Let me begin by stating the obvious: not all Muslims are extremists, nor do all Muslims condone violence or terrorism.
One need not look past the beautiful poetry of Rumi or Hafez to verify this fact. However, that does not mean that Jihadists are not Muslims. Many people mistakenly think that radical Islam is not really Islam. They think that Islam is a religion of peace. It is not a religion of peace, nor is it a religion of terror. It is a religion rooted in the Quran and the Hadith, both of which have peaceful and violent elements. It is how Muslims interpret their sacred books and express their beliefs that ultimately define Islam.
In the end, Islam is what Muslims do.
On one hand the Quran teaches that, “Allah enjoins justice, and the doing of good to others,” but it also encourages Muslims to “kill the idolaters wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush.” It is just as ridiculous to say that radical Islam is not really Islam as it is to say that the theology of Jihadists is representative of all Muslims.
Extremism is rooted in a interpretation of the Quran. It is by no means the only interpretation, but it is one interpretation. There are kind, loving Muslims—hundreds of millions of them—that use the Quran to promote peace and tolerance, but there are also hundreds of millions of Muslims that want the world to be ruled by Islamic law and tens of millions of violent Muslims that are willing to fight for that cause. And the Quran does give them ground to stand on.
The Quran is not the only sacred book that lends itself to violence.
The Bible also has some pretty sinister stuff in it: it prescribes death to both homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13) and adulterers (Leviticus 20:10), and promotes both slavery (Ephesians 6:5) and genocide (1 Samuel 15:3). So why is radicalization and terrorism such a pervasive problem in Islam, but not in the West?
The relationship between government and religion is a contentious subject in the Islamic world. While a majority of Muslims worldwide support some degree of separation between religion and the state (especially Muslims in the developed world), a sizable minority see political and spiritual authority as one and the same thing. This sizable minority becomes a majority when you focus on Muslim nations in North Africa and the Middle East. And their opinion is not unfounded.
Religious and political authority has always been intertwined in Islam. The role of the prophet Muhammed as both the spiritual and temporal leader of his people has led many Muslims to the belief that there is no difference between temporal and spiritual authority. However, the argument for an Islamic State is reinforced, not only by the life story of the prophet Mohammed, but by the line of succeeding caliphs, and conveniently interpreted passages from the Quran and Hadith (a collection of supposed quotations from the Prophet on a given subject).
In countries where this argument is accepted or the sizable minority advocating for a theocratic government resorts to violence as a final measure of persuasion, not only is Islam’s theology installed as the official state religion, but often times an antiquated penal code becomes the law of the land.
Religions evolve and they can overcome the archaic and barbaric passages buried within their scriptures, but not in a political environment that is defined by the incestuous power structure of a theocratic government.
In a theocratic government, the official state theology is the metric that determines what is just and legal; scripture or the people charged with the task of interpreting it are enshrined as the ultimate authority and therefore there is nothing that stands outside of scripture to check its power or objectively measure its value. The separation between religion and government in a secular society forces the religion to struggle against egalitarian laws that protect all citizens, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or belief. As a result, the religion parts ways with those antiquated values and adopts more equitable points of view. It forces the religion to set aside outdated moral values, seek alternative interpretations to scripture, or at least discard the violent actions associated with those ideas and adopt beliefs and behaviors that are acceptable under the rule of secular law.
Like the Quran, the Bible lends itself to violence and extremism, but Jews and Christians are not currently waging systematic, violent campaigns in the name of God. Once again, this is not because the Bible is above violence or immorality, but because violent extremism has been subdued in the West by secular government and ethics. It was egalitarian law that put an end to slavery, which was justified by the Christian Bible. There are Jews and Christians that still hold radical points of view, but secularism and the rule of law have, over the years, discouraged the associated behavior. As a result, there is still racism, but not slavery or Jim Crow. This type of social transformation cannot take place in a theocratic government such as the Islamic State.
Secularism and the democratic rule of law are principles that Islamist reject.
Democratic elections put the laws of man before the laws of God, according to the Islamic State’s Sharia and is therefore apostasy, which is punishable by death. Obviously, not all Muslims reject secular government. This is especially true in the West where an overwhelming number of Muslims prefer secular government. But the number of Muslims throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and on into Pakistan and Afghanistan that believe Sharia law is the inspired word of God is well over 50 percent. In other words, they believe that Sharia was given to man directly by God and is therefore the timeless law to which all of mankind is suppose to submit.
Remember, Islam is a religion of 1.6 billion people. In a sample of this size—North Africa to Pakistan—50% is no small number. We are talking about hundreds of millions of people that literally believe that Sharia law was dictated to man by a divine authority and is therefore not to be discarded or alternatively interpreted. To give that even more context, hundreds of millions of Islamists believe that 100 lashes is a just punishment for premarital sex, stoning is an appropriate reaction to adultery, or that apostasy is punishable by death, while a smaller number—nearly 200 million Jihadists—are willing to fight to make that a reality.
It is true that these radical points of view do not represent the sum total of Islamic teaching, nor do they reflect Islam’s core spiritual values. However, they are an example of medieval Islamic law and social teaching. And there is the real source of friction within Islam: the conflict is between those that view Islam as a source of personal spirituality and those that see Islam primarily as a political force. The conflict is between what might be called spiritual Muslims and political Islamists. A spiritual Muslim is someone that turns to Islam in search of salvation, peace, deeper understanding about who they are and their place in the world. An Islamist is an individual that sees Islam as a political movement and prefers to live in an Islamic state governed by Sharia law, though not all Islamists are willing to go to war to realize that goal. A Jihadist not only wants to live in an Islamic state governed by Sharia law, they are willing to fight for it. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is an invitation to the Islamists and Jihadists of the Muslim world to come and establish a caliphate, an Islamic state governed exclusively by Sharia law.
In the West, we tend to think of ISIS as a terror organization, but they are much more than that. A caliphate and a terrorist organization are two fundamentally different things. This is something that Westerners really need to understand. A caliphate poses a much greater risk, both for people living in the region and the greater international community. First, the founding of an Islamic State would be the establishment of a guaranteed safe haven for terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra, and Al-Shabaab. Second, the aim of the Islamic State is to establish a sovereign nation governed exclusively by Sharia law and ruled by a caliph or religious and political leader. It is an invitation to hundreds of millions of Islamists and Jihadists—who are currently disorganized and spread across the globe—to gather together under one flag and organize their efforts.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the leader of ISIS. He claims to be a caliph and ISIS is an aspiring caliphate. While the vast majority of Muslims reject this claim, it is an appealing claim to the hundreds of millions of radical Islamists and Jihadists. The caliphatic call of ISIS serves as a beacon for Muslim extremists and jihadists all over the world. It is a summons to migrate to an Indiana sized swath of land in Syria and Iraq and fight for the one true faith. In fact, Jihadists believe that they are obligated under Islamic law to join and fight for the caliphate. In addition to the roughly 170,000 native Jihadists, the call to defend the caliphate against the infidels has been answered by perhaps as many as 30,000 foreign radicals to date. Everyday ISIS sends out that calipahtic beacon their numbers swell and the task of confronting them becomes even more daunting.
Nonviolence and diplomacy are effective tools when dealing with civilized people. Gandhi and Martin Luther King were successful, but they were dealing with the British and American governments respectively. ISIS is not civilized. They are barbaric. They literally live in the seventh century. ISIS has used their literalist interpretations of the Quran and Hadith to install an oppressive Sharia that promotes a theology of rape, slavery, chauvinism, and violence. If left unchecked, not only will their numbers continue to grow as radicals from around the world come to join the caliphate in their fight against the infidels, but they will continue to sell thousands of women into the sex trade in order to help fund the wholesale slaughter of innocent men, women, and children.
Military intervention is the only thing that will stop ISIS.
Few argue that nonviolent diplomacy would be an effective strategy in dealing with ISIS, but many non-interventionists have argued that it is not our fight. This is irresponsible. It does not matter whose fight it is when a group of people are engaging in the mass slaughter of tens of thousands of people, abducting children—conscripting the boys into the army and selling little girls along with their mothers into the sex trade. Furthermore, when millions of refugees are risking their life to flee the region in search of safe haven, the nations receiving those refugees have to intervene, because they cannot continue to accommodate that flood of people—not to mention that the flood of people poses a security risk in-and-of itself.
Others have argued that our previous expeditions in the region are responsible for the radicalization of Islam. While the American invasion of Iraq and the subsequent overthrow of Saddam Hussein undoubtedly destabilized the region, which created the necessary conditions for ISIS to emerge, it would be mistake to assume that Western foreign policy is responsible for radical Islam. This theory does not explain why ISIS has killed 5,000 Yazidi people or abducted 7,000 Yazidi women. Nor does it explain why ISIS believes that more than 200 million Shiites should be executed because they are apostates. The Islamic State’s disdain for the Shia goes back to the day after the prophet Mohammed died, when the Sunnis and Shiites clashed over who was the rightful successor to the Prophet. Needless to say, the Americans were not involved.
The truth is that the Islamic State hates America and her allies for far more fundamental reasons than foreign policy.
The Islamic State hates America because it loves its religion.
ISIS views democracy, secularism, free speech, and egalitarianism as apostasy and heresy because these institutions put the laws of man before the laws of God. In their mind, freedom is godlessness masquerading as righteousness, and they feel obligated by their Sharia to put an end to this charade. This was the motive behind the Charlie Hebdo attacks. From our point of view, the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were exercising their freedom of speech. In the mind of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the cartoonists openly defied the divine law of God, which he not only believes is punishable by death, but by the same law, he feels personally obligated to administer the punishment.
Just to be clear: military intervention can defeat ISIS, but it cannot defeat radical Islam. Military intervention addresses the immediate concern—ISIS—but it does not address the underlying concern that originally bred ISIS, which is the relationship between fundamentalism and political Islam that breeds extremist movements like ISIS. Only secular government and the rule of egalitarian law can weed out extremism from the Muslim world. Ultimately, the strength of a government rests with its ability to enforce its laws. Radical Islam will continue to thrive throughout North Africa and the Middle East until those nations install and enforce laws that respect the rights of women and religious and ethnic minorities.
The West cannot force such a transformation. We can encourage it by denying aid and support to nations that rule with the iron fist of theocracy, but we cannot reorganize the ecclesiastical structure of Islam and expect no one to notice. When we prop up a moderate Imam, the people in the area know that he is not their Imam. We have tried to promote moderate clerics and establish more moderate madrasahs, none of it has worked. The solution lies, not in the West propping up more moderate religious institutions, but in Islamist countries shifting to a secular approach to government, supporting neither radical nor moderate clerics.
The solution is a separation between church and state.
I know that a huge chunk of the migrants are also fleeing Bashar al-Assad. I am not defending Assad, nor am I minimizing the threat he poses. I am simply suggesting that ISIS must be addressed first for two reasons. First, ISIS would raise their flag over Damascus, if they could, and they will be able to, if Assad’s government crumbles. Second, deposing Assad is complicated by his long time ally, Russia.
Author: Benjamin Riggs
Editor: Travis May
Image: Wikipedia Commons