of Islam.

In an earlier GetReligion post about that Wood essay, I argued that he wanted to show that the leaders of the Islamic State were wrong when they claimed that their radical version of Islam is the true faith and that all Muslims must embrace it or be declared heretics. At the same time, he insisted that President Barack Obama was wrong when he stated that "ISIL is not Islamic."

Thus, here is Wood's thesis: 

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.
Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.

Note that Wood separates the leaders of ISIS from the "psychopaths and adventure seekers" drawn to its flame. Wood is interested in the religious views of ISIS leaders -- the imams and the teams creating all of those online videos. For the leaders, this is a religious crusade.

This recent AP piece, on the other hand, focuses on the faith, or lack thereof, of the recruits themselves -- with an emphasis on the testimonies of those who fled ISIS. For many recruits, religion had little to do with their decision to join the cause.

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That question once again after Paris: Is Islam a 'religion of peace'?

That question once again after Paris: Is Islam a 'religion of peace'?

EDITOR'S NOTE: With the Islamic State claiming responsibility for the Friday the 13th massacres in Paris, the Religion Guy is re-posting the following blog item from February 23, 2015. That post ran under the headline: "What does it mean to ask: Is Islam a 'religion of peace'?"



Where is the Muslim peace movement? Put another way, if Islam is a peace-loving religion where are the Muslim voices for peace?


“Islam is a religion that preaches peace,” U.S. President Barack Obama told CBS ... and likewise President George W. Bush’s mosque speech after 9/11 said “Islam is peace.” Yet there’s continual violence committed in the name of Islam. Analysts are abuzz over a major article in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood, who contends the bloodthirsty Islamic State Caliphate is thoroughly grounded in end-times theology and “governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers.” Wood cites especially the research of Princeton University’s Bernard Haykel.

In this tangled discussion one point is obvious: This great world religion is embroiled in an increasingly dangerous internal conflict as an expanding faction of militant “Islamists” or “jihadis” works to abolish Muslim thinkers’ consensus across centuries about justifications for violence, the proper conduct of wasrfare, and who has the authority to decide such matters. John Esposito, a Georgetown University expert, calls it a “struggle for the soul of Islam.”

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Washington Post digs into ISIS 'ideology' -- not theology -- and the lives of women

Washington Post digs into ISIS 'ideology' -- not theology  -- and the lives of women

No matter what else is going on in the world, the Islamic State is still out there attacking cities and seizing territory, constantly striving to create its new version of a heaven on earth, which in this case is called a "caliphate."

By definition, a caliphate is an Islamic state led by a "caliph." So what precisely is a "caliph"?

A typical definition offered by a Western dictionary defines this term as:

* an important Muslim political and religious leader
* a successor of Muhammad as temporal and spiritual head of Islam -- used as a title

So a caliph is both a political and religious leader, quite literally a man who is claiming to be a "successor of Muhammad."

Now, with that in mind let's look at a key passage in a new Washington Post story -- " 'Till Martyrdom Do Us Part" -- about the lives of woman inside the territory controlled by ISIS. This includes women who have volunteered to be part of the Islamic State, as well as those who have been kidnapped. This story is part of an ongoing Post series about life inside the caliphate.

Let me stress that this feature is quite well reported, which is amazing in light of the restraints under which reporters are working when attempting to cover the Islamic State. Much of the attributed information is based on ISIS social media and, I found this amazing, Skype conversations with people living inside the caliphate.

Then there is this summary material that serves as a kind of thesis statement:

In the Islamic State’s ideology, a woman’s place is in the home, tending to her husband and producing children.

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That must-read think piece: The Atlantic listens to the voices of the Islamic State

That must-read think piece: The Atlantic listens to the voices of the Islamic State

After reading (finally) Graeme Wood's much-discussed cover story at The Atlantic -- "What ISIS Really Wants" -- it seems to me that he is saying there are two people who are dead wrong when it comes to evaluating the religion component in the campaign to create the Islamic State. These two people, of course, have followers.

First of all, there is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself, who has been declared the leader of the caliphate that is at the heart of the Islamic State's claim that it's approach to Islam is just and true and that all faithful Muslims must embrace it or be declared as apostates. Truth be told, there are a few million Muslims who agree with him, but millions and millions of Muslims who disagree.

The other person who is wrong, when it comes to ISIS, is President Barack Obama, who has famously stated that "ISIL is not Islamic." Like the views of the self-proclaimed caliph, this is a absolute statement that draws support for many people, including some Muslims in the West, but is rejected out of hand by many, many other Muslims -- including the leaders of ISIS.

This brings me to the first of several passages in the Wood piece -- which is a work of analysis, not news reporting -- that I believe should be taken seriously by journalists who are trying to cover this debate. The ISIS leaders insist, he notes:

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New York Times opens door to coverage of what ISIS is saying about Islamic faith

New York Times opens door to coverage of what ISIS is saying about Islamic faith

Before I get to a New York Times piece on efforts to counter Islamic State recruiting programs, let me respond to the many people who have sent me emails asking for my reaction to the massive piece in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood entitled "What ISIS Really Wants."

Well that piece is very long and very serious and, to be honest, I have not read all of it yet. I have been in a series of long meetings in New York City -- linked to my future work at The King's College as Senior Fellow for Media and Religion -- and I have not been able to give Wood's piece the attention that it deserves. I plan to buy a copy today and read in on the train back to Baltimore.

However, the thesis of the piece is clear in the online discussions that have surrounded it: Whatever the Islamic State is, it is a movement that is rooted in its own understanding of Islamic faith, practice and tradition. Thus, it is engaged in a bloody critique of other forms of Islam, as well as the modern and postmodern West. (Click here for a massive Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher post on Wood's piece, and others linked to it.)

Meanwhile, this same subject -- the debate INSIDE Islam about ISIS and its approach to the faith -- shows up in the very interesting A1 piece in the Times that ran under the headline "U.S. Muslims Take On ISIS’ Recruiting Machine."

This piece operates on two levels, with most of the content focusing on the ISIS process of "grooming" potential recruits online with attention and, later, even gifts. In this context "grooming," the story notes, is a term "more often used in relation to sexual predators."

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