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.
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.
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