It’s a distinguishing fact of human psychology that people hate to be stereotyped, but love stereotyping others.
In today’s context, the issue of whether or not the Islamic State, a group of radical extremists terrorizing the Middle East, can be considered “Muslim” is at the forefront of a debate that’s taking place across the world. In the United States, the conversation became even more heated after President Obama remarked that “ISIL is not ‘Islamic'” but a “terrorist organization, pure and simple.”
If taken literally, Obama’s claim is dubious. The Atlantic ran a cover story by Graeme Wood that essentially debunked the idea. Like it or not, Wood argued, ISIS is Islamic, in that they derive their ideology – however warped – from Islamic teachings.
The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.
Members of ISIS certainly believe they are Muslim and acting in strict concordance with that ideology.
A more careful reading of Obama’s remarks, however, suggests that he wasn’t arguing that the members of ISIS aren’t Muslims (as conservative media attacked him for), but that when you think of Islam, you would be remiss to view it as symbolized in ISIS. They may be Muslims, but they are certainly no ambassadors for Islam – the faith that over 1 billion people on Earth worship.
Furthermore, ISIS has positioned itself as conquerors, targeting weak areas in wartorn countries and quickly seizing land. Their behavior is driven not just by Islam, but by the practical concerns of a nascent group trying to gain power. It’s no secret that much of what ISIS does is driven by monetary concerns. They seize oil refineries, poppy fields, banks vaults, and hostages in order to enrich themselves and increase their might. Ignoring that motivation means making a huge mistake.
Enter former basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, himself a Muslim, who made the point with a profound eloquence.
While speaking to MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Abdul-Jabbar said viewing ISIS as representing Islam would be like viewing the Ku Klux Klan as representing Christianity. Both groups derive their ideologies from religion, but neither can be said to make a claim for the vast majority of people within them.
“You can make parallels to things that have happened here in America. Like the Ku Klux Klan saying they are the Christian knights,” Abdul-Jabbar pointed out. “And they do not practice Christianity.”
In much the same way as ISIS, the KKK and other hate groups have always used religion as a way of justifying atrocities and hatred towards other groups.
“People use that as an excuse. It’s not an excuse, it’s no excuse and oppressing one group means that we have to look out, all groups have to get together to fight that type of oppression, because we all should be free.”
In this way, these hate groups have more in common than different. One need only to look at historical examples to find ample proof that Christian groups were capable of savagery that ISIS would recognize in their own. If people point to the fact that the KKK is (relatively) muted in recent decades, the thanks lies squarely with moderate people pushing society towards no longer tolerating the group’s terrorism. The KKK didn’t suddenly grow a sense of morality – they were aggressively suppressed by the people and the United States government until they were a non-factor.
Dismantling the KKK didn’t require the destruction of Christianity, but rather a shift from the virulently toxic form advocated by the hate group towards a more tolerant one. If ISIS is to be defeated, the goal has to be similar. Condemning all Muslims in an effort to cleanse the world of ISIS would be similarly unachievable, and ultimately foolish.
Featured image via screengrab