To be fair, Islam is a world religion with a unifying foundation. It may be the Qur’an, or the holy book’s common language — Arabic. The shahada, or profession of faith that “there is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet,” is universal in form — all Muslims confess it, it is what it takes, and means, to be Muslim. Mecca, perhaps, as “the capital of Islam” serves as, in the words of Miriam Cooke and Bruce B. Lawrence, as “[t]he organizing principle of Islamic ritual and imagination.” As such, this Saudi Arabian city is “the defining node for a worldwide community of believers who are linked to the Prophet Muhammad and to Mecca and to one another through networks of faith and family, trade and travel.” Whether knit together by language, profession, text, orienting metropolis, or something else there is a unified, integrated, sense to global Islam and a shared cultural history. To be sure, there are not several, or even two, Islams, but one Islam.
At the same time, Islam is, in the words of scholar Talal Asad, “a discursive tradition.” There is an ongoing debate, what Reza Aslan calls, “a civil war,” raging over what is orthodox Islam and where the boundary lines of Islam can be drawn. Islam, as a world system, is not static, but is always changing according to the various lines of its own “discursive traditions.” The tone of these various streams of thought about Islam are determined by local realities, Islamic networks, and by external global forces of economics, politics, religion, and culture.
What do these localizations and various discursive traditions do to Islam’s shared cultural and textual heritage? Local Muslims, sharing in "global Islam," interpret Islam differently according to their socio-cultural, and historical, context. Sometimes accusing the other interpretation or lived religion as not “authentic” or “orthodox” Islam. This is why ISIS, along with killing Yazidis and Christians, also targets Muslims they deem kafir (unbelievers, or apostates) because of their extreme definition of takfir— those who claim Islam but are outside the strict boundaries of Islam that ISIS puts in place.
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Today is the 13th anniversary of the terror attacks of 9/11. Certainly, it is a somber remembrance and one with potent emotions and visceral reverberations in our cultural psyche. 9/11’s effect on our the U.S.’s interest in Islam has been a double-edged sword. While more solid, scholarly, work has been done on Islam in the U.S. than ever before, we have also been seeking to essentialize Islam in an effort to have manufacture a clearly defined enemy to combat. We want a clash of civilizations — Islam v. the West — but it’s not that simple. Seeking a “clash of civilizations” we usually end up with what Edward Said called, “a clash of ignorance” wherein “unedifying labels” such as “Islam” and the “West,” “mislead and confuse the mind, which is trying to make sense of a disorderly reality that won't be pigeonholed or strapped down as easily as all that.”
So, is Islam to be represented by ISIS? In one sense, yes. ISIS = Islam. However, ISIS ≠ global Islam. ISIS ≠ Islam everywhere. Not every Muslim living in the U.S., in sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, or Southeast Asia is a secret jihadi with ties to ISIS, Boko Haram, or al-Qaeda. Instead, ISIS is an expression of Islam in its locality (Syria, Iraq, the Levant) forged out of a combination of contextual concerns, socio-cultural realities, and translocal forces of politics, economics, and religion. As such, it is competing to be the authoritative voice of Islam and, in many ways, wants pundits and cultural commentators to say that ISIS = Islam.
Yet, to say ISIS = Islam is too simplistic. There are too many other Muslim communities and expressions of glocal (localized forms of the one global faith) Islam throughout the world. Islam is a diverse global faith, which takes on a different form, with varying interpretations of the Qur’an and the tradition of Muhammad where the local Muslim community deals with dissimilar concerns about local realities and contrasting views on religious violence and Westernization. This is why it is unsophisticated to simply posit that ISIS = Islam with no further discussion or clarification.
After all, many Muslims claim that ISIS Is un-Islamic. Muslims in South Africa who fought for equality of all races after mistreatment and misrepresentation for centuries under Afrikaaner nationalism and apartheid and Muslims in Houston who advocate anti-gang initiatives and are actively engaged in inner-city education programs would not want to be lumped in with ISIS. They are engaged in a struggle, they share the same Islamic faith, but they are not ISIS. As Jaweed Kaleem reported for the Huffington Post, there is widespread disappointment among worldwide Muslims in how ISIS is often equated with Islam in popular media.
Even so, without any right or proper understanding, many will continue to try and declare what Islam is and is not. They will pipe up and declare that “ISIS is Islam” or ignore progressive understandings of Islam by countering, “but doesn’t the Qur’an actually say _______?” What the Qur’an says, not to be crass or offensive to my Muslim friends, is irrelevant. What is more relevant in this discussion is what Muslims say the Qur’an says. What ISIS says about what Islam is or what the Qur’an says is going to be different than a Muslim community in Miami or a Muslim organization in Indonesia. Muslims’ interpretation of their shared holy text is defined by their local context, their historical moment, their transnational networks, socio-cultural realities, and interaction with global forces.
If we are to understand Islam — and ever since 9/11, 7/7, and other terrible terrorist attacks, it is evident that we must in some way endeavor to do so — our shared starting point cannot be solely those groups that engage in terrorism, persecution, and barbarous bombast. Instead, we must approach Islam as a global phenomenon, with a certain sense of interconnectedness and unity. At the same time, we must come to appreciate and pay attention to its various localities as they wrestle with the shared international socio-cultural forces of Westernization, globalization, and transnationalism.
Does ISIS = Islam?
Yes, but it’s too superficial of us to say “yes” unequivocally. It has to be a nuanced affirmation, one that appreciates that as much as ISIS is Islam, it is also equally not Islam. In the end, we must listen to Muslims, and their various discourses about orthodoxy, Muslim boundaries, and authenticity, before we can come to any strong conclusions or make any serious political or religious decisions about Islam as a whole based on the actions of the few who take part in the violent actions of ISIS and its counterparts.
*For more on religion and culture, follow @kchitwood