The Islamic State (ISIS), previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has sown nothing but destruction, chaos and sectarianism. Through terror strategies, they rapidly spread over great parts of eastern Syria and north and central Iraq. Their new recruits came from all over the world, but mainly from Muslim countries. Arab countries provided the biggest share of recruits. While ISIS was assembling supporters and sympathizers, Sunni clergymen constantly called for ‘material and moral’ support to the Syrian rebels, and accordingly, thousands of foreign fighters flooded into Syria for jihad.
According to research conducted by The Soufan Group in 2014 on the foreign fighters travelling to Syria, it is estimated that the highest number of foreign fighters came from Tunisia (about 3,000), Saudi Arabia (about 2,500), Morocco (about 1,500), Russia (about 800), France (700), Turkey and the United Kingdom (about 400 each). These numbers exclude the Syrians and Iraqis who are already in ISIS.
The Arab leaders of ISIS are Al-Bagdadi (in reference to Bagdad) in Iraq and later the Caliph of the Islamic State, and Al-Golani (in reference to the occupied region of the Golan Heights) in Syria as the Emir of the Islamic state in Syria. Caliph literally means the ‘successor’ – the ruler of the Muslim community whereas Emir means the ‘prince’ – a military commander and a governor of a province.
ISIS seems to have a clear and strategically advised ideological path. It should not be alien to Muslims, especially the political and religious elites, that these teachings still exist in Islamic books, Friday prayer preaching, and even schoolbooks. The ideology of ISIS is one of various interpretations of the principle books, the Quran and the Sayings and Tradition of the prophet Mohammad. The Salafi-flavored ISIS actually represents a valid extension of fundamentalism in the Arab societies. It is more a cultural and educational issue than a religious matter. Such an apocalyptic interpretation of Islam does not seem to be acceptable to the majority of Muslims.
The Supreme Imam of Al-Azhar University and Mosque, Ahmed Al-Tayeb said that the extremist groups who murder and slaughter under the name of the Islamic State do not represent either Muslims, nor Al-Azhar, nor the prophet Mohammad and his teachings. The hideous deeds of these extremist groups repeatedly harm and distort the real message of Islam. Furthermore, the grand Mufti of Egypt Shawqi Alam said that naming a terrorist organization such as ISIS an Islamic state is a huge mistake. This organization speaks and acts against the humane and religious teachings and the Sharia of Islam.
Indeed, the World Association of Al-Azhar Graduates declared the organization as un-Islamic and part of a conspiracy against the Muslim world – ISIS in the Middle East, Taliban in Asia and Boko Haram in Nigeria. Media outlets in the Arab world were flooded by news, explanations, and interpretations condemning the Islamic State calling it un-Islamic. Prominent Islamic scholars from different countries all over the world condemned the actions of ISIS and confirmed the message that the group is not related to Islamic teachings, but on the contrary it destroys Islam.
Now if ISIS members are not Islamic and are not true Muslims, then what are they? All their slogans are Islamic, and all their interpretations are Islamic. Actually on their flag it is written ‘there is no God but Allah and the prophet Mohammad is his messenger.’ ISIS could be a chance for a real Islamic reformation apart from conspiracy theories and apart from excluding such a terrorist organization from the realm of Islam. Most of ISIS’ recruits have come from Muslim countries, and to a greater extent from Arab countries. They mainly rose from Islamic societies and communities and studied in the same religious books at schools and universities. They went to the same mosques and they received the same religious messages as the rest of the community. They might actually be the sons, brothers, fathers, sisters and mothers of so-called moderate Muslims.
The shocking reality of the horrible actions and ruthless brutality of ISIS members should bring the attention to the real problem – that Islam needs reformation and revivalism.
It is not a matter of defending Islam, but rather offending it. Therefore, reformation could perhaps start from elementary school beginning with religious books for children to the highest forms of religious education. A reformation could start at mosques and at preaching sessions at Friday prayers to enforce tolerance and build towards peace. A reformation could also start when religious institutions in the Arab world and the Muslim-majority countries stop interfering in politics on one hand and when the political institutions stop using religion and co-opting religious institutions for the consolidation of power.
The rise of ISIS should be a wakeup call for all Muslims, all over the world. Muslims calling ISIS un-Islamic or arguing that it does not represent Islam is not enough, and certainly does not stop newcomers from joining the group. Moreover, ISIS is Islamic as much as they claim they are.
Reformation of religion is due; otherwise the world risks the emergence of organizations similar to ISIS in the near or far future. Describing ISIS as un-Islamic is apologetic and serves reality with nothing. It neither prevents the emergence of another hundred ISIS-like extremist organizations nor improves the image of Islam and Muslims. A real framework of reform should start from scratch with every source, as it can be decided by Islamic scholars, being put under scrutiny and thorough study.
The shocking fact that ISIS emerged from an Arabic political conflict and that it uses Islam for its own political ends should be an awakening moment for those who call for the fusion between politics, religion and the state. Compromising on politics and dogmatic religion might result in a destruction of one of these two components. Either politics dominates and destroys religion or religion dominates and destroys politics. In the case of ISIS, politics is dominant over religion but the prominence of the latter serves the political cause of the group – power, legitimacy and dominance. The choice of such a version of extremism served ISIS well as there is no hesitance in such an ideology to resort to genocide to eliminate their opponents.
This is a chance for Muslims to make real reform. Islamic scholars should lead such a reformation far from politics and far from the divide of what is the right Islam and what is the wrong one. There must be a framework to lay down the first bricks in this long process. The political leadership must in return observe the process closely.
It does not seem enough for Muslims to condemn a terrorist act and simply call it un-Islamic. There must be a real change and it should start now.
Hakim Khatib is a lecturer in journalism, intercultural communication and the politics and culture of the Middle East at Fulda and Darmstadt Universities of Applied Sciences and Phillips University Marburg. He specializes in the application of religion into political life and discourse in the Middle East.