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Is ISIS Islamic? Why This Is the Wrong Question to Ask

03/24/2015 03:12 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2015

Just how Islamic is ISIS? That's a question that we can't seem to avoid as of late. It was a question at the center of Graeme Wood's controversial article in The Atlantic, and it's a question that looms largely over political debates concerning ISIS. When President Obama avoided labeling ISIS as "Islamic terrorism" during last month's counterterrorism summit, he was attacked by many on the right and even some on the left for being naïve if not dishonest.

By contrast, the Bush administration showed little hesitancy in labeling al-Qaeda as Islamic. Phrases like "Islamic radicalism" and "Islamo-fascism" were fairly ubiquitous in the Bush administration's rhetoric during the war on terror, and the language stuck in spite of efforts by Muslim American organizations to persuade the administration to be more careful in using language that reinforced a connection between Islam and terrorism.

But what's really behind this debate over whether to label organizations such as ISIS as Islamic? I think this obsession to identify ISIS as Islamic says much more about us than about ISIS. These political debates divert our attention from having a deeper, more honest (and more difficult) conversation about all of the factors that give rise to terrorism. This includes just how central politics is to motivating the actions of organizations such as ISIS.

It's not difficult to find scholars and others who have worked with intelligence agencies who argue that the best way to explain terrorism is to look to political factors. Religion does play a role in terrorism, to be sure, but it's more often a way of justifying or channeling a political vision. Religion is rarely the driving force behind terrorism.

Osama bin Laden, for example, may have invoked Islam to justify al-Qaeda's actions, but even a cursory examination of his public statements reveals just how frequently he cited political circumstances as the rationale behind his violent intentions and actions. The history of Western interventionism in Muslim-majority contexts, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.S. exploitation of energy resources in the Middle East, the legacy of European colonialism - bin Laden referenced all of these as reasons driving the larger mission of al-Qaeda.

As we learn more about ISIS, it's increasingly clear that politics is central to its mission as well. Marc Sageman, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and former CIA Operations Officer, argues that ISIS uses religion to advance a political agenda, not vice-versa. Didier Francois, the French journalist held captive by ISIS for ten months, confirms this observation. During his captivity, he realized just how little interest ISIS had in debating Islam or the Qur'an. The ISIS militants holding him didn't even have a copy of the Qur'an. They were interested in debating politics, not religion.

As for why young men from the West sometimes run off to join ISIS, there's increasing evidence that even in these instances, religion comes into the picture only after the fact. The most obvious example of this pertains to Mohammed Ahmed and Usuf Sarwar, two young British Muslims who traveled to Syria to fight for ISIS, but before leaving, ordered copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. But beyond these two, there is little evidence that those who run off to join ISIS are well versed in Islam. Many are alienated young men in search of a cause and a sense of meaning and identity.

Obsessing over whether ISIS is Islamic enables policymakers and politicians to avoid any serious consideration of the role that politics plays in terrorism, including the role that U.S. policies have played in contributing to a climate that is favorable to terrorism. For example, we can't understand the rise of al-Qaeda apart from U.S. support of the Afghan mujahideen, and indirectly the Arab mujahideen, during the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989).

And any explanation of the rise of ISIS that ignores how the U.S.-led war in Iraq enabled al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to establish a foothold in the country is an explanation that is more invested in rewriting history than taking the U.S.'s role in history seriously. After all, ISIS emerged out of AQI and fed on the perceived injustices suffered by many Sunnis in Iraq in the aftermath of the Iraq War. As Juan Cole notes, some of these injustices include sectarian conflicts that were triggered by the Bush administration's decimation of Iraq and its decision to create a government that punished many Sunni Iraqis and placed them at the whims of pro-Iran Shiite fundamentalists.

The U.S. is a part of the story of how terrorist organization such as al-Qaeda and ISIS came to be. But many politicians are obsessed with pinning the Islamic label on al-Qaeda and ISIS because doing so keeps the focus on Islam as the one and only cause of terrorism. It thereby reinforces the longstanding narrative that terrorism has nothing to do with us, with our military interventions in the Middle East, with our addiction to oil, and with our support for autocratic regimes.

What we need at this point are politicians who have the intellectual and moral courage to move beyond questions such as "Is ISIS Islamic?" and who can recognize this question for what it is - a thinly veiled form of Islamophobia intended to heighten our fears of Islam while absolving the U.S. of its own responsibility in contributing to the rise to ISIS.