The danger in denying that ISIS is Islamic

Is ISIS Islamic? Indeed, is it — as The Atlantic claims — very Islamic?

Strangely, these questions have been treated by many commentators in the West as questions about the nature of Islam rather than questions about the nature of ISIS.

Thus, multiple arguments have been presented to show why ISIS should not be regarded as an authentic expression of Islam — arguments which do a better job of educating non-Muslims about Islam than they do in providing much if any insight into ISIS.

Understandably, many Muslims, appalled by ISIS’s actions, naturally want to assert vigorously that ISIS does not represent Islam and in that sense should not be called Islamic. Fine.

But once one moves beyond the headlines about the atrocities committed by ISIS and beyond the intra-Islamic discourse on the religion’s true nature, it soon becomes clear why the group should indeed be described as being Islamic.

That observation need not be treated as a slur on Islam or a condemnation of Muslims, but seen simply for what it is: a characterization of the religious foundation upon which ISIS rests, in its conception, expression, and goals.

To claim that ISIS is Islamic, is not to claim that it is “an inevitable product of Islam,” or that it reveals the true nature of Islam.

To understand why in objective terms without making qualitative judgements, ISIS can very reasonably be described as Islamic, consider the following report by Ali Hashem. (Based in Beirut, he is a columnist for Al-Monitor who also reports for Al Mayadeen, and has previously reported for Al Jazeera, the BBC, and numerous Arab newspapers.)

When the average Islamic State (IS) member is asked why he is fighting, he typically responds, “So that Sharia prevails and Islam’s banner stays high.”

Marwan Shehade, an Islamic scholar and expert on jihadist groups, told Al-Monitor, “There’s no doubt the organization is built on three main elements: the Sharia, the military might and media. Their main slogan is derived from Ibn Taymiyyah’s famous saying, ‘The foundation of this religion is a book that guides and a sword that supports.’ By ‘a book’ they mean the Quran and religion.”

Despite the debate over whether IS represents Islam and what “true Islam” is, Islamic movements, sects and scholars perceive IS as truly believing it is enforcing the rule of Allah according to the Quran and the Hadith under the guidance of the organization’s Sharia Council, probably the group’s most vital body. The council’s responsibilities include overseeing the speeches of the self-declared Caliph Ibrahim (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) and those under him, dictating punishments, preaching, mediating, monitoring the group’s media, ideologically training new recruits and advising the caliph on how to deal with hostages when it is decided to execute them.

Underlining the central decision-making role of the Sharia Council, Hashem goes on to quote a former ISIS mufti he spoke to in Iraq in January, who told him: “There’s nothing that is decided without the Sharia Council’s approval.”

The average American may not know much about Islam, but by this point most have heard the term caliphate and know that it refers to a kind of Islamic state.

They also know the term Sharia but typically have a distorted understanding of what this means and easily succumb to irrational fears about its implementation.

The effect of hearing President Obama insist that ISIS is not Islamic is to make many Americans believe that the commander-in-chief is in a state of denial. They question whether he really understands who the U.S. is fighting against in its war on ISIS.

Worse, denying that ISIS is Islamic, has the perverse effect of empowering Islamophobes by making them sound like realists — the only people willing to speak the truth about ISIS.

If the only people in America willing to say that ISIS is Islamic are also people who make a radically different claim — that ISIS reveals the real nature of Islam — then Islamophobes will dominate popular discourse on ISIS.

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6 thoughts on “The danger in denying that ISIS is Islamic

  1. rosemerry

    Please avoid the use of the word ISIS- there are plenty of other choices apart from the name of a goddess unlinked to modern politics. IS, ISIL etc.
    Better still, remember that the whole obsession with terror is just the latest fashionable designated enemy. Its damage to the USA, with 38000 vehicle deaths a year and many thousands of murders and suicides, besides the “food” consumed, is negligible.

  2. Ryan Block

    There is another possibility: that the problem is the broader monotheism, rather than the particular strain called Islam. It is often thought – for no good reason – that Muhammad started a new religion. He did not. He completed the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity. He ended this Prophethood by universalizing it under the notion of the One True God – a kind of mega-monotheism. The story of Islam begins with Adam and Eve, runs straight through Noah, Moses, Jesus, and all of the other prophets, ending with Muhammad. It is ahistorical and very much against the content of Islam to leave these earlier Prophets out. (As the Atlantic piece, and many others, have pointed out, Jesus – Issa – is the Prophet who will strike the final blow that will inaugurate the Apocalypse for Islam.)

    I agree that it is no good to blame Islam as though it were particularly at fault. But I dissent from the view that we need to tighten our focus on IS. I would argue, rather, that we should broaden our focus, and include all of monotheism in our critique. If you believe in the Prophets, then you have opened the door for Islamic State; all you can say is that they got the Prophets wrong, and claim that you have a better understanding of these supernatural, eternal beings. But if you deny that such creatures exist, or have ever existed, then the problem is solved: religion itself – faith itself – is our enemy. Islam is an extreme, concentrated form of the same essential error that we see made by all of the followers of Abraham.

  3. Paul Woodward Post author

    When it comes to variations in terminology and spelling, I always follow the same rule: stay with the most commonly used form. ISIS is used more widely than any of the alternative names for the group and so ISIS it is. Also, I always capitalize acronyms — a style rule that is useful in several ways including that it makes a clear distinction between an acronym such as ISIS and a noun such as Isis.

    ISIS does indeed pose a negligible threat to the average American. The threat it poses to Syrians, Iraqis, Kurds, and others in its vicinity is far from negligible.

    It’s popular right now to say that ISIS is a problem for the Middle Eastern countries and it is they who should deal with it. That’s true up to a point. Yet American cannot absolve itself of responsibility.

    The U.S. created the conditions in which ISIS (originally as AQI) was born and then Assad (with Russia and Iran’s support) created the conditions in which ISIS flourished. The Iraqi government provided the conditions in which it could expand its territory. Turkey allowed its ranks to swiftly grow.

    There’s a lot of blame to go around.

    What’s called for is a collective sense of responsibility for mending a region in which every single political power causes harm through each of their short-sighted ambitions. Currently it’s a neighborhood with no sense of neighborhood.

  4. Paul Woodward Post author

    If “religion itself – faith itself – is our enemy,” then I’m not sure who “our” refers to, given that the vast majority of people identify themselves with one religion or another, and among those, the majority belong to the monotheistic religions.

    Making religion the enemy implies the same coercive dynamic that already exists between religions and those who claim the right to impose their views on others.

    No one has a right or obligation to try and force anyone else to believe anything or stop believing anything.

    What the world is afflicted with is not religion as much attachment to dogma. The ideas that people cling to are just as often non-religious as they are religious.

    What is lacking is a relentless interest in understanding what is true. You can only be interested in understanding what is true, if you resist the temptation of concluding you’ve found the Truth.

  5. Ryan Block

    My own view is that the distinction between religion and dogma is not as sharp as you suggest, especially when we study the foundational texts and movements of Islamic State. They are the Quran (an eternal, uncreated revelation of Truth), the Hadith (the sayings and doings of the most sublime mortal, Muhammad), and the early Rashidun of Abu Bakr and Omar, which was the Golden Age of religion, according to Islamic State – and to most Muslims as well.

    My argument is that there is no salutary way to proceed with these assumptions, even in a moderate, westernized direction. That oft-referred-to letter from the “mainstream” Islamic scholars, for example, commits all of the same conceptual errors as Islamic State. It is “forbidden” – they say – by the all-powerful, eternal creator of the cosmos to burn people alive, to elect a Caliph outside of the historical warrants, to wage offensive jihad, rather than defensive jihad, and so forth.

    I don’t feel very comforted when moderate monotheists speak in this way, because it requires the same concession to eternal law. It’s just that IS got the wrong interpretation. If only they did things differently, THEN they would be in accord with the ultimate being, who – remember – will be seeing most of us off to Hell after the Apocalypse. There is just no easy way for a pill like this to go down, no matter how pleasantly or moderately it is expressed.

    If we don’t think that Allah exists, or that Muhammad is really a Prophet of the One True God, then what are we doing weighing one side of the false argument over the other?

    In other words, unless you are prepared to say that Allah really is your creator (and that would commit you to quite a bit), then you will have to conclude that all of this amounts to an argument over a fictional text, unsupported by evidence – just like all other flavors of faith.

    It’s true that this conclusion commits us – in my opinion – to seeing a large portion of humanity as involved in the same error as Islamic State. But those, I’m afraid, are the breaks – by which I mean, the dimensions of the current struggle. When I say that faith is “our enemy”, what I mean to identify is the bit inside each of us that submits to the credulous certainty of inherited Truths. The enemy, in addition to the actual soldiers of the Caliphate, is also the enemy within each of us; the part that so badly wants a kind, benevolent, and reasonable Eternal Lord and Master.

    Our enemy is the very concept of an Eternal Master, in all of His faith-based permutations.

  6. Paul Woodward Post author

    To posit an “enemy” which is evident in the religious orientation of most of humanity, doesn’t merely outline “the dimensions of the current struggle.” It begs the question: by what practical means would you propose changing the way most people think?

    Crusades against religion are no wiser than those that attempt to spread faith by force.

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