How ISIS Threatens Core American Values

The media frequently and correctly point out that ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) has killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims.  Hence, some have suggested that ISIS is against Muslims.  Wrong.

The greatest violence perpetrated by ISIS has been in the Middle East.  Also, statistically speaking, one has a greater chance of dying from heart-related diseases than from a terror attack. 

Hence, some have suggested that we must be worried, but not unduly fret over ISIS here in the U.S.  Or, as articulated by some (most prominently by President Obama), ISIS does not pose an existential threat to the U.S.

I respectfully disagree.  And I will tell you why.

First, we must analyze what exactly ISIS is.  The "brand" ISIS represents is very different from the "organization" structured in the Middle East.  An accurate understanding will also explain why most Muslims happen to be vehemently against ISIS.

ISIS is a radical Muslim organization that espouses a return to the roots of Islam (hence the phrase "Islamic fundamentalism" we hear about often).  Of course, there is no consensus as to what that would mean to more than a billion Muslims around the world.  This is where ISIS emphasizes (and violently enforces) the ISIS version of Islam.  And it will kill anyone (including Muslims) who disagrees.

Just consider two examples where ISIS's understanding of Islam differs from the vast majority of the Muslim world.  The first one is cultural, the second religious.

  1.  Music: Music is immensely popular in the Muslim world.  ISIS is absolutely against music, period.  But wait; there is more.  ISIS is also against religious music – like the "azan" or "Islamic call to prayer," a regularity in nearly all countries with a substantial Muslim population.
  2.  Pilgrimage: The Prophet's mosque in Medina (where Prophet Muhammad is buried) is one of the holiest sites in Islam, frequented by millions of Muslims every year.  On 06 July 2016, ISIS attacked the Prophet's mosque, as ISIS perceives it as idol-worship.

That being said, it would be a huge mistake to interpret from the above that ISIS is against Islam or Muslims.  It is not.  ISIS is against everything it believes is un-Islamic, including what it thinks is "wrongful religious practice" by the vast majority of Muslims around the world. 

Now you know why they bombed Medina.

And needless to mention, ISIS is vehemently against non-Muslims.  ISIS considers the actions of non-Muslims un-Islamic by definition.

Now consider the organization.  The ISIS leadership is based in Iraq and Syria, embroiled in a "war" against the governments in these countries.  Given the demographics of the region, it is but natural that their first line of conflict would be with the "other" Muslims (who are an overwhelming majority in the region).

The reason ISIS has killed more Muslims than non-Muslims is simply because the overwhelming majority of the population in their area of operation comprises Muslims.  Not because ISIS is against Muslims.

This brings us to the next question.  If ISIS is an extremist group based in Iraq and Syria, why does it pose an existential threat to the U.S.?

I think this is because there is a fundamental misunderstanding about what ISIS represents in mainstream conversation.  One tends to confuse the "ISIS organization" with the "ISIS brand." 

There is a group called ISIS in the Middle East, where the leadership is based.  And then there is a brand called ISIS.  This brand has co-opted social media campaigns, bombing, and brutality.  And yes, this brand is very dangerous and operates globally.

Take the attacks in Mumbai, Paris, and San Bernardino.  Or the shootings in the Orlando nightclub.  Most of the victims there were probably non-Muslims.  Why?  Because non-Muslims formed the majority in these places.

This explains the modus operandi of the ISIS organization and ISIS brand.  They do not care for lives, Muslim or non-Muslim.  They will destroy everything they think is un-Islamic.  This means they are against all non-Muslims and the vast majority of Muslims.

The risk the U.S. faces is less from the ISIS organization and more from the ISIS brand.  It would be a huge mistake to conflate the two.

What is at stake here is the First Amendment itself, the very right to free speech.  Hence, it might be prudent to consider that the ISIS brand is an existential threat to everything America stands for.

Dr. Arnab De is a Ph.D. from Columbia University and also has a mini-MBA from Rutgers University.