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.