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The religious motivations of ISIS

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Image credit: http://muqawamah.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/isis-flag1.jpg

Following the multiple catastrophes in France, Tunisia and Kuwait, there has been plenty of discussion on the topic of the perpetrators of these acts of inhumanity, the Islamic State. In the Daily Mail, the Defence Secretary writes to assure the British public that the events in these countries have not deterred the government from its vows to defend the people. 

“Is religion a decoy?” asked Mina Al-Oraibi, the host of the final talk of the ‘Surveillance, Snowden and Security’ themed day in the 2015 York Festival of Ideas. It’s a common idea that is seen often in the talks about ISIS and other acts of terrorism: why is religion the wrong thing to assume? There are so many people, on television, radio and the Internet, who defend Islam when it is tied with ISIS. ISIS are following an extremist reading of the Qu’ran, ISIS have misinterpreted it, ISIS have cherry-picked the violent verses… anything to discourage the idea that ISIS aren’t real Muslims.

Writing for the Guardian, Giles Fraser paints an accurate picture of the nature of the recruits that ISIS gains, through lecherous propaganda and wicked videos, from Western nations:

For many of the young people who have been persuaded to go off and fight in Syria and Iraq have hardly got past the first chapter of Islam for Dummies. They often know next to nothing about the Qur’an and are about as motivated by reading the few passages they have as the average republican terrorist was motivated by Saul’s genocidal destruction of the Amalekites in the first book of Samuel. Yes, the language of violent jihad may borrow its vocabulary from Islamic theology – it’s a useful marker of shared identity – but root motivation is as it always is: politics. The IRA weren’t Bible-believing Catholics, they were mostly staunch atheists. Catholicism was simply a marker of who counted as “one of us”. And the same is true of Islamic terrorism.

It doesn’t take much thought to agree with him. I highly doubt that ISIS’s recruits are well-read scholars of the Qu’ran, nor can they speak on Islamic theology with much authority. I imagine that I am just as knowledgeable of the Qu’ran and its teachings as some of these plucky daredevils tempted by the apparently beautiful conditions of the Islamic State in which to live.

Accompanying this is the vivid belief that ISIS are strongly politically-motivated: ISIS are responding to aggressive Western foreign policy, ISIS’s creation was accidentally helped by American messiness and ruthlessness in the War on Terror or other wars, ISIS want to establish their own territory for Muslism, ISIS is made up of political rebels who all hold Islamic beliefs to varying degrees. As Graeme Wood wrote in March for The Atlantic: “There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State.”

Nonetheless others believe that religious belief is a core element, rejecting Fraser’s final words: “If you want to find a terrorist, look for people buying dodgy chemicals, not people saying their prayers.”

Apostasy – leaving the faith. How can anyone argue that this is related to anything but religion? This is something for which the penalty in Islam is harsh; this penalty is enforced by the Islamic State. Those who abandon the Prophet, especially for another deity, should expect no mercy. Richard Dawkins was determined to get the truth about apostasy out on television in 2008 (if you’d rather cut to the chase, the answer is here). Dr. Mukadam almost chokes on his words as he gives into Dawkins’ repeated attacks and spills the beans. (The longer of the two videos contains a quote from a hadith that makes things clear.)

What about blashemy? What about people who depict the Prophet in artwork or cartoons? They too will be punished under Islamic law. Must any more be written about it than the words ‘Charlie Hebdo‘?

Graeme Wood continues:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

The religious convictions of many members of the Islamic State are strong. Religious practice and scripture motivates much of their conduct. Though the Qu’ran might not instruct its followers to televise the beheading of one’s enemies, we can still find passages on the harsh penalties for adultery and theft.

However, have these particular passages been badly misinterpreted by ISIS and previous terrorist organisations? Professor John Williams, Professor of International Relations at Durham University, teaches a course on terrorism and occasionally presents students with the speeches of Osama bin Laden to analyse. He notes that his Muslim students would take the writings away and laugh at how badly bin Laden had misinterpreted or cherry-picked the extracts of the Qu’ran in order to advance his cause. I asked Professor Williams if bin Laden and his contemporaries were misguided scholars misinterpreting the Qu’ran out of their own stupidity or deliberately preaching the wrong message in order to attract gullible, expendable young minds to strap bombs to their chest for their faith; Professor Williams argued the latter.

Bin Laden’s use of Qu’ranic verse in fatwas issued calling for and justifying jihad against the US is problematic principally for the cherry-picking reason: the words are taken out of their context and thus their meaning is misrepresented. Further, Islam as a legal and ethical tradition has an extraordinarily rich tradition of jurisprudence and textual interpretation which means that highly literal readings of the text of the Qu’ran (or other authoritative Islamic texts, such as the Hadith) are rarely straightforward and are often disputed, or read as metaphors or located within a wider context that suggests their significance should be downgraded and so on. This is, of course, true in relation to Christianity, where the literal truth of the Old and New Testaments is something that few Christians would accept (those bits about killing homosexuals and beating wives, for instance) but would insist must be interpreted and where that interpretation is contested – for example those opposed to the ordination of women within the Anglican tradition read certain parts of scripture in one way, those in favour argue for the downgrading of such parts of scripture in light of wider, central Christian teachings and messages.

But Sam Harris, the famous neuroscientist and atheist, begs to differ. In the article ‘Sleepwalking Towards Armageddon’ for his own blog, Harris argues:

As an atheist, I cannot help wondering when this scrim of pretense and delusion will be finally burned away—either by the clear light of reason or by a surfeit of horror meted out to innocents by the parties of God. Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder? It may be true that no faith teaches people to massacre innocents exactly—but innocence […] is in the eye of the beholder. Are apostates “innocent”? Blasphemers? Polytheists? Islam has the answer, and the answer is “no.”

No one denies the existence of political, social, nationalist or any other motivations. To the astonishment of the British government, some Muslims in Britain are departing their homes for the Islamic State on the grounds that it is more hospitable, more attractive and a better place to raise one’s children. But few go as far as Harris goes and point the finger of blame on religion. Indeed, further in the article, Harris attributes many problems strictly to Islam.

Understanding and criticizing the doctrine of Islam—and finding some way to inspire Muslims to reform it—is one of the most important challenges the civilized world now faces. But the task isn’t as simple as discrediting the false doctrines of Muslim “extremists,” because most of their views are not false by the light of scripture. A hatred of infidels is arguably the central message of the Koran. The reality of martyrdom and the sanctity of armed jihad are about as controversial under Islam as the resurrection of Jesus is under Christianity. It is not an accident that millions of Muslims recite the shahadah or make pilgrimage to Mecca. Neither is it an accident that horrific footage of infidels and apostates being decapitated has become a popular form of pornography throughout the Muslim world. Each of these practices, including this ghastly method of murder, find explicit support in scripture.

Whether Harris’s blunt opinions on the nature of Islam is right, or whether Professor Williams’s assessment of Qu’ranic misinterpretation is right, the examination of the religious motivations of ISIS should only continue.

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Jack Harvey

Jack Harvey

Alumni & Public Relations Officer at The Yorker
Comment and Politics Editor 2015/2016, Editor 2016/2017, Alumni & Public Relations Officer 2017/2018. History and Philosophy undergraduate, seeking postgraduate study in Philosophy.