ISIS should be seen through a political lens — not viewed as an expression of Islam

Musa al-Gharbi writes: It is problematic to assert that the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) is not “Islamic” in large part because the assertion presupposes there is a “true” and a “false” Islam — one by which Barack Obama or liberal Muslim intellectuals can judge whether others are “authentic” believers or not. This is the same takfir (excommunication) doctrine that animates IS and its precursors, a dogma that most IS critics are eager to condemn when turned on religious minorities (especially Christians) in the Middle East.

Instead, one could argue that IS’s doctrines are far outside the mainstream beliefs and practices of contemporary and historical Muslim communities. By virtue of its fundamentalism, which relies heavily on fringe interpretations, cherry-picking Quranic verses, and revisionist history, IS rejects and does violence to the rich, diverse, and pluralistic Islamic legal tradition. IS tries to be as provocative as possible, especially in relation to other jihadist groups — often deliberately and cynically evoking Islamophobic and Orientalist tropes to goad its Western enemies. Many of its aspirations and tactics, moreover, have modern, secular roots. Alternatively, one could look at who tends to join the group:

Of their Western recruits, many are recent converts who adopted Islam as a sign of their pre-existing support for IS (rather than being driven to IS by their religious beliefs). Others have spent their lives as “cultural Muslims,” with more-or-less secular lifestyles, suddenly becoming “devout” after some kind of socio-legal tension that alienated them from their communities. Regardless of their religious or ethnic background, they are overwhelmingly young people. In short, IS tends to appeal to those who lack a strong theological foundation in Islam.

This is why “moderate” Muslim leaders cannot really do much to stem IS recruitment (sidestepping the grievous conceptual problems with the term “moderate” Islam): the potential recruits do not regularly attend mosques and don’t defer to mainstream religious authorities. So liberal or centrist Muslims can condemn IS ad infinitum (as they have, and do), but those at risk of radicalization will continue to see these critics as collaborators (if they listen to them at all). They have no legitimacy with the people they are “supposed” to be reaching. [Continue reading…]

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