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Is ISIL "Islamic"?

by Michael Austin, published
“Now let's make two things clear:  ISIL is not "Islamic." No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL's victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state.”—Barack Obama, 9/10/14


Well, it looks like President Obama is taking heat from his detractors again. No surprises here. President Obama is pretty much always taking heat from his detractors. Fish gotta swim, detractors gotta detract. This time, the president’s grave offense is that, in his speech to the nation last week, he made it a point to say that “ISIL is not Islamic.”

The reaction was quick and predictably fierce. "We have a Commander-in-Chief who won't call it what it is," thundered Laura Ingraham on her radio show the next day. Charles Krauthammer was even more to the point, saying that it was "both patronizing and ridiculous for a Western Christian to be telling the Muslim world what exactly their religion is about."

Attacks on Obama for labeling ISIS as “non-Islamic” are politically and diplomatically tone deaf. Any chance that the United States and its allies have of intervening successfully in Iraq this time will depend on the cooperation of other Muslim countries. This would be a really bad time to declare war on Islam or to reject those Muslim voices that seek to distance radical political forms of Islam from the religion of more than a billion people worldwide.

Beneath the assertions of Obama’s critics lurks the strong desire to see Islam as an inherently violent religion and its sacred book, the Quran, as a blood-soaked call to eternal Jihad. This is both offensive and wrong. The history of Islam is no more violent than the history of the Christian West, and there is nothing in the Quran that even begins to approach the violence and cruelty of the biblical conquest narrative found in the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges.

I have read both the Quran and the Bible from cover to cover. Both texts inspire me in some places and infuriate me in others. And Islam and Christianity — like all comprehensive worldviews — contain things in their traditions that can justify love and hate, brutality and compassion, violence and peace, and just about anything else.

Comprehensive worldviews work that way. And human beings are very good at using the ideological tools their culture possesses to justify whatever actions they choose to pursue.

When we look at Modern political Islam as a logical outgrowth of the Islamic tradition generally, we miss a lot of important stuff. It is one of many ways that the culture could have developed based on its traditions and sacred books. But it developed the way that it did for reasons that have much to do with politics and little to do with any violence inherent in the religion.

At the beginning of the 20th century, most of the Middle East was ruled by European colonial powers. During the course of the century, these powers gave way to largely secular, mostly pro-Western dictators who suppressed nearly every avenue that their people had to show dissent or exercise political power. Except for religion.

As a well-established part of the culture, Islam could not be gotten rid of the way that, say, newspapers, political parties, and opposition leaders could be simply made to disappear.

The result, as Fareed Zakaria has recently written, is that Islam became “the language of political opposition to these secular regimes." The more oppressive the regimes became, the more radical the Islamic opposition made itself. And over the course of half a century, radical political Islam established itself as the primary locus of opposition to Western colonialism, secular dictatorship, and political disenfranchisement.

So, are groups like ISIL “Islamic”? They flow from the Muslim tradition, but they do so through many years of radical opposition to unimaginably oppressive regimes. I do not say this to excuse — I agree with President Obama that confronting and arresting ISIL has become a humanitarian necessity — but to understand.

Nothing would be more devastating to America and its allies than to base actual policy decisions on the nonsensical view of culture and history that sees Islam as an inherently violent and necessarily malevolent force in the world

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