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

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

  1. tigerlily

    Just out of interest why would you care how Koran/Quran etc is spelt since the actual thing itself doesn’t even use the alphabet?

  2. tigerlily

    Also why do Muslims keep saying there are ‘a billion’ of them – exactly what point are you making there? Eg it means there are circa 6 billion who are not Muslim….?

  3. tigerlily

    Another question – when we have taken away all the self-identifying Muslims who don’t conform to your version of ‘true Islam’ and are therefore by your definition not Muslims – how many of that figure of 1 billion (or 2 billion you later quote) are really Muslim?

  4. GregAbdul

    (smile) Tiger, I break Islamic rules sometimes. If I am going to be here eating up time, I am required to be nice. I think I told you white America has an Adam complex, which means they think it is their God given duty to name everything, even if the thing already has a name. The actual Quran (glad you know the difference) does use alphabet, but it’s Arabic letters and words. there are 31 letters and some of them have English equivalents or at least approximations. Our book, the word for it begins with a letter pronounce “cough.” We write it Qaf. It’s an Arabic Q. Another little detail is there is no O in Arabic. Please let us tell you. We know and study it. The fake experts/really are bigots spreading hate gets so old.

  5. tigerlily

    I would say that there are plenty of Christians who take the Bible literally but the Bible includes the New Testament which pretty much ‘abrogates’ the violence etc of the Old Testament leading Christians to view the OT stories – as you say – as historically true but meant only as allegorical lessons for the believer. Jews generally seem to have arrived at a sane interpretation very successfully – also, even if they hadn’t, the fact they are non-proselytising means there would never be enough of them to cause such widespread strife. Islam of course has neither of those two ‘saving graces’.

  6. tigerlily

    But why would you expect non Muslims to conform to your own Muslim preferences? Do you particularly make an effort to follow every detail of other religions in such a way or of the preferences of others in general?

  7. tigerlily

    There are similar passages in the OT but they are superseded by the New Testament which means that they are taken as allegorical lessons from historical events by Christians. Christ’s example was 100% peaceful to the extent that when Peter struck the guards ear off with a sword Jesus miraculously restored it and even of course went deliberately to Jerusalem knowing he would be crucified. He lived his own admonition to ‘turn the other cheek’. This was one of the core themes of his teaching which runs throughout the NT. So whether you believe the NT is historically correct or not that is the text that Christians follow….

  8. tigerlily

    Also the English spellings for Koran/Quran etc would have been created long before Muslims had any significant presence in Northern Europe. A person of British heritage (I cannot speak for any other) will tend to pronounce it the same however it is spelt.

  9. GregAbdul

    my first comment says I can’t kick anyone out. When a Christian commits a crime, usually that criminal isn’t excommunicated just before sentencing. In fact, missionaries work at every jail in America. So a Muslim can be a criminal, just like a Christian can be a criminal. In both cases, it does not reflect on anyone’s religion. There is a double standard here and it only exists because of prejudice. ISIS is not representative of true Islam. As individual Muslims, I will speak for myself. We pray five times a day because we are sinners. I do things wrong and bad all the time. In our faith we don’t “confess our sins” to anyone except God. But we all constantly gather and pray and we are supposed to know we are cleansing our constant sins. Obviously some sins are bigger than others. Rape and murder in Islam are a big deal, usually dealt with through capital punishment.

  10. GregAbdul

    we are headed towards two billion. Our world population and our American populations grow by the day.

  11. GregAbdul

    you are engaged in thinking that says I don’t have a right to any religion that is not white approved. I wish you wouldn’t do it. Ask me about Islam. Ask me about the Quran…BUT WHEN YOU ATTEMPT TO TELL ME MY FAITH, YOU DENY MY HUMANITY. ..and like I said, incidentally this has racial dimensions…Christianity is white and Islam is not white….

  12. Mark

    This “intolerant toilet” you mention. Let me clarify. Is it the simple opinion that religious scripture can be used any way anyone wants, if they choose to do so?

  13. tigerlily

    And…………….?! Also that figure (which you have grossly exaggerated anyway as we both know) would include all the people who by your definition are not really Muslims but just think they are (so maybe take out all the Shias and Ahmadis for a start)…….unless you’ve been conducting your own surveys?

  14. Mark

    Your first sentence is nonsense. I haven’t said anything of the sort. Also, I don’t tell you your faith. Also, both religions have their base in the middle east. Whatever they have become in terms of who practices, is not for you to say, but for you to accept. Both can be followed by any race. Would you accept or deny a white convert?

  15. tigerlily

    Right. So the ones in Iraq beheading aid workers and setting up brothels of abducted sex slaves (presided over by educated British female Jihadis) are also real Muslims taking the Koran at its word and obeying it. There aren’t any similar Christians groups and one good reason for that is because it isn’t there in the Bible and the same is true for Jews. If you have any information regarding this type of behaviour re the other world religions I would be interested to know.

  16. GregAbdul

    Mark guys like you play god and you happen to be whites telling non white peoples what they can pray to. You can lie to yourself and say it is not racism, but obviously you don’t go around telling your equals what they have your permission to pray to.

  17. GregAbdul

    Tiger you just want to mess with me. IT’S NOT KORAN. We have certified teachers (ijaza) so there are clear definitions of what is acceptable in Islam….and brothels ain’t on the list.

  18. GregAbdul

    those “who I don’t consider Muslim are almost zero, because even the criminals get to be muslim…they are simply criminals who happen to be Muslim. You are doing the white racist thing. Islam is not a criminal activity. It has been protected as a world religion since America’s founding. Thomas Jefferson protected Islam. Oh! you do have me; Ahmadis are NOT Muslims. But then Shia are. You would have to actually know Islam to know what our definitions are. The last number I saw was 1.7 billion and GROWING….I really think that’s what all this white racist hysteria is about.

  19. GregAbdul

    Tiger…you are being a white colonialist with an Adam complex. We have no O in Arabic. We have a K in the Arabic alphabet and it is not the first letter of our book. I am a Muslim, who studies Islam, who is telling you the closet English approximation of the English letters that describe our book. You, who do not know two letters of Arabic, are trying to insist you have a word you will use, even as I show you the word is wrong. This is colonialist imperialist thinking at it’s lowest. Please don’t think you have a right to Islamic terms, when you have NEVER studied Islam. Do I get to tell you I have a spelling for your name I will never stop using it because it’s what my people who put you in chains called you?

  20. Mark

    You really have gone too far.
    You keep saying things I haven’t even gone near, let alone said.

  21. tigerlily

    But you said that ISIS are not Muslim…… Also by the way Left Foot Forward is a British based publication so we are not especially discussing America here. The point with ISIS is that as Muslims they would as you know completely disagree with you that their behaviour is criminal, instead they would justify that behaviour specifically with what is in the Koran. So for them the Koran is the one overriding cause of their behaviour. I don’t see any such corresponding groups within other religions. Not with Sikhs or Hindus or Buddhists anything else which you might decribe as ‘non-white’ religions. There is all sorts of bad behaviour which comes along with Muslims which are unique to them in severity and degree and which they themselves frequently justify with the Koran. So it is just not valid to try and brush it off as normal criminal behaviour. I am personally not interested in which is the correct interpretation by the way I just care about how the presence of Muslims impacts on the society and the world I live in What concerns me is that there is a general failure on the part of Muslims that their own views, beliefs, culture, book or attitudes should take any part of the responsibility for these bad things. I see a great need for all Muslims take take some ownership off this problem – or even to acknowledge that it exists of course.

  22. tigerlily

    Seriously not to be offensive GA but as a non-Muslim it is honestly not important to me how closely my spelling relates to the Arabic in the Koran. As far as I am concerned I am speaking English and that’s how it is spelt here in Britain, where English originates. There are all sorts of words, names and so on which originate from all sorts of countries for which we have our own spelling and this would correspond just the same with any other language in any other country of the world. You need to respect my freedom in this regard.

  23. tigerlily

    I have responded to the majority of what you just said in one of my other replies. Btw you do realise that as a non-native-American (as I assume you are) living in America that also makes you a coloniser? By the way GA if you are on here trying to dispel the misconceptions people have about normal Muslims……you are doing a terrible job.

  24. tigerlily

    The thing is that these people do not agree with your ijaza. Instead they look straight at the Koran itself – maybe the part where Mohammed tells his soldiers it is ok for them to forcibly have sex with the wives of the men they have just killed?

  25. tigerlily

    Btw GA YOU are helping to colonise someone else’s country! I am still in the land of my ancestors – no colonising from me!

  26. GregAbdul

    Cheery O and sorry…..ISIS the group does not follow basic rules for Islamic groups. They are NOT Islamic. The group does not follow the rules of Islam. Any group is made up of individuals. The individual criminals who make up ISIL are criminals who happen to be Muslim. Any practicing Muslim could easily show them the text that prohibit what they are doing. They are criminals. They would kill me and have killed anyone who shows them they are violating the Sharia. . They know they are criminals. Do you think they would walk around in Baghdad with ISIL tee shirts on?

  27. Trofim

    ISIS say they’re Muslims. Why shouldn’t I believe them?

  28. Winz

    Sorry who actively nurtured and armed the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan as insurgents and resistance fighters against the Soviets? Who described them as the ‘moral equivalent of the founding fathers’? – the far left? The SWP and the STWC have responded to modern events in deeply misguided ways at times – but let’s not kid ourselves that these small groups are in any way the facilitators of the growth of violent Islamist movements across the world.

  29. Frank Williams

    Global leaders addressing their nations saying these guys are not moslem is the most bazaar statementbu have ever heard. ..

  30. SOMARA556

    Islam spread by the sword, Arab colonialism spread Islam and many existing religions and cultures were destroyed in the process. Christianity is not a “white man’s religion”, most Christians are not ‘white’ and the religion is growing fastest in Africa.

  31. SOMARA556

    Exactly, as a non-Muslim I have no interest in defending Islam when people are being killed and terrorised in its name.

  32. macha

    As far as “racism” goes, Muslims are well versed in it. You only have to read the Islam forums to see liberal use of “kuffar” to refer to white westerners, if that’s not racist, then I’m a camel.

  33. Just Visiting


    It has been good to hear your voice in this debate.
    An authentic, confident Islamic voice – we don’t get many like that posting here.

    You have been confident, aggressive, threatening.
    You have not listened, not engaged with what people have written, but pushed your aggressive viewpoint, and made wild, unfounded, critical accusations about those with you have swapped words.

    You have threatened on a small scale, and on a global scale: threatened the end of liberal democracy.

    Thank you for showing us a face of Islam that is uncomfortable to those of us with a liberal democracy, left-leaning world-view.

    Whilst we know that you do not represent all Muslim voices – we know that there are a huge number like you.

    And worse, by the overall lack of Muslim voices disagreeing with you here: we also are reminded that whilst the Muslims we may meet day by day in the West are nice, friendly people: that those nice, friendly Muslims seem silent on Islamist issues: they seem unable all too often to be public in criticism of the hot potatoes in Islamic theology and practise: such as the treatment of women or homosexuals or non-Muslims: or why the evidence is over-whelming that Islam, of all religions, has so many violent followers in so many diverse places in the world.

    Whilst the majority of Muslims are not willing to debate these hot potatoes (trying to silence debate by saying that the violent are not true Muslims: the flawed ‘nothing to see here’ argument): they are the silent majority who will stand-by and do nothing whilst the violent Muslim minority gradually bring violent Islam to daily life in the West and world-wide.


    IT IS USEFUL TO DESCRIBE ISIL AS TAKFIRIST MOSLEMS, but most of all as Takfiri extremists. It is extremely negative to describe them as Islamists because it thereby associates them with peaceful, normal islamic people.

  35. Frank Lithium

    Hear hear! When has burying your head in the sand ever worked?

  36. Patrick Nelson

    This article is full of presumptuous and silly arguments and
    presumptuous and silly assumptions. To be accurate it is not Takfirism
    for mainstream Muslims to call Kharijites heretics or non-Muslims and
    are undoubtedly Kharijites according to the overwhelming viewpoint of
    the majority of Muslim faith leaders.

    “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;”

    It is for Christians, Jews, Muslims, Socialists, Humanitarians or any other type of person to choose who they believe shares their ideology or not. If David Cameron want’s to declare that he is a Socialist that is up to him, but if particular Socialists want to declare that they think he isn’t then that too should be up to them.

  37. Patrick Nelson

    To be fair that is nonsense. Neither Christianity nor Islam are race specific, nor have they ever been.

  38. Patrick Nelson

    GregAbdul I may be guessing here but are you by any chance a teenager?

  39. Patrick Nelson

    Nonsense. Beheading aid workers, setting up brothels etc are very definitely forbidden in Islam and the Quran.

  40. Patrick Nelson

    “The thing is that these people do not agree with your ijaza. Instead
    they look straight at the Koran itself – maybe the part where Mohammed
    tells his soldiers it is ok for them to forcibly have sex with the wives
    of the men they have just killed?”

    There is no such part.

  41. GregAbdul

    by any chance do you have a relevant question?

  42. tigerlily

    Well as you know that’s not exactly true. I assume that what you really mean is that that part is misinterpreted.

  43. Patrick Nelson

    Yes I know that is not exactly true or indeed at all true to say that there is any such part conforming to this description:

    “the part where Mohammed tells his soldiers it is ok for them to forcibly have sex with the wives of the men they have just killed?”

  44. Patrick Nelson

    You know Macha to be fair Kaffir, plural Kuffar, is not a racial term, it is simply the Muslim word for someone who has rejected Islam it is rather similar to the Jewish terms Yok or Goy. There are Evangelical Christians who regularly refer to infidels from the pulpit, however noone would be right to accuse them of racism any more than they should accuse Muslims for using the terms you described.

    There are racist people who call themselves Muslims but in actuality a Muslim actually following Prophet Muhammad knows full well that he said in his key last sermon: “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.”

  45. Patrick Nelson

    Only as far as suggesting that what you see the injustice of your religion being slandered by people who don’t know what they are talking about (as commonly happens online), that when you challenge false allegation you do it calmly and without using block capitals etc.

  46. GregAbdul

    oh….if I say “YOU ARE RACIST….then the problem is I am using bad online etiquette and the issue is not 400 years and counting of white American racism???? The issue for you is you have seen my text and now decided you are my online etiquette teacher?

    (That is how you write a question by the way)

  47. Patrick Nelson

    Oh very clever why not link to a collection of anti Islam hate sights to show the world just where you filled your brain with 3rd rate propaganda and distortions made by online ignoramuses extraordinaire. I’m surprised that you didn’t link to Westboro Baptist Church whilst you were at it.

  48. Patrick Nelson

    There you go again making yourself look like an angry, over emotional person. You are not going to win any arguments like that, even if you silence people you generally only alienate people from your arguments.

  49. tigerlily

    Disliking Islam or Mohammed is not ‘islamophobia’ – or at least of course it is if you take the two components of that word literally, which is why it was invented in the first place of course – to close down any criticism of the above two. Perhaps you would like to explain those verses to us then? Or would you rather not because you know that whatever you say about them the words of Mohammed himself are still bad?

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