THE BLOG

Is ISIS a Religious Group? Of Course It Is.

02/22/2015 04:10 pm ET | Updated Apr 24, 2015
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

This week, the White House held a Summit on Combating Violent Extremism. Walking through the Albuquerque airport on the day of the Summit, I was surprised to see a TV headline ask the question, "Is ISIS a religious group?" It is an absurd question, and one that, despite his comments at the Summit, President Obama cannot be taking seriously.

Of course it is a religious group. ISIS adherents are very clear that their motivations are grounded in faith, and their actions are directly tied to religious scripture. Week after week, they publish the specific Koranic justification for their most gruesome acts, whether it is the beheading of apostates and Christians, throwing gay people off of high buildings, stoning to death women accused of adultery, or the enslaving of women and children. One cannot read the article "The Revival of Slavery" in the ISIS magazine Dabiq, with its debate over how Shari'ah law dictates the appropriate punishment of Yazidi women -- enslavement as pagans or execution as apostates -- and not see its fundamentalist zeal.

ISIS is the very definition of a fundamentalist religious group. Religious fundamentalism is nothing new in the modern era, and not unique to Islam. Christians and Jews, to say nothing of Hindus, each have their groups that seek to live in accordance with laws and scripture that date back thousands of years. Each has had their zealots who have committed terrible crimes. Each embraces practices that many view to be medieval. Christianity has a strong millennialist tradition, mirrored or even rooted in Judaism, that suggests that a return to the fundamentals of faith will presage the end of days and the second coming, a stance that is widely embraced in Iran, notably by former President Ahmadinejad. ISIS is not unique in its fundamentalism or its apocalyptic vision, but rather in its dictates to conquest that the Prophet -- himself a general -- set forth in his foundational work.

The White House and President Obama continued to bend over backward this week at a White House summit on combating violent extremism to avoid language that might suggest the broader Islamic world is culpable for the conduct of its most violent and fundamentalist adherents. "No religion is responsible for terrorism," the President declared. "We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam." Yet his first statement and his last are not credible. Few would argue that religion over the millennia has been the rationale for countless episodes of terrorism, and all major religions have their own history of war and violence that we would now would label as terrorist. The President's comment that "No religion is responsible for terrorism. People are responsible for violence and terrorism" echoes the old NRA trope Guns don't kill people, people kill people, and, while true, ignores the role of religion and faith as defining human motivations. The sectarian nature of religious faith revolves around each community's search for truth, often complicated by a fervent commitment to their own interpretations of ancient scripture. Thus, one community's essential truth might inevitably be viewed as another community's "perversion."

ISIS is not a group that has perverted Islam, as the President would have us believe, but rather has interpreted and embraced it with its own fundamentalist ardor. Like Protestantism and Judaism, Sunni Islam does not have an ecclesiastic structure that can discipline the extremists in its midst. While the Grand Muftis of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, viewed as seminal religious authorities in the Sunni and Wahhabi Sunni traditions, respectively, have each condemned ISIS, there in fact is no central religious authority, no Pope with the authority to tell ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi where he is wrong and how he must align his interpretation of the words of the Prophet to conform to the larger Sunni world. Indeed, like al Qaeda before it, ISIS's appeal to young Muslims is in part rooted in its defiance of the leaders of the established order.

It is notable that when Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei admonished ISIS for the beheading of Egyptian Coptic Christians, he did not suggest that they were wrong in their reading of the Koran, but rather essentially said that you just can't do that anymore. Perhaps unwittingly, Ali Khamenei was making the case for modernism. He set aside an ecclesiastic debate about the literal words of the Koran in favor of the mores of the modern world. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was more explicit last month when he made a televised appeal to Sunnis and Shi'a alike that ISIS puritanical utopianism posed the biggest threat to Islam in history and called on the entire Muslim world to "work to isolate them, surround them and end it."

Despite something close to a consensus about the threat posed by ISIS, several of the countries most directly threatened remain consumed by their own politics and rivalries. Turkey, a NATO member state that has military capabilities that dwarf ISIS, should be playing a leading and decisive role in the fight against ISIS. ISIS rhetoric has increasingly focused on attacking the armies of "Rome." While this has raised alarm flags in Italy, particularly with ISIS forces in Libya poised directly to the south of Italy, Graeme Wood has made the argument in his recent piece in the The Atlantic that Rome in Islamic prophecy is a reference to the Turkish capital Constantinople (today's Istanbul), the former seat of the Holy Roman Empire and the state that destroyed the last caliphate. Thus, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continues to regard ISIS as an instrument in his feud with Syria's Bashir al-Assad -- a man Erdoğan long supported until Assad insulted him -- Wood suggests that Turkey itself, along with Saudi Arabia, may well be ISIS's ultimate target. For their part, the Sunni Saudis and their Gulf state partners continue to view Shi'a Iran as their greater sectarian and regional threat and are loath to participate in any anti-ISIS coalition that includes cooperation with the apostate Shi'a.

It is against this backdrop of regional rivalries and hostility that President Obama is working to build a coalition against a common enemy. While the fight against ISIS clearly should be led by the Muslim nations that stand immediately in harm's way -- Turkey, Iran, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- those nations appear incapable of developing and executing a coordinated military response on the ground. With the American public steadfast against a new ground war in the Middle East, the President is left to struggle to bring together a coalition of Turks, Arabs and Persians, Sunni and Shi'a, that by and large dislike and distrust each other as much as they might fear ISIS.

Like President Bush before him, President Obama has sought to moderate the language used by the United States to describe ISIS and the threat of radical Islamists in deference to the Muslim partners in the erstwhile anti-ISIS coalition. Each of those partners is sensitive to any language that might suggest that they are siding with America in a war between the Islam and the West. Under similar circumstances, the Bush administration settled on the term Global War on Terror, eschewing direct references to Islamic terrorism or the term preferred early on, Islamofascism.

It is not difficult to understand the strategic importance of the language used by our leaders to America's ability to build and sustain a coalition with Muslim partners. Perhaps the American public might be puzzled by the President's strained parsing of language and his reluctance to call Islamic terrorism by its name, but members of Congress (or former mayors of New York City) have no such excuse. They understand full well what is at stake and the reasoning behind the Presidents use of words.

In the early days of the Cold War, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Arthur Vandenberg articulated an ethos, adhered to in Washington, D.C. for decades, that partisan politics must stop at the water's edge. This meant that American politicians of all parties should stand together on matters of foreign policy, whatever their political disagreements at home, so that they would not by their partisan actions and words weaken the nation in the eyes of the world. Today, of course, our partisanship knows no limits and few hesitated to attack and ridicule the President this week. Even in a case like the fight against ISIS, a complex and troubling challenge for which few, if any, of the President's adversaries have any significant alternative strategies to offer, any notion that political adversaries might stand together for the larger interest of the nation has long been rendered quaint.