In this blog I will examine a topic attracting much debate at the moment, whether ISIS is a truly Muslim group or not. My personal view is that a simplistic narrative that claims that ISIS is a non-Muslim group can be damaging because it prevents worthwhile discussions about what exactly ISIS' beliefs and objectives are. Recently, I've grown increasingly frustrated about the way that the media is reporting ISIS' latest attack in Paris. ISIS' greatest tactics are fear mongering and chaos breeding, and the dreadful events of 13th November, and its aftermath, would have had them merrily rubbing their hands together with glee. In the following we will look at what exactly ISIS' interpretation of Islam is, and how that strays from what many deem to be an 'acceptable' version of Islam. I will argue that in order to combat ISIS effectively we first of all need to understand their modus operandi, their beliefs, their values system and their version of Islam.
Firstly we must consider what ISIS is. ISIS (Islamic State), or Daesh (in Arabic ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī 'l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām) is an extremist jihadist group, which holds most of its territory in Iraq and Syria. It believes that it is a caliphate, and is the ruling authority over all Muslims, and it claims that its caliph is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a religious descendant of Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Baghdadi is from Iraq (hence his name), and joined the Islamic insurgency following the US invasion in 2003. He was a leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, before it morphed into the even more extremist offshoot now known as ISIS. Although there has been a huge influx of foreign individuals, reportedly up to 30,000, who have gone to Syria to join ISIS' ranks over the past few years, the group mainly consists of Sunni Arabs from Syria and neighbouring Iraq. ISIS' ultimate goal is to restore Islam to its former glory (8th-13th century-esque), and destroy everything, and everybody that is not in line with this agenda. By eradicating infidels, ISIS seeks to establish a worldwide caliphate, in which Islam is the sole religion followed by the entirety of human kind.
How Islamic is ISIS?
ISIS fighters class themselves as true Muslims, and refer strictly to Islamic scripture, namely the Quran, as a reference point for everything that they do (though many, including mainstream Muslims, deny them this religious status). The group adopts an entirely literalist translation of the Quran, and claims to devoutly follow Sharia law, the main Islamic religious principles which derive mainly from the Quran. Defining whether ISIS members are Muslims or not boils down to one's definition of 'being a Muslim'. One point that I daresay most Muslims would agree upon is that the Quran is the word of Allah, as passed on from the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. Equally, most Muslims hold that the Quran, as Allah's word, is flawless, the very essence of perfection. Indeed one could claim that the Quran is more 'perfect' than the Torah, or the Bible, which have by contrast been influenced by the thoughts of man, and are therefore not an accurate depiction of Allah's direct word. As the Quran is also in a living language, Arabic, it is widely thought that little or none of the original meaning will have been lost over time, or through imperfect translation. This is where we encounter an uncomfortable fact: that the Quran, perfect as it may be, can be read in a violent way.
Let us now address the question: 'If the Quran is perfect, then doesn't that make ISIS more Muslim than most other Muslims who take a more relaxed interpretation of the Quran?'
ISIS claims to follow the Quran word for word. So, to quote a widely cited excerpt from the twelfth verse of chapter 8 of the Quran, when Allah inspired the angels with the message "I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip", ISIS take this literally. They take this, and numerous other similar excerpts from the Quran literally, in the belief that they are carrying out God's word. My main problem with this, and I expect many practising Muslims would agree with me, is that although the Quran does in many parts encourage war against non-believers, it also preaches about the sanctity of human life, and the importance of peace. It takes the adoption of a certain ideology, attractive only to an extremist minority, to act on the Quran in the violent way that ISIS does.
The majority of the world's Muslims clearly are not aligned with ISIS' reading of the Quran, and their version of Islam. Unfortunate circumstances in Iraq and Syria have inspired ISIS and other fundamentalist groups to react in a violent and uncompromising fashion, searching for religious backing in order to justify doing so. Throughout history this has been the case. If we look for answers in religious texts we can find them. Ten people reading the Quran will have ten different readings of it, because each individual will search for the meaning most appropriate to them. ISIS' answers are VERY different to the rest of the vast peace-loving majority. Their answers suit their agenda and instruct them to kill non-believers, establish a territory, create chaos and fear, and bring the West and the rest of the world to its knees in a battle at Dabiq, which will usher in the apocalypse and judgment day.
That some of ISIS' actions stem from religious readings doesn't make them right by our definition, and it certainly doesn't mean that we shouldn't try and stop them (I believe that we should do everything within our power to stop ISIS). However, we need to understand that they believe in their cause and that they believe that they are doing the right thing by their God. One can read the Quran and glean this understanding, whether we like it or not. Most ISIS members really do believe that if they follow these interpretations with practical acts, that they will win out against the rest of the world. Understanding how and why they think this, is crucial, if we are to be able to get even close to combating them in the most effective way possible.
Uncomfortable as the prospect may seem, we would do well to examine further the path that can lead individuals to find such faith and instruction in the Quran. That it is possible for people to find a link between Islam and extremism is undeniable. Whether or not we regard them as true Muslims or not is beside the point.
Islam is the world's fastest growing religion, and predictions are that by 2050 the number of Muslims worldwide will match the number of Christians, at around 30% of the total population. Who would be daft enough to claim that all of these people, these Muslims, are choosing to blindly follow a faith that condones evil ISIS-style acts in the name of Islam? The reality is that Islam as most people would define it, is not just about the Quran, as with any religion, it is informed and sculpted by its adherents. The same goes for Christianity or Judaism. One could also read the Torah and the Christian Bible and interpret them in a violent fashion. This freedom of interpretation is one of the main reasons that these religions have survived the centuries. I hope that I can be forgiven for saying that as perfect as the Quran may be, it is a 1400 year old perfect reading of Islam. Times have changed, and beheading, amputation, and crucifixion are widely regarded as grossly unreasonable acts, whatever the context.
The number of Muslims worldwide is testament to that fact that being a Muslim is clearly compatible with civilization and modernity. It's useful to refer to British extremist Anjem Choudary's widely cited quote, if only to discredit it- "Somebody could claim to be a Muslim, but if he believes in homosexuality or drinking alcohol, then he is not a Muslim. There is no such thing as a non-practicing vegetarian."
On first glance Choudary may have a point. But what about if 99.9% of the vegetarians in the world disagreed on the rule book? Vegetarianism would change.
The global outrage, and dismay sparked by ISIS' savage behaviour in Syria, Iraq, and most recently Paris, is testament to the fact that ISIS' conduct is simply not in keeping with what most Muslims regard to be acceptable Islam. Moving forward in a constructive way, and winning this battle against ISIS is going to take great care and respect on the part of non-Muslims not to tar all Muslims with the same brush. But I believe that it is also going to require strength on the part of the Muslim community, to confront the ambiguities in Islam that need to be challenged, in order to understand ISIS completely. Then and only then, will we get closer to understanding where and why it is that Islam and extremism can sometimes meet at a crossroads. I would welcome Islamic scholars to engage in such a discussion, for there is surely much that we can learn from them.
In relation to Paris, we need to stop branding refugees as terrorists. Breeding anti-west sentiment plays into ISIS' hands and in doing so we only further cultivate the conditions that allow extremist sentiment to grow which is exactly what ISIS wants. We must also remember that ISIS isn't anti-west, it is anti-everyone. The group opposes Middle Eastern civilization just as it does Western civilization. Let's not forget that most of ISIS' victims have been Muslims after all.
ISIS, and its warped manipulation of a faith that so many Muslims treasure, needs to be stopped. What they are doing is brutal, bloodthirsty, and vulgar. Our global solidarity against this dangerous group is our greatest weapon, and together, be we Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, atheist or agnostic, we need to harness this might, in order to combat them effectively. Understanding them to the best of our ability, is the first step.