ISIS Advances: How Islamic is the Islamic State?

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April 17, 2015

Today ISIS claimed responsibility for a car bombing near the U.S. consulate in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Yesterday, ISIS took over the eastern part of the city of Ramadi, in Iraq’s Anbar province.  Families with children could be seen carrying whatever they could, fleeing the city looking for safety in a very unsafe part of the world.

Reports of airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition have helped to slow the advance, but the facts are that ISIS is not fading into the night – they continue to attract fighters from Arab and Western countries – and ISIS terrorists are definitely on the offensive.

One of the question that keeps coming up is this: “Is ISIS really Islamic or are they just a perversion of peaceful Islam?” A few weeks ago, I was in Iraq and sat down with two individuals to discuss this question.  One is a journalist and former student of Islam, the other is an Imam and current Islamic scholar. Each had his on unique response to this question. Here is what they told me:

INTERVIEW WITH IBRAHIM HUSSEIN AHMED: JOURNALIST/FORMER STUDENT OF ISLAM (ERBIL, IRAQ) 

Is Islam a peaceful religion? 

“Your president Obama says that it is. But if Obama tells the truth that Islam is not a peaceful religion, he will engender outrage from much of the world. He can’t tell the truth.”

What about ISIS? Are they truly Islamic? 

“ISIS came from Islam. There are rules in Islam that allow ISIS to do what they are doing. ISIS didn’t come from another religion. There are contradictions in the Koran that create the problem. And ISIS takes advantage of these contradictions. Everyone can interpret as they want. In the history of Islam, what ISIS is doing now, they did this to Kurds – and they did it in the name of God, just as they are doing now.  They think  by doing this, they will go to paradise.

“It says this in Islam. Most people don’t have much information about the Koran. They think if it comes from God, it must be true and good. 

“When you read the Koran carefully you end up with two choices, you either become like ISIS or you will become like a Communist— you believe all religions are lies. This was my journey as I studied Islam. I saw all the requirements, what Islam really said and what they really wanted from those who followed Islam. I just couldn’t accept it.”

So what is the real Islam? 

“Most Muslims are confused about their beliefs and about what ISIS does. They need to read more. Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, burned another Muslim when Ali became a Caliph.  This is history. The Prophet Mohammad also burned Jews. 

“ISIS takes advantage of the Koran, the Hadith or even fatwas (religious rulings). Maybe in the case of burning the Jordanian pilot, they just assumed a fatwa.”

According to Ibrahim – it’s not just his view of Islam that comes under scrutiny. According to him there are many conspiracy theories suggesting that the US and Britain are supporting ISIS. Recently supplies were delivered to ISIS, but from whom? Is the US bombing ISIS or supporting them? What would be the advantage to the U.S of supporting ISIS? “Maybe,” according to Ibrahim, “The U.S. wants to push the war away from them and let recruits for ISIS go to Iraq and die there. Or maybe it’s just about creating a new map for the Middle East.” 

INTERVIEW WITH IMAM SAFA GHANM ABDULLAH/ISLAMIC SCHOLAR/LEADER IN LOCAL MOSQUE (ERBIL, IRAQ)

Let’s get right down to it: Is ISIS Islamic?

“They use the name. They use Islam. But what they are doing is not Islam.”

Is Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, qualified to lead a Caliphate?

“After Prophet Mohammed, there were four qualified leaders of a Caliphate. But after these four, no one is qualified unless there are elections.”

Do you want there to be another Caliphate? 

“We don’t need this because we have the Koran and the Hadith and also the Prophet said, after me, there are only two things we need to follow, the Hadith and the Koran. We can use that to construct our daily lives.”

What about the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot. What does the Koran say about that?

“Based on Islam, it is a peaceful religion. Even during wars and fights towards infidels, the Prophet told them not to kill the old or women, or children. Man is not to burn man, only God can do that.”

If someone converts from Islam to another religion, should that be permitted? Or should the person who converts be killed by the official Islamic Sharia government. 

“ISIS is a distortion of Islam – ISIS is distorting Islam and giving Islam a bad name. People are judging Muslims, even by their beards and they don’t feel free. A legitimate Islamic state would be impossible, it’s too hard to create this.” 

In January, eleven people who worked for the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered in Paris. The men responsible claimed to allegiance to al-Qaeda and ISIS. They justified their actions because the magazine published material insulting to Islam. How does Islam view free speech? 

“There is freedom of speech in Islam. There are examples of free speech in Islamic history. But Muhammad is not alive – you cannot write or say anything bad about him. The people who created the insulting images of the Prophet should have been tried in a court.”

In a court? Are you saying that the murderers should have been tried in court?

“No, the people who made the insulting comics should have been tried in court.”

Why would there have been a trial for those using freedom of speech in a country such as France? What they were publishing wasn’t illegal, even if that freedom offended others. 

“It should have been left to the courts.”

Then can you explain to me the difference between a Sharia government (where there is justification for cutting off hands, beheadings, stoning and the death penalty for leaving the Islamic faith) and what ISIS is doing? 

“It’s true about cutting off the hands. It is not practiced all the time – and should be done only by an Islamic state – by a legitimate Islamic state.” 

ISIS views themselves as a true, pure, accurate, legitimate Islamic state. What is the difference? 

“I’m sorry, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for prayers.” 

For the record, even with many followup questions, I could not get the Imam to say that murdering those who worked for the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris was wrong or an act of terror. Nor could I get him to clearly answer the question about the freedom of Muslims to convert to other religions or to clearly define the difference between ISIS and an Islamic Sharia government.  Also for the record, I am not a proponent of purposefully offending others, but I am a proponent of freedom of thought, belief and expression.

These are just two of the conversations that I had in Iraq – I had many other off-the-record conversations. It always seems to come down to how the Koran is interpreted and contextualized. If you are a literalist, you might end up in the camp of ISIS. If you have a broader interpretation of the Koran and Islam, you will probably consider it as peaceful. But as several people told me during my visit, many simply don’t know that much about what they believe.

*Again, many thanks to my friend, Ary Rasool for his invaluable help in setting up the interview with the Imam as well as a translator. 

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