Does ISIL Terrorism Represent “True Islam”?

November 24, 2014

The CFI Free Thinking blog featured a very interesting conversation, begun by Dr Stephen Law, in response to the English writer Karen Armstrong, who had made a case for the “myth of religious violence.” Not surprisingly, Armstrong endorsed Barack Obama’s and British prime minister David Cameron’s denials of any link between the barbarism of ISIL fighters and “true Islam.” Dr Law was moved to call this sweeping dismissal “silly.” We can understand why Western leaders feel the need to distance ISIL violence from “true Islam.” The West could not mount its under-strength response to ISIL without significant help from Muslim countries like Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. And Western leaders need to take care not to alienate Muslim communities within their own borders.

But if politicians have good reasons to say these things, that doesn’t mean they’re true. Are ISIL fighters really killing in the name of Islam or not? To answer this question, surely the first thing we need to do is listen to the ISIL fighters themselves. These desperate young men are quite sure what their main motive is: defending Islam from what they see as open violence from the United States and its allies. They’re not defending the integrity of any nation state that happens to have a Muslim majority. Their anger against those regimes is almost as ferocious as their anger towards the West. No, they are defending Islam, as they conceive it. It follows then that the violence they perpetrate inevitably has a religious component to it.

There is no need here once again to mine the Qur’an for a range of bloodthirsty quotes about slaying the unbelievers. We know they’re there. More importantly, many Muslims are unused to reading their scripture allegorically, as Christians have learned to do with the more bizarre passages of their scriptures. In other words, there is plenty of scriptural warrant for taking a bloodthirsty us-versus-them view of relations between Muslims and unbelievers. So Karen Armstrong can deny a religious motivation as much as she likes, but it doesn’t make it true.

In their own minds, then, ISIL fighters are clearly and completely operating within a religious framework. But it will be apparent to most people, if not the ISIL fanatics, that their understanding of Islam, and “true Islam” are not necessarily the same thing. Of course there are political, social, cultural and other aspects of the fighting. Nobody is saying that religion is the sole motivation. But to say it has no bearing on what’s going on is absurd. Maybe we could say the claim is not much silly as patronising. Rule number one when wanting to understand other people is to actually listen to what they’re saying. To sit in one’s armchair and dismiss the claims of these people to be operating according to religious imperatives is to guarantee never to understand them, let alone be able to overcome them.

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Image source: Wikipedia