By denouncing ISIS as ‘not Muslims’, moderate Muslims risk making things worse

When moderate Muslim groups use takfirism to tackle extremism, this intolerant doctrine is not challenged but reaffirmed.

When moderate Muslim groups use takfirism to tackle extremism, this intolerant doctrine is not challenged but reaffirmed

The last few weeks have seen a slew of Muslim condemnations of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In the US, the Council for American-Islamic Relations called ISIS ‘un-Islamic and morally repugnant’. Arsalan Iftikhar, a well-known American Muslim writer, meanwhile wrote that ISIS should be called the ‘Un-Islamic State’. The Organisation of Islamic Conference has said that the ISIS’s killing of US journalist James Foley has ‘nothing to do with Islam’, while the Muslim Council of Britain has called ISIS ‘un-Islamic to the core’.

These are strong words and these condemnations are both welcome and well-intentioned. However, many such denunciations also deeply problematic.

Just as non-Muslims who try to tackle Islamism through defining moderate interpretations of Islam as the sole ‘true Islam’ actually undermine liberal Muslim attempts to develop a pluralist understanding of religion, so moderate Muslims’ use of takfir – the process of denouncing rival Muslims as apostates or non-Muslims – reinforces the ideological underpinnings of the very movements they are seeking to tackle.

Takfirism is the root and enabler of all modern jihadism; takfirist doctrine enables any ‘true’ Muslim to label those with a rival interpretation of Islam as no longer Muslim.

This, combined with traditional Islamic jurisprudence that mandates death for apostates, is taken by jihadists as an open license to denounce and then kill their enemies.

When moderate Muslim groups use takfirism to tackle extremism, this dangerous and intrinsically intolerant doctrine is therefore not challenged but is instead reaffirmed. Illustrating this, one British fighter in Syria, explaining why he regarded the MCB as his enemies, said: ‘The Muslim Council of Britain, they are apostates, they are not Muslims”, ironically the same argument that the MCB itself makes against ISIS.

A better approach is to accept that Islamist extremists, however distasteful their view of Islam, remain Muslims, however much other Muslims, and non-Muslims, might dislike their version of Islam.

Traditionally, as long as a Muslim accepted the existence of a single God and that Mohammed was his final prophet, then he/she was a Muslim. Ironically, a return to this age-old ‘big tent’ approach – that both jihadists and ‘moderates’ are now trying to hastily jettison – is arguably a better way to tackle extremism than seeking to ‘takfir the takfiris’.

It also goes without saying that in modern multi-cultural societies no respectable Muslim should be using ‘non-Muslim’ as a term of abuse against theological rivals; among other things this also perpetuates the stigmas against apostates (i.e. those Muslims who exercise their right to freedom of conscience by leaving Islam).

A further problem with the ‘jihadists are not Muslims’ argument is that when mainstream Muslims deny that extremists are also Muslims, extremist arguments are not engaged with but are instead left to fester.

Take, for example, militants’ fondness for beheading captives; jihadists typically justify this practice through referencing the Quranic verse 47:4 ‘when you meet those who disbelieve, strike at their necks’ (and variants of this, according to different translations), often supported by many centuries of warlike, and literally medieval, interpretations.

Rather than seeking to effectively re-contextualise and de-fang this verse for the modern era, a blunt rejection of those who cite it as non-Muslims removes all scope for critically engaging – and dismantling – their arguments. This ostrich approach that extremists’ actions ‘have nothing to do with Islam’ not only fails to recognise how deep-rooted some hardline jihadist interpretations are, but it also effectively cedes such key theological battlefields to the extremists.

The cumulative effect of the above is damaging inaction; if ISIS and other extremists are not Muslims, then why should Muslims be involved in challenging them and their arguments? The Muslim Council of Britain’s recent statement that ISIS ‘has been repudiated by all Muslims’ is a case in point; if all Muslims have rejected the group then there is nothing for more moderate Muslims to do.

Equally counter-productive is the Muslim Association of Britain’s recent press-release which condemns ISIS but also suggests the group are not only not Muslim but are part of an (undefined) plot to damage Islam: ‘The group is purposely doing severe damage to the reputation of Muslims across the world and is attempting to defame the image of Islam.’

It is useful to consider how effective anti-racism campaigns would be if they had followed the same tactics (‘Nick Griffin? We really don’t consider him to be English because he’s adopted many foreign practices. The BNP? Oh, they’re part of an insidious plot by foreigners to damage Britain.’).

On the contrary, effective counter-racism work has always involved identifying, countering, modifying or openly rejecting a range of traditional cultural practices, narratives and ideas; counter-radicalisation work in Muslim communities should be no different.

Accepting that Islamist extremists are also Muslims, and that aspects of their ideology are deeply entrenched in Islamic tradition, is an essential first step.

James Brandon is an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR). He was formerly the director of research at Quilliam, the counter-extremism think tank

110 Responses to “By denouncing ISIS as ‘not Muslims’, moderate Muslims risk making things worse”

  1. KayDeeCincy

    Calling the actions, speech, & goals of ISIS “un-Islamic” does not mean that one is declaring they are not Muslim. It simply means that one is declaring that ISIS’s actions are not sanctioned by the teaching of the religion. Many people engage in actions that are antithetical to the faith teachings they claim, but that doesn’t take them outside the community of believers.So unless someone actually says “ISIS members are not Muslim” they have not declared takfir on them. And unless a Muslim declares rejection of belief in One God and Prophet Muhammad that person has not apostated from the religion of Islam. No matter how harshly the Muslim community and the world community judge the actions of ISIS, God’s judgment on them on the Day of Judgment will be perfect and complete and full justice will be meted out to them.

  2. greg

    That isn’t how it’s working in practice though is it (ignoring the nonsense about an afterlife)? If it was then the Sunnis and Shias wouldn’t be at each other’s throats.

  3. tigerlily

    “Accepting that Islamist extremists are also Muslims, and that aspects of their ideology are deeply entrenched in Islamic tradition, is an essential first step. “If only the British ‘left’ had acknowledging this critical fact instead of continually arguing the exact opposite for so many many years we might not be where we are with British Islam right now. Obviously THIS is how bad it has to get. And the same statement must apply to the other noxious aspects of Muslim culture we all know about – say abuse of females for example.

  4. tigerlily

    But in simply declaring such actions ‘un-Islamic’ they are still failing to actually deal with the issues – there needs to be a long in-depth serious honest debate between ALL Muslims about aspects of the Koran and ‘true’ Islam and how these aspects have created the fertile ground from which extremism, abuse, division, violence and wars have grown – and will continue to grow if the root issues within the Koran and Islam are not faced up to and dealt with.

  5. greg

    It is amazing, if not surprising, quite how ‘No True Scotsman’ is one of the single defining religious fallacies of the modern era.

    It lets you keep your religion as the one true religion and not at all have to admit it’s fallible an the work of a bunch of men from centuries ago. If you don’t think that then you close off radically different interpretations while denouncing people who modern society have decided act in a wholly inappropriate way (generally although sometimes the reverse) because of the teachings of their religious text as they see it.

    It’s also worth noting that literalism is a particular problem in Islam that Muslims need to address. Nowadays the majority of Christians and Jews do not take their books literally (only a fringe group do) and understand them as stories of their time, they take them as allegory etc divinely inspired but not literal, which has helped (slowly) take the sting out of most of those those who are Christians and Jews. That includes the Catholics and main Protestant churches as well. Yet in Islam, even in those raised in Western countries if you are observant then you are likely to believe in literalism. That is not going to help anyone.

    If Muslims want to believe in fairy stories then fine, however they really should have an intellectual movement that helps reconcile Muslims with the fact that the Quran and Hadith are non-literal, at best flawed and in a lot of places (particularly rules or commands) should be actively ignored because they are morally reprehensible and incompatible with a modern world. No muslim should want Sharia, or the veil or whatever any more than Jews and Christians want people stoned to death for wearing the wrong cloth or menstruating women shunned.

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