The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is not Islamic, announced Barack Obama, during a White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (with an emphasis on violence inspired by the Judeo-Christian tradition). “They [ISIS] are not religious leaders, they are terrorists,” he asserted—an assertion that begs the question, as it assumes that a terrorist cannot be a religious leader as well.
President Obama further ventured that when we call them “Islamic,” we grant ISIS the “legitimacy” for which they thirst. For they are “desperate to portray themselves as religious leaders, holy warriors in defense of Islam.” Yet another non sequitur: Christening the group Islamic or not is unlikely to change that its members and a good many Muslims across the Ummah regard ISIS as thoroughbred Islamic.
What else did Imam Obama – who professes Christianity – proclaim in the name of the ISIS Islamic eschatology? Obama claimed that ISIS has “perverted the religion [of Islam]” and that it is peddling a “twisted ideology used to incite others to violence.”
“Weighing in on matters of Islamic theological debate,” warns Graeme Wood, editor at The Atlantic, is something Western officials would probably do best to avoid. “When he claim[s] that the Islamic State [is] ‘not Islamic,'” Obama, in fact, has “drifted into takfiri waters,” explains Wood. For “non-Muslims cannot tell Muslims how to practice their religion properly.”
“In Islam, the practice of takfir, or excommunication, is theologically perilous,” cautions Wood, in a seminal exposé on the Islamic State entitled “What ISIS Really Wants.” “If a man says to his brother, ‘You are an infidel,’ the Prophet said, ‘then one of them is right.’ If the accuser is wrong, he himself has committed apostasy by making a false accusation. The punishment for apostasy is death.”
His theologically and existentially perilous practice of takfir, notwithstanding, Obama lies about ISIS being antagonistic to Islam. Wood portrays “the group [that] seized Mosul, Iraq, last June, and already rules an area larger than the United Kingdom,” as Islamic as the Prophet Muhammad of the later, Medina period. He decries as “dishonest” the “campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature” and that it is indeed following “specific traditions and texts of early Islam.” “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. … the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”
Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, ‘the Prophetic methodology,’ which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail.
“We can gather that [the caliphate state] rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of – and headline player in – the imminent end of the world.”
And he has it on good authority. While Obama was offering up nostrums to the nation, Graeme Wood was speaking to leading authorities, among them “Bernard Haykel, the foremost secular authority on the Islamic State’s ideology.” This Princeton scholar “regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance.”
“People want to absolve Islam,” he told Wood. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”
In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.” … Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically … “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, [says Haykel], are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”
Widely quoted in Wood’s ISIS exposé, Haykel takes a position not dissimilar to that of “the greatest theologian alive,” my appellation for Pope Benedict XVI. It is this: “The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take” to justify their belief that ISIS is un-Islamic “is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid. [And] That really would be an act of apostasy.”
Which is precisely what Obama persists in doing.
Until the Islamic reformation is codified, those in the know – know-nothing Obama is not among them – will look upon the Islamic State as a religious, literalist, millenarian, apocalyptic group that is as Islamic as the Prophet and his band of belligerents during the Medina years.
Media wishing to interview Ilana Mercer, please contact [email protected].