Is the ‘Islamic State’ Islamic?

Is the ‘Islamic State’ Islamic?

On Feb. 25, 1994, an ultra-Orthodox Jew named Baruch Goldstein entered the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, occupied Palestine, with a machine gun. Seconds later, he opened fire on the Muslim worshippers, killing 29 people and wounding more than 125. He himself was lynched to death by the survivors in the mosque, but only to turn into a martyr in the eyes of his comrades. That is why he is to date buried at a tomb in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, whose inscription reads: “He gave his life for the people of Israel, its Torah and land.”

Goldstein was a member of the “Jewish Defense League,” an organization defined as “terrorist” and banned by the governments of both Israel and the United States. The ideology of the group was not just political but also religious. Some of its ideologues have depicted the Palestinians as the Biblical tribe of Amalek, for which the authors of the Bible did not have much sympathy. In the Book of Samuel, for example, a passage chillingly ordered: “Now go and smite Amalek, and exterminate everything that is his. Don’t pity him, but kill man, woman, infant and nursling.”

Now, did Baruch Goldstein and his like-minded Jewish extremists have something to do with Judaism? Well, yes, of course. They were not just pious Jews, but also justified their violence by referring to Jewish sacred texts.

But did they “represent” Judaism? No, not at all. Because the overwhelming majority of the world’s some 13.7 million Jews thought they were crazy fanatics. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of Jewish religious leaders found their deeply zealous and literalist reading of the Torah unacceptable. As you probably guessed, I am recalling the Baruch Goldstein example to shed some light on a more timely matter: The so-called “Islamic State” in Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIL. What ISIL really stands for, how it is motivated, and what it means for Islam as a religion, is being hotly debated these days, with conflicting narratives that range from “ISIL has nothing to do with Islam,” to “ISIL is simply Islam itself.”

Recently, American magazine The Atlantic published a notable story on this matter, titled, “What ISIS [ISIL] Really Wants.” The author, Graeme Wood, did an impressive job by evaluating the religious ideology of ISIL, especially by showing how it sees itself as a key player in the Islamic scenarios of the apocalypse. It is a must-read, I must say, for anyone who wants to get a good grasp of the group
However, a conclusion that Mr. Wood made from all the data he collected about ISIL was a bit problematic. He wrote: “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.”

This was like saying, “Baruch Goldstein is Judaic. Very Judaic.” That would be factual statement in the sense that Goldstein referred to the Jewish texts to justify his violence (Notably, apocalyptic scenarios are quite definitive in ultra-Orthodox Judaism as well). But it would an unfair statement for Judaism itself, whose representation cannot be narrowed down to a bunch of wild fanatics.

In my view, ISIL of course has something to do with Islam, in the sense its keeps referring to the Quran, the hadiths, and the classical texts of Salafi jurisprudence. But the overwhelming majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims and all mainstream Islamic scholars see them as crazy fanatics. Even other jihadist groups see ISIL as too violent and ruthless (Alas, even al-Qaeda finds them too extreme.) It would be utterly unwise to fail to see this very wide spectrum.