ISIS and Islam

Controversy continues to mount over President Obama’s recent statements about ISIS and its relation to Islam. Briefly put, is ISIS an Islamic terrorist organization or not?

Obama - Summit speechThis week Obama hosted a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in Washington with representatives from governments, civic groups and community leaders from over 60 countries attending. In his address to the Summit, and in a corresponding op-ed in the LA Times, Obama has been extremely careful to avoid any language that labels ISIS as an “Islamic group.”

Obama reiterated his stance, stated on previous occasions, that ISIS “is not Islamic.” ISIS and other terrorist groups are not practicing Islam, he claims, they are perverting it. In his address to the Summit Obama specifically stated that ISIS

is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

In his op-ed in the LA Times Obama went on to state that,

Groups like al Qaeda and ISIL promote a twisted interpretation of religion that is rejected by the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims. The world must continue to lift up the voices of Muslim clerics and scholars who teach the true peaceful nature of Islam.

It remains to be seen whether the President will be successful in getting his point across. There are many in America who loudly proclaim that Islam is a religion of violence, that it is inherently evil, that it is barbaric, and that Christians must oppose Islam as a matter of principle.

islam-intolerant-terrorist-religion21As the Center for American Progress has pointed out, since 2001 an active Islamophobia mill has been disseminating hateful misinformation on Islam. Its distortions and fabrications are picked up by the rightwing press, which passes on these views. They are repeated within conservative grassroots organizations and are broadly assumed to be true. Eventually these claims make their way into in statements by some politicians and religious leaders and receive extensive coverage.

In taking the tone that he has, Obama is trying to achieve two very difficult objectives. On the one hand he is attempting to undercut the wave of Islamophobia that is gaining ground in America. Referring to the three young Muslim Americans who were recently killed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he said,

we know that many Muslim Americans across our country are worried and afraid. Americans of all faiths and backgrounds must continue to stand united with a community in mourning and insist that no one should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship.

War on IslamOn the other hand Obama is trying to counter the message actively promoted by ISIS that Americans hate Muslims and that U.S. military actions in the Middle East demonstrates that “the United States is at war with Islam.” This assertion provides ISIS with its most powerful recruiting tool. America has to be seen as loudly proclaiming that this is a political conflict motivated by radical ideology and not a fight over opposing religious views.

As Max Fisher stated yesterday in a strongly worded editorial in Vox,

Part of the challenge is that, as president, [Obama] does not have the luxury of freely sharing his views. He has to consider the impact of his words, particularly in the context of an atmosphere in the US that is already primed for backlash against Muslims.

The fact is that the U.S. needs strong allies in the Middle East if it is to defeat ISIS. It cannot afford to offend them with language that is seen in any way to be negative toward Islam.

America also cannot win this conflict simply by going it alone, landing American troops on foreign soil (invading Middle Eastern countries yet again) and occupying this territory. That kind of response after 9/11 is what has led to the present crisis, with each opponent – from the Taliban, to al-Qaida, to ISIS – becoming more extreme in its response to what it portrays as “American aggression.”

ISIS-War-998x579Any ground invasion by American troops to fight against these Muslim “religious patriots” (as they portray themselves) will generate tens of thousands of fresh recruits for ISIS. It will also, no doubt, lead to sympathizers on American soil launching isolated attacks from within the U.S.

Obama knows that America cannot win this battle without the support of the Muslim nations within this region of conflict. America must therefore convincingly show that it is fighting with Muslims to defeat ISIS rather than against Muslims. That is paramount. But it is also not going to be easy.

Many Muslims around the world see the U.S. as more of a threat than an ally. One can point to the widespread carnage and devastating human toll from America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. also helped depose the ruler of Libya and then stood by as that country descended into factional chaos. It has threatened to invade Syria and depose its leader. It is pressuring Iran. Relations have deteriorated in Egypt and are becoming strained with Saudi Arabia. Yet America needs the support of each of these countries if it is to constrain and ultimately defeat ISIS.

I am not for one instant suggesting that the U.S. should have supported Gaddafi in Libya or should currently support al-Assad in Syria, or should stop pressuring Iran to drop its nuclear program. But the U.S. also has to somehow find a way of working with those regimes to orchestrate the defeat of ISIS.

I agree with those who say that the hard fighting will need to be done by the local militias (e.g. the Kurds and ‘moderate’ Syrian factions). In responding to recent atrocities by ISIS against their own nationals, Jordan and Egypt will be more than willing to provide aerial support.

ISIS mass killingsISIS has alienated more and more governments in the region with its barbarous actions. It will eventually find itself surrounded, contained, and ultimately defeated by these forces. The U.S. can provide an assisting and even a coordinating role in this endeavor. But it cannot win the battle alone.

Of course, America cannot simply stand by and let others do the fighting. It, like Jordan and Egypt, now has its honor on the line. But how many Americans have been killed to date by ISIS? And how many Jordanians, Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis, etc.? This is their battle even more than ours.

There are some (quite a few, actually) who want to make this primarily America’s fight. I understand their anger. But in my view, that is totally unrealistic. It displays the same hubris that led to the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. People did not welcome them as heroes and liberators. No one welcomes foreign troops on their own soil. The ground fighting is best left to those in the region.

Returning to the opening question of whether ISIS is an “Islamic” terrorist organization or not, we now come to the ultimate irony. As I have argued, it is absolutely necessary for political reasons to consistently claim that ISIS is an ideologically motivated terrorist group and not as some variant form of Islam.

The problem is, that the leaders of ISIS do see themselves as true Muslims – in fact, they see themselves as the only true Muslims. That is why they have persecuted and executed countless Muslims everywhere they have taken control. In ISIS one is dealing with a radical extremist religious group. But again, the U.S. simply cannot be seen as declaring war on Muslims – any Muslims. And so it must deliberately obscure this element of ISIS’ makeup.

I frankly doubt that Obama will be successful in convincing the public that ISIS is ideologically rather than religiously motivated. Yet he must try. And he must walk a careful line in doing so.

If one wants to gain a better understanding of the radical absolutist religious views of the ISIS leaders, I strongly recommend Graeme Wood’s lengthy essay published in The Atlantic this week. It is the best analysis that I have seen to date.

ISIS-prayer-640x400Wood’s article provides a very good overview of ISIS’ religious mindset, rigorous devotion, intolerance for any variant (apostate) forms of Islam (meaning all forms that are different from their own), its understanding of the revived caliphate, imposition of religious law, and perhaps most importantly, its apocalyptic views. The leaders of ISIS basically see themselves as the agents bringing about the fulfillment of end-time prophesies that will see the defeat of “Rome” (Christianity and Western civilization), the destruction of all apostate nations and peoples, and the establishment of puritanical Islam as the sole religion. It is a chilling portrayal.

One should note that Wood’s article has also been strongly criticized by some Islamic scholars as not sufficiently distinguishing between the radical literalist interpretation of the Qur’an promoted by ISIS and understanding of mainstream Muslim groups. As within any religion, there are many variations and beliefs. Wood unfortunately gives the impression that the ISIS leadership follows a faithful reading of the texts rather than a radical and starkly one-sided misreading that other Muslims the world over reject.

The literalistic application of these texts is precisely what the Christian Islamophobic critics point to when they claim that Islam is a religion of violence. Understanding that the vast majority of Muslims do not hold to this understanding of their scriptures is essential if one is to understand Islam as it is actually lived out in its various forms around the world.

For me personally, it demonstrates the dangers inherent in all forms of biblical literalism and fundamentalism – Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. It alarms me that there are so many Christians (including prominent preachers) who seem take pleasure in noting how bad the world is getting because that means the end of the age is at hand. Christ, it is believed, will return to save his own, while billions will die horrible deaths in a massive conflagration that will destroy the planet.

Especially alarming to me is the message that we should do nothing to prevent the “wars and rumors of war” from escalating and that global annihilation is actually a good thing.

And should it turn out that this particular literalistic interpretation of scripture is wrong? That’s too horrible to contemplate.

It’s easy to recognize how Islamic fundamentalism poses an enormous threat to humanity. Can we recognize the ways in which Christian fundamentalism poses a similar threat?

I wonder.

Photo credit: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Islam – Religious Friend or Foe?

Barack ObamaPresident Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast last week seems to have generated a great deal of controversy in certain religious circles.

In his address, President Obama unequivocally condemned the actions of militant terrorist groups like ISIS who, he said, abuse the Islamic faith in justifying their agenda. At the same time he warned against the mistaken tendency of treating Islam as a uniquely violent religion.

Religious violence and campaigns of religious violence, he pointed out, take place all around the world and have done so for many centuries. No religion is exempt from this tendency and no religion is exempt from its own waves of religious violence and extremism. It is a problem, he said, that humanity has been grappling with throughout human history.

As we speak, around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another — to feed the hungry and care for the poor, and comfort the afflicted and make peace where there is strife. …

But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge – or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.  From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it.

ISIS-IraqWe see ISIL [ISIS], a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism – terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.

We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.

Christians too need to recognize that they are not immune from this path of religious violence and extremism. They have their own past (and present) to contend with. It is all too easy to think of one’s self as morally superior to others and of one’s religion as superior to all others as well. What is needed, Obama said, is a degree of religious humility, acknowledging that we are in no position to throw stones, since none of us is without sin.

[L]est we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.

Unfortunately, these examples of atrocities committed by Christians in the name of religion are not limited to events of nine or even six centuries ago. As Obama noted in his speech,

In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

Christian Terrorists Too?

lynchingIn a very poignant essay written the day after ISIS executed the Jordanian pilot by dousing him with gasoline and burning him alive in a cage, Bill Moyers drew a connection between ISIS’ “fiery cage” and the KKK’s “lynching tree.” Both were used to broadcast horrifying displays of religious violence and to terrorize the general public. Nor were these horrendous actions limited to a few isolated cases. As Moyers notes,

Between 1882 and 1968 — 1968! — there were 4,743 recorded lynchings in the US.

Such religious atrocities in Christian lands are not a thing of the past. They continue on today. As Jack Jenkins reported in ThinkProgress,

Lords-Resistance-Armyin central Africa, the Lord’s Resistance Army (which, similar to ISIS, seeks to establish a theocratic state based on the Ten Commandments) forcibly recruits child soldiers, terrorizes local villages, and is thought to be responsible for the deaths of 100,000 people in Uganda and the displacement of 1.7 million in the greater region, according to the United Nations.

Individuals also carry out acts of terrorism in the name of religion.

In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik, a self-professed Christian, launched a horrific assault in Oslo, Norway to defend “Christian Europe,” using an arsenal of weapons to kill 77 people — most of whom were teenagers.

Jenkins also recounts how last year, motivated by the writings of a Christian white supremacist organization,

suspected Christian terrorist Larry McQuilliams mounted a full-scale attack on Austin, Texas, firing off more than 100 shots in the city before embarking on a botched attempt to burn down the Mexican Consulate.

But should we really be calling these individuals “Christians”? Should we call the Lord’s Resistance Army a Christian militia and the KKK a Christian organization? Doesn’t that strike most Christians as offensive? And here we get to the real nub of the issue.

President Obama has been criticized for refusing to use the words “Islamic terrorists” in referring to ISIS and other groups. This and a host of related terms like “Muslim extremists,” “radical Islam,” and “Muslim militants” are all problematic for one specific reason – these terms infer that these people actually represent the religion of Islam and, in carrying out their acts, are operating as Muslims.

Such a statement by any head of government would be seen as highly defamatory and offensive within the Muslim world. It is no wonder that Obama is careful to avoid such language.

ISIS fightersPresident Obama has been consistently clear on this point. Last September, on the eve of the anniversary of 9/11 he stated in an address to the nation that ISIL, or ISIS, which now calls itself the Islamic State, “is not Islamic.” Nor is it even a state. Instead,

ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple, and it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

As Aaron Blake noted at that time in the Washington Post,

Throughout his presidency, President Obama has emphasized one point while talking about Islamist extremists: They are not practicing Islam, he has said, they are perverting it.

Muslims for Peace

Millions of Muslims around the world take the same position. They have strongly denounced the actions of ISIS as unIslamic. As Jenkins points out in another article,

the false presupposition … — that most Muslims either remain silent in the face of religious extremism or, worse, condone it — is one that shows up time and time again in conservative circles, but ignores the important efforts of millions of peaceful Muslims.

Islam is peaceHe notes that many individual Muslims and Muslim organizations have

repeatedly and passionately condemned acts of violence perpetrated by people who claim to be followers of Islam.

And he asks us to reflect on the fact that since the year 2000 no less than five Muslims have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their religiously motivated commitments to peacemaking.

Mind you, there are plenty of Christians around (some with large attentive audiences) who continue to claim that Islam is fundamentally a religion of violence. For example, Franklin Graham (Billy Graham’s son and head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association) has called Islam “a religion of war.” And Brian Fischer, until recently the spokesperson for the American Family Association, has written that, “Islam is an evil and wicked religion.”

quranstandSuch people can point to isolated verses from the Qur’an taken out of context such as, “Strike terror into God’s enemies, and your enemies” (Qur 8.60), and “… slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush.” (Qur. 9.5)

bible_open_newBut they ignore the passages in Jewish and Christian scripture that show God commanding genocide (Deut. 20:16-18), approving military annihilation (Josh. 10:40), supporting honor killings (Lev. 21-9), condoning slavery (too many passages to number), and commending the slaughter of children (Ps. 137:9).

In fact, as Philip Jenkins wrote some time ago in his excellent article entitled “Dark Passages,”

The Bible contains far more verses praising or urging bloodshed than does the Koran, and biblical violence is often far more extreme, and marked by more indiscriminate savagery. … If the founding text shapes the whole religion, then Judaism and Christianity deserve the utmost condemnation as religions of savagery.

Most Christians would immediately say, hold on a minute. These biblical passages condoning such barbaric acts describe a far different time and culture. No Christian would treat them as being normative in today’s world. Christianity is about something completely different. It preaches a message of love, compassion, and acceptance of other people. These, not war and violence, are its core values.


Most Muslims would respond the very same way. Islam, they would say, is fundamentally a religion of peace, not violence (Islam and salaam come from the same root). Islam preaches a message of compassion and tolerance. It proclaims that all people are equal in God’s sight. These are its core values.

Christians can overcome their mistaken notions about Islam by better getting to know their Muslim co-workers and neighbours. They are people like you and I. They are concerned just like the rest of us about making ends meet, achieving security, finding personal fulfillment, and providing for their children’s wellbeing. We are not that different from one another.

We both seek to live moral lives and to walk rightly before our God. We both seek fairness and just treatment. We both know the importance of caring for our neighbours. These are the things that our religions teach us are truly important. This is what binds us together.

Photo credits: Evan Vucci/AP; Library of Congress; James Akena/Reuters; Thomas van Houtryve/AP