By James Brandon
September 9, 2014
The last few weeks have seen a slew of Muslim condemnations of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
In the US, the Council for American-Islamic Relations called ISIS ‘un-Islamic and morally repugnant’. Arsalan Iftikhar, a well-known American Muslim writer, meanwhile wrote that ISIS should be called the ‘Un-Islamic State’. The Organisation of Islamic Conference has said that the ISIS’s killing of US journalist James Foley has ‘nothing to do with Islam’, while the Muslim Council of Britain has called ISIS ‘un-Islamic to the core’.
These are strong words and these condemnations are both welcome and well-intentioned however many such denunciations also deeply problematic.
Just as non-Muslims who try to tackle Islamism through defining moderate interpretations of Islam as the sole ‘true Islam’ actually undermine liberal Muslim attempts to develop a pluralist understanding of religion, so moderate Muslims’ use of Takfīr – the process of denouncing rival Muslims as apostates or non-Muslims – reinforces the ideological underpinnings of the very movements they are seeking to tackle.
Takfirism is the root and enabler of all modern Jihadism; Takfirist doctrine enables any ‘true’ Muslim to label those with a rival interpretation of Islam as no longer Muslim.
This, combined with traditional Islamic jurisprudence that mandates death for apostates, is taken by jihadists as an open license to denounce and then kill their enemies.
When moderate Muslim groups use Takfirism to tackle extremism, this dangerous and intrinsically intolerant doctrine is therefore not challenged but is instead reaffirmed. Illustrating this, one British fighter in Syria, explaining why he regarded the MCB as his enemies, said: ‘The Muslim Council of Britain, they are apostates, they are not Muslims”, ironically the same argument that the MCB itself makes against ISIS.
A better approach is to accept that Islamist extremists, however distasteful their view of Islam, remain Muslims, however much other Muslims, and non-Muslims, might dislike their version of Islam.
Traditionally, as long as a Muslim accepted the existence of a single God and that Mohammed was his final prophet, then he/she was a Muslim. Ironically, a return to this age-old ‘big tent’ approach – that both jihadists and ‘moderates’ are now trying to hastily jettison – is arguably a better way to tackle extremism than seeking to ‘Takfīr the Takfiris’.
It also goes without saying that in modern multi-cultural societies no respectable Muslim should be using ‘non-Muslim’ as a term of abuse against theological rivals; among other things this also perpetuates the stigmas against apostates (i.e. those Muslims who exercise their right to freedom of conscience by leaving Islam).
A further problem with the ‘jihadists are not Muslims’ argument is that when mainstream Muslims deny that extremists are also Muslims, extremist arguments are not engaged with but are instead left to fester.
Take, for example, militants’ fondness for beheading captives; jihadists typically justify this practice through referencing the Quranic verse 47:4 ‘when you meet those who disbelieve, strike at their necks’ (and variants of this, according to different translations), often supported by many centuries of warlike, and literally medieval, interpretations.
Rather than seeking to effectively re-contextualise and de-fang this verse for the modern era, a blunt rejection of those who cite it as non-Muslims removes all scope for critically engaging – and dismantling – their arguments. This ostrich approach that extremists’ actions ‘have nothing to do with Islam’ not only fails to recognise how deep-rooted some hard-line jihadist interpretations are, but it also effectively cedes such key theological battlefields to the extremists.
The cumulative effect of the above is damaging inaction; if ISIS and other extremists are not Muslims, then why should Muslims be involved in challenging them and their arguments? The Muslim Council of Britain’s recent statement that ISIS ‘has been repudiated by all Muslims’ is a case in point; if all Muslims have rejected the group then there is nothing for more moderate Muslims to do.
Equally counter-productive is the Muslim Association of Britain’s recent press-release which condemns ISIS but also suggests the group are not only not Muslim but are part of an (undefined) plot to damage Islam: ‘The group is purposely doing severe damage to the reputation of Muslims across the world and is attempting to defame the image of Islam.’
It is useful to consider how effective anti-racism campaigns would be if they had followed the same tactics (‘Nick Griffin? We really don’t consider him to be English because he’s adopted many foreign practices. The BNP? Oh, they’re part of an insidious plot by foreigners to damage Britain.’).
On the contrary, effective counter-racism work has always involved identifying, countering, modifying or openly rejecting a range of traditional cultural practices, narratives and ideas; counter-radicalisation work in Muslim communities should be no different.
Accepting that Islamist extremists are also Muslims, and that aspects of their ideology are deeply entrenched in Islamic tradition, is an essential first step.
James Brandon is an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR). He was formerly the director of research at Quilliam, the counter-extremism think tank