In past months, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (abbreviated as ISIS or ISIL and now known as IS) has reportedly conquered large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria. But land is not the only thing IS has been conquering: it has also conquered the headlines. The emergence of this group has offered renewed fodder for Islamophobic discourse and prompted Canada to go to war with its first bombing missions in Iraq.
Naturally, when the media and commentators use phrases like “Islamic extremism” or “radical Islam” to discuss IS, the public is invited to conflate IS with the religion of Islam. Ironically, such a conflation is relished both by right-wing politicians in the West and IS itself.
Although IS tries to legitimize itself by hijacking Islam, the fact is it is anything but Islamic. For one thing, Islamic texts strictly prohibit the targeting of civilians. Take Abu Bakr, the first Muslim caliph (whose name is shared by the current leader of IS). Our texts describe how Abu Bakr directed his army not to harm any “woman, child, or aged person” or even to harm the animals and crops of the enemy. As well, the persecution of minorities, such as the Christians of Iraq, clashes directly with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, who made the following pledge to the Najran Christians: “Najran has the protection of God and the pledges of Muhammad, the Prophet, to protect their lives, faith, land, property, those who are absent and those who are present, and their clan and allies. They need not change anything of their past customs. No right of theirs or their religion shall be altered. No bishop, monk, or church guard shall be removed from his position.”
As a Muslim, it frustrates me when the media and the public associate my religion with the barbaric actions of a group that defies the basic tenets of Islam. What’s more, following IS, western media seizes on Arabic terms like “caliphate,” associating them with backwardness and barbarism. IS has hijacked these terms and commentators have accepted this at face value. What a disgrace, when the great caliphates were centres of science, art, math, literature, and discovery while Europe suffered through the Dark Ages. It is ignorance stacked upon ignorance as IS hijacks terms and the western media runs with them.
All credible Islamic institutions have declared IS un-Islamic. In a 17-page open letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, more than 120 leading Muslim scholars and legal experts have detailed IS’s numerous violations of Islamic teachings. The letter condemns IS’s targeting of civilians, destruction of holy sites, and the reintroduction of slavery after its abolishment.
Even some of the most conservative religious institutions, such as Saudi Arabia’s senior clerical leadership, have denounced IS, stating that “terrorism is contrary to the purposes of the great religion of Islam, which came as a mercy to the world.” To this camp, we can add Syrian opposition groups who oppose both President Assad’s brutal regime and IS. How many in the West know that the Syrian Islamic Council declared a religious ruling making it forbidden to join the ranks of IS? The declaration preceded western media’s focus on IS and hasn’t been reported in English-language media.
Many of the young men who make up the ranks of IS’s fighters have no real Islamic education. They are a bunch of boys living a terrible fantasy. In one case from this summer, two British citizens who left Birmingham to support IS in Syria ordered copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies from Amazon prior to their departure. Even the leadership of IS includes no reputable religious scholars.
Interestingly, the most prominent military heroes of IS to emerge recently are Azhar al-Obeidi and Ahmed Abdul Rashid. Both are former generals from Saddam Hussein’s staunchly secular Baath party. To portray IS as a fanatical Islamic group can only be a mark of laziness, ignorance, or both. The Islamic State is anything but Islamic.