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To Counter ISIS Propaganda, Let's Stop Treating the Quran as Infallible

09/25/2014 10:12 am ET | Updated Nov 25, 2014

It was heart wrenching to watch Shirley Sotloff pleading with "Caliph Abu Bakr" to spare the life of her son, Steven Sotloff. Ironically, watching the grief stricken faces Aqsa Mahmood's parents, begging their daughter to come home was also anguishing in its own way.

There was a strange symmetry in the way both families expressed how much they missed their children and how desperate they were to have them back home.

Steven Sotloff and Aqsa Mahmood went to Syria for completely different reasons. Steven Sotloff was trying to tell the story of the Syrian people suffering from war while Aqsa Mahmood chose to go there to support a group which believes in persecuting anyone who refuses to conform to their worldview.

Still, it is hard not to see both families as victims of ISIS and the ideology that has been derived from the literal interpretation of the Quran.

Aqsa Mahmood grew up in a middle class Muslim family in an affluent neighborhood and went to a prestigious private school. It has been reported that her friends describe her as a "typical girl with lots of friends." She doesn't fit the description of an economically disadvantaged or socially isolated young person that many associate with a radical.

So what went wrong?

Aqsa Mahmood and many other Western Jihadis in Syria have been labeled "bedroom radicals." They read up on the Quran and follow radical clerics online and then decide to follow the literal interpretation of Quranic verses that asks believers to fight those who don't believe in Allah and the last day.

There is no doubt the Internet is doing to Islam what Gutenberg's printing press did to Christianity several hundred years ago. I am convinced that this will ultimately lead to an Islamic reformation and a Muslim world that is more tolerant and pluralistic. For now though, the problem is that the likes of Aqsa Mahmood, are freely accessing the Quran online and acting on Quranic injunctions interpreted by online experts.

Well-meaning Muslims claim that these Islamists have simply 'misinterpreted' the Quran. But have they?

As I wrote in a previous post, ISIS's interpretation of the Quran is a very plausible one and this explains why ISIS has no trouble using the Quran as a recruiting tool.

Even according to Yusuf Ali, the very much mainstream and respected interpreter of the Quran, fighting for the cause of 'truth' is a duty for Muslims under a 'rightly guided Imam.' The definition of 'truth' and 'rightly guided Imam,' unfortunately, is not that clear cut.

For those of us who have been indoctrinated with the idea that the Quran is God's literal and most perfect word to man, the Quranic commands for true believers to wage war against 'oppressors' and 'hypocrites' can cause a tugging at the heartstrings.

Still, plenty of Muslims have condemned ISIS while angrily claiming that they have 'misinterpreted' the Quran to justify their barbarity. This is not surprising, since the vast majority of Muslims are decent people who find the brutality of ISIS abhorrent just like everyone else. Muslim leaders like Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf have proclaimed that ISIS and other Islamists have got it all 'wrong' by referring to some peaceful verses in the Quran. Unfortunately these proclamations haven't dissuaded ISIS or the wannabe Jihadis in the west. After all the ISIS claim is that they are the ones following the 'true' Islam.

We can continue to be in denial and claim that ISIS's ideology has nothing to do with Islam, hoping to dissuade the jihadis and silence the anti-Muslim bigots. Thing is, with the Quran at so many people's fingertips these days, neither the jihadis nor the anti-Muslim bigots are believing this anymore and we are simply hurting our own credibility.

If we want to really solve the problem and maybe even regain some credibility, we need leaders who are willing to put forth the idea that we have to change the way we regard the Quran. Treating the Quran as God's perfect and literal word to man is creating too much havoc.

Only when the notions of Quranic infallibility and inerrancy are challenged, will it be possible for believing Muslims to openly admit that according to literalist interpretations at least, violent and hateful passages exist in the Quran: passages that call for fighting those who don't believe in Allah, that support ISIS's ideology and help them recruit young Muslims like Aqsa Mahmood.

After all, only when a critical mass of Muslims propagate the idea that the Quran may not be God's literal and perfect word to man and denounce the violent and hateful verses in the Quran that support ISIS's ideology, will we successfully counter ISIS's propaganda and stop the flow of wannabe jihadis crossing that Turkish border.

Until then, families like the Sotloffs and the Mahmoods and countless others in the Middle East and elsewhere will continue to suffer.