The perils of Islamic apologetics: Does ISIS really have nothing to do with Islam?

Editors’ Note: The impulse to separate Islam from the sins and crimes of the Islamic State is understandable, writes Shadi Hamid. An overwhelming majority of Muslims oppose ISIS and its ideology—but that’s not quite the same as saying that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, when it very clearly has something to do with it. This piece originally appeared in The Washington Post.

Every time the Islamic State commits yet another attack or atrocity, Muslims, particularly Western Muslims, shudder. Attacks like the ones in Paris mean another round of demands that Muslims condemn the acts, as if we should presume guilt, or perhaps some indirect taint.

The impulse to separate Islam from the sins and crimes of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is understandable, and it often includes statements such as ISIS has “nothing to do with Islam” or that ISIS is merely “using Islam” as a pretext. The sentiment is usually well-intentioned. We live in an age of growing anti-Muslim bigotry, where mainstream politicians now feel license to say things that might have once been unimaginable.

To protect Islam—and, by extension, Muslims—from any association with extremists and extremism is a worthy cause.

But saying something for the right reasons doesn’t necessarily make it right. An overwhelming majority of Muslims oppose ISIS and its ideology. But that’s not quite the same as saying that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, when it very clearly has something to do with it.

If you actually look at ISIS’s approach to governance, it would be difficult—impossible, really—to conclude that it is just making things up as it goes along and then giving it an Islamic luster only after the fact.

It is tempting, for example, to look at the role of former Saddam-era Baathist party officers in the organization’s senior ranks and leap to the conclusion that religion can’t matter all that much. Yet many younger Baathists came up through Saddam Hussein’s late-period Islamization initiative, and, in any case, just because someone starts as a Baathist—or any other kind of secular nationalist—doesn’t mean they can’t, at some later point, “get” religion.

There is a role for Islamic apologetics—if defending Islam rather than analyzing it is your objective. I am a Muslim myself, and it’s impossible for me to believe that a just God could ever sanction the behavior of groups like ISIS.

But if the goal is to understand ISIS, then I, and other analysts who happen to be Muslim, would be better served by cordoning off our personal assumptions and preferences. What Islam should be and what Islam is actually understood to be by Muslims (including extremist Muslims) are very different things.

For scholars of Islamist movements and Islam’s role in politics, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, there should be one overarching objective: to understand and to explain, rather than to make judgments about which interpretations of Islam are correct, or who is or isn’t a “true” Muslim.

In addition to being a Muslim, I am an American, as well as a small-l liberal. I have written about how, even if we personally believe liberalism is the best available ideological framework for ordering society, that should not be allowed to distort our understanding of mainstream Islamist movements such as, say, the Muslim Brotherhood and its analogues across the region.

It makes little sense to compare Islamists to some liberal ideal, when they are a product of very different contexts than our own.

The “is ISIS Islamic?” debate can seem circular and exhausting. But it’s an important one nonetheless. Islamic apologetics lead us down a path of diminishing the role of religion in politics. If the past few years of Middle Eastern turmoil have made anything clear, it’s that, for Islamists of various stripes—mainstream or extremist— religion matters.

Often, religion matters a great deal. It inspires supporters to action; it affects the willingness to die (and, in the case of ISIS, the willingness to kill); it influences strategic calculations and even battlefield decisions. Insisting otherwise isn’t even effective at countering Islamophobia, since, to the unpersuaded, claims that Islam and ISIS are unrelated sound entirely divorced from reality.

Instead, we can and should have a debate—hopefully a nuanced, informed one—about how religious motivations and political context (such as civil wars or governance deficits) interact in the case of ISIS and other religiously influenced movements. It is tough to have that discussion when the starting premise is to disregard the importance of religion as an explanatory factor.

The analytical approach I’m proposing comes with its own risks. Underscoring the power of religion in general, and Islam in particular, may provide fodder for bigots who might latch on to our statements and misuse them for their own ends.

In the end, though, it’s not my job to make Islam look good, or to argue that Islam “is a religion of peace,” when the reality is more complicated. We have to be faithful to our findings and conclusions, even if—or perhaps particularly when—they make us most uncomfortable.