Obscuring the Reality of ISIS through Semantics

Whenever there is a suicide attack or killing of civilians by extremists who profess to be Muslims, the oft quoted reaction by many Muslims and even non Muslims is that these killers can’t be Muslims. Whether it is the killing of more than 140 odd school children in Peshawar by the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan, TTP or killings by ISIS in Iraq or Syria, we often hear this line of argument. It would be grossly unfair to expect Muslims, majority of who don’t agree with the barbarism perpetrated by the likes of ISIS, to every time condemn such acts of wanton violence, as though they were a part of it. In fact, given the media’s stereotyping Muslims, many Muslims unfortunately find it necessary to make a statement against such violence. It is perhaps this defensive mechanism, which forces many well meaning Muslims and non Muslims as well to make such statements. Such statements are at best made out of naiveté and at worst out of trying to obfuscate the reality and threat of such groups.

As is by now evident, most victims of these groups are Muslims themselves, be they in Iraq, Syria or Pakistan. Of late, ISIS has indulged in a series of suicide bombings inside mosques in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. These mosques belonged to the Shia sect and the victims, who had come to offer Friday prayers, were Shias.  It should be in place here to mention that groups like ISIS and TTP first declare their Muslim victims as apostates, a process called Takfir, and then kill them, thereby creating a theological justification for their act.  Whether it was the killing of school children in Peshawar by TTP or the regular killings carried out by ISIS, the same basis of Takfir is used. That said, Muslims who call ISIS or TTP as not Muslims also unwittingly indulge in their own kind of Takfir. This line of argument is dangerous and flawed. By calling ISIS or such other groups whose members are Muslims, as not being Muslims, one is trying to say that Muslims by default can’t be evil and it is only a person who is not a Muslim, who can unleash evil and such terrible violence. The reality is that Muslims, like any other group of people, are capable of unleashing evil and violence on the members of their own community or outsiders. Saying members of ISIS are not Muslims and have nothing to do with Islam is like saying Crusaders were not Christians and Crusades had nothing to do with Christianity. We know how absurd that argument is. Moreover, in the early days of Islam, the most extreme Muslim group, the Kahwarij rejectionists, were not declared outside the fold of Islam, so the question of calling ISIS as not being Muslim doesn’t arise.  

Perhaps one reason why Muslims make such a statement is that it is difficult, almost impossible for a common Muslim to believe and reconcile with the fact a Muslim can kill another Muslim. Many Muslims are also influenced by romantic notions about the unity of Muslim Ummah (community). Such naive thinking often leads to the spread of conspiracy theories. These misconceptions can be cleared with a better and dispassionate reading of history. There are enough historical precedents to show that Muslims have killed fellow Muslims, with impunity, at times with a sadistic pleasure, even during the early years of Islam. History tells us that more than ten thousand Muslims lost their lives in a matter of a few days during the first intra Muslim war, The Battle of Ja’mal (Camel). Following this, scores of Muslims lost their lives when they fought against each other during the Battle of Sifeen. Who can forget the Battle of Karbala in which the army of Yazid killed Hussein and his family, including women and children, in the desert of Karbala, in the present day Iraq? The commander then took his head as a trophy to present it before the King. This was an army of Muslims that killed fellow unarmed Muslims. One could argue about the genesis of these battles, but the reality that it was Muslims who were involved on both sides in all these battles cannot be refuted or overlooked. Muslims were the victims as well as the perpetrators. To overlook that would be to overlook not only history, but even the complexity of human nature.

If one is dumbfounded by the kind of violence that ISIS has unleashed on its victims, for which now the group has become notorious, there are examples in history where acts of equal barbarity have taken place. During the early days of Islam, when Muawiyah was the Governor of Syria, the Syrian Army took over Egypt. Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr, who was then the Governor of Egypt, had sent a small force to the border but they were outnumbered. When Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr was finally captured by the Syrian Army, he was almost half dead because of thirst in the desert. Yet the Syrian Army took out their revenge on him. Even though there were orders to take him alive, they sewed him into the carcass of a donkey and set it on fire. History is replete with incidents where Muslims have killed fellow Muslims and the killing by ISIS or any such group of fellow Muslims should come as a surprise to only those who have overlooked these gory incidents in history.

On an ideological level, the group leaves no opportunity to assert its grounding in religion. The Group’s English magazine Dabiq publishes Fatwas and guidelines issued by the group about various issues, ranging from capturing and treating female slaves, issues of slavery, issues relating to treatment of Dhimmies etc. The group justifies using female slaves for sex, a view which is not shared by majority of Muslims, calling it a perversion of the teachings of Islam, though the group uses theological arguments to support and buttress its position. Similarly, the group publishes fatwas and rulings about buying, selling and gifting of female slaves, having sexual intercourse with them, having intercourse with a female slave who is yet to reach the age of puberty or what to do with a slave, male or female, who has run away from his /her master.

It would also be in place here to mention that ISIS predecessor, Al Qaeda corporatized terror, but it had a distinct anti American and anti West ideology, which clearly came out by the kind of targets the organization chose, like the Twin Towers or American Embassies. The group’s earlier demands were the withdrawal of American forces from Saudi Arabia. There is a tendency to view such groups together, as a monolith. Though there are similarities between such groups, there are marked differences as well. Al Qaeda now seems a ‘’moderate’’ group, which has now been completely eclipsed by ISIS. There is a wrong tendency to see groups like ISIS as a manifestation of modern political concerns, who are wearing a religious disguise. The reality is that for ISIS and any other group professing political Islam, religion and politics is interwoven to the extent that the two can’t be divorced. One can have a difference with ISIS in understanding and interpreting Islam, but one cannot deny that they use theological arguments to validate their actions. They can’t be seen as representing Muslims throughout the world, given that a large number of Muslims abhor them, but they definitely represent a version of Islam, in which many Muslims believe, more so the Islamist organisations, with minor differences. We can reject the ISIS, but to pretend that it isn’t religious at all with theology forming an important part of their existence is a patently dishonest argument. After all, acts like slavery and crucifixion are not something that they are pioneering, but they have examples in history to validate them. People who counter them without acknowledging this are in fact cherry picking from history and tradition. 

Groups like ISIS are unleashing apocalyptic violence which is intended to ‘’cleanse’’ the world from ‘’injustices’’ and ‘’impurities’’. In such an ideology, there is all along a belief, howsoever false, that they are creating a more perfect world. They create an alternate to reality, a transcendent world, where all these acts, which seem evil to most outsiders, look necessary and legitimate to them. By indulging in such acts of wanton violence, they take murder and terrorism to the level of a moral principle.

Interestingly the British prime Minister David Cameron has also recently joined this bandwagon of asserting that ISIS are not Muslims when he said that BBC should stop calling ISIS as Islamic State ‘’because it is not an Islamic State’’. He also said that it would be better to prefix it with so called. Another Conservative Party MP, also urged everyone to use Daesh for the ISIS, little realizing that the Arabic acronym Daesh stands for ‘’Al Daulat al Islamia Fil Iraq wa Shaam’’, which again translates into Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Clearly, indulging in semantics to play down the ideology of ISIS and its threat is self defeating.

An investment professional with interest in history, politics and sports, Tariq Jameel is a regular columnist for the Kashmir Observer.

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