On September 10 President Obama delivered a televised address on the “Islamic State,” a.k.a. ISIS, a.k.a. ISIL, and America’s determination to defeat and destroy it. At the outset the President stated that “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.”
It may seem presumptuous for a U.S. President to pronounce on what is and is not true to a given religion – particularly since this President does not adhere to the religion in question. Political leaders, however, use words not primarily to describe the world as it is, but to move and steer people. A President must be a rhetorician or he is not much of a President. So we must receive this as a savvy piece of rhetoric, designed both to persuade non-Muslims and Muslims alike that ISIS is violating the tenets of Islam.
But what is the truth? Is ISIS Islamic?
Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is grounded in sacred texts, some passages of which call on the righteous to kill the unrighteous, others of which depict them doing so. Over the millennia, in various times and places adherents to all three of these religions have used these texts to justify their own violence. Yet, most Muslims, Christians, and Jews never kill innocent people, and the leading theologians and clergy of all three today certainly do not condone their doing so.
Modern history has been plagued by a number of ideologies that do condone the killing of innocents – although these took pains to portray the innocent as guilty. Nazism is the first to come to mind. Communism as practiced by Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot also is on the list. These were grand narratives that told people that their discontents were caused by some malignancy in the world, personified in a group of people, and that they needed to kill those people to rid the world of the malignancy.
We might think of these murderous ideologies as branches of trees. The branches sprout and flourish when some of the faithful come to believe that God’s plan requires, in the here and now, direct violent action by them to purify the world. Genocidal communism was a secular ideology, growing out of less lethal (although still oppressive) forms of communism. Nazism is best thought of as a pagan ideology, appealing to a mixture of pre-Christian myths and a de-Judaized “German Christianity.” Radical Islamism or violent jihadism, as practiced by ISIS, is an ideological branch of Islamism, itself an ideology that declares that the faithful must live under state-enforced Sharia. In turn, Islamism is a branch growing out of the religion of Islam.
Looked at in this way, Islam does not reduce to ISIS, nor does ISIS somehow express or reveal the essence of Islam. At the same time, it does grow out of Islam. President Obama’s attempt to separate the violent ideology from the religion could actually be harmful, because it implies that the West can defeat ISIS just as well as Muslims can. If it is nothing but a nihilistic movement, a collective psychopathy unrelated to Islam, then Arabs may as well stand aside and let America handle it.
The truth, then, is that although Obama and other Western leaders must keep their countries safe from terrorism, and join with Muslim leaders in defeating ISIS, in the end it is up to Muslims to destroy this virulent branch that is now attacking the trunk from which it grows.