The Elephant in the Masjid

isis guysThe potentially insoluble problem of ‘Islamic extremism’ is that it is, in fact, Islamic.

THOSE who fear that the obnoxious brutality of terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is creating a growing backlash against Muslims in general routinely make the claim that the “extremist ideology” used to justify the violence is a perversion of Islam, a mere fig leaf of reason contrived to cover what is little more than a grotesque, willful sociopathy. We should not view all Muslims with fear and suspicion, so the argument goes, because of the behavior a few outside the mainstream.

In studying the background and the ideological underpinnings of ISIS, however, it quickly becomes apparent that the group – which, it should be pointed out, is just one of about 50 groups of various levels of competence and organization with similar aims – is not simply the gang of gruesome bullies “mainstream” Muslims desperately would like to convince themselves and the rest of the world they are, but as legitimately “Islamic” as any of the dozens of other variations of the faith that coexist more-or-less peacefully with the rest of the world.

In March of this year, the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution published an enlightening analysis of the ideological and political roots of ISIS1; drawing primarily from the group’s own voluminous public discussions of its dogma – whatever else ISIS is, it is not at all ambiguous about what it stands for – the study’s author Cole Bunzel summarized the group’s consistent and rigorously-followed ideology in this way:

“The Islamic State’s texts and speeches emphasize a number of doctrinal concepts. The most prominent of these stipulate: all Muslims must associate exclusively with fellow “true” Muslims and dissociate from anyone not fitting this narrow definition; failure to rule in accordance with God’s law constitutes unbelief; fighting the Islamic State is tantamount to apostasy; all Shi‘a Muslims are apostates deserving of death; and the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are traitors against Islam, among many other things. Importantly, the Islamic State anchors these concepts in traditional Salafi literature, and is more dogmatic about their application than al-Qaeda.”

The Islamic school of thought which ISIS follows is known as Jihadi-Salafism, a rigidly fundamentalist ideology that evolved from Wahhabism, the strict form of Islam practiced and applied, albeit with a few unavoidable modifications, as state law in Saudi Arabia. The ideology is not a perversion of Islam, but an extreme form of orthodoxy that strives to apply Shari’ah as literally as possible and has as its most important aim one of the bedrock ideas of all forms of Islam, the eventual return of the Caliphate, the state to unite all Muslims.

The nature of Islam as a temporal power is part of its origins; to spread his religion, the Prophet Muhammad created an expanding state, originally based on Medina in present-day Saudi Arabia, which after his death in 632 became the Caliphate. The concept of the Caliphate seems to have gone through two phases. The literal phase – the Caliphate as an actual political entity – in a practical sense lasted from 632 until the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258; it lingered on in a nominal fashion in Egypt until 1517, when the last Caliph was carried away to Istanbul after the Ottoman Sultan Selim I conquered Egypt. The more modern phase, which is implicit in the beliefs and practices that are common to the many variants of Islam, seems to regard the Caliphate as more of an ideal, creating space for Muslims in the rest of the world through gaining acceptance and accommodation.

The uncomfortable upshot of all this is that the rejection of the Islamic State by the majority of Muslims is necessarily equivocal. They can be properly horrified by and condemn its methods, they can refuse to accept its leaders’ claims to doctrinal legitimacy, but they cannot completely reject the basic idea – rejecting this Islamic State is dogmatically justifiable, but rejecting any Islamic State would be literal apostasy.

Because the fundamental nature of the faith too easily allows itself to be twisted into horrors like the “Islamic State,” for Muslims that means being subject to the suspicion of non-Muslims is by default unavoidable, because the only thing that reduces the risk of being subjugated by Islam, as non-Muslims would see it, is personal restraint on the part of individual Muslims. The vast majority of Muslims, to be fair, already practice that, and for the rest of us, we should be reminded to recognize and respond favorably to it. Whether it is fair to the non-Islamic world that we should have to expend that extra mental effort for the sake of someone else’s religion is debatable; since it is rather obvious religion itself – regardless of its flavor – is a concept humanity is not likely to ever be able to evolve beyond, we probably ought to resign ourselves to the permanence of the tension Mankind has contrived, and try to make the best of it.


1 Cole Bunzel, “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State,” The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World Analysis Paper 19, March 2015. Available from the Brookings Institution website at