#NotInMyName... Or Maybe A Little

News of ISIS's brutal advance in Iraq and Syria shook the Arab world hard. The Middle East is now witnessing a militancy that outdoes even Al Qaeda in the scale of its terror, proudly showcasing images and videos of its members shooting, torturing and beheading "infidels." In the face of such sudden violence, Muslims all over the Middle East rushed to absolve their belief system of responsibility for such heinous acts. The hashtag #notinmyname is going viral, garnering support amongst a generation of tech-savvy Muslims. "ISIS has nothing to do with Islam," goes the adage on social media.

Doesn't it, really?

Of course, it is self-evident that the striking majority of Muslims are not associated with ISIS or sympathetic to its deadly ways. Indeed, the striking majority of Muslims wake up every morning with a lot of things to live for. They love their morning coffee before going to work - if they have a job. They love their friends, families and communities. They love to sit down and watch soccer games. And despite rampant corruption, abuse, gender inequality and religious persecution, they manage to have a life that is balanced enough not to engage in murderously violent behavior. In that, adopters of the hashtag are right: ISIS does not represent them at all.

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The assertion that violence cannot be traced back to Islam’s references is not that accurate (Image from universalfreepress.com) 

But here is the twist. While the striking majority of Muslims have nothing to do with ISIS, the latter's behavior should not be disconnected from the religious precepts they were taught. I am aware that a lot of good comes out of religion. Love thy neighbor, give to the poor, don't steal, work hard... For many, Islam is the only source for these core values. Yet Islam is also home to teachings that preach discrimination based on one's beliefs. Added to the multiple allusions of war and strife against "the infidels," objective, scrutinizing eyes will find these teachings shocking.

Here are some examples:

“I am with you: give firmness to the believers: I will instill terror into the hearts of the unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them. That is because they opposed Allah and His messenger. Whoso opposes Allah and His messenger, lo! Allah is severe in punishment....” (Surat Al-Anfal, verses 8:12-8:13) 

"Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah, and those who reject Faith Fight in the cause of Evil: So fight ye against the friends of Satan: feeble indeed is the cunning of 
Satan." (Surat An-Nisa, verse 4.76) 

Narrated sayings of Prophet Muhammad are not exempt from calls to war either. Prophet companion Anas Bin Malik recounted:

"The Prophet said, "A single endeavor (of fighting) in Allah's Cause in the forenoon or in the afternoon is better than the world and whatever is in it." (Sahih Al-Bukhari) 

Islam, in its fundamental texts, makes it unmistakably clear to Muslims that they ought to consider themselves superior. The same fundamental texts present a grim, dehumanizing portrait of non-Muslims: dishonest, untrustworthy and ethically deficient. In other words: peoples deserving of God's wrath. Examples:

"Guide us in the right path, the path of those whom You blessed; not of those who have deserved wrath, nor of the stayers." (Surat Al-Fatiha, verses 1.6-1.7) 

"And the Jews will not be pleased with you, nor the Christians until you follow their religion. Say: Surely Allah's guidance, that is the (true) guidance. And if you follow their desires after the knowledge that has come to you, you shall have no guardian from Allah, nor any helper." (Surat Al-Barqarah, verse 2.120) 

The prophet of the Islamic religion is also famously known to have said:

"You will fight against the Jews and you will kill them until even a stone would say: come here, O Muslim, there is a Jew, so kill him." [Sahih Muslim, Book 41, Number 6981] 

I say all this with a bit of trauma running through my Arab head. Although I am proud to belong to a relatively young, modern and educated generation of Arab millennials, my schooling was not void of violent teachings. In fact, my schoolmates and I were forced to memorize and internalize such hateful precepts without any chance to question them. Had I not benefited from a liberal education, I would have probably clung to such a worldview.

That your everyday Muslim would take these texts at face value should be surprising to no one. It is simply what they grew up believing—or rather forced to believe by less than participatory education systems and other state propaganda machines. And while the majority of Muslims don't go around slitting the throats of the "infidels," the fact of the matter is that many of the world's one billion Muslims are sympathetic, to varying degrees, to the religious rhetoric used by terrorists like ISIS. Disowning ISIS as un-Islamic is not going to work.

“What ISIS does is similar in nature to the Saudi stoning of adulterers, the Egyptian genital mutilation of little girls, the Bahraini shooting of Shias... Let me put this another way: ISIS’s “Islamic State” is just your typical Muslim country on crack.”  

The self-proclaimed combatants of the Islamic Caliphate are not aliens that rained down on us out of nowhere. They are Middle Easterners who attended our schools, prayed in our mosques and were fed the indoctrination of our media. They too are Muslims, because they believe in Allah and his prophet Muhammad. They are Muslim because they—one would assume—adhere to the five pillars of Sunni Islam. But most importantly, they are Muslim because they self- identify as such. Arbitrarily excommunicating them from Islam because of their genocidal behavior is no different from their exclusion of non-Sunnis as apostates.

Muslims will never defeat ISIS through denial. Because ISIS, whether we like it or not, is a direct result of how utterly dysfunctional our conservative societies have become. What ISIS does is similar in nature to the Saudi stoning of adulterers, the Moroccan jailing of gays, the Egyptian genital mutilation of little girls, the Mauritanian persecution of Muhammad's critics and the Bahraini shooting of Shias. Let me put this another way: ISIS’s “Islamic State” is just your typical Muslim country on crack.

While undoubtedly called for, bombing the Islamic State's camps to oblivion will not amount to much in the long-term. At stake here is the place Middle Easterners want religion to occupy in their lives and societies. At stake is our very ability to talk openly about religion, and to acknowledge that it is neither infallible nor timeless. There has never been a greater need for progressive Muslim scholars than in these tumultuous times. Although overshadowed by their conservative opponents, progressive Islamic clerics are not a novelty in Islam. Already in the mid-1950s, Pakistani Islamic scholar Fazlur Rahman questioned the validity of literal interpretations of the Quran, calling for a more contextual reading of the holy book. Such a liberal legacy is today carried out by the likes of shia Imam Ahmed Qabanji and sunni Imam Adnan Ibrahim, both of whom openly blame literal and “stubborn” interpretations of Islam for the religion's inability to adapt to modern developments.

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(From the Star Tribune) 

That said, using religious discourse to discredit and combat the crazies within our ranks is not the only - or even the best - option out there. Don’t get me wrong: it is a useful approach indeed, if only from a pedagogical perspective. Many Muslims are not ready to question religion through lenses other than religious. Good for them and fine by me—any path leading to enlightenment is worth walking. But there's also a downside to this approach: if we insist on using religious arguments to deflate religious calls for violence, we will end up stuck in a closed loop, not able to think ourselves outside of the religious box. That is bad. We should be able to define ourselves first and foremost as humans. One does not need to be Muslim or religious to understand that what ISIS is doing is sheer insanity. Nor can Muslims permanently count on the interpretations of their clerical class to dismiss violent behavior: Islamic clerics will always tend to counter each other's interpretations based on their respective schools of thought. The debate will go on and on and on, and extremists will always find their place. The debate is endless. In the end, who and what you’re gonna believe is your personal choice—which is the basic definition of faith, by the way.

Meanwhile, want to neutralize ISIS, Arab governments? Here’s what I (along with this website I have the honor to work for) recommend: build countries based on dignified citizenship, human rights, gender equality, and—most importantly—freedom of religion and conscience. Want to defeat the appeal of ISIS? Liberalize public life for a healthier, more diverse and vibrant civil society. Don't "govern" based on some sort of godly mandate. Don't monopolize power and wealth. Don't persecute, kill or intimidate those who dare to think differently. There's only one way Muslim rulers and their conservative societies will stop being associated with terrorists. That way is democracy and secularism—a system in which all religious views can flourish, without anyone forcibly defining who we are. As long as we keep thinking in the same paradigm as the religious extremists, we only have ourselves to blame for being compared to them.

* Zouhair Mazouz is Free Arabs’ Assistant Editor


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#2 GregAbdul 2014-10-14 09:29
I am reading and re-reading you at Salon. Praise be to Allah for your success. I know you are secular and liberal. You have a point and then you don't. In every group, there are internal debates. I think I maybe turned you off because I am so used to talking in an American context. I am an American Muslim. For me, people are multiple identities. I also think you being a born Muslim makes it different for you than for a convert like me. In the West, there is a fixed unsaid definition of what it is to be normal. I think as a Moroccan, you know about sexual liberalism that's taken as the norm in Europe, the womanizing and booze. Muslims are not perfect, but the goal is to run away from your sin and back to the faith over and over. This is where the guilt you talk about comes into play. Certainly God didn't make any person or any religion perfect. In Christianity, they always talk about redemption. As Muslims we are supposed to keep high in our minds the idea of wudhuu and prayer cleansing sin. For me, i get disgusted at pretend perfect Muslims. We pray and we beg God to forgive us over and over and this is the Sunnah. It should make us humble and compassionate when we see others mired in sin. Sex and booze are not normal human things that have no negative consequences. You are right that marriage takes money. More than that, the young man needs to be mature and educated because he is probably on the way to being a father. We all, as human beings, need governments that develop our people. The West has far out-performed the Muslim world in this. In America, massive inequality is starting to take America backwards. I am not here predicting doom. I am an American and I want my country to lead the world in what is good, even though it does not have a Muslim government. My point to you is that I think you know: to say I sin all the time is not disbelief. To say you don't have to pray, that it is okay to drink and fornicate are acts of disbelief. Zina is not disbelief. In America, in the black American community (that's me), we have a 75% illegitimacy rate. Before I converted and even now, I think one of the biggest problems in the West is fatherless boys. My wife is an immigrant. I have four stepsons and they are far from perfect...but they are also far from the evils they would have had if they grew up in America. (getting off topic)
There are external debates and for us as Muslims, we MUST demand the simple human right to be treated as flawed human beings who strive to good, like all human beings, each in our own individual manner...then there is the INTERNAL debate we have over our identity as Muslims. Islam does not tell us to look down on other faiths. Islam does not tell us to cut of the heads of infidels. Maybe I have always been taught by liberal Muslims, but I really don't think so. Murderers look at our book and see murder. Professor Aslan said, we bring our perceptions to the book and confirm them there. But we have scholars....who disagree. As followers, we both want the more liberal scholars to rule the day. I ask you to be careful. You are exposing with your writing and this is what God gave us the written word, to show and expose the human condition. But we can mislead with writing. America is a declining superpower. Morocco is an emerging democracy. Don't follow us down the rabbit hole in the name of authenticity or freedom. God gave us Islam. It is a blessing, as long as we don't abuse it.
#1 Don 2014-10-01 20:58
Thank you so much. The best thing I have read in ages. Speak the truth even if no one wants to hear...ESPECIAL LY if no one wants to hear!