30/10/2014 12:59 GMT | Updated 30/12/2014 05:59 GMT

The Futility of Fatwas Against Isis

Over the past few months, there has been a furious debate in the Arab World about how to combat ISIS ideology. It dominates everything from TV debating programs, to dinner parties and family discussions. It has even spawned an Arabic term 'Al fikr al Daeshy' or 'Daesh Thinking', a pejorative term meaning warped or extremist ideas. The main theme that has emerged so far is that the most potent way to respond to the group in the realm of ideas is to highlight how ISIS departs from 'the real Islam'. But this is a dead end. There is no 'real Islam' as such. It exists only in the minds and contexts and specific historic and cultural environments of a people, each one differing from the next, and each one continuously evolving.

The international juristic response to ISIS has been plentiful, issuing long detailed refutations of ISIS thinking by citing religious texts. Like a duel of spells, both parties, ISIS and those clerics that oppose it, quoted verses from the Quran and hadith at each other, each party hoping to vanquish the other in some futile attempt to land that one fatal blow, that discredits the other once and for all as acting falsely in the name of Islam. Muslim governments enlisted their grand muftis, and think tanks such as The Quilliam Foundation called upon their house clerics to tailor anti-ISIS fatwas and condemnations.

This does indicate that there is a mainstream rejection of ISIS, and this consensus is new and significant. And yet it is futile. The ideological response to ISIS must be cast from outside the realm of religious authority altogether. You see, Islam in particular, and holy text religions in general, are open to interpretation and selectivity. By responding to ISIS from within its own paradigm, one only validates its basic premise - that there is some authority to be derived from religion, and that there is one valid interpretation that trumps all others. There isn't. ISIS has used religion as vehicle for a political project, rather than used politics to advance a religious vision.

There is still no honest reckoning about this, and the fact that many Muslims are indeed selective with literal application of the religious text. To admit this would be to concede to the fact that Islam should be a personal matter, not imposed by the state or any political body in any form, and open the doors to secularism.

This is the knot at the heart of the question of Islamic 'reform'. Where is the so-called 'moderate Muslim', the promised ISIS vanquisher? The Muslims that Ben Affleck pointed out just want to go to work and eat some sandwiches, and not kill any infidels? In many parts of the Muslim world, they are stuck, certainly not endorsing extremism, but living in societies where notional endorsements are implicitly made every day. A simple survey of alcohol consumption in private across the Arab world is a basic but effective indicator of the schism between private irreligious practice under cover of darkness vs pious public dissimulation during the day.

The Arab Muslim state, from Egypt to the UAE, is the most complicit in this hypocrisy, promoting non-negotiable religious values and enshrining them in the constitution, education and public order laws, in a sort of 'curated' Islam (dare I say, a 'real Islam'), that dovetails as closely as possible with the government's political needs.

In Sudan for example, ostensibly one of the most hardline Islamic states in the Arab world, there has been one incident of execution for apostasy in its entire history, and that was a political murder in the guise of a religious sentence. In the notorious case of Meriam Ibrahim, most Sudanese were uncomfortable at the death sentence, but were conflicted about openly challenging what is publicly perceived as religious law, and relieved when it was quashed.

This is an everyday occurrence in my experience - this unspoken keeping up of a tense plausibility of appearances, where one endorses religious edicts in their most pure form as rubber stamped by the establishment, while being selective in their application. In that sense, ISIS is merely a different iteration of your average Arab Muslim government, reading religion in the way that best suits their purposes.

This is due to inertia at best, and moral cowardice at worst. In the Arab World, the question isn't about reform, the question is about ejecting this hypocritical mandatory religion from public life altogether, with all its potential for political and social scapegoating, radicalisation, and sectarian agitation. Not in a simplistic Sam Harris 'Islam is inherently evil and must be contained' way, but in a recognition of this potential of all religions for political unrest. This is not to suggest that ISIS, or indeed, Islamic terror organisations in general, stem entirely from religious ideology, they are often the result of complex political failures, no more so than in Iraq and Syria. But it would go some way in eradicating the religious framework in which these grievances are often set in order to give political credibility.

The most powerful response to ISIS is to not play the religion game at all - to recognise that all religious rhetoric can be instrumentalised to suit whatever political purpose. So far Arab governments and clergy most threatened by ISIS have chosen to go further down the hypocrisy route, to distance ISIS from their version of Islam while explaining away ISIS extrapolations as 'out of context' or 'misunderstood'. This is a fool's game. The start, is less religion as justifier for political actions, not more.