The rise of Isis in Iraq and Syria has been a disaster for the public image of Islam – and a boon for the Islamophobia industry. Here, after all, is a group that calls itself Islamic State; that claims the support of Islamic texts to justify its medieval punishments, from the stoning of adulterers to the amputation of the hands of thieves; and that has a leader with a PhD in Islamic studies who declares himself to be a “caliph”, or ruler over all Muslims, and has even renamed himself in honour of the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr.
The consequences are, perhaps, as expected. In September 2014, a Zogby poll found that only 27 per cent of Americans had a favourable view of Islam – down from 35 per cent in 2010. By February 2015, more than a quarter of Americans (27 per cent) were telling the pollsters LifeWay Research that they believed that life under Isis rule “gives a true indication of what an Islamic society looks like”.
Yet what is much more worrying is that it isn’t just ill-informed, ignorant or bigoted members of the public who take such a view. “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic,” wrote Wood in his widely read 10,000-word cover report (“What Isis really wants”) in the March issue of Atlantic, in which he argued, “The religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”
Hasan responds by saying we need to ask: “is Isis a recognisably ‘Islamic’ movement? Are Isis recruits motivated by religious fervour and faith?”
The answers he provides to these questions come in a form reminiscent of nineteenth century ethnography.
There is no need for us to understand the natives (those being the members of ISIS) by their own accounts — given the notorious duplicity of this murderous tribe, such accounts could hardly be relied upon. It is instead sufficient and wholly appropriate to look at ISIS through the eyes of observers — even observers who profess no direct knowledge of the organization.
Thus, the first piece of evidence of the lack of religiosity of ISIS comes from a former hostage, Didier François, who noted that hostages were not provided with a Quran.
Which demonstrates what? If, on the contrary, ISIS had been schooling its hostages in Islam, would this, for Hasan, buttress the assertion that the group is indeed very Islam? I doubt it.
Another field account Hasan offers comes from an American journalist:
In a recent despatch from Zarqa in Jordan, birthplace of the late AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and “one of the country’s most notorious hotbeds of Islamic radicalism”, Foreign Policy magazine’s David Kenner sat down with a group of young, male Isis supporters.
“None of them appeared to be particularly religious,” Kenner noted. “Not once did the conversation turn to matters of faith, and none budged from their seats when the call to prayer sounded. They appeared driven by anger at humiliations big and small – from the police officers who treated them like criminals outside their homes to the massacres of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq – rather than by a detailed exegesis of religious texts.”
As Hasan and others frequently note, there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. If one was to randomly listen in on conversations between groups of Muslims and also observe how often they pray, would this be a reliable way of determining who should or should not be described as very Islamic?
For good reasons, most non-Muslims would avoid referring to Muslims as people who call themselves Muslim, because in the religiously diverse world in which we live, the business of determining who does or does not authentically represent their own faith is an intra-faith issue.
Are Jehovah’s Witnesses genuinely Christian? Are Hasidic Jews more Jewish than secular Jewish Zionists?
These are questions best left to be argued about and between those who ascribe themselves these identities, because they are inherently subjective issues.
To call ISIS very Islamic seems to me much less a statement about Islam than it is a retort to those who assert that ISIS’s Islamic trappings are simply a facade.
Paradoxically there is often a secular slant to arguments about who does or does not legitimately represent any particular faith and this comes through the concept of religious fanaticism.
In societies where religion is generally viewed as a private matter, the religious fanatic is the person who is seen as taking their religion too seriously. This is a secular perception.
Mainstream religions tend to have greater tolerance for non-believers, those of weak faith, and the less devout. Indeed, the capacity for any religion to enlarge itself depends to some degree on its ability to be inclusive by lowering the bars to membership.
Those groups that get marginalized and dubbed fanatical, tend to be the ones who are also preoccupied with questions about religious purity, strict adherence to scripture and narrowly defined authenticity.
As understandable as it is that the vast majority of Muslims want to disavow ISIS and assert that it does not in any way represent Islam, denunciations of the literal application of Sharia law by others are heard much less frequently.
When an Iranian court implemented an order that a convict have one of his eyes gouged out last week, it would be very hard to argue that this was an un-Islamic implementation of law. On the contrary, it could reasonably be described as very Islamic — even if this approach to Sharia disturbs many Muslims.
Saudi Arabia’s delegation to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last week defended the state’s escalating use of the death penalty by saying it is authorized under Sharia law. Saudi Arabia is frequently criticized for its appalling human rights record, but rarely is it accused of being un-Islamic.
Inside every religion there are power struggles and contested claims about who holds the most legitimate authority. But just as is the case in so many other facets of life, these are ultimately mundane expressions of egotism.
Flag-wavers of all descriptions see their flags (be they national or religious) as emblems of power a portion of which they are claiming as their own.
To claim that Isis is Islamic is egregiously inaccurate and empirically unsustainable, not to mention insulting to the 1.6 billion non-violent adherents of Islam across the planet. Above all else, it is dangerous and self-defeating, as it provides Baghdadi and his minions with the propaganda prize and recruiting tool that they most crave.
He started out by asking whether ISIS recruits are motivated by religious fervour and faith and proceeded to demonstrate that they are not.
But if that’s really the case, how could claiming ISIS is Islamic actually serve as a recruiting tool?
Religious veneration always invokes a separation between the sacred and the adherent. The pristine religion is somehow imagined to exist independent from its followers, yet the fact is that religions are their adherents.
Islam is Muslims. Judaism is Jews. Christianity is Christians. Buddhism is Buddhists.
Religions come into existence and also die and it’s easy to tell when a religion has died. Its temples and sacred texts might survive and yet it has no human form.
ISIS is Islamic by a measure that probably isn’t worth disputing, but those who argue that it is not Islamic seem as deluded as those who view it as the epitome of Islam.