City of Brass

City of Brass

is ISIS Islamic? Wrong question.

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

There is an excellent longform essay on ISIS published in The Atlantic, “What does ISIS Really Want?” that lays out an excellent case fore ISIS being genuinely different in ideology, motivation and ethos than Al Qaeda. The real question boils down to, is ISIS “Islamic” or not – and makes an excellent case for why the answer to that question is essentially, “Yes” – but also, equally important, explains why that question is the wrong question. The right question is, how do we use ISIS’s claim to Islam against it?

Read the entire article. It will take 5 minutes, and is probably the best article on ISIS that has yet to be written (though the article in American Conservative, “When ISIS Ran the American South“, is a close second, even though technically it has nothing to do with ISIS, still essential reading).


Note, I certainly have issues with some of the assumptions and assertions. For one thing, the piece asserts that ISIS is an authentic vision of the Prophet’s time, but that is just ISIS’s interpretation of the Prophet, one they share with the Islamophobia industry (also known as Fear Inc). An interpretation is just that, an interpretation – but it bears mentioning that the entirety of Islamic scholarship in the world, representing nearly every major school of jurisprudence, has come together to write a detailed rebuttal to ISIS’s theological and historical assertions in a public Open Letter that is also essential reading as a companion piece. (Sorry for all the homework.)


What does ISIS’s existence tell us about Islam? Rather than engage in lazy takfirism (which even President Obama fell prey to), I like to quote The Poet:

“I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes.”

This is true of all great religions as well as men and women. Christianity is not defined by Nazism or the KKK (ahem – did you read that article yet?) or Buddhism by Mao or atheism by Stalin.

It is true that the Islamic State is Islamic. But that does not get to constrain the definition of Islam, the meaning of Islam. They are Islam, we are Islam. We are not in denial, we perform our ijtihad as do they – THAT is Islam.


We should refuse to debate Islam with ISIS. We should use Islam instead: “if one man calls his brother an apostate, one of them is right” and “lakum Deen nakum walaya deen”. We should say, to you be your way, to me mine” and we should use the imagery of muslims being killed by ISIS the way ISIS uses imagery of muslims being killed by everyone else (we’ll come out ahead in righteousness on that score).

We should utterly ignore, disown any contact or engagement with, and completely refuse to even acknowledge exist, Islamophobes. We should define islamophobia as “believing Islam is like ISIS only, which is as stupid as believing Christianity is like Nazism or Buddhism like Maoism” and leave it at that. Kneebiters, all of them, and they feed on our misplaced outrage.


We should never engage the question of who is muslim, what is unislamic. Instead we should say, ISIS makes things clear for muslims. They give us a clean, clear choice. And in so doing they delegitimize the wing of Islamic thought that may have had some legitimate depth and insight, but caused more trouble than it was worth – as the screaming outrage of the Zarqawis proves. They have done mainstream Islam a tremendous favor, and we should be merciless in exploiting it.

Overwhelmingly, muslims around the world reject ISIS, they reject ISIS’ flavor of Islam, they choose the 21st century over the 7th, they choose the Prophet’s message of love and the Hadith and the schools of jurisprudence and centuries of wisdom and thought, over an illusion that we are somehow still a ragged and persecuted minority at the edge.


‎ISIS only attracts the angry, the psychotic, the fringe, to its banner. They are a nation of mentally ill egotistic misfits and psychopaths ruling over poverty and PTSD-stricken warzone refugees. The only way ISIS could arise, like Nazism, was in the desolate aftermath of an idiotic and unnecessary war of choice. ISIS and Nazism required a political and moral vacuum in which to arise, and the way to prevent similar deranged extremist ideologies from arising again is to learn from the mistakes of 1919 and 2003.

And the way we defeat ISIS today is for muslims to stop saying ISIS isn’t Islam, but to say, we choose our Islam over theirs. We need to say, ISIS says we aren’t muslim, but we don’t care what ISIS says. And we don’t care if ISIS is Islamic or not – they want to kill us. Please kill them first.


The Price of Extremism

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

This is a guest post by Durriya Badani.

The execution style murder of three young North Carolina students, two of whom were hijab wearing Muslim women, raises questions regarding the rise of Islamaphobia in the United States in the form of hate crimes. Some will argue that the motive for the incident has not been clearly established and was simply the unfortunate outcome of a parking dispute, while others will note that this was a tragic, yet isolated incident.

However, for the broader Muslim community, also witnessing the atrocities being committed daily by Boko Haram or ISIS or al-Qaeda in the name of Islam, this incident is part of the larger price which is being exacted as their faith becomes inextricably intertwined in American conscientiousness with war, brutality, and savagery.


It is a message that is underscored and amplified by politicians and personalities seeking to stir the conservative’s hornets nest and asking if there is anything implicitly within Islam which lends itself to conflict and violence. When President Obama noted recently at the National Prayer Breakfast that all faiths can be “twisted and misused in the name of evil” and that terrorists who profess “to stand up for Islam” are, in fact, “betraying it” he was resoundingly criticized.


The chasm between the solace, comfort and meaning Muslims find in their faith with the atrocities we are witnessing daily by terrorist groups has widened into an abyss, enveloping within it consistent Muslim denunciations of the violence. Though Muslim faith leaders and organizations are more vocal, active and engaged within their local communities, this tide will not turn immediately. For Muslim communities, in the United States and beyond, our hope is that the same nuanced understanding that is lent to Christian extremists blowing up abortion clinics to protect the “sanctity of life,” or Jewish extremists who murdered 16 year old Muhammed Abu Khdeir in Jerusalem or Hindu extremists exacting revenge on Muslims and Christians in India, will also be applied to their own faith community. The price of extremism is already too heavy to bear.

Durriya Badani is Director of Near East and South Asia for the Global Initiative on Civil Society and Conflict at the University of South Florida. Prior to that she served as Deputy Director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World for the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. The viewpoints represented are solely her own.


Can atheism drive someone to murder? #muslimlivesmatter #chapelhillshooting

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Like everyone else, I am in shock at the horrible tragedy in North Carolina last night, where three young Muslim Americans were brutally executed. The police are investigating and the murderer is in custody and cooperating. The family of the victims will hold a press conference soon, until then I am withholding judgement.

The fact that the murderer was an avowed “anti-Theist” (a form of militant atheism) has led the atheist community to face the same kind of questions that Muslims have to face when violence is committed by one of our own. Condemnations, self-examinations, and of course a fair measure of “no true Scotsman” type denial. The meta question of whether Islam or atheism contain the seed for violence is one that atheists are being forced to confront, from the opposite side of the fence for once. Normally, atheist forums such as /r/atheism at Reddit are full of judgement about Islam, but there is genuine soul-searching going on there today that I am heartened to see.


Of course there are those who insist on drawing a distinction without a difference between Islam and atheism in this regard. Here is a comment from reddit that is representative:

On the (non-)beliefs of the perpetrator: I agree, this is going to be a cudgel with which atheists will be beaten. And we could respond with counter-examples of how religious people have perpetrated the same or worse.

However, that sort of blame game is old hat, and could be interpreted as a sort of parity between religion and atheism. My plan is to respond by pointing out that there is no belief structure in atheism which could even theoretically have driven him to murder.


I left a terse reply saying in effect that the above was a cowardly statement. To their credit, they replied asking me to explain. Here is my elaboration:

I took issue with the assertion that there is no belief structure in atheism that could, theoretically, drive someone to murder. True, atheism by definition has no belief structures, but it does have ideological structure, that can and does serve the same purpose as belief in terms of providing a framework for extremism.

Stalin and Mao proved that effectively. I’ve read Dawkin’s attempt at “excommunicating” Stalin’s motives from atheism, but Stalin’s treatment of deist communities under his rule shows the a natural outcome of asserting religion to be a “delusion” and analogous to a “virus”, one that should by force of law be excluded from the public sphere.


I do not believe that Atheism by itself is sufficient to animate violence (as in NC) or genocide (Stalin) or anything in between. It does take a mixture of atheism with other ideas – such as racism, fascist politics, geopolitics, parking spaces – to add depth of motivation. The same, however, is true of Islam. If you assert that atheism alone is not sufficient to explain violence, I will agree. If you agree that Islam alone is sufficient to explain violence, I will disagree, and further it means you are showing less courage than I am asked to demonstrate as a practicing Muslim when I not only condemn violence by my putative coreligionists, but accept that there is an element of Islam in their motivations. I can not deny that jihadis are Muslim and I do not deny that they invoke religious language in their actions’ justification. I do, however, strenuously pushback against the idea that their interpretation of Islam has merit, solely because of their actions of violence. How can their violence legitimize their extremism? That is incredibly perverse, yet that is the dynamic. It takes courage to embrace that dynamic and argue that yes, Islam can be misused and no, Islam is not the cause. Atheists must not shy away from the analogous statement and try to pretend that their ideology is somehow pure and impossible to misappropriate.


Like Islam, atheism is not sufficient for violence. Like Islam, atheism is not necessary for violence, either.

Muslims do not need to condemn, and neither do atheists.

I’d also like to praise another Redditor at /r/atheism who had this comment:

The organized atheist community is constantly complaining that there are not enough visible Muslims actively involved in doing charitable humanitarian work and generally making the world a better place to live. This guy managed to murder three Muslims who were doing exactly that, the kind of Muslims that we hold up as examples of the direction Islam needs to move in globally.


Bravo. I left a reply pointing him to the fact that in fact, these three Muslims were hardly outliers. Musims prevent terrorism every day by just living their lives, as well as cooperating with the FBI.


Halal Italian and Mexican catering in Chicago

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

halal meatballs

This is a guest post by Whitney Gaspar.

I am not Muslim. I am not any religion, really. I was baptized as a Catholic to please my grandma and raised as an atheist by my mother. I am spiritual and I believe in God. But that is not why I eat halal. I eat halal because it is logical. It simply makes sense.

One of my dearest friends is a Bohra Muslim. One Monday while we were having chai at her kitchen table, she told me that her family was eating halal. I knew she didn’t eat pork or drink alcohol, but now halal? What did that mean?


I decided to do some research, and what I found changed my eating drastically. First, I eliminated pork from my diet altogether. I learned that pigs are scavengers by nature. This means that they will eat almost anything, including rotten food and carcasses. And their bodies are incapable of effectively removing these toxins. If I am what I eat, I definitely don’t want to be a pig.

Animals raised for halal meat are treated humanely. They must have room to roam freely, be given clean water to drink, and never be fed other animals or animal byproducts.

The fact that resonates with me the most however, is the method of slaughter (zabiha). The act is performed with respect and compassion for the animal and the blood is drained immediately. This is important because the blood carries toxins, germs, and bacteria. The longer it remains in the animal after slaughter, the higher the potential for the meat to cause illness.


Inspired by what I learned, I started my own halal catering company in the south suburbs of Chicago. We specialize in Italian and Mexican cuisine. Our food is fresh and flavorful. I’m proud of the food I serve. Not only is it delicious (seriously… you should try it!), it is 100% halal. It’s feel-good fare, inside and out.

Whitney Gaspar is the owner of GG’s Catering in Chicago.

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