Can we separate ISIS from Islam? Politically correct dehyphenation won't work

Trying to dehyphenate Islam from ISIS's terrorism is a copout and unlikely to delegitimise this terrorist organisation. As long as holy books are used to perpetrate terror, using the same holy books to counter them will be infructuous.

R Jagannathan July 02, 2015 07:45:44 IST
Can we separate ISIS from Islam? Politically correct dehyphenation won't work

The world is in denial about the reality of Islamic terrorism by trying to dehypenate the two – the Islamic part from the terrorism. At a time when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or simply Islamic State, uses holy texts to behead women for “sorcery”, kill Muslims for not fasting during Ramzan, or launch terrorist attacks against “infidels” in several countries simultaneously (France, Tunisia and Kuwait were targets last week), it is disingenuous to pretend that this violence is unrelated to the faith.

Commonsense tells us that when an act is committed in the name of a religion – and additionally justified by quotes from scripture – it has to be called by the right name. But this is what everybody is in denial about.

Last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron criticised the BBC for even using the term “Islamic State.” He said: "I wish the BBC would stop calling it 'Islamic State' because it is not an Islamic state. What it is is an appalling, barbarous regime that is a perversion of the religion of Islam and many Muslims listening to this programme will recoil every time they hear the words.”

Can we separate ISIS from Islam Politically correct dehyphenation wont work

Islamic State fighters in a recent video. AFP

Certainly, most Muslims would be horrified to hear about the crimes being committed by ISIS in Islam’s name. But how can Cameron deny the basics: ISIS is motivated by Islamic texts, and since it controls territory, it is also a ‘state’.

President Obama, when he vowed to destroy ISIS last year after it started beheading some of its captives, also claimed that the organisation was not ‘Islamic’. “No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s (another abbreviation for Islamic State] victims have been Muslim.”

Sure, it is right to avoid tarring all believers in Islam for the acts of a few, but to go to the other extreme and claim that acts perpetrated by ISIS based on its own interpretation of the Koran are not Islamic is foolish. In fact, this is a copout that prevents ordinary Muslims from separating their religion from temporal action – a condition vital for the secularisation of Islam.

Christianity learnt it the hard way after pointless crusades, perennial violence involving church and state, the rise of scientific temper, the reformation, and the enlightenment.

Islam, unfortunately, is yet to go through this process. The mindless atrocities unleashed not just by ISIS, but al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, LeT, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and even Indian Mujahideen, stands testimony to this reality.

Ordinary Muslims are still conflicted about the centrality of religion in their lives. As long as they remain so, an Islamic State will find traction. Jihadists are created not merely by brainwashing those who are inclined towards violence, but by the silent majority’s unwillingness to stop using the Koran and the Prophet’s life to justify everyday actions.

This is why the recent “open letter” sent by 126 Muslim scholars and clerics to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called Caliph of the so-called Islamic State, that his version of Islam is wrong will fail (Read about this open letter here). If Islamic State uses the Koran to justify its violence, it stands to reason that the same Koran cannot be used to counter them. Who can decide which interpretation is right? Once you use a religious book to justify temporal action, good or bad, you cannot defeat jihadism. Jihadism can be defeated only by common sense and the use of reason, especially when religious texts are often confusing, and possibly relevant only to particular contexts.

The Bhagavad Gita, which is Lord Krishna’s sermon on the eve of the Kurukshetra war to a confused Arjuna, cannot be used as justification for war-mongering in general. It contains high truths, but it is not applicable to all human situations in all times. For that we have to use our heads, not our faith.

The same applies to Islam and the Koran. The Somali Muslim apostate, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, recently wrote a book (Heretic) which calls for an Islamic reformation. She urges Muslims to avoid considering the Prophet’s words and acts as unquestionable, or that the Koran is the final word on what is right or wrong.

Of course, this ain’t going to happen. The leap is too great for ordinary Muslims, brought up from birth on the simple belief that “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammed is his messenger”. This faith can lead the silent majority to keep quiet while Islamic State claims divine sanction for its brutality, including the recent murderous attacks on infidels of various kinds.

The lack of tolerance for people who question faith sent Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Sai’d (or Adonis) into exile from his homeland. The Indian Express recently interviewed him on the cycle of violence in West Asia that never seems to end.

This is what he had to say: “At the base of this violence is the monotheistic vision of the human and the world. Each monotheistic religion considers it holds the key to the truth and believes it is the only truth and if you are against this truth you are against the religion. The human being becomes almost a slave working only for the religion, whereas the larger vision is that religion exists for the human being, not the other way.”

This is really the crux – for Islam, or any religion, for that matter. It does not matter what you want to believe, but if you forget that religion exists for humans and not the other way around, you are likely to be manipulated by forces whose only goal is violence and power.

We have a tendency to see alleged insults to our religion as something that demands a reaction, possibly with violence. The rogue elements know this, but it is upto ordinary people to realise that they are being used. Hindus are not insulted if someone criticises their gods or their religion; as many others have pointed out, surely god can take care of himself/herself.

The same applies to Islam. Islamic State will vanish the minute ordinary Muslims realise that their faith is something personal – not a call to violence against imaginary enemies. There is also no such thing as true Islam – for religious books can often be contradictory. Anyone claiming one version as true Islam is likely to be wrong. The idea of Pakistan as an Islamic state floundered when it came to defining true Islam. Today, only Wahabi/Salafist Islam seems true to some Islamists – and they are killing other varieties of Islam. The fact is anyone can read holy books and derive different meanings from them to justify peace or violence, to extol slavery or defend debauchery.

There is no true Islam, or true Hinduism or true Christianity. But there is something called true compassion and true human values. It doesn’t require the killing or intimidation of those who don’t agree with you.

The key is to stop using holy books to counter terrorism and violence. If you do, the terrorist can quote chapter and verse to prove the opposite. Holy books are not the route to eliminating unholy terror.

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