The Hubris of the Islamic Label
Posted on Huffington Post on Feb 25, 2015.
Islamists, defined by AP as those who favor, “reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam,” view their interpretation of Islam as Islamic, often to the exclusion of other point of views. In the West, an amalgam of ideologues, from the far-right conservatives to the libertarian atheists, also insist that any and all bad action by Muslims are derived from Islam and thus Islamic. Several years ago, I wrote an article questioning the authenticity of using the label “Islamic” to characterize otherwise secular functions such as politics, art or finance. Labels such as, Islamic Republic, Islamic Finance, or Islamic State, are an exercise in hubris arrogantly suggesting that whatever takes place under such banners is sanctioned by Islam. Islamic Finance, for example, may reflect certain values of Islam, but in practice it often violates the spirit of Islam, if not its letter.
The Arabic for “Islamic” is “Islamiyyah,” a word that is not found in the Quran. When opining on the permissibility or the impermissibility of any action, classical scholars of Islam eschewed using “Islamic” or “un-Islamic” as a label. They often opted for legalistic terms such as “valid”, “accepted”, and “allowable” to determine Islamicity. This legal paradigm allowed for nuances and contextualization. For example, drinking alcohol is impermissible in Islam but if life depended on its consumption then an impermissible action becomes obligatory, as saving life takes precedence. Thus, the binary worldview of “Islamic” versus “un-Islamic,” does not find support in the sacred texts of Islam. Ironically, the proliferation of the label “Islamic” is traceable to the Islamist identity movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Jamaat-e-Islam, which sprang up in the post-colonial Muslim world.
In not labeling ISIS or ISIL as an “Islamic” group, President Obama was refusing to play into the narrative of the extremists, who are desperately trying to cloak their heinous actions with the legitimacy of Islam. To President Obama’s detractors, this was not viewed as either smart or strategic, but rather capitulation. If you cannot label the terrorists properly, how can you defeat them, so they howled? This argument over labels has distracted us from the real debate over ISIS – not what to call it but how to defeat it.
In a controversial article Atlantic’s Graeme Wood asserts that “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” In the same article, Wood goes on to state that “nearly all” Muslims reject ISIS. How can something be “Islamic” if “nearly all” Muslims reject it? Wood’s main source to determine the religious authenticity of ISIS is Bernard Haykel, a Princeton scholar of Islam. The fact that Wood did not interview Muslim scholars of Islam to determine the authenticity of the “Islamic” credentials of ISIS, is a major omission. In addition, the only Muslims interviewed by Wood are fringe characters, such as the notorious British extremist Anjem Choudary, who despite claims that he motivated many British youth to join the Syrian war, remains free to give lengthy interviews to British newspapers and casually chat with American journalists in coffee shops. The Muslims interviewed by Wood who purportedly were providing the Islamic rationale behind ISIS, do not command any pulpit or lead any congregation. How can someone with no pulpit and no congregation become representatives of a religious faith practiced by 1.6 billion people?
Haykel notes that ISIS is reviving medieval interpretations of Islam. The fact that ISIS has to rely on anachronistic traditions of Islam certainly places them on the fringe of a modern-day Muslim, a fact that Wood does not adequately weigh when insisting that ISIS is Islamic. Thus ISIS is certainly not universally Islamic although it may rely on using words and images that suggests some tangential connection to Islam. ISIS is as much Islamic as the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda is Christian.
Despite glaring weaknesses in his article, Wood perceptively points out important differences between ISIS and its parent al-Qaeda. While al-Qaeda remains focused on hitting distant targets, such as the U.S., ISIS is mostly aiming to teach a lesson to “deviant” Muslims in the region and cleanse the land they control from any un-Islamic influence. In other words, ISIS is more of an existential threat to Muslims and Arabs in the region than they are to Western Europe and America. Moreover, ISIS unlike al-Qaeda espouses a brand of eschatology that favors an apocalyptic end-of-time clash between Islam and non-believers. Understanding this ideological underpinning is crucial, as Wood rightfully asserts. Thus, by avoiding characterizing ISIS as “Islamic,” President Obama is denying terrorists the comfort of thinking that the rest of the civilized world will indulge them in furthering their messianic visions. Any armed conflict with ISIS will have to be evaluated on the basis of security for the homeland and stability for the region, not on any messianic vision.
What ISIS wants is less important. They are a violent group that craves and revels in violence. No surprises. Defeating ISIS will depend more on understanding the factors that gave rise to them and less on how to label them. Without the US invasion of Iraq, there will be no ISIS. Without the disastrous post-war polices of de-Baathification, the Sunni minority would not have felt marginalized and gravitated towards their own Sunni devils (al-Qaeda) shunning the Shia devils, who as part of the government in Iraq, were just as brutal. Thus, the primary factor behind the rise of ISIS is a foreign occupation, a lesson that seems to be lost in the hullabaloo over how to label ISIS.
The second factor favoring the rise of ISIS is the repeated failures in governance. Without the failure of the Assad regime in Syria, there will be no space for ISIS to incubate. Not just Assad, but the dictators that have ruled across Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have by-and-large failed to provide their citizens with good life. The UN Arab Development Report makes it clear that most of the nation-states in the region failed to make a smooth transition towards the new world order, which required both strong national identities and adherence to international charters. The lack of clear national identities is the result of forced repression of “cultural, linguistic and religious heterogeneity” that was a fact of life in the region. Pluralism remains an idea too foreign across much of the MENA region. As successive iterations in socialism, capitalism, democracy, and authoritarianism failed (sometimes due to internal follies and sometimes due to undue interventions by America and its Western allies), a “medieval” and thus out-of-context interpretation of Islam began to gain currency among the dispossessed. Islam is the solution, sounded plausible. Lack of human development (economic, social and political) is the root cause of terrorism, a narrative too often ignored in discussions about terrorism in the name of Islam.
But can Islam itself be absolved? Islam like other ancient faith traditions is replete with multiple and even contradictory interpretations, particularly in the realm of social contracts. Taking stock of Islam’s history of development and progress, one can easily detect interpretations that range from accommodationist (accepting of differences) to separationist (positing Muslim exceptionalism and apartheid). The fact that a small band of thugs and criminals are banding towards a separationist camp, is hardly a revelation. However, the fact that thugs now control vast swaths of land and have the capacity to inflict so much violence cannot be trivialized either. Thus, Muslim scholars, leaders and activist should challenge ISIS on their core ideology and discredit their interpretations as invalid and out-of-context. So far, this has not been done at a sufficiently large scale to make any difference.
The Organization of Islamic Conference, a transnational body made up of 57 Muslim majority countries had instituted an observatory for Islamophobia but none to study and debunk extremism in the name of Islam. Muslim groups in the West routinely publish reports on Islamophobia, which is an important problem to be addressed, but so far have not researched and debunked the twisted ideology that undergirds the deranged violence of those who perpetrate violence in the name of Islam. While ISIS is producing slick magazines and engaging in impressive social media campaigns (one report suggested 45,000 Twitter accounts by ISIS supporters), the Muslim apex bodies either governmental such as the OIC or non-governmental civic advocacy groups such as CAIR in the US or MCB in UK have not developed any comparable campaign to discredit and marginalize the fallacious ideology that ISIS and their ilk propagate. Neither condemnations by Muslim groups nor dropping bombs by Western and Arab governments is sufficient to defeat ISIS. Security operations and statements of condemnations have to go hand in glove with exposing and discrediting the corrosive ideology being propagated by ISIS.
The debate over labels is thus a red-herring. The call for more condemnations by Muslims often masks ugly stereotyping presuming that Muslims have a monopoly on religious violence. Furthermore, increased militarization as solution is being tone deaf to the lessons from history. The real solution remains the same today as it was after 9/11 – reversing the downward spiral of human development across MENA. President Obama has asked Muslims to do more and certainly more can be done to debunk the ideology of ISIS. But President Obama has fallen short of laying out how he and his Western allies will nudge governments across MENA to speed up reforms that are necessary to give people in the region hope thus giving them less reason to buy into the messianic apocalyptic vision of ISIS.