“For the west, ISIS is Islam”: By Aijaz Zaka Syed

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SHAFAQNA – President Barack Obama may have touched a billion hearts by insisting that terrorists do not speak for a billion Muslims. Hosting a first of its kind counterterrorism conference at the White House, Obama hit all the right buttons, emphasising that violent extremism is not peculiar to any religion. 

He also warned against casting the fight against extremism in terms of a civilisational conflict: “The notion that the west is at war with Islam is an ugly lie. And all of us, regardless of our faith, have a responsibility to reject it.” 

Obama’s comments come at a time when Islamophobia in the west and global concerns over the growing menace of Isis are at their peak. More and more voices in the west are beginning to see this whole business from the prism of a conflict between Islam and the west. 

Roger Cohen of the New York Times wrote this week: “Across a wide swath of territory, in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Yemen, the west has been or is at war, or near-war, with the Muslim world, in a failed bid to eradicate a metastasizing Islamist movement of murderous hatred toward western civilisation.” 

Cohen suggests there is little point in western politicians pretending there is no conflict between Islam and the west when tens of millions of Muslims in these countries believe the contrary. 

Western politicians are apparently taking the advice seriously. Responding to Obama’s call, Republican Senator John McCain, a former presidential candidate, tweeted: “The notion that radical Islam isn’t at war with the west is an ugly lie.” 

Then there are those who are convinced that there’s really no distinction between Islam and Isis. 

So even as Isis goes about trying everything in its book to establish its ‘Islamic’ credentials with spectacular, bone-chilling acts of savagery, it is matched in its frenzy by the zeal of an army of western wonks who are bending over backwards to prove that the terrorist group and its bloodlust indeed epitomise Islam and its teachings. 

“The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic”, Graeme Wood insisted in a long article in The Atlantic Monthly. Now, Wood is not one of those fruitcakes who voice their deepest prejudices from the comforting obscurity of cyberspace. He is the contributing editor of the Atlantic and is considered an expert on ‘radical Islam’. 

The Atlantic article is a good example of wilful ignorance, bias and Islamophobia masquerading these days as investigative journalism and scholarly inquiry. If this is what the finest minds in the west think about the faith of one fourth of humanity, then God help us.

Quoting experts like himself and nuts like Anjem Choudary, Wood goes to elaborate lengths to claim there’s really no difference between the bloodthirsty ways of Isis and the teachings of Islam and its Prophet (pbuh). 

Wood argues: “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic…Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But 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 ‘the Prophetic methodology’.” 

Wood is kind enough though to acknowledge that Muslims around the world have vociferously rejected Isis and its ideology. Yet, no matter what the 1.6 billion believers may say and do to condemn and reject the terrorist group, as far as he’s concerned, Isis is Islam and Islam is Isis. 

“Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious group with theology that must be understood to be combated has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it,” argues Wood. 

“Many mainstream Muslim organisations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It’s reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel told me, ‘embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion’.”

So regardless of what Muslims may say or do to dissociate and distance themselves from the despicable actions of terrorists, it seems they will forever remain in the dock. They have been judged and pronounced guilty for the crimes of a tiny, little fringe which doesn’t represent even 0.1 percent of the world’s second largest religious group. 

In the past few weeks, hundreds of Islamic scholars, intellectuals and leaders have gone out of their way to assert that there’s nothing ‘Islamic’ about the Islamic State. Just because a group calls itself ‘Islamic State’ and names an obscure individual as its ‘Caliph’, it doesn’t become ‘Islamic’ and ‘defender of the faithful’. As Dean Obeidallah wrote in the Daily Beast, Isis is as ‘Islamic’ as the white supremacist Klu Klux Klan is Christian. 

And those who choose to believe otherwise only end up playing into the hands of the extremists and embrace their narrative. Seeing Islamic traditions in the madness of Isis is not just unfair and absurd, it’s far from the truth and reality. At a time when almost everyone in Arabia owned and traded in slaves and killed girls in the name of honour, Islam stamped out the scourge of slavery and female infanticide. 

If people like Wood and Haykel are indeed keen to understand the ‘Prophetic Methodology’, they would do well to read his last sermon. It doesn’t just expound Islam’s fundamental teachings, it celebrates human rights, justice and oneness of humanity like nothing else does. 

The Prophet (pbuh) said: “There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab and for a non-Arab over an Arab, nor for the white over the black nor for the black over the white except in piety.”

Addressing the sea of humanity during his last Haj, the Prophet (pbuh) said: “All mankind is the progeny of Adam and Adam was fashioned out of clay. Behold; every claim of privilege whether that of blood or property, is under my feet.”

How can such a faith be accused of sanctioning slavery, tyranny and violence? If this nihilistic cult had anything to do with Islam, Islamic civilisation wouldn’t have ruled the world for nearly a thousand years. 

As Arab-American journalist Rami Khouri reasons: “The angry young killers and terrorists were not among us a generation or two ago. Why and how did they suddenly appear in the last few decades? These phenomena are not eschatological signs or divine signals. They are sociopolitical mechanical processes that have logical and verifiable causal explanations. 

“The symptoms of radical Muslim militants who speak in the language of religion are of this world should we dare to trace how our societies and policies allowed young farmers, immigrants, or taxi drivers to be transformed into crazed killers and criminals. 

“These transformations have occurred and continue to occur in Arab or western jails, in the rubble of bombed-out neighbourhoods, or in the prisons of our own societies where these young men absorb the numbing, transformative realities of hopelessness and dehumanisation. 

“Islam is what it has always been, a religion with complexities and with varieties of adherents. The trouble today concerns small groups of extremists and deviant killers who speak of Islam. Only fools would confuse the two.”

So instead of endlessly analysing Islam and blaming it for every sin imaginable, perhaps experts like Wood should explore the conditions in which groups like Isis have incubated all these years.

Obama himself offered enough clues in his speech: “When people are oppressed and human rights are denied, particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines, when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit.”

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

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