The situation with ISIS/ISIL (Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya) continues to heat up. ISIS continues to post videos of atrocious beheadings of their Western prisoners (two U.S. journalists and a British aid-worker). These digital demonstrations have provoked the Western military powers into intense discussions of reprisals and concrete conversations about constructing a coalition.
Amidst the flurry of emotion and geo-political crusading an interesting, misleading, trend has re-surfaced: the crafting of Muslim identity by non-Muslims for the latter's own purposes.
President Barack Obama's comments to this effect did not go unnoticed. He said on September 10, just a day before the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks:
POTUS's comments echo those of George W. Bush who famously quipped in the aftermath of 9/11, that Islam "is a peaceful religion" (Nov 13, 2002) and that:
Obama used this language before moving on to say, "Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy."
British Prime Minister David Cameron joined in with the ISIS ≠ Islam prose. In the wake of the execution of British aid-worker David Haines, Cameron remarked that ISIS "are not Muslims, they are monsters." He branded the ISIS killings and subsequent videos as acts "of pure evil" and vowed that the UK, "will do everything in our power to hunt down these murderers and ensure they face justice."
Cameron, and Obama, made comments about what Islam is, and what it is not, that allowed them to justify their actions. Realizing that the "clash of civilizations" rhetoric (the "West" versus "Islam") is not popular sentiment, nor is it conducive to building a coalition that would include Muslim-states and Muslim majority nations, the two Western leaders made sweeping statements about what Islam is, and is not, in order to vindicate their aggressive, military-based, retaliations.
Response to Cameron and Obama's comments has been mixed. Many from progressive Muslim communities praised them for drawing a line between their peaceful faith and practice and the brutal extremism of ISIS. Many on the far-right of the political spectrum (and even some from among the ranks of the "New Atheists," including Sam Harris) in the U.S. lambasted POTUS for his "ignorance" concerning ISIS and Islam, saying that he "isn't qualified enough to say what is and what is not Muslim."
At the same time, a Twitter handle by the name of "Ahimla Jihada" (@Ahimla2), which spouted seemingly supportive superlatives for ISIS from an "American-Muslim woman" was found to be a fake. Before the account was shutdown, the tweets of @Ahimla2, which declared her devotion to ISIS and love for terror (from within the United States no less!) produced strong responses calling for her death and the killing of many more Muslims in the U.S. Shibli Zaman at Loonwatch.com lamented:
While Cameron/Obama/Bush may be lauded for trying to distinguish between ISIS and global Islam and this Twitter scandal may be mourned as an attempt to justify Islamophobia in the U.S., they are both examples of the same error: Western politicians or popular pundits cannot be the ones to say what Islam is and is not.
At issue here is the question -- who has the right to define what Islam is and is not?
Language has power to shape opinions and to galvanize people to action. These leaders and culture shapers understand this. That is why they use essentializing terminology to declare what Islam is and is not. By becoming arbiters of Islamic identity, Western leaders seek to make essentialist claims in order to provide powerful, and useful, rallying-points for their own agendas. In these cases, attacking and destroying ISIS on the one hand, turning on Muslims in the U.S. on the other.
While artlessly defining Islam may prove useful for political purposes, it is not conducive to helping non-Muslims understand what Islam is. Concepts such as 'Islam' are not static. There is no fixed form of Islam that can be found or defined, especially by non-Muslims. Instead, Islam is a diverse stream of various forces, persistently in process, forever in flux, consistently contingent on changing cultural, political, ethnic, religious, and economic realities. Really, the language of Obama, Cameron, @Ahimla2 and others who want to say neatly that ISIS is Islamic, or it is not Islamic, is hegemony at work again -- colonial powers attempting to define the "other" in order to exert their own influence or power in the Islamic world.
My concern here is not political, it is not militaristic. Instead, it is one of religious literacy. Islam is one of the most multi-cultural, multi-generational, multifaceted, and misunderstood religions in the world, especially in the West. In order to understand Islam, we cannot apperceive it according to uncluttered constructs or uncomplicated categories. Instead, the messiness and miscellany of the Muslim world must be explored. This will often mean meeting with local Muslims, observing regional dynamics, and listening, and learning, their perspectives on global Islam. Especially in the West, we need to listen to Muslims speak about their own community, from all sides, before we begin crafting Muslim identities according to our own motivations -- be they benign or malevolent.
If Western powers or Islamophobes want to say what Islam is or is not for their own political ends, so be it. What I don't want to see is the general population getting carried away with a vision of Islam that is founded more in Western hegemony than it is global Islamic reality.