Isis and Religious Apologetics

A problem persists in the discussion and analysis surrounding Isis: the refusal of many to concede that theirs is a plausible – though clearly medieval and relatively poorly subscribed – reading of Islam. Barack Obama has insisted that Isis is “not Islamic”; while David Cameron has observed that the militants “are monsters, not Muslims”. It is odd that Western politicians should be busily trying to ex-communicate large numbers of self-identifying Muslims in this way; the theological demarcations of Islam are probably not their strong suit.

Remarks like these are shallow posturing but their tactical expediency is clear. It is, after all, important for politicians not to alienate Muslims, either domestically or worldwide. Many of the victims of Isis’s bloodthirsty rampage are themselves Muslims who are routinely executed for failing to meet the group’s ludicrous, perverse demands of piety and subservience. But the refusal to countenance the Islamic (or Islamist) nature of Isis can be have shadier motivations.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir recently posited an eccentric explanation for the emergence and continued success of Isis. In the wake of the slaughter of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by the paramilitary group, he explained that “the CIA and Mossad stand behind these organisations [Isis]” – the implication of Mossad is an interesting paranoid flourish – because “no Muslim would carry out such acts”.

This from a man, himself a Sunni Muslim, strongly suspected of being an accessory to genocide.

If we cannot admit that there exists a violent, theocratic, virulent strand of Islam(ism) coursing through the Middle East and North Africa – even menacing the borders of Europe – we certainly can’t hope to understand the present state of the world.

Incidentally, sheepish denials of the Islamic nature of Isis often come from the same simpering individuals who engage in lavish, atavistic masochism when it comes to discussion of the Crusades and other historic Western or Christian crimes.

As Graeme Wood recently wrote in The Atlantic, “much of what [Isis] does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere… commitment to returning civilization to a seventh century legal environment”. If they are not animated by a particular reading of Islamic texts then what is it that encourages them to hurl suspected homosexuals from rooftops? Why must women living in Isis controlled areas don double-layered veils and conceal even the skin on their hands, as The Guardian has reported? And why are allegations of apostasy deployed so promiscuously and so exuberantly punished?

Clearly, the distinction between the barbarous behaviour of Isis militants and the reasonably mild, contemplative Islam of many Western adherents must be made stark; huge numbers of Muslims read the violent passages in the holy texts as pertaining only to a specific historical epoch. But this can be done without the disingenuous rejection of Isis’s Islamic – albeit nihilistic and regressive – nature.