Is ISIS Islamic or Not? It Doesn’t Matter!


Slide1Article originally appeared in The Islamic Monthly 

Muslims around the world have exerted countless efforts and continue to vehemently assert that actions carried out by extremist groups such as the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS), have nothing to do with Islam.

However, despite an official letter signed by some 126 Muslim scholars and theologians condemning ISIS on theological grounds, a number of popularized articles insist on continuing to provide explanations that revolve around religion-based topics, including the rise of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, how the Saudis exported this type of extremist ideology and used petro dollars to fuel the rise of Salafism, and how ISIS’ theology is based on apocalyptic notions present in Islamic texts.

In contrast to academics offering intellectually lazy, even if lengthy, analyses that can serve more as examples of fundamental attribution error, Al Jazeera English presenter, Mehdi Hasan articulates in his recent article for the NewStatesman, that actual experts who have in fact worked closely with violent extremists assert, “religion has a role but it is a role of justification. It’s not why they do this [or] why young people go there.”

Still, the allure behind the popularity of the religion-focused discourse in the West partly lies in its ability to trivialize the role of politics and Western foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. The focus on Islam here places the blame for extremism on an internal factor to the people of MENA rather than acknowledging it to be primarily a last resort type reaction to neocolonialist external forces that have been ensuring the subjugation of these populations for the past century.

When it comes to MENA, Western foreign policy is more concerned with securing economic and political interests than in facilitating the realization of the right for self-determination. For instance, Ryan C. Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, previously noted in a New York Times article why the U.S. prefers to have a murderous dictator such as Bashar Al Assad to remain in power in Syria by rhetorically asking, “…do we really want the alternative – a major country at the heart of the Arab world in the hands of Al Qaeda?” Little did Crocker know, 6 months after he asked this question, ISIS, a group that has eclipsed Al Qaeda in all measures, declared a pseudo-state they refer to as an Islamic caliphate spanning a third of Iraq and a third of Syria, an area approximately the size of Britain.

The ubiquitous use of religious rhetoric by ISIS militants makes them partly responsible for spreading the notion that Islam is the primary motive for their gratuitous violence. Of course, some individuals can be motivated by religious fanaticism. But the issue here is not whether religion is a contributing factor that may motivate some individuals to take great personal risks and join ISIS. Rather, the question that should be asked is whether extremist religious ideology is a major cause for the rise of ISIS, warranting the amount of attention granted to it in the media. Based on the number of essays and opinion articles produced over the past year, one would get the impression that, yes, ideology contributed to feeding the ISIS beast. But the available empirical evidence suggests a different conclusion.

As articulated by Swedish terrorism expert, Magnus Ranstorp, in a paper for the Journal of International Affairs, almost all major religious terrorist groups are comprised of individuals who experienced a sense of crisis in their environment. This crisis is multifaceted, involving social, political, economic, cultural, psychological, and spiritual factors. Furthermore, the crisis is perceived as a threat to identity and survival. Religion becomes a refuge that provides physical and psychological protection against experienced repression, as well as a very effective tool for activism and political action. In fact, groups such as ISIS engage in a process in which historic religious symbols are reworked to fit present-day conditions to inspire militants and new recruits to act against their enemies. Interestingly, Ranstorp also notes that almost all contemporary religious terrorist groups are

either offshoots or on the fringe of broader movements. As such, militant extremists’ decisions to organize, break away or remain on the fringe are, to a large extent, conditioned by the political context within which they operate. Their decisions are shaped by doctrinal differences, tactical and local issues, and the degree of threat that they perceive secularization poses to their cause… The internal threat of secularization is often manifest in a vociferous and virulent rejection of the corrupt political parties, the legitimacy of the regime, and also the lackluster and inhibited character of the existing religious establishment. Thus, religious terrorism serves as the only effective vehicle for political opposition… The religious terrorist groups’ perception of a threat of secularization from within the same society is also manifest in the symbolism used in the selection of their names, indicating that they have an absolute monopoly of the truth revealed by God… These names also endow them with religious legitimacy, historical authenticity and justification for their actions in the eyes of their followers and potential new recruits”. [Emphasis added]

In other words, young people in the MENA region are unable to democratically elect their own leaders, or to even speak against increased government corruption or economic failures resulting in having the highest regional youth unemployment in the world despite having an abundance of wealth from natural resources. Thus, they look to Islam as the solution for all their problems. This is further exacerbated by the simpleton idea constantly voiced by Islamists giving the impression that the only way out is the implementation of some vaguely defined notion of Sharia. This legal framework remains an abstract message rooted in the cooption of religious rhetoric to sell utopian visions to Muslim masses to achieve the goals of Islamist political parties.

Discussions on the theological waters that groups such as ISIS tread on were eloquently critiqued in a recent article by Ziya Meral in War on the Rocks, “The Question of Theodicy and Jihad,” where he notes how these discussions are confusing theological justifications made by ISIS with causes behind the rise of ISIS and why violence appeals to young extremists in the first place. Meral points out that the confusion of these debates results from having missed the fact that theology is the last point of discussion for ISIS militants, coming after they have already decided to be violent.

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