It is only by admitting the faults within ourselves can we begin to listen, understand and grow. Only then can we truly dismantle ISIS, only then can we prevent the rise of another Islamist terror group.
Thousands have condemned ISIS for not being Muslim, that it does not represent Islam, and that terrorism has nothing to do with those terrorists being Muslim. While I do believe that such a narrative is important to stem the rise of racist and bigoted rhetoric, it is, however, ultimately unhelpful in tackling ISIS or Islamist Extremism.
Saying, “ISIS is not Muslim” effectively results in the belief that we (as Muslims and as members of the global population) are not responsible for the rise in Islamist extremism. We are responsible, and we should stop telling ourselves, “ISIS has nothing to do with Muslims or Islam” and instead ask, “Why do ISIS believe themselves to be Muslim or representatives of Islam?”
We must first admit that these people are Muslim. They are violent Muslims, yes, but we cannot say that they are the wrong sort of Muslims. This is because the act of labelling is problematic as it effectively puts us (the well-meaning Muslims) in the same camp as the extremists and the terrorists. Extremists believe that they are able to condemn those Muslims they deem “not Muslim enough”, or the “wrong Muslims” to be their enemies and are “not Muslim”. By labelling these extremists as the “wrong Muslims” or “not Muslim” we effectively do the same what they are doing.
By divorcing ourselves from ISIS and Islamist extremists, we end up closing ourselves off from the possibility that we (as Muslims and as part of this world) are able to challenge ISIS and their beliefs. By saying “ISIS has nothing to do with Muslims or Islam” we end up putting our heads in the sand and allow the beliefs of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban before it, to continue.
Islamists, like ISIS, believe in an exclusionary Islam, an Islam that is superior to all other religions, and, most importantly, that there is one singular interpretation of both Islam and faith. These beliefs result in a narrow interpretation of the world, and the tendency to decide who are the “right” and who are the “wrong” kind of Muslim. ISIS exists today because these core Islamist beliefs are left untouched (even as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were defeated militarily).
By divorcing Islamism from Islam, by divorcing the political ideology from the religion, we fail to see how large portions of the Muslim population still hold to these same beliefs. We fail to see how these same exclusionary, “superior” and singular narratives of Islam are still pedalled in many countries. Many Muslims, for example, still believe that there is a single “right” way to interpret Islam, and that Shias, or Liberal Muslims, are not “right” Muslims. Thus, we implicitly allow the root beliefs of terrorists to survive. By allowing these beliefs to go unchallenged, we do not disturb their “Islamic” identity and so allow Islamists to believe that they are still legitimate. Therefore, we may see another Islamist terrorist group like ISIS in the future and the cycle of bigotry and death will continue.
To end this cycle, we, as Muslims, must raise our heads from our sand holes and acknowledge that the mainstream belief that Islam is exclusionary, that it is superior and that there is one Islam, is problematic, and is the basis on which Islamist terrorists draw their violence. To end this cycle, and to truly de-legitimise Islamists and their violence, we must challenge these beliefs – not ignore them or dismiss them as “un-Islamic” and so, “not our problem”.
To do this we must open Islam, its practice and its belief, to conversation from within and with others. We must allow ourselves to admit that there are problems with how Islam is practised, and allow it to be criticised, such that we become aware of our faults and attempt to better ourselves. To this end, open conversation and debate is essential. Furthermore, community-wide discussion groups are key. As such, universities around the world must implement policies promoting pluralism and pluralist discourse. It is not enough to insist that, “Islam is peaceful”. We must challenge these deep-seated beliefs, and acknowledge that we Muslims are no better than anyone else, that we are a part of the world just as the world is a part of us.
We must become inclusive as a society. We do this not just by tolerating other points of view, but by accepting them as just as valid as our own and by admitting that there is more than one way to believe and practice religion. By allowing people to understand and to empathise and to mature, we will undermine the legitimacy of Islamists and thus ensure that exclusionist interpretations of faith do not result in extremist violence. Only then can Islam, as a religious practice, be peaceful.
These deep-seated beliefs are of course made more acute, and Islamists made more legitimate, by recent socio-economic and political grievances like war and rising unemployment. However, the narrative that Islamist terrorism “has nothing to do with Islam” and that Islamist terrorists are “psychopaths” buries these grievances and leaves them untouched. Denial narratives such as those quoted above simply result in us washing our hands (the global population) with the responsibility for having caused extremism and for challenging it.
As such, challenging these beliefs must complement diplomatic and civil efforts to redress socio-economic and political ills. However, since Islamist core-beliefs have largely been untouched by the fight against terrorism, it may prove more useful to shift resources towards approaches that allow the dismantling of Islamism as a narrow, exclusionary political ideology.
Therefore, we, as people, must stop denying that Islamist terrorism is completely divorced from Islam, or its practice. We must acknowledge that religion is important in legitimising terrorism and so, we must confront the core beliefs of Islamism, beliefs that many Muslims still hold. Most importantly, we must become more empathetic, inclusive and accepting of conversation, of debates. It is only by admitting the faults within ourselves can we begin to listen, understand and grow. Only then can we truly dismantle ISIS, only then can we prevent the rise of another Islamist terror group.