By Martin Accad, February 20, 2015
Every few days, we seem to wake up to another massacre committed by ISIS. And these are, of course, only the ones that the media reports. ISIS, in reality, is committing massacres on a daily basis. We have become familiar with their crimes in Syria and Iraq since last summer. But now their latest playfield, we are learning, is Libya. And their latest scapegoats are the Copts of Egypt.
In a recent, 21-page long analysis in The Atlantic, entitled ‘What ISIS Really Wants,’ Graeme Wood argues that the ISIS interpretation and application of Islam is one of many ‘legitimate’ manifestations of Islam. He nowhere argues that this is the only, or even the main, interpretation of the religion. Therefore, though it is important also to read and be aware of Wood’s critiques, it seems to me that many have been too quick in accusing him of contributing to the stereotyping of Islam. For instance, the article of Jack Jenkins, on the website thinkprogress.org, ‘What the Atlantic Gets Dangerously Wrong about ISIS and Islam,’ dismisses him far too quickly. In my opinion, his dismissal is based on arguments that he reads into Wood’s analysis, rather than on actual affirmations Wood makes. We all need to form our opinions based on our own analysis of the arguments offered, but here are 5 takeaways that I propose, taken from the most recent events and their analyses:
1) It would be far better for everyone if Muslim apologists stopped dissociating ISIS from some supposed ‘true Islam.’ As critics of Wood have argued, Islam is far from uniform. But this fact argues as much against the stereotyping of Islam as entirely violent as it does against claiming that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. What the claim about Islam’s vast diversity (which I endorse vividly) argues for is that ISIS adherents are ‘legitimate’ Muslims, by the mere fact that they claim so themselves. Muslim apologists should stop feeling like they have to defend Islam by saying ISIS has nothing to do with Islam.
It seems to me that this instinctive attitude of denial that the majority of Muslims today are embracing, which results from the gut revulsion they feel towards ISIS, is motivated by an ‘honor/shame’ framework. We constantly read, both in the mainstream media as well as in the social media, that ‘ISIS tarnishes the image of Islam.’ In the ‘honor/shame’ framework, when a member of our community or group misbehaves, we have a tendency too quickly either to cover up for them, or simply to dismiss them as not belonging to us, out of fear that their behavior will reflect negatively on (i.e. tarnish) the group. But if we are convinced that Islam is diverse, due to the vast diversity of interpretations of its founding texts both historically and today, then Muslims that do not adhere to ISIS’ interpretation owe the world no apology for the criminality of ISIS.
2) We need to understand ISIS for what it truly is: a deeply religious, fundamentalist, ‘restorative’ ideology, with long and deep roots both in history and in decades of radical preaching in certain types of mosques across the world. They are not simply a bunch of godless thugs, at least not in their own eyes. They are not simply using religion to serve other agendas. They are clearly and self-consciously religiously motivated. I do not, by any means, believe that ISIS’ interpretation of Islam comes even close to qualifying as a majority interpretation today. But I am convinced, based on Islam’s founding texts, based on parts of Islam’s history, and on some ways that the founding texts have been interpreted historically, that we are fooling ourselves when we simply dismiss ISIS’ claim to ‘legitimacy’ as a religious movement. On the other hand, I am not particularly fond of Wood’s argument that ISIS is chiefly an ‘apocalyptic’ movement. To a degree, most religious ideology is ‘apocalyptic,’ in the sense that it looks forward to the ‘final victory of God’ over evil and sin. Dismissing the seriousness of ISIS’ appeal, or attempting to marginalize them by comparing them to ephemeral sectarian groups like those of David Koresh or Jim Jones (as Wood does), I believe is also a mistake.
3) Non-Muslim slanderers of Islam need to stop applying principles to Islam they would not accept being applied to themselves. Yes, ISIS members are Muslims since they claim to be so, absolutely ‘legitimate’ ones at least in their own eyes – and in the subjective realm of religious belief, that matters supremely. No, this does not mean that this is the only ‘legitimate’ manifestation of Islam. Muslims who do not abide by ISIS’ perverse interpretation of Islam do not bear the responsibility for ISIS’ actions. Non-Muslims have a responsibility to listen honestly to the way that the majority of Muslims today understand their religion, and they are invited to believe them and support them in their ideological fight against the monster of ISIS.
In the same way, I believe, Christians do not owe any de facto, blanket apology to the world for the terrible slavery and racism that was perpetrated by many Christians historically, often even justified on religious and biblical bases. And as an Arab Christian, I have often felt dismay at the absurdity of the wholesale offer of apology by some Christians to Muslims for the Crusades. We absolutely need to acknowledge that slave-masters and Crusaders are part of our Christian history. And we need to keep a vigilant eye that detects early the reemergence of deviant interpretations of the Bible that lead to terrible injustices and evil in the name of Christianity. But what is the point of apologizing for the Crusades and for slavery, if in the next breath Christians support a Zionist ideology that has crushed the Palestinian people for over 6 decades, endorse modern-day slavery by ignoring basic human rights of foreign domestic workers, or join the calls for bloody war against the Muslim world in the name of the fight against terror?
I hear the unflinching voice of John the Baptist, when he preached: ‘Produce fruit in keeping with repentance!’ (Luke 3.8) If we are incapable of following through on our apologies, we better not make a show of our repentance, but rather act upon it. Otherwise we are just another hypocritical ‘brood of vipers.’
4) Given the particular apocalyptic views of ISIS and its global recruits, which Graeme Wood highlights in his article, I agree with him that a massive ground-attack on ISIS is not the solution. This would only increase the legitimacy, and therefore appeal, of ISIS, by advancing the expectations of its own apocalyptic vision. Red lines should be drawn, and surely they already are, to ensure that ISIS does not gain more territory. Borders should be reinforced. Without pontificating too long about military strategy, I do believe that it is certainly the responsibility of states (particularly Iraq and Syria at the moment) to ensure and defend their territorial integrity, and to remedy if that integrity is in jeopardy. Seeking the support of their allies in doing so seems quite legitimate as well. By every means possible, ISIS’ ‘caliphal’ ideology needs to be delegitimized: undermine its territorial integrity, prevent it from expanding, minimize its image as a global player taking on the world, and perhaps most importantly: prevent global jihadists from joining its ranks. This brings me to my final point.
5) When Muslim apologists feel that they need to reject ISIS as non-Islamic, they risk obstructing a more fruitful fight against ISIS consisting in drying-up the ideological pools of ISIS recruitment. Rather than dismissing ISIS’ interpretation of Islam as un-Islamic, it would be better to make a strong case for the reason why the ISIS interpretation is less legitimate than the one that promotes tolerance, love and brotherly/sisterly relations with non-Muslims. I am not saying that the apologists of Islam are not promoting these alternative interpretations and visions already. But I am saying that the argument that simply disowns the ISIS interpretation as ‘un-Islamic’ is drowning the more cool-headed conversation that builds a solid case for why the ISIS interpretation is heavily biased, and why it is certainly not viable for the world today.
Most important, and what is most often ignored by politicians and journalists, is the long-term solution to ISIS. How many more ‘repeats’ do we need before we understand that militant jihadi groups are a recurring phenomenon, and not a one-off monster that we can get rid of. Yes it is a monster, but this one grows seven more heads for each head that gets chopped off. A massive global movement needs to be launched to dry up the recruitment pools of ISIS. As I have said before, I believe that the ISIS recruitment pools are made up of the disenfranchised, those with nothing more to lose, those who have lost faith in modern forms of government and social systems, those angered and marginalized by the dictatorial, corrupt and self-serving regimes in the Muslim world that enjoy the support of the neo-colonial powers of the West. What is the world going to do about these realities? That’s what we should all be asking. This generation needs to stop distracting itself with temporary military solutions to the problem of religious radicalization. It needs to invest its efforts in economic development, in establishing organizations and NGO’s, writing books, influencing the media, composing and singing songs, and dedicating their arts and passions to drying up the recruitment pools of ISIS.
I end with deep and wise words from the Testament of Christian de Chergé, the Abbot of the ‘Trappist Fathers’ of Algeria, written in December 1993-January 1994, and opened and read at his funeral two-and-a-half years later, on May 26, 1996 after he and his companions were brutally murdered by Islamist fanatics. He wrote it in anticipation of such a death, and it is well worth reading in its entirety. But here is a short extract:
I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice
if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder.
It would be too high a price to pay
for what will perhaps be called, the “grace of martyrdom”
to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he might be,
especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.
I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on the Algerians indiscriminately.
I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism fosters.
It is too easy to soothe one’s conscience
by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists.
Ready to die for the people he loved, de Chergé was able lucidly to differentiate between the blind fanaticism of a Muslim extremist and the peaceful nature of its mainstream. His imitation of Christ, which can be seen clearly throughout his Testament, allowed him to frame Muslim religious fanaticism where it really belongs: one more manifestation of sin and evil, for which humanity is corporately responsible. Though the evil we keep seeing perpetrated by the adherents of ISIS is in no way excusable or justifiable, the rest of the world is not completely innocent, given that our eyes are still not set on the long-term solutions to beating back ISIS.
Martin is the Director of the Institute of Middle East Studies. He teaches primarily in the fields of Islam, MENA Christianity and Christian-Muslim Relations.