Asra Q. Nomani
By Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa
20 Feb, 2015
Obama’s tap-dance around whether ISIS is ‘Islamic’ or not is completely wrong.
At the White House summit on “countering violent extremism,” President Obama declared that violent jihad in the name of Islam isn’t the work of “religious leaders” but rather “terrorists.” American-Muslim leaders, attending the summit, cheered and applauded, later taking selfies in front of the president’s seal.
But, as liberal Muslim feminist journalists who reject the vision of the Islamic State, we can say that the Islamic State, al Qaeda and the alphabet soup of Islamic militant groups, like HUM (Harkut-ul Mujahideen) and LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba), rely very much on the scholarship of “religious leaders,” from Ibn Tamiyyah in the 14th century to Sayyid Qutb in the 20th century, who very much have credibility and authority among too many Muslims as “religious leaders.”
A very nuanced and thorough Atlantic article by journalist Graeme Wood this week, arguing “The Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic,” set off a firestorm of “derision,” as labeled by an article at ThinkProgress, a media site affiliated with the Center for American Progress, a think tank started by former Democratic operative John Podesta. ThinkProgress religion reporter Jack Jenkins wrote that the Atlantic article elicited “staunch criticism and derision from many Muslims and academics who study Islam.”
Wood argues the Islamic State views itself as “a key agent of the coming Apocalypse.” He is absolutely right, and we have been seeing the symbols for months. After spending about 200 hours combined over the last few weeks, analyzing every word and symbol in the burning video of the Jordanian Air Force pilot and the execution video of the Coptic Christians, we can tell you that both videos reveal Islamic State strategists, propagandists and recruiters are very much grounded in a logical interpretation of the Quran, the hadith, or sayings and traditions of the prophet Muhammad, and fatwa, or religious rulings.
They are also hell-bent on one mission: Chasing the apocalypse, according to Islamic eschatology—the study of the end of the world.
Doing a verbal tap dance around Islamic theology and extremism, even calling it “whatever ideology,” Obama and his policy team have it completely wrong. We have to own the issue of extremist Islamic theology in order to defeat it and remove it from our world. We have to name it to tame it.
They are also hell-bent on one mission: Chasing the apocalypse, according to Islamic eschatology—the study of the end of the world.
Among Muslims, stuck in face-saving, shame-based cultures, we need to own up to our extremist theology instead of always reverting to a strategy of denial, deflection, and demonization.
While Rome burns in the war plans of the Islamic State and other militants, it is important to identify the enemy clearly. As sixth-century Chinese military strategy Sun Tzu said, “Know your enemy.” This is particularly important in the kind of asymmetrical war America has been fighting for 14 years since the 9/11 attacks. We know “America is not at war with Islam.” We settled that in the days after 9/11. But we are at war with an ideology and theology of Islam.
At the summit on “countering violent extremism,” Obama said that it would hand America’s enemy a propaganda victory if we called out the Islamic theology that is the underpinning of their violence, but the enemy will despise us no matter how politically correct we try to be. And by returning always to “historical grievances” and “root causes,” from the Crusades to colonialism, we only feed a culture of “wound collectors,” as former FBI agent Joe Navarro calls terrorists.
As Obama argues it, the murders of the Coptic Christian—or “Egyptian citizens,” as the White House spokesman first put it—following the immolation of Jordanian Air Force pilot Lt. Muadh al Kasasbeh and the beheadings of Japanese hostages, journalists and others reveal a “brutal, vicious death cult.”
But we, as Muslims, recognize every word in the Islamic State’s theology from teachings, ideas and interpretations we’ve heard through our approximately 50 years on this earth, from the living room chatter of “couch jihadis,” as one FBI agent describes “wound collectors,” to sermons, Facebook posts and Twitter messages.
As with earlier videos, the propagandists begin with a salutation that we know well: “In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful.” This phrase starts every chapter of the Quran but one chapter, the use of it by the Islamic State propagandists positioning themselves squarely within the realm of the accepted rhetoric of Islam. The media company name that produced the video flashes “Al-Hayat Media Center,” on screen, invoking an oft-repeated Qur'anic principle of hayat, or “life.” The Jordanian pilot burn video carried the brand “Al Furqan” media company. Furqan, a Qur'anic chapter title, represents “the standard” between good and “evil.”
In English, a title appears above a beach scene: “A Message Signed in Blood to the Nation of the Cross.” The phrase used is actually Ummat El-Saleeb, which actually means “Community of the Cross,” though ummat can be used as “nation.” In the burn video, the West and its Muslim allies are called “the crusader coalition”—the language of a doomsday showdown.
Later, in the video of the Egyptian Coptic Christians, the captives are called “the people of the cross,” in English, a term used by Anselm Turmeda, a Franciscan monk in Tunis who converted to Islam, in the title of an early 15th-century, pre-Ottoman narrative, “The Unique Find for the Intelligent Mind: A Treatise of Riposte to the People of the Cross,” or Tuhfat al-adib fi al-radd ‘ala ahl al-salib.
In English, the Islamic State lambasts, “The people of the cross, the followers of the hostile Egyptian Church.” But in Arabic, the Islamic State refers to Christians as ra’aya, which means “subjects,” not “people,” of “the cross,” or al-saleeb. The Arabic word used to describe “the Egyptian Church” is al-mohariba, which means “militant,” not “hostile.” So, the actual translation is: “Subjects of the cross, from the followers of the militant Egyptian church.”
At 18 seconds, the Islamic State fighters bring the captives onto the beach, and the fighters flash a signal of orthopraxy, or external ritual. The fighters’ pant hems are high, or “high-water,” as it’s said in American slang. Again, these are signs any Muslim would recognize, from a supposed hadith of the prophet Muhammad: “Lift up your lower garment to the middle of your shank, and if you don’t wish to, then to the ankles. Beware the trailing of the lower garment, for it is arrogance, and Allah does not like arrogance.” The “shank” is around the calf, making the fighters, in our eyes, “high-water jihadis.”
Two minutes into the video, the chief fighter says, “Oh, you people, you’ve seen us on the hills of Al-Sham and Dabiq’s plain.” Al-Sham is a reference to Syria, and it is the second “S” in the name “ISIS.”
In Islamic prophetic text, Sham is where the Muslim messiah, the “Mahdi,” will appear. Eschatologists in Islam argue the murder of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat by a dissident Egyptian in 1981, plus a string of killed rulers from Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, realizes a prediction that “the inhabitants of Egypt and Sham will kill their ruler and his commands.” Sham, to Muslim eschatologists, is not only the word for Damascus but also the word for “left” and is a way to describe countries to the left of the Hijaz, the region in modern-day Saudi Arabia that includes Mecca and Medina.
A Hadith, or saying of the prophet Muhammad, is translated as: “The Last Hour (of history) would not come until the Romans land at (either) al-A’maq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best (soldiers) of the people (the Muslims) of the earth at that time will come from Medina (to counteract them).” Dabiq and al-A’maq are towns in Syria along the Turkish border. Dabiq is about an hour’s drive north of Aleppo. According to another Hadith attributed to the prophet Muhammad, this area will witness a war in which Muslims will defeat the Romans, conquer Constantinople (now Istanbul) and usher the return of Jesus, thus triggering the apocalypse.
As the Islamic State fighters pushed the captors to their knees, one of the captors’ lips moving in silent speech, another looking furtively around, the video reads, in Arabic: “Until this war ends and Issa, may the blessings and the peace of Allah be upon him, descends….”
Muslims know this name well. In Arabic, Issa is Jesus, and the fighter says, after his name, alayhi al-sallam, which means, “peace be upon him,” a saying reserved for prophets. The abbreviation in English for the shorthand translation: “Peace be upon him,” or “P.B.U.H.”
Our mothers taught us, like most Muslims teach it, that Jesus was a noble prophet—but not a God and not resurrected on the cross, thus the Islamic State video accusing the Christians in the video of shirk, or a supposed crime of equating another deity to God. Islamic eschatology, based on hadith, says Jesus will descend to Earth and meet the Mahdi in the grand mosque of Damascus, after the Mahdi arrives from Khorosan in modern-day eastern Iran and northern Afghanistan, with an army waving black banners, a black flag of the Islamic state with the shahada, or Islamic proclamation of faith, flapping in a corner of the Jordanian pilot immolation video.
There, according to Islamic eschatology, the Mahdi will ask Jesus to lead the prayer, but Jesus will say, “No,” and pray behind the Mahdi.
Another hadith says: “At this very time Allah would send Christ, son of Mary, and he will descend at the white minaret in the eastern side of Damascus wearing two garments lightly dyed with saffron and placing his hands on the wings of two Angels. When he would lower his head, there would fall beads of perspiration from his head, and when he would raise it up, beads like pearls would scatter from it.”
In the video of the Copts, one captive cries out, “Ya, Rabb! Yassou!” as masked fighters for the Islamic State slice open the throats of 21 men, their bodies flung onto the beach outside Tripoli, Libya, their blood spilling grotesquely into the Mediterranean Sea’s waters, lapping against their limp bodies. The translation: “Oh God! Jesus!”
These Muslim end-timers’ beliefs aren’t much unlike those of the Christian mullahs of apocalyptic prophecy, including groups that call themselves “Christian Zionists,” but the Islamic State doomsday believers are, literally, killing in the name of their prophecies.
Pointing his knife at the screen, holding it in his left hand, an oddity for a culture that still scolds children to use their right hand, the main Islamic State fighter says, “To break the cross, kill the swine and impose the jizya,” the “tribute.”
The hadith for this prediction, goes like this: “The Prophet said: There is no prophet between me and him, that is, Jesus. He will descent [sic] (to the earth)… He will break the cross, kill swine, and abolish jizya. Allah will perish all religions except Islam.”
As the hostages lay slaughtered, the on-screen script read: “This filthy blood is only a portion of what awaits you to avenge Camelia and her sisters.”
A song begins: “…bullets flare , for punishment time is now, there is nowhere to hide….”
Camelia refers to Camelia Shehata, the wife of a Coptic priest, who was at the center of a sectarian dispute in Egypt five years ago. Many Muslims believed she converted to Islam but was illegally detained and tortured for doing so along with other Coptic women. Although she insisted she hadn’t converted, the grievance remained.
The song continues, “If apostasy became widespread,” a sign of the impending apocalypse, according to a hadith, “and incandescent, we will fill the valleys with red blood,” as the screen shows the sea filled with red.
We made the conscious decision to study the propaganda videos of the Islamic State because we feel there is just too much silence among Muslims against the logic of the Islamic State and like-minded militants. One of us, Hala, shook in her home in Fairfax Station, Va., after she translated the murder video of the Coptic Christians. The other, Asra, retreated into a corner of her family’s home in Morgantown, W.Va., to take screenshots of the video behind a locked bedroom door.
Muslim leaders have to realize that grievances expressed on the streets—like the tragic murder of three Muslims in Chapel Hill, N.C., last week—become the material of terrorism videos, and we have to lead our communities out of a culture of “wound collecting,” and toward a pathway for positive, progressive healing.
The alternative is more horrifying scenes like the video on the beach. But spilled blood should inspire—not paralyze—us. Moderates must unite, to see that “revenge” isn’t our answer and that end-time eschatology doesn’t become something very dangerous: a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She is codirector of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women’s rights at her mosque in West Virginia is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She recently published a monograph, Milestones for a Spiritual Jihad: Toward an Islam of Grace.
Hala Arafa, born in Egypt, is a journalist, formerly working with Voice of America.