The Muslim-American community has stood up to condemn ISIS. It now needs to confront the Islamist ideology that bred it and other groups like it.
The Muslim-American community, including organizations with radical histories, swiftly and unequivocally condemned the Islamic State terrorist group (formerly and commonly known as ISIS). These statements are welcome, but they need to go further and challenge the Islamist basis of the group and those like it.
The vast majority of condemnations of the Islamic State focus on its violent tactics and not its belief that Muslims are commanded to wage jihad to build an Islamic state, i.e. a government based on Islamic law (sharia). Nor is its belief that Muslims must rebuild a caliphate being confronted.
President Obama is being criticized for stating that the Islamic State is “not Islamic.” The understandable objective was to avoid depicting the campaign against the Islamic State as a war on Islam, but the obvious truth is that the Islamic State is following an interpretation of Islam. Many Muslims feel it is an incorrect interpretation, but it is still an interpretation.
The Islamic State claims that its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was an Islamic preacher and has a doctorate in Islamic Studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad. It also says he is a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam.
The Islamic State implements governance strictly based on sharia, or Islamic law. The very name of the Islamic State implies a fusion of mosque and state. The concept of the caliphate declared by the Islamic State is rooted in Islamic history and doctrine, even if most Muslims reject the Islamic State’s caliphate.
These fundamentally anti-Western goals emanate from the Islamist ideology that believes in sharia as a code of governance (which is also known as Political Islam). Not all Islamists support the Islamic State, but all members of the Islamic State are Islamists.
By declaring that the Islamic State is “not Islamic,” the Muslim world is relieved of its responsibility to challenge the group’s Islamic basis. Its origins can thus be blamed on the West or a murderous lust for power. The fundamental ideology of the Islamic State and similar groups is left untouched.
The Islamic State must be fought by challenging the basis of its name: an Islamic state with sharia governance. Limiting condemnations to tactics leads to endless arguments about which tactics are appropriate under what conditions. The debate needs to focus on the ultimate purpose of those tactics.
In truth, the Islamic State is acting on a popular agenda in the Muslim world. A 2007 World Public Opinion poll found that 74% of Pakistanis, 71% of Moroccans, 67% of Egyptians and 49% of Indonesians desire a caliphate that absorbs every Muslim country. The objective of strictly implementing sharia in every Muslim country was supported by 79% of Pakistanis, 76% of Moroccans, 74% of Egyptians and 53% of Indonesians.
A 2013 poll found that most Muslim countries want sharia as the official law of the land. Massive numbers specifically favor the brutal corporal punishments of sharia instituted by the Islamic State. Terrorist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban still get double-digit support.
These pillars of the Islamic State’s ideology are left untouched in most Muslim condemnations of the group. For example, the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations, a coalition of Islamist groups, issued a condemnation of the Islamic State and its ideology without specifying what that ideology is.
It cites a Quranic verse about how the taking of one life is like killing all of mankind, yet leaders in the coalition have supported violent jihad and Hamas. Obviously, that means that the coalition and its fellow Islamists believe this verse does not forbid killing altogether.
This public condemnation and referencing of this verse makes the coalition look “moderate” but does nothing to address the beliefs of the Islamic State and other jihadists that killing is sometimes permissible.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) issued a condemnation of the “actions” of the Islamic State, calling them “un-Islamic and morally repugnant.” But their statement focused solely on tactics, specifically the murdering of civilians and religious scholars and attacks on houses of worship.
Another CAIR statement blamed the rise of the Islamic State on “the fuel of injustice” and “the lack of freedom and justice in the region.” In other words: The West.
For example, CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad reacted to the beheading of American journalist James Foley by tweeting that “Israel is the biggest threat to world peace and security.”
Former CAIR-Tampa leader Ahmed Bedier tweeted, “ISIS is not a product of Islam, it is a product of George Bush’s and Obama’s failed wars and policies in Iraq and Syria.” It was re-tweeted by Hassan Shibly, current director of CAIR-Tampa.
A September 10 press conference featured several Muslim-American leaders making strong condemnations of the Islamic State and calling on their community to stop radicalization.
Imam Mohamed Magid of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center said, “Young people, please don’t listen to this ideology.” Because he did not specify what that ideology is, all the audience knows is that the Islamic State is wrong for killing non-combatants. The issue of sharia is not addressed.
Azhar Azeez, President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), said ISIS has “no basis in the teaching of Islam.” This statement gives the impression that it is not a product of an Islamic interpretation.
Azeez says Islam does not condone terrorism or killing civilians or destroying civilian infrastructure. ISIS would probably agree with this statement because it does not consider its actions to be “terrorism” or its targets to be “civilian.” The statement will do nothing to dissuade a Muslim dabbling in Islamism.
Azeez’s rejection of attacks on civilian infrastructure is ironic considering that Imam Johari Abdul-Malik of the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center spoke at the press conference. In 2001, he said that attacks on bridges, power plants, the water supply and other infrastructure in Israel are justifiable as long as you don’t take innocent life.
Abdul-Malik does deserve credit for using the word jihadist and mocking how the Islamic State is appealing to youth by looking "cool." He said, “Nothing is cool about being a jihadist, you’re a loser.”
However, Abdul-Malik failed to challenge the specific interpretations of the Islamic State. He rejected linking the Islamic State to Islam in any way, arguing that the KKK was never linked to Christianity. Instead, he indirectly blamed the West by saying the Islamic State was exploiting anger over how Muslims are treated around the world.
Imam Talib Shareef of Masjid Muhammad asked the media to refer to the Islamic State as the “anti-Islamic State.”
He stated that the Islamic State is contradicting religious coexistence that occurred under the Prophet Mohammad’s Islamic state. However, by saying that the Islamic State does not represent a true Islamic state, it is implied that the pursuit of an Islamic state is noble.
Of the major Muslim-American groups, the one that has gone the furthest in confronting the ideological basis of the Islamic State is the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). It was founded by Muslim Brotherhood ideologues and has had a pro-Islamist past, but it has also taken some stances against Islamists like former Egyptian President Morsi.
Its D.C. office director, Haris Tarin, spoke at the September 10 press conference. Its President, Salam al-Marayati, has written several articles about the Islamic State and its beliefs.
In one of the articles, al-Marayati wrote, “This ‘caliphate’ [declared by the Islamic State] is a disturbed and failed attempt to recreate the glory days of the Islamic civilization of over 1,000 years ago, yet it is a forgery of anything close to Islam.”
Unfortunately, al-Marayati is ridiculing the caliphate of the Islamic State, not the desire to rebuild a caliphate. This is similar to the ruling of Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Yousef al-Qaradawi who only opposes the Islamic State’s caliphate because of how it was accomplished.
Al-Marayati blames both the West and Islamic interpretations. He writes that “ISIS is the toxic and dogmatic response to centuries-old colonial propaganda that aimed to demonize and dehumanize the Muslim world.” However, “The failed response by Muslims is political Islam.”
In another article, al-Marayati says that the ideology of the Islamic State and those like contains takfirism, essentially an Islamic version of the Puritans who brand Muslims as apostates and persecute them. He uses Islamic history against the Islamic State by comparing them to the Kharijites, a sect of radical Muslims in the seventh century that waged war on those they saw as apostates.
He says the Islamic State is a product of modern takfirism that causes an “unholy alliance of clergy and state” spread by “co-opting religious authority, fabricating religious texts, and spreading selective interpretations and applications of Islam by establishing schools and funding those that would teach their literal and absolutist Islamic narrative.”
Confronting takfirism is an improvement because it specifies an adversarial ideology rooted in Islamic interpretation, but it is still too narrow. It is still a practice of Islamism, albeit a particularly aggressive one. The term thus enables Islamists to offer a group like the Muslim Brotherhood as a “moderate” alternative to the takfiri Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.
Muslim-American groups need to launch a systematic refutation of the overall Islamist ideology. This means challenging the works of popular Islamist preachers like Ibn Taymiyyah, Hassan al-Banna, Maulana Maududi, Yousef al-Qaradawi, Sayyid Qutb, Ayatollah Khomeini and Muhammad al-Wahhab.
The youth must not be taught to idolize foreign Islamists like Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Tunisian preacher Rachid Ghannouchi or American ones like Zaid Shakir and Siraj Wahhaj.
This means promoting progressive reformation and ijtihad, the independent interpretation of doctrine. Muslims must not be afraid to criticize the determinations of Islamist jurists, and texts with anti-Islamist points of view should be encouraged. Former Islamist and current Muslim reformist Tawfik Hamid writes about this need in a new Clarion Project article, and he’s published a "Modern Interpretation of the Quran."
Muslim activist Mike Ghouse writes that there are two Islams “mangled up” and Muslims need to welcome criticisms of authoritative scholars from the past like Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Kathir. He says:
“The mistake we have made is to give their word a near equivalence of Quran and the Prophet; we can judge them against historical relativism but should not regard their work as integral component of Islamic teachings. All said, we must admit that whatever their intentions might have been, the medieval scholars messed up the interpretation of Quran. Instead of building cohesive societies, they were inclined to forge exclusive authoritarian societies.”
Ghouse is not disputing the fact that the Islamic State is practicing a version of Islam. He’s disputing that it is the right version of Islam. And he recognizes that the core problem is resistance to critical examination of sharia teachings.
The Muslim-American community has stood up to condemn the Islamic State. It now needs to step up to the greater challenge of confronting the Islamist ideology that bred it and other groups like it.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on Fox News.