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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The real ISIS challenge

With the burning to death of its captive Jordanian pilot, the“Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) yet again increased the level of depravity and assault on universal norms and values, while debasing the religion it claims to embody. Through a track record of sadistic mass murders, enslavement, rape, beheadings and graphic amputations, ISIS seeks to maintain a“shock and awe” reality against the effect of normalisation of horror and trivialisation of human life. The price it is imposing on Islam in the process is immense.
Many Muslims worldwide espouse an attitude of denial towards the actions of ISIS. For most, there is an abject incompatibility between their religion and the crimes committed in its name, and which they are called to witness. The faith in which they seek solace and abhorrent criminality cannot co-exist in one body, or be mentioned in one breath. Muslims seek protection behind successive lines of defense.
The first line of defense is that“it did not happen.” ISIS is dismissed as a media product in the age of sensationalism. Its alleged crimes either did not take place or have been dramatically hyped for some commercial or political effect -- boosting ratings for media organisations, and justifying political moves for international actors. Anti-Muslim bias in Western culture and the public demand for news stories with a negative portrayal of Muslims and Islam are often identified as contributing reasons behind the inflated coverage. While the slick quality of ISIS releases is sometimes used as proof that its videotaped reports are in fact Hollywood-style productions, the frequency and span of distribution of these releases have made the denial-of-the-fact claim untenable. 
The second line is, therefore,“it did happen, it is abhorrent, but it was not perpetrated by Muslims. ISIS may thus be the enterprise of intelligence services, the creation of some nefarious power seeking to fulfill its own purposes, while masquerading as a Muslim group. The main potential instigators are the United States (may this be the “creative chaos” referenced to by a former US secretary of state after a war of invasion?) and Israel (recall the “Clean Break” memorandum prepared for the hard-line Israeli prime minister in the late 1990s, and which ostensibly details the need to collapse the regimes of hostile states and refashion the region along factional lines). Washington and Tel Aviv are the usual suspects. But others, too, are named, in the pursuit of a justification for denial. Moscow, in its reliance on oil revenues, may favour uncertainty to avoid a total collapse of oil prices, while both Tehran and Riyadh need potent tools, however destructive and homicidal, to bolster competing chances of regional domination.
The preponderance of evidence linking ISIS to Muslims has initiated a variant of this narrative as the third line of defense; “it did happen, it is abhorrent, it is perpetrated by some Muslims, but it does not represent Islam.” The ISIS leadership may be at best sincere and misguided, but it certainly does not reflect the real essence of the faith. ISIS militants, alienated youth from across the globe, are the object of manipulation for their deep sense of grievance, while suffering from an absence of true knowledge about the precepts of Islam.
Radical ideologues have, however, flooded the marketplace of ideas with arguments justifying much of what ISIS has committed as allegedly rooted in the religion, forcing many Muslims to retreat to the fourth line of defense: “it did happen, it is abhorrent, it may be condoned by Islam, but it is not different from behaviour sanctioned by internationally accepted norms.” Even the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot is hence juxtaposed to some horrific collateral damage resulting from the use of lethal force by the international coalition. The brutal assassination of the pilot is thus rationalised as retaliation, based on the limited means available to ISIS, as this group seeks to establish life-saving deterrence against a superior enemy.
This seemingly Machiavellian justification ignores major accepted distinctions between deliberately and incidentally caused harm, as well as the right to dignity and established laws of warfare -- long championed by Islamic scholasticism. Furthermore, it creates a false moral advantage for ISIS, which is thus praised as shunning hypocrisy in openly claiming its harshness -- in contradistinction to its enemies who brandish an insincere adherence to human rights and other presumably universal values while ignoring and violating them as a matter of normal course.
Most dramatically, this line of thinking prepares the ground for the fifth and increasingly dangerous line of defense: “it did happen, and as abhorrent as it is, it may be necessary.” While rarely expressed openly, this argument has a certain level of acceptability in many Muslim circles, even supposedly moderate ones. Supporters of radical understanding of the religion cross the lines of denial into embrace: “it did happen, it is laudable, and it is sanctioned by Islam.”

The fact is that the inhumanity committed by ISIS in the name of Islam is happening, it is abhorrent, and is deeply polluting the cultural well that Islam, as a religion and civilisation, has endowed to the many societies where the faith is lived. The other fact is that ISIS has the support -- however qualified, and often it is not -- of a precious number of Muslims, while it has yet to encounter a credible refutation of its claims and actions in the name of Islam. Evidently, Islam cannot be reduced to the evil that ISIS represents, but Muslims can no longer dissociate their faith and communities from the horror that is summoned by ISIS. Being ISIS's primary victim, it is not for the common Muslim to apologise or justify, as is demanded by some whose attacks on Muslims and Islam long predate ISIS and is rooted in their own reductionism and intolerance. It is, however, an obligation and the imperative for intellectuals, scholars, and spiritual leaders to overcome all denial and reclaim a heritage that has been long abandoned to stagnation, irrelevance, and usurpation. Here lies the real challenge that ISIS constitutes to Muslims worldwide.

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