Is the Islamic State “Islamic”? Why does it matter?

One part of President Obama’s address that seems to have stuck in some craws is the bit where he compared “The Islamic State” to “The Holy Roman Empire”:

Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

The bolded part is what’s really getting attention. Sullivan is collecting reactions to this line for whatever reason. You can guess where a guy like admitted/convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza stands:

Likewise, there’s no big mystery about where Jennifer Rubin would come down on this question:

The president says the Islamic State is not Islamic nor a state. Huh? Members of the group sure consider themselves Muslim, so who is the president to pass doctrinal judgment? Cliff May of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies notes, “Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, ‘caliph’ of the Islamic State, is of course a Muslim – and it’s not for Obama to say he is not.” May explains, “Baghdadi is what is known as a Salafi Jihadist. That suggests he is a fundamentalist — not a heretic.” Refusing to recognize reality (even after two beheadings) amounts to ideological blindness and a lack of appreciation for the motives and nature of our foes.

Or Daniel Pipes (just out of curiosity, does anybody know how hot the water has to get for a Silkwood shower?):

In the end, though, neither U.S. presidents nor Islamist apologists fool people. Anyone with eyes and ears realizes that ISIS, like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda before it, is 100 percent Islamic. And most Westerners, as indicated by detailed polling in Europe, do have eyes and ears. Over time, they are increasingly relying on common sense to conclude that ISIS is indeed profoundly Islamic.

So is the Islamic State really Islamic? I mean, yes? No? Who decides that kind of thing? Is the violent 969 movement in Myanmar really Buddhist? Is the Westboro Baptist Church really Christian? What about the Lord’s Resistance Army? They certainly think they are, and they’re able to use the same scriptures to justify their actions that somebody else might use to denounce the same actions and to deny that they “truly” represent their self-professed faiths. So it is with the Islamic State, as it was with the Kharijites in the 7th century, as it has been with the Wahhabis since the 18th century, and as it has been with countless other groups throughout the history of Islam and every other organized religion. This piece from ThinkProgress certainly makes a strong argument that IS does not observe the tenets of mainstream Islam, but the tenets they violate (prohibitions on killing other Muslims and killing innocents) have been violated by other purportedly Islamic groups over the past ~14 centuries.

So, no, IS isn’t Islamic by any middle-of-the-road, popular interpretation of the faith, but they are the latest variant in a line of extremists operating under some interpretation of Islam. What does that mean for IS’s identity? I think ultimately everybody has to make that determination for themselves. This “No true Scotsman” stuff gets to be ridiculous, since nobody is really qualified to make these kinds of determinations. Even the Pope, who you would think should be the final authority on who does and doesn’t get to call themselves Catholic, historically hasn’t generally been able to exercise that authority except under the rarest of conditions. How much more complicated does a question like this become for Islam, which doesn’t have nearly the same degree of hierarchy?

It seems to me that everybody is asking the wrong question about this issue, anyway, that being “why would Obama want to say that ISIL (ISIS, IS, bqhatevwr) isn’t ‘Islamic’?” It’s pretty clear why Obama, or any American president, would want to be clear that the extremists we’ve chosen to fight aren’t real Muslims, isn’t it? If Obama had come out last night and said, “hey, you know, this whole Islam thing is the problem,” well then suddenly it would have been us against the entire Islamic World. That’s the obvious reason why you’d want to rhetorically cordon IS off from other Muslims. The less obvious but no less important reason is that, as president of a country that is home to 3 million Muslims, give or take, you don’t want to be inciting idiots to take out their impotent rage at the Islamic State on Muslims living here who have nothing whatsoever to do with IS and who don’t deserve to be harassed or worse simply because of their religious faith.

No, the real question is this: why are professional Islamophobes like Dinesh D’Souza, Jennifer Rubin, and Daniel Pipes so intent on arguing that the Islamic State is Islamic? Is it because they’d like to see a whole lot of anti-Muslim (and, inevitably, anti-Sikh, because that’s just how we Americans roll) violence here in the US? Maybe get a few pogroms going in some of the bigger cities? Or is it because these people really, deep down, won’t be happy until the US is at war with all of Islam, and every Muslim, everywhere becomes a target? Or, hey, maybe it’s both? Instead of turning the focus on Obama or anybody else who wants to argue that IS isn’t Islamic, why don’t we turn the focus of the question on those who want to argue the reverse?


One thought on “Is the Islamic State “Islamic”? Why does it matter?

  1. About Daniel Pipes, I knew his father at Harvard and I always considered him to be a real bad actor: in fact he made my skin crawl. No surprise to see the apple fall so close to the tree on that boy.

    Then we have the question of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and PZ Myers: are they Christians? Hell yes, in the sense that they sure aren’t moslems – which appears to be the criterion used in these discussions. I would go farther and argue that their specific brand of atheism marks them as just another squabbling fundamentalist protestant sect: narrow minded belligerent true believers with a short list of fundamentals (one of them a whopper) and an unhealthy contempt for others too stupid or perverse to accept the obvious truth of their doctrines. That and a naive believe that adherence to their doctrine will lead automatically to earthly paradise makes them just like every other gang of fundies.

    In the larger discussion, I have come to hope that US airstrikes might blunt the offensive capability of ISIL PDQ and create an opening for less controversial actors to move again sources of funding and recruitment. I have an amateur’s hunch that this is the kind of approach that might work over the long run, rather than depending on stark military victory.

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