Sometimes, when one is faced with an intense form of extremism, they can fall for an opposite form of extremism that is different in type, but similar in kind. This is why evil is evil. It is not just about it as a specific act. It is that it can push one to do and believe in evil things if they are not conscious of their state.
As of late, I have been finding myself falling into the extremism that I abhor and try to flee from. Blinded by the amount of extremism that I have witnessed over the past few months from the individuals claiming to be part of a caliphate, I did exactly to them what they do to all of us. Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq & Syria (ISIS), who now claim to only go by the name “The Islamic State”, dehumanize anyone who opposes them. Many of us wonder how can one engage in such savagery, where men literally by the hundreds can be round up and shot in mass graves they had just dug for themselves. Or worse yet, have their heads severed so they can be put up on posts all over the city for everyone to see as they walk and drive by.
Some of the photos that have emerged online show how these militants prepare their scenes, as if they are directors on a movie set, with multiple cameras on tripods, in addition to photographers prepared as an executioner goes to the centre and reads a message in front of the main camera before he proceeds to slaughter his latest victim. Often times, the message ends with describing their more victims-to-come as “sheep”.
To ISIS militants, anyone other than them is not human and their life is not sanctified. Blood is thinner than water, and in their songs they boast of building their state on the “skulls of infidels”. They reject morality and ethics as terms used by the disbelievers and hypocrites. These concepts do not exist in their minds. They bring chaos and nihilism, and they redefine terms by calling the darkness they spread “light over the horizon”.
It is from the power of their evil that many of us, beginning with myself, have been sucked into adopting their ideology but in the opposite direction. We describe them as “delusional” and decry their barbaric actions. All Muslims unaffiliated with ISIS have denounced them, and stood united against their actions. But speaking for myself, I have become so blinded from the extremism I have seen from this group that I began to conflate their actions with their humanity. I dehumanized them as they dehumanized us, which essentially means that I do not call for anything morally superior. I merely call for preservation of self-interest. This means the battle has been lost.
Although most of the few verses in the Quran that deal with armed combat deal with combat between Muslims being aggressed upon by non-Muslims, there is a verse dealing with Muslims aggressing against Muslims: “If two groups of believers fight, you [believers] should try to reconcile them; if one of them oppresses the other, fight the oppressors until they submit to God’s command, then make a just and even-handed reconciliation between the two of them: God loves those who are even-handed.” [49:9] This verse provides the ethical teaching that Muslims must abide by today with regards to ISIS, which focuses on their oppressive actions and how to address them.
The verse was revealed after a conflict that broke out between Al-Aus and Al-Khazraj tribes during the the time of the Beloved ﷺ. However, its applicability during an armed combat between Muslims did not come about until after the Beloved ﷺ’s passing. When the cousin of the Beloved ﷺ, and fourth rightly-guided caliph, Ali Ibn Abi Talib RA was fought by the Kharijites, he was asked by his companions about their status in Islam, “Are they polytheists?” He replied, “It is from polytheism that they are fleeing.” He was then asked, “Are they hypocrites then?” He replied, “Hypocrites only remember God but very little, and they remember God plenty.” Finally, he was asked, “What are they then?” This last question was posed because it was difficult for Ali RA’s companions to be at peace within themselves while knowingly fighting their Muslim brothers. His reply was, “They are our brothers who oppressed us, and so we fight them for their oppression.”
The response and action from Ali RA was that of a higher Islamic ethos. It is one that transcends sectarianism and group affiliation. His companions were looking for a reason to justify their fight with the Kharijites that would essentially dehumanize them through disavowal from their group. It is much easier to kill people when you see them as other than you, possessing qualities that you can attribute to their essence so that you can define as less than human to make killing them easier on your soul to bare.
Al-Amir Abdul Qadir Al-Jaza’iri (1808-1883) fought the French colonialists in Algeria until he was jailed and expelled by them to Syria. But despite that, he saved many Christians in Damascus from assured death during the 1860 Druze-Marronite Massacre, which claimed the lives of 25,000 Christians. To Al-Amir Abdul Qadir, his resistance against the French in Algeria and protection of Christians in Syria are only contradictions in the sectarian mind. The legacy of Al-Amir Abdul Qadir is not only about his resistance against the French, but about the ethos he upheld, which to Muslims represent the epitome of Islamic teachings.
As a Muslim community we have become accustomed to having to denounce extremism every time it rears its ugly head. However, our attachment to Islam is more emotional than intellectual, and because of that we tend to react emotionally every time it is under attack or its image is being tarnished. This has set many of us up to be extremists in our responses to extremism without realizing it. I ask myself, “If my own brother, who I share parents with, went on a grotesque killing spree, would I disown him? Can I disown him?” Whether I like it or not, he will remain as my brother, and there is nothing I can do that would change that fact. His affiliation to me would remain unchanged, but his actions represent only himself, and for that he would be the only one punished, not me.
Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah was asked about the September 11th attacks, and his response was, “Why are you asking me? I did not do it!” The Shaykh’s response was appropriate to the question. When we get asked about ISIS and their actions, we are not being asked about Islam, even though it may appear as such. There is a general feeling in the air that non-Muslims believe Islam contains teachings that sanction ISIS-type behaviour. We therefore find a denouncement of their actions insufficient to please the public – we also have to denounce them completely. This is evident in articles pointing out the unIslamic past of ISIS jihadists who buy “Islam for Dummies” on Amazon before leaving to Syria. Not only are their actions unIslamic, they are unIslamic.
Taking a moral stance is quite possibly the hardest thing to do, because it often means taking positions that do not completely please everyone. Transcending is a difficult process because it requires a lot of conscious energy. Falling into the abyss is often an unconscious process anyone can do. We cannot win a battle against the evil spread by ISIS if we also become as evil as they are. I fear that as people call for military strikes against ISIS to contain their threat, the goal is not so much to save those victimized along their way as much as it is to exact violent retribution against them for what they had done. If that is the case, they did not only achieve their goal of instilling terror through spreading their unspeakable violence, they also succeeded in stripping us of our humanity, making us no better than they are.