This week’s New Statesman has published an article by Mehdi Hasan, entitled How Islamic is the Islamic State? He argues that religion is not what persuades people to join IS and that IS cannot be truly Islamic because prominent and authoritative figures in the religion have explicitly condemned the group. He points out that those who conflate IS and Islam are helping the former.
Not all Islamic authorities agree. As noted by Douglas Murray, in an article entitled ‘Religion of peace’ is not a harmless platitude, which was published in The Spectator on 17 January, “Last month, al-Azhar University in Cairo declared that although Isis members are terrorists they cannot be described as heretics.” Murray states that Islam “is by no means only a religion of peace. I say this not because I hate Islam, nor do I have any special animus against Muslims, but simply because this is the verifiable truth based on the texts.” He doesn’t say that Islam is a violent religion overall, but he points out that there are undeniably violent elements in its tradition. Some Muslims are violent, many more are not; they can choose whether to live peacefully with their neighbours or to support the violent elements in their religion and its adherents (4.4.4).
It seems that young people from the West are joining IS in reaction against Western violence towards Muslims – the invasion of Iraq came after a long tradition of Western colonial dominance, and the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay have often been cited. Many might also feel resentment against the society in which they grew up, perhaps feeling that they were treated as second-class citizens or perhaps experiencing hostility from non-Muslims in a rising tide of Islamophobia. By joining IS these young jihadis are helping to escalate the conflict in the Middle East towards the group’s aim of generating a global confrontation between Muslims and everybody else.
Several commentators have called upon Muslim leaders to persuade their followers to take a peaceful path. It is equally important that Western leaders do everything possible to reduce Islamophobia and to avoid the appearance of attacking Islam. Media channels can help by choosing their language carefully. Islamophobia helps IS to grow by provoking Muslims to join its cause.