Academic: ISIS 'as Islamic as Anything'

"These things come and go," declared University of Toledo Islamic Studies professor Ovamir Anjum of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a phenomenon he demonstrated is not an aberration in Islamic history.  His December 1 presentation, "ISIS & the Future of Islam," at Georgetown University's Saudi-funded Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU) indicated that ISIS has far more Islamic legitimacy than many will admit.

Speaking in ACMCU's small conference room to about thirty-five listeners, including Georgetown Islamic Studies professor Emad Shahin, Anjum stated that "Islam is a discursive tradition; there are many different interpretations on any issue."  In Islam, "to say that something is wrong and I disagree with it – that is easy.  To say that something is beyond the pale of any possible legitimate interpretation is very, very, very, very difficult."  Regarding ISIS, "misinterpretations like this in a free-floating enterprise like Islamic law happen all the time." 

As Anjum noted, ISIS consistently seeks justification in "Islamic texts, which they seem to know more or less," although members "use the hadith and the Quran in a way that is not resonant with the scholarly tradition and with the scholarly consensus."  Nonetheless, the condemnation of ISIS from many Muslim organizations, including the terrorist group al-Qaeda, "does not demonstrate that ISIS does not represent one plausible interpretation of Wahhabi or Salafi doctrine." 

Explaining that ISIS is not unique in Islam's past, Anjum described the historical example of a "charismatic figure on the margins of the Islamic world agonized by the depraved condition of the community."  He "unites tribes under his leadership to wage war against existing regimes and peoples for their loose practices, [and] sternly and violently imposes moral norms."  "Most crucially, [he] calls his Muslim opponents disbelievers and uses that to declare jihad against them."  "Ultimately, his successors succeed in establishing a powerful dynasty over a large and prosperous stretch of territory."

Anjum suggested that this description could bring to mind eighteenth-century Saudi Arabian theological founding father Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab.  Yet Anjum actually wanted to examine the twelfth-century North African Almohad leader Ibn Tumart.  He also thought his statements had applicability to the Shiite Safavids in Iran.

Anjum's main criticism of ISIS was that it "excludes other Muslims from being part of Islam" similar to the "super-pietists, fanatics, zealots" of the Khawarij sect (modern-day Ibadis) from Islam's founding era in the seventh century.  "You have checked out of the discursive community; you have excommunicated other Muslims; you are killing other Muslims," he stated about ISIS members who violate Islamic norms demanding communal review of behavior.  "It is kind of like the academic process of academic review and other people holding you to account, and you act in accordance with the respect for the academic community."  Yet ISIS "is a group that draws on a very legitimate set of grievances and the rejection of these people as Khawarij comes from the mouths of people that serve up...the tyrants who create the conditions," giving ISIS "their major rebuttal."

Even these qualified theological criticisms of ISIS, which Anjum denounced as an "abomination by any standard," have flaws.  He condemned ISIS's slaughtering of civilians, claiming that in Islam's "legal, juristic tradition, you do not kill noncombatants" and that "in Islamic law, taking a life is the biggest crime" and must be "meticulously justified."  Yet these assessments are otherworldly in light of the brutal history of Islamic subjugation of non-Muslims under the dhimmi pact, which ISIS has newly implemented.  Additionally, a bearded Muslim audience member noted that historically, numerous Muslim scholars have issued religious opinions or fatwas contradicting an Islamic legal consensus or ijma: "giving fatwa against ijma is not something rare."

Anjum did not strengthen his argument with jabs at non-Muslims.  He opposed "ignoring the direct immediate role of Western imperialism, the two Gulf Wars, and the intervening sanctions on Iraq, and so on, on giving rise to ISIS."  He relativized ISIS in relation to other atrocities, such as Pol Pot's murder of millions in Cambodia, stating that the "secular Middle East regimes, many U.S.-backed, have for decades killed and imprisoned a far greater number of people."  The former argument disregards that ISIS arose in Syria, not just in Iraq, while the latter argument disregards that secular dictators have kept groups like ISIS in check, as Saddam Hussein's overthrow indicated.

Anjum's presentation belied his previously articulated thesis that ISIS is no more Islamic than the Ku Klux Klan is Christian.  Glossing over the non-Muslims outside Islam's "discursive community" who are subject to ISIS's genocidal rage, he could only conclude that ISIS jihadists are errant Islamic black sheep, no more misguided than others in Islamic history.  Given his concession to the historical controversy over such judgments, Anjum's paraphrase of Princeton University Near Eastern Studies professor Bernard Haykel is far more realistic: "ISIS is as Islamic as anything else."

Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a J.D. from George Washington University Law School.  He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project.  Follow him on Twitter at @AEHarrod.  This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.