ISIS & the Academic Veil for Islamophobia


Slide1Article originally appeared in Middle East Eye

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Graeme Wood takes great pains and goes to considerable lengths in explaining what the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS), as an organisation really wants. In summary, Wood’s position is that a proper understanding of ISIS needs to take into account, and in fact disregard any claims to the contrary, that the actions of ISIS’ militants and goals are primarily motivated by religious teachings about the coming of the apocalypse, which are plainly stated in Islamic texts. The article attempts to make the case that ISIS is in fact “a religious group with carefully considered beliefs.”

Although Wood does make a number of cogent points about ISIS, he does make the all-too-common mistake of equivocating between the Islamic source texts, i.e., the Quran and Prophetic Hadith literature, and the Islamic legal texts, which are the products of scholarship that can at times grossly misrepresent the objectives presented in the original sources.

Moreover, he falls for what he accuses the majority of Muslims of: selective reading of the tradition. This has caused a great deal of confusion for many who try to put ISIS within a framework that places the group in a familiar category. Furthermore, Wood’s article and others like it can aptly be described as Islamophobic.

Wood swiftly dismisses the validity of beliefs the majority of Muslims hold with regards to Islam, disregards the official position most Muslim theologians have expressed on ISIS and violent extremism, and grants Islamic doctrinal legitimacy only to that which is being promoted by spokespersons from ISIS or their fans.

The argument posed in the article is that the only group of Muslims who take their Islamic texts seriously is ISIS. Furthermore, the religion as a whole is dismissed as Wood cites the Princeton University scholar Bernard Haykel, who rejected the existence of Islam as a religion that has clear commandments and prohibitions independent of the interpretive activity exercised by Muslims.

In short, the only people who understand what Islam is really about as far as Wood is concerned are ISIS and academics who say what ISIS militants do is authentic Islam. As for the rest of over 1.6 billion Muslims and their theologians, they have what in the words of Haykel calls it, “a cotton-candy view of their own religion.”

What really gives it away that Wood and academics he cites in his article have grossly misunderstood the problem of religious fanaticism in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region is his suggestion at the end of the article: that quietist Salafism is the antidote to ISIS. In fact, if we were to ignore politics for a moment and focus on a religious contribution for radicalisation, quietist Salafism, as well as state-sanctioned Sufism in MENA, are currently the strongest recruitment tools for ISIS.

Contrary to how it may appear, what ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi symbolises for his militants and fans is not the revival of the caliphate or a return to Prophetic times of welfare and prosperity. Al-Baghdadi represents an end to corrupt, Western-backed rulers who usurp obscene amounts of wealth at the cost of impoverishing the population, all the while stripping people of any dignity or freedom to say anything against the source of their current state of affairs. What many writers and researchers living in the West do not comprehend is that Graeme Wood could not even dream of being able to openly interview people like Musa Cerantonio, an ISIS preacher in Australia, or Anjam Choudary, a vocal defender of ISIS in London, had they all been living in MENA.

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