We seem to wake up to learn about another massacre committed by ISIS every few days. These are, of course, only the ones that the media reports.
ISIS is committing massacres daily. Their latest playfield is Libya, and their latest scapegoats are the Coptic Christians of Egypt.
Graeme Wood, in a lengthy analysis in The Atlantic, argued that the ISIS interpretation and application of Islam is one of many “legitimate” manifestations of Islam.
He nowhere argues that this is the only, or even the main, interpretation of the religion.
It seems that many have been too quick in accusing him of contributing to the stereotyping of Islam.
For instance, Jack Jenkins dismisses Wood too quickly based on arguments that he reads into the analysis.
I propose five takeaways from the most recent events and their analyses, three of which I will address here, with two more appearing in a second column.
1. It would be far better if Muslim apologists stopped dissociating ISIS from some supposed “true Islam.”
As Wood’s critics have argued, Islam is far from uniform. But this fact argues as much against the stereotyping of Islam as entirely violent as it does against claiming that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam.
The claim about Islam’s vast diversity (which I endorse vividly) argues that ISIS’ adherents are “legitimate” Muslims because they claim so themselves.
Muslim apologists should not feel the need to defend Islam by saying ISIS has nothing to do with Islam.
This instinctive attitude of denial that the majority of Muslims today are embracing, which results from the gut revulsion they feel toward ISIS, is motivated by an “honor/shame” framework.
In this framework, when a member of our community or group misbehaves, we too quickly either cover up for them or dismiss them as not belonging to us out of fear that their behavior will reflect negatively on the group.
But if we are convinced that Islam is diverse, due to the vast diversity of interpretations of its founding texts both historically and today, then Muslims that do not adhere to ISIS’ interpretation owe the world no apology for ISIS’ crimes.
2. We need to understand ISIS for what it truly is: a deeply religious, fundamentalist, “restorative” ideology, with long and deep roots both in history and in decades of radical preaching in certain types of mosques across the world.
They are not godless thugs in their own eyes. They are not using religion to serve other agendas. They are clearly and self-consciously religiously motivated.
I do not, by any means, believe that ISIS’ interpretation of Islam comes even close to qualifying as a majority interpretation today.
But I am convinced, based on Islam’s founding texts, parts of Islam’s history and some ways that the founding texts have been interpreted historically, that we are fooling ourselves when we dismiss ISIS’ claim to “legitimacy” as a religious movement.
On the other hand, I am not particularly fond of Wood’s argument that ISIS is chiefly an “apocalyptic” movement.
To a degree, most religious ideology is apocalyptic, in the sense that it looks forward to the “final victory of God” over evil and sin.
Dismissing the seriousness of ISIS’ appeal, or attempting to marginalize them by comparing them to ephemeral sectarian groups (as Wood does), is a mistake.
3. Non-Muslim slanderers of Islam need to stop applying principles to Islam they would not accept being applied to themselves.
Yes, ISIS members are Muslims since they claim to be so – absolutely “legitimate” ones at least in their own eyes – and in the subjective realm of religious belief that matters supremely.
No, this does not mean that this is the only “legitimate” manifestation of Islam. Muslims who do not abide by ISIS’ perverse interpretation of Islam do not bear the responsibility for ISIS’ actions.
Non-Muslims have a responsibility to listen honestly to the way that the majority of Muslims today understand their religion, and they are invited to support them in their ideological fight against the monster of ISIS.
In the same way, Christians do not owe any de facto, blanket apology to the world for the terrible slavery and racism that was perpetrated by many Christians historically, often even justified on religious and biblical bases.
As an Arab Christian, I have often felt dismay at the absurdity of the wholesale offer of apology by some Christians to Muslims for the Crusades.
We need to acknowledge that slave-masters and crusaders are part of our Christian history.
And we need to keep a vigilant eye that detects early the re-emergence of deviant interpretations of the Bible that lead to terrible injustices and evil in the name of Christianity.
But what is the point of apologizing for the Crusades and for slavery if in the next breath Christians support a Zionist ideology that has crushed the Palestinian people for more than six decades, endorse modern-day slavery by ignoring basic human rights of foreign domestic workers, or join the calls for bloody war against the Muslim world in the name of the fight against terror?
I hear the unflinching voice of John the Baptist, when he preached, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance!” (Luke 3:8).
If we are incapable of following through on our apologies, we better not make a show of our repentance, but rather act upon it.
Otherwise, we are just another hypocritical “brood of vipers.”
Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. A version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @marzaatar and IMES @IMESLebanon.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.