Note: This analysis has been excerpted, with the approval of the author, from a much longer scholarly article that will be published in an academic journal.
“Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgement that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas – jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy – reliably lead to oppression and murder?”
Sam Harris, Sleepwalking Toward Armageddon
As is invariably the case these days in the wake of the terrorist violence, brutality, and atrocities carried out explicitly in the name of Islam, a host of dissimulating Islamist activists, other Muslims in a state of psychological denial, and apologetic Western pundits insist that the actions of the terrorist group calling itself al-Dawla al-Islamiyya (IS: the Islamic State) have little or nothing to do with Islam.
Not long ago, many such commentators also argued that the horrendous actions committed by the Nigerian jihadist group Jama’at Ahl al-Sunna li al-Da’wa wa al-Jihad, better known as Boko Haram (Western Influence is Sinful), had nothing to do with its members’ interpretations of Islam.
In all such cases, however, the perpetrators of these violent actions not only proudly insist that their actions are inspired by the Qur’an and the exemplary words and deeds of Muhammad himself (as recorded in the canonical hadith collections), but explicitlycite relevant Qur’anic passages and the reported actions of their prophet to justify those actions. Therefore, to argue that jihadist terrorists are not directly inspired and primarily motivated by their interpretations of Islamic doctrines and by clear precedents from early Islamic history, one must stubbornly ignore what the actual protagonists keep telling the entire world.
But why ignore the claims of the perpetrators and instead rely on Islamist activists, who are often peddling outright disinformation, or on Western commentators, most of whom know little or nothing about Islam or Islamism, for explanations of this behavior? These pundits are prone to minimize the central role played by Islamist ideology and erroneously ascribe the actions of jihadist terrorists to assorted subsidiary causal factors, such as garden-variety political grievances, poverty, lack of democracy, psychopathology, greed, or simple hunger for power.
Needless to say, most of the commentators who keep insisting, against all evidence to the contrary, that the actions of jihadist terrorists cannot be attributed to their interpretations of Islam do not also argue that the violent actions of other types of extremists cannot be attributed to their ideological beliefs. On the contrary, whenever other types of terrorists carry out gruesome attacks, many of those same commentators are quick to ascribe their actions primarily to their proclaimed theological and ideological beliefs – and justifiably so.
One can easily illustrate this glaring contrast with respect to the analytical treatment of Islamist terrorism by asking a simple question: when was the last time that any more or less respected commentator made the case that Nazi ideology had nothing to do with inspiring particular acts of terrorism committed by self-identified neo-Nazis, or that notions of white supremacy had nothing to do with anti-minority violence committed by members of the Ku Klux Klan? Thus it is virtually only in cases of acts of terrorism committed by jihadists that one encounters so much unwillingness to face reality and so much frantic desperation to absolve Islam itself – or even Islamist interpretations of Islam – from shouldering any responsibility for inspiring acts committed in its name.
Some academicians mistakenly minimize the role of ideology as a key factor in inspiring the violence and terrorism carried out by non-state extremist groups, not just in the case of jihadist terrorism but also in other such cases. These efforts are seriously misleading, since they tend to be based on flawed social science theories that overemphasize the role of “rational choice,” materialistic rather than idealistic motives, personal psychological factors, “really existing” political and economic grievances, or larger impersonal structural forces as causal factors in the etiology of terrorism. However, they at least have the merit of not employing double standards, i.e., of making an unwarranted and wholly artificial distinction between the causes of Islamist terrorism and other types of ideologically-inspired terrorism. Indeed, although some have specifically applied such problematic notions in the context of Islamist terrorism, there is no reason to suppose that they regard ideology as being any more important in other terrorism contexts.
But the most egregious nonsense about the Islamic State is currently being peddled by ideologues, spokesmen, and activists from Islamist organizations, both in the Muslim world and in the West. Leading Saudi clerics, Saudi-sponsored and Saudi-funded international Islamic organizations like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and numerous Islamist groups and networks linked to the Muslim Brotherhood are now belatedly hastening to denounce the IS and to falsely claim that it has “nothing to do with Islam” or that its appalling actions are “un-Islamic” or even “anti-Islamic.”
Unfortunately, many naïve or agenda-driven Western journalists cite these deceptive statements by Islamists in an effort to challenge conservative Western media claims that not enough Muslims are speaking out against the IS. Indeed, those journalists tend to highlight such statements to give the impression that lots of supposedly moderate Muslims are publicly opposing the IS, either without actually knowing or without bothering to mention that most of the people and organizations that are making such statements are in fact Islamists who are trying to whitewash Islam and their own brands of Islamism, burnish their own tarnished images and thereby protect themselves, and/or mislead gullible “infidels” in the media.
Most of these commentators repeat the same one-sided mantras that have been endlessly repeated since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, e.g., that “Islam is a religion of peace” or that “Islam does not sanction terrorism and beheadings,” usually without providing any actual textual or historical evidence in support of their claims. This is all the more peculiar, since if the jihadists affiliated with the IS were in fact egregiously misinterpreting Islam, it should be very easy indeed for their critics to point this out by referring to Islam’s sacred scriptures and the reported words and deeds of Muhammad to explicitly repudiate barbarous IS actions such as the wholesale massacre or torture of captives, the confiscation of their land and wealth, the enslavement (sexual and otherwise) of their women, the gruesome public beheadings and stonings of designated enemies and “sinners” in order to terrorize others and perhaps also to precipitate the arrival of the Mahdi and the onset of the “end times,” the wanton destruction of places of worship and historical monuments, and the list goes on and on.
Yet they generally fail to do this. On those rare occasions when they try to demonstrate that these kinds of activities are “un-Islamic,” usually by citing a handful of Qur’anic passages out of context or by noting a few recorded examples of Muhammad’s compassion, their arguments are weak and unconvincing, if not preposterous. The jihadists themselves and certain hardline pro-jihadist clerics have thus far seemingly had little trouble rebutting their Muslim critics’ often specious arguments.
An illustrative example of such Islamist sophistry is provided by Nihad ‘Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a key component of the Muslim Brotherhood network in the U.S.
In an opinion piece entitled “ISIS is Not Just Un-Islamic, It is Anti-Islamic,” ‘Awad describes ISIS as a “criminal gang” that “falsely…claims to uphold the banner of Islam.” In support of his claim, ‘Awad attempts to redefine the term jihad in such a way that it cannot be associated with offensive warfare.
The claim that the term jihad does not refer, among other things, to offensive warfare against the enemies of Islam with the goal of expanding the dar al-Islam until the entire world is brought under the aegis of Islam is blatantly false. Such a sanitized definition of jihad, a noun deriving from the verb jahada, meaning “to struggle” or “to exert oneself,” conveniently ignores the fact that jihad bi al-sayf (“jihad of the sword”) has always been the most commonplace meaning of the term, both historically and at the present time.
At a September rally by “Muslims Against ISIS” in Dearborn, Mich., Dawud Walid, another Islamist activist associated with CAIR, cited one Qur’anic passage (5:32) that is invariably referred to by those who are trying to claim that Islam is inherently peaceful. “Whoever kills an innocent soul, it is like they have killed all of mankind,” Walid said in summary.
He, like so many others, conveniently ignored the fact that this particular sura refers specifically to the “Children of Israel,” rather than to Muslims, and that it was presented for didactic purposes in the context of Cain wrongly killing Abel: “Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for (killing) a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely. And our messengers had certainly come to them (i.e., Jews) with clear proofs. Then indeed many of them, [even] after that, throughout the land, were transgressors.”
Although this message was intended to provide moral guidance to Muslims as well about what was and was not permissible, it was cited in reference to Allah’s supposed warning to transgressing Jews. More tellingly, the following aya (5:33) specifies which categories of people can be legitimately killed, crucified, or dismembered by Muslim believers for their sins: “those who wage war [yuharibun] against Allah and His Prophet” and those who “strive to spread corruption/mischief [fasadan] in the land…” Finally, those who cite 5:32 or other ostensibly peaceful passages from the Qur’an (such as 2: 256) as authoritative fail to mention that, according to the doctrine of abrogation (naskh), the intolerant and bellicose passages “revealed” during the later Medinan period supposedly abrogate many if not most of the tolerant, compassionate passages from the prior Meccan and earlier Medinan period.
Hence it is all too easy, and not at all unorthodox or heretical, for jihadists to insist that they are enjoined by the Qur’an itself to kill, subjugate, and enslave the enemies of Islam, irrespective of what Islam apologists or Islamist apologists may claim.
Another participant at the “Muslims Against ISIS” rally in Michigan, Iraqi-American Alia Almulla, made the bold claim that the Qur’an “doesn’t teach terrorism” and went on to say that “[p]eople need to become more educated about Islam and actually read the Qur’an.” She is absolutely right to encourage people to learn more about Islam and to read the Qur’an, but gives little evidence in her quoted comments that she has carefully read the Qur’an herself. If she had, she could hardly have overlooked sura 8:60, which is so often referred to and praised by Islamists precisely because it sanctions the use of terrorism against the enemies of Islam: “And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah and your enemy and others besides them whom you do not know [but] whom Allah knows. And whatever you spend in the cause of Allah will be fully repaid to you, and you will not be wronged.”
That particular passage of the Qur’an has not only been cited favorably by Qa’idat al-Jihad leader Usama bin Ladin and other jihadist terrorists, but the first two words from it (wa a’idduwa = “and prepare/make ready/muster”) also appear directly beneath the pair of crossed swords on the bottom of the symbol of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian Islamist organization with numerous branches and offshoots throughout the world that nowadays tends to publicly eschew armed jihad for purely pragmatic or tactical reasons but not infrequently advocated and resorted to violence and terrorism in the past.
Moreover, there are numerous other Qur’anic passages that explicitly enjoin Muslims to wage war and/or slay, capture, enslave, and subjugate “infidels,” “apostates,” and “hypocrites,” such as 8:39, 8:65, 8:67–68, 9:5, 9:13, 9:29, 9:36, 9:41, 9:73, 9:111,23:1-6, 33:50, 47:35, 48:29, 2:193, 2:216, 3:140-1, 4:24, 4:76, and 5:33. Indeed, several of those very passages, especially in the Surat al-Tawba, are believed by many Islamic scholars to have abrogated and superseded multiple relatively tolerant passages dating from the Meccan or early Medinan eras. Hence those who cite certain supposedly “abrogated” (mansukh) suras as evidence that Islam really promotes compassion and tolerance rather than intolerance and bellicosity towards unbelievers and “insufficiently Islamic” Muslims, can easily be dismissed as egregious “misinterpreters” of Islam, and indeed demonized and targeted as “apostates,” by pro-jihad Islamists. Even if we limited ourselves herein to discussing particularly gruesome high profile actions such as public beheadings, one can find passages sanctioning this behavior in the Qur’an, such as sura 47:4 and sura 8:12.
How, then, is it possible to argue – especially if one interprets the Qur’an in a strict, literalist fashion rather than very loosely – that violent actions which are explicitly enjoined in Islamic scriptures are actually “un-Islamic”?
Furthermore, it is not only the Qur’an itself, but also the recorded “customary practice” (sunna) of Muhammad himself that provides ample justification and sanction for much of the barbaric behavior of IS jihadists, who may in fact be consciously trying to “reenact” Muhammad’s own successful actions. In this context, it must be remembered that Muhammad is regarded by other Muslims both as the last of Allah’s prophets and as the ideal Muslim. As such, his words and deeds are viewed as both exemplary and worthy of emulation. Unfortunately, Islamic sources that are considered authentic by Muslims, such as the canonical hadith collections, the early biographies of Muhammad, and various historical chronicles of the early phases of the Arab conquests, all provide ample evidence of the harshness, brutality, and cruelty that Muhammad, his companions, and the “rightly-guided” Caliphs at times exhibited, especially in the course of their military campaigns, toward their designated enemies.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that many of the activities of the IS violate the letter and the spirit of traditional Islamic “just war” doctrines, since IS jihadists deliberately and often indiscriminately target, abuse, and slaughter non-combatants from “enemy” groups. These just war doctrines, which in theory forbid Muslims from deliberately targeting women, children, the aged, and the physically or mentally infirm and, more broadly, from carrying out disproportionate levels of violence, were developed by medieval Muslim jurists on the basis of certain Qur’anic passages and various compassionate acts and instructions of Muhammad recorded in ostensibly reliable ahadith.
Even so, the grim reality in practice was that, during the time of Muhammad and his successors, civilians within all of those protected categories were often killed inadvertently or in the normal course of carrying out regular military operations by Muslim troops, especially if doing so was considered necessary in order to defeat their foes.
Fortunately, Islam can be interpreted, and indeed has been interpreted over the centuries, in many different ways by living, breathing Muslims. Although it is neither unorthodox in most respects nor limited to the extremist fringe, the strict, literalist, puritanical interpretation of Islam that is characteristic of the Islamists, including the jihadists, is far from being the only “legitimate” interpretation of Islam. Along with secularists in the Muslim world, Muslim rationalists, modernists, and even some traditionalists have tended to interpret Islam in less restrictive, punitive, or sectarian ways that are at least partially compatible with modernity and democratic pluralism.
Although in many ways scriptural literalists have advantages over moderates in religious debates, Muslims can nonetheless adopt various modes of argumentation to challenge theocratic Islamist interpretations of Islam. As with Judaism and Christianity, genuinely moderate Muslims can argue that the injunctions in the Qur’an and the commands of Muhammad may well have been relevant and even appropriate during the historical contexts in which they were issued, but that they are not all necessarily applicable in today’s radically different historical context. They also can argue that many of those Qur’anic passages and statements of Muhammad were difficult to understand and thus do not provide clear, unambiguous guidelines for Muslim behavior at the present time. Hence Muslims should not interpret them slavishly, dogmatically, or in an invariably literalist fashion, but rather apply human reason and interpret them, especially if the meaning is unclear, in a more contextual (historically-grounded), allegorical, or metaphorical way.
They can further make a case that many Qur’anic strictures and ideas of Muhammad were relatively progressive by 7th century standards, especially in the context of Arab tribal society, and that they therefore embodied a spirit of innovation, pragmatism, and moderation that Muslims today should aspire to emulate. And they can simply ignore or reject the doctrine of abrogation on various religio-legal grounds, since that doctrine has frequently been used by some Islamic scholars and militants to justify more extreme interpretations of Islam.
Nevertheless, it is impossible for any knowledgeable person to characterize the beliefs and activities of IS jihadists as “un-Islamic,” much less as “anti-Islamic,” since Islamic supremacism and intolerance of non-Muslims are all too characteristic in the Qur’an and Muhammad’s sunna. As moderate Canadian Muslim Tarek Fatah has justly noted:
“Islam is not a religion of peace. It’s not necessarily a religion of war, either, but it would be a lie to deny that its history and literature are seeped [sic] in armed jihad, assassinations and bloodshed that simply cannot be swept under a carpet. Only we Muslims can reform Islam for future generations. But first, we must stop lying in the name of Allah. It’s no use denouncing ISIS while refusing to renounce [armed] jihad.”
Although many Muslims, like other religious believers, can be expected to be overly defensive about their faith, it remains far less understandable why so many Western leaders and commentators are also peddling the same falsehoods about the IS having “nothing to do with Islam.” If the latter honestly believe what they are saying, then they are either hopelessly ignorant about Islam, Islamic history, and Islamism, or are wearing impenetrable ideological blinders that prevent them from seeing reality, or are living in an acute state of psychological denial that borders on the pathological and the clinically delusional. But if such Westerners do not actually believe what they are saying, then they are fooling themselves that their embarrassingly facile attempts to divorce Islam from Islamism will somehow end up being the most effective way to counter Islamist ideology or rally support from Muslims for various Western foreign policy and counterterrorist initiatives in the region.
Dr. Jeffrey M. Bale is an Associate Professor in the Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS), where his focus is on the study of political and religious extremism and terrorism. He obtained his B.A. in Middle Eastern and Islamic history at the University of Michigan, and his Ph.D. in modern European history at the University of California at Berkeley.