By Fakhruddin Ahmed
October 29, 2014
WHILE exotic and innocuous-sounding names like al-Qaeda (Arabic for “The Base”) and Taliban (Pashtu for “student”) disguises the terror organizations' true intent, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) flaunts “Islamic” in their nomenclature.
Some fall for it. Comedian and HBO talk show host Bill Maher argued recently that ISIS is not outliers but represents the inherent violence and intolerance of Islam itself, and by extension its 1.6 billion followers.
Another panellist, Sam Harris, who claimed to have “read” the Qur'an, called Islam "the mother load of bad ideas.” It was Ben Affleck, the actor and a guest on the show, who blasted these opinions "gross" and "racist." No Muslim was invited to the panel to refute and expose these inaccurate and bigoted arguments. Sadly, Maher and Harris, both atheists, are not alone in their beliefs.
Claims to have “read” the Qur'an immediately confers legitimacy to someone's views without answering a vital question: exactly what has he read? Qur'an is a very complex scripture. There is no official English translation. To comprehend it, it has to be read in its original Qur'anic Arabic text with mountains of contextual clues. Faithful are exhorted to adopt the best construction of its meaning.
Most Muslims have neither read, nor fully comprehend the Qur'an. They know only the basics. The objective of the critics who “read” the Qur'an is to look for “Gotcha” phrases to criticize it. Without appreciating the nuances and contexts, many of which are passé, they claim, for example, that unless a Muslim executes an apostate, he is unfaithful to his religion!
Assuming that there are 16,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria, they would constitute only 0.001% of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims. It is silly to insinuate that 0.001% represents the whole.
A tweet from a Libyan-American woman, Hend Amry, demolished Maher's Islamophobia: “5 of the last 12 Nobel Peace Prize winners were Muslim. So according to Bill Maher, we're all Peace Prize winners!” (The five Muslim Nobel Peace Prize winners referred to are: Shirin Ebadi (Iranian activist, 2003), Mohamed ElBaradei (Egyptian former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, 2005), Muhammad Yunus (Bangladesh's microfinance pioneer, 2006), Tawakkol Karman (Yemeni activist, 2011), and Malala Yousafzai (Pakistani activist, 2014))
Scoring debating points will not help the Muslims, however. They need to defeat ISIS and its clones in Iraq and Syria. World's 126 top Muslim scholars issued a “fatwa” (legal opinion) on September 19 denouncing ISIS's actions as un-Islamic.
Confronting ISIS theologically is a waste of time. So far they have executed soldiers who surrendered, butchered Shias, ethnically cleansed, starved and murdered minority Yazidis and Christians, kidnapped and raped women, and beheaded native and foreign civilians. As the Secretary of State John Kerry accurately pointed out at a State Department Eid-ul-Adha function on October 16: “There is nothing Islamic about what ISIL stands for.”
The New York Times reported that ISIS beheaded the American and British hostages only after the two nations refused to pay ransom of about 2 million Euros per hostage. (The Spanish and French hostages were released after their governments paid ransom.) Leading Muslim clerics, even those opposed to the British government had pleaded with ISIS to spare the aid worker Alan Henning, stressing that killing innocent Henning would be un-Islamic. By dismissing theological entreaties, ISIS proved once again that they are really a criminal gang whose modus operandi is kidnapping for ransom, and that there is nothing Islamic about them.
Shia (Iran and Iraq) and Sunni majority nations (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and United Arab Emirates) have joined the coalition against ISIS. However, their motivations are different. Shias want to fight ISIS because ISIS promotes Sunni interests. Sunni states fight because ISIS wants to swallow them into its “caliphate.” Turkey is more worried about the real intentions of the Iraqi, Syrian and Turkey's own Kurds (formation of a greater Kurdistan) than ISIS.
So, what gave rise to ISIS? The short answer is war. Wars, even just wars, have unsavoury consequences. America-led war to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan spawned the Taliban. Gulf War I hatched al Qaeda. Gulf War II sired ISIS. Perhaps it is time to give wars a break.
The carving up of the Ottoman Empire after World War I left many countries in the Middle East with artificial borders. Winston Churchill boasted that he had created Jordan “with the stroke of a pen, one Sunday afternoon in Cairo.”
Many countries in the Middle East are ethnically fragile. Iraq is three countries: Shia Arabs (the majority), Kurds and Sunni Arabs, with a Christian and Yazidi minority. Syria has a Sunni Arab majority, Kurds and a Christian minority.
Brutal dictators had kept these countries together. Saddam Hussein, representing the Sunni minority, ruled over the majority Shias and Kurds in Iraq with an iron fist. Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, belonging to the minority Alawite sect, butchered thousands of their countrymen to maintain control over Sunni-majority Syria.
America spent billions of dollars, shed thousands of American lives to oust Saddam, rebuild Iraq and hold democratic elections that saw Nouri al-Maliki come to power. Maliki promoted the interests of the majority Shia Arabs exclusively. The Iraqi army is really a Shia militia, which petrifies the Sunnis. Out of the ashes of failed American policy arose ISIS.
Depending on their inherent complexities, societies evolve at their own pace. Some move slowly, like tectonic plates. If we attempt to speed those up, the fault lines within those societies surface. And some fault lines in the Middle East – tribalism and sectarianism, for example – predates and trumps love for Islam.
Middle Eastern nations generally have an innate mistrust of the West, and consequently the West's form of government, democracy. Although these nations are pluralistic, they remain far from embracing pluralism and true democracy.
While America emphasized democracy, it failed to appreciate that the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide is at the heart of the Iraqi conflict. Elections are not enough; for true democracy to flourish the majority must be inclusive of, and fair to their minorities.
Foreigners cannot want to defeat ISIS more than the natives. The duty to defeat ISIS falls on the Iraqis and Syrians. They must be as motivated as ISIS. They must stiffen their backbone and take ISIS head on. They face existential questions: Do they want to defeat ISIS and reclaim their countries? Or, do they want to live as ISIS's slaves?
Fakhruddin Ahmed is a Rhodes Scholar.