[This post was originally published on September 11, 2014, but it’s worth revisiting in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, which killed over 100 people and for which ISIS claimed responsibility.]
Conservatives reacted harshly to President Obama’s claim on Wednesday night that the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) “is not Islamic,” accusing the commander-in-chief of naiveté and ignorance. “What kindergartner briefs the President on terrorism?” Ron Christie, a GOP strategist tweeted. “ISIS says it’s Islamic, lots of people say it’s Islamic, only the president won’t,” George Will told Fox News shortly after the speech.
But the full context of Obama’s remark points to an important distinction between Islam and the extremist ideology that’s sweeping parts of Iraq and Syria. “No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim,” Obama said. “ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”
Indeed, even from the viewpoint of a casual observer, ISIS is an abomination to Islam. Explosions tend to capture the media’s attention more than peaceful coexistence, and a minuscule minority of extremist groups claiming to be Islamic have exploited this fact as a way to reinvent Islam as a “violent” religion. But just because you shout God’s name while committing murder doesn’t make your actions righteous. Islam, as millions of Muslims can attest, is a peaceful religion that calls on its followers to choose community over conflict, or, as it says in Surah al-Hujurat of the Qur’an (49:13): “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise [each other]).”
But ISIS clearly has little regard for this or other fundamental tenets of Islam. They have sparked the rage of Iraqi Muslims by carelessly blowing up copies of the Qur’an, and they have killed their fellow Muslims, be they Sunni or Shia. Even extremist Muslims who engage in warfare have strict rules of engagement and prohibitions against harming women and children, but ISIS has opted to ignore even this by slaughtering innocent youth and using rape and sexual slavery as a weapon.
And despite the conservative backlash, Obama’s analysis has received support from an unlikely voice: Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). During an appearance on Fox News’ Hannity, the potential 2016 presidential candidate, praised the president for differentiating ISIS ideology from the beliefs of Muslims in America and around the world. “Well, I think there was one important point that he was making about them not being Islamic or a form of true Islam,” he said. “I think it is important not only to the American public but for the world and the Islamic world to point out this is not a true form of Islam. This is an aberrant form that should not represent most of the civilized Islamic world.”
Granted, it’s always a tricky business decrying a religious tradition that is not your own. Also, while many faiths have internal hierarchies with judges that decide what is or isn’t proper behavior, Islam is a decentralized religious tradition that — as much as ISIS claims otherwise — lacks a single religious authority. But just as the diverse collective of Protestant Christians listen to each other, the opinion of a broader Islamic community always matters, and President Obama’s condemnation of ISIS is backed up by a global chorus of Muslim voices that are working to rebuke the group’s claim on Islam. Virtually every single American Muslim organization has publicly disavowed both the ideology and the practices of ISIS, and just hours before Obama’s address, dozens of Muslim American clerics and community leaders distanced their religion from the beliefs of the terrorist extremists. “ISIS and al Qaeda represent a warped religious ideology,” Faizal Khan, imam of the Islamic Society of America mosque in Silver Spring, said during a press conference with Muslim-American leaders from Indonesia, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Sudan and Trinidad. “Either we reject this violence in the clearest possible terms, or we allow them to become the face of Islam and the world’s perception of us for years to come.”
Countless Islamic groups around the globe have also vehemently rejected ISIS. French Imams are blasting the militant group from their pulpits. Britian’s largest Mosque has declared them “Un-Islamic.” Sunni and Shia clerics in Iraq have distributed a fatwa to nearly 50,000 mosques announcing that ISIS is “not in any way linked to [the Muslim] faith” and warning that failing to stand up against the group is effectively a sin. Even Egypt’s Grand Mufti has lambasted the group, and Dar al-Ifta, one of the most influential Muslim schools in the world, has launched a global campaign to strike the word “Islamic” from ISIS’s title, seeking to rebrand it as “al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria,” or QSIS, saying the organization has “tarnished image of Islam across the globe.”
As one Libyan tweeted: “If you think Muslims aren’t condemning ISIS, it’s not because Muslims aren’t condemning ISIS. It’s because you’re not listening to Muslims.”
This issue, of course, isn’t unique to Islam. The Ku Klux Klan burns crosses and preaches hate in the name of Jesus Christ, and the ostensibly Christian “Lord’s Resistance Army” regularly ravages villages and recruits child soldiers in Western Africa. Hindu extremists burned mosques and sparked violence in India in the 1990s. Buddhist extremists exist, and are spewing hatred in several parts of Asia. But in all of these cases, the vast majority of believers worked or are working to disavow the actions of fanatics and preserve the core, peaceful principles of their faith — just as Muslims are now doing with ISIS.
Ultimately, the decision of whether or not one is or isn’t religious is left up to God. But we are all tasked with religious life here on earth, where the opinion of a religious community should matter, and Muslims the world over have made their position clear: No matter how many people they kill to gain power, how many fellow Muslims they terrorize into submission, or how loudly they scream their self-righteous blasphemy to the heavens, ISIS is not — nor will ever be — Islamic.