Is it wrong to acknowledge the Islamic component of the self-described Islamic State, or ISIS?
President Barack Obama is following a well-intentioned but perilously misguided path in his determination to sever the repulsive ISIS from its undeniable ties to a faith embraced by a more than a billion people.
The president’s concerns are valid. The overwhelming majority of Muslims reject ISIS and its barbaric tactics, and there is a very real risk that all Muslims could be unfairly victimized by the revulsion that ISIS engenders.
In addition, Obama worries that every time we mention the “Islamic” aspect of ISIS we are helping the terrorist group gain legitimacy as a representative of the Muslim people.
There, too, his concerns are not unfounded. After all, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has anointed himself Caliph, the leader of all Muslims.
And yet, Obama’s efforts are counterproductive in many ways.
First, by declaring ISIS “not Muslim” and by refusing to call the campaign against the group a war against Islamist radicals — the administration calls it CVE, for Countering Violent Extremism — he is obviously being disingenuous.
Obama correctly says “We are not in a war against Islam.” That is absolutely true, and it bears repeating.
But defeating ISIS will require two parallel battles, one on the military battlefield, another in the realm of ideologies.
ISIS is an Islamist group. There is no denying that. Its interpretation of Islamic scriptures and traditions is ultra-radical, sharply different from that of most Muslims, but it lies at the core of everything it does.
In my travels through the Muslim world I was frequently told that in order to become a Muslim all that would be required of me is to recite the Shahada, the Testimony of Faith, saying that there is only one God, and Mohammed is his prophet. Clearly, ISIS qualifies by that most basic standard.
The issue is its interpretation of the faith and its goals.
ISIS seeks to turn back the clock to the 7th century, to resume Islamic conquests of territory, as Mohammed’s followers did at that time, to subject Muslims to their radical views of how to be a Muslim, to their crude and brutal justice, which includes killing those they consider apostates, which includes Shiite Muslims, others who don’t follow their path and anyone who supports modernity.
ISIS is obsessed with explaining every one of its actions by the Quran and the Hadiths. It claims that all it does is in keeping with Islamic law.
Its Islamist motivations guide its strategic advances, its tactical moves and its ideological appeal.
When Obama rejects or dismisses the ISIS connection to Islam, he denies modern Muslims, the majority of Islam’s followers, the opportunity to challenge ISIS’s ideology, to refute it and reject it, and to convince other Muslims that ISIS got it wrong.
When Obama attempts to sever the link between ISIS and Islam he shuts down the ideological debate even before it begins, undermining the moderates’ opportunity to win the debate about how to be a good Muslim.
Denying that ISIS is Muslim is like denying that the Crusades or the Inquisition were Christian.
How can we understand the Inquisition, how can we begin to comprehend the Crusades without acknowledging the pivotal role of religion, of Christianity, in their unfolding?
Pretending that ISIS’ religious overtones are not at the center of its ideology is transparently disingenuous. It is dishonest.
Muslims know the truth. ISIS has embraced one of countless interpretations of Islamic doctrine and Islamic prophecy.
Theirs happens to be an extraordinarily dangerous current, but also one that appeals to many people around the world.
Some 20,000 Muslims from across the globe have already converged on the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields to join ISIS.
By accepting that religion does play a major role, anti-ISIS strategists can also gain an advantage, forecasting the militia’s next move, because ISIS uses Islamic scripture as a military roadmap.
That’s why we know ISIS has Rome in its sights, and why we can predict ISIS wants Jerusalem as its final battle.
ISIS represents only ISIS. Its sins should absolutely not be blamed on the world’s Muslims who, after all, are ISIS’ principal victims.
Islam is not the enemy. Islam is not the target. ISIS is.
But denying the truth about the organization prevents the rest of the world from truly understanding ISIS, which is indispensable to defeating it.