Since 9/11, one of the defining fault lines in American and Western politics has concerned whether jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS are motivated by their religion or by politics – or more specifically, by grievances against Western foreign policy. Some insist that Islamic doctrine is the basis of their violence, while others insist that such groups are not truly Islamic, but are instead using the guise of religion to lash out against Western influence and intervention.
What has been unique about this debate is that does not neatly map onto the standard left-right divide. While many on the right espouse the “it’s the religion” view, some on the right believe that jihadist violence is “blowback” for Western foreign policies. And while many on the left subscribe to the blowback argument, others point to the uniquely violent doctrines within Islam as the motivation for jihad, martyrdom, and terrorism.
The problem with this debate, as it is with many debates framed in a binary fashion, is that it is possible for both sides to be right – at least to some extent. Jihadist groups surely are opposed to much of Western foreign policy, and, so in a sense, their grievances are “political.” Yet what those who subscribe to the “its politics, not religion” argument fail to comprehend, as I have written elsewhere, is that their political grievances are borne out of their religious convictions.
A Religious Basis for their Political Grievances
Take, for instance, al-Qaeda’s opposition to the presence of Western troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War. To most on the left, this grievance appears to be solely political. But its basis is inherently religious, grounded in Muhammad’s pronouncement that “there not be two religions in Arabia.” One can easily imagine that if Muhammad had said, “Share this land generously and peacefully with those of all faith and no faith,” al-Qaeda’s opinion on this matter would have been rather different.
Religious convictions about the righteousness of shari’a, the mandate to install theocratic states, the necessity of waging defensive and offensive jihad, and the legitimacy of martyrdom and terrorism to spread Islam are what explain the motivations and actions of jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Whether it is subverting secular or insufficiently religious states in the Islamic world, using violence to preserve and extend their territory, or attacking the West when it interferes with its imperialist ambitions, jihadist groups’ political behavior is consistently traceable to their beliefs about what the Quran, hadith, and respected commentaries say they have a divine injunction to do.
For years, however, making this case has been a challenge. This is in part because al-Qaeda was intentionally speaking to both sides in this debate. As the scholar Raymond Ibrahim demonstrates in The al-Qaeda Reader, the terrorist group would regularly frame its grievances in political terms when broadcasting its message to the West (so as to insinuate that once the West withdrew, peace would come). Yet when speaking to the Muslim world, the group would make highly sophisticated religious arguments, explaining why its actions, however reprehensible on their face, were in fact justified by a close reading of the holy texts.
Now, however, with al-Qaeda receding as a perceived threat because of the growth in power of ISIS, the debate has been renewed: Is ISIS motivated by religion or politics? But recently, ISIS, through its publication Dabiq, has definitively settled this debate.
ISIS Settles the Debate
In an article entitled “Why We Hate You & Why We Fight You,” ISIS acknowledges this debate taking place in the Western world, noting that there are those on the one side who describe their terrorism as “nothing more than a political act and a propaganda tool,” and those on the other side who “unabashedly declare that jihad and the laws of the Shari’ah – as well as everything else deemed taboo by the Islam-is-a-peaceful-religion crowd – are in fact completely Islamic.”
ISIS then states in plain terms why it hates and fights the West.
- “We hate you, first and foremost, because you are disbelievers; you reject the oneness of Allah.”
- “We hate you because your secular, liberal societies permit the very things that Allah has prohibited while banning many of the things He has permitted.”
- “In the case of the atheist fringe, we hate you and wage war against you because you disbelieve in the existence of your Lord and Creator.”
- “We hate you for your crimes against Islam and wage war against you to punish you for your transgressions against our religion.”
- “We hate you for your crimes against the Muslims; your drones and fighter jets bomb, kill, and maim our people around the world, and your puppets in the usurped lands of the Muslims oppress, torture, and wage war against anyone who calls to the truth.”
- “We hate you for invading our lands and fight you to repel you and drive you out. As long as there is an inch of territory left for us to reclaim, jihad will continue to be a personal obligation on every single Muslim.”
Of course, this list can be read so as to support both sides in the debate over whether ISIS’s motivation is religious or political. But then the article elaborates on this precise point. ISIS emphasizes that its primary motivation is a religious conviction to hate, fight, and subjugate those who oppose them:
What’s important to understand here is that although some might argue that your foreign policies are the extent of what drives our hatred, this particular reason for hating you is secondary, hence the reason we addressed it at the end of the above list. The fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam. Even if you were to pay jizyah and live under the authority of Islam in humiliation, we would continue to hate you.
The article then explains that because ISIS’s hatred for infidels will never end, its desire to fight, convert, and subjugate non-Muslims cannot be extinguished, but can only be halted with “a temporary truce.”
No doubt, we would stop fighting you then as we would stop fighting any disbelievers who enter into a covenant with us, but we would not stop hating you…[We] will never stop fighting you until you’re ready to leave the swamp of warfare and terrorism through the exits we provide, the very exits put forth by our Lord for the People of the Scripture: Islam, jizyah, or – as a last means of fleeting respite – a temporary truce.
But is ISIS Islamic?
President Obama, of course, has insisted that there is nothing to be gained by using the term “Islamic” when referring to ISIS. And when he says that not using the term has not prevented him from identifying and targeting the enemy, he is probably right.
But his decision not to use the word “Islamic,” i.e., not to speak the truth, is inherently problematic, because it needlessly empowers people who will speak the truth, but who can also be counted on to misunderstand and misuse it.
Donald Trump, for instance, will and does speak the truth that Obama will not, bringing him undue attention and adulation. And in the same speech, Trump will call for extreme, illiberal, and unjust policies in response, such as a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. or the assassination of terrorists’ families.
This is a problem, but it could be easily fixed: President Obama, other world leaders and politicians, and pundits and intellectuals could greatly undermine the appeal of genuine bigots like Trump if they simply called a spade a spade.
In rebutting the now self-evident claim that ISIS is motivated by religion, some will claim that ISIS is not Islamic because most Muslims oppose ISIS. Fortunately, this is true (though a troubling number of Muslims hold particular beliefs, such as those regarding the ideal punishments for adultery, theft, and apostasy that are also held by ISIS).
But this response fails because it is a non sequitur. A majority of Catholics (at least, American Catholics) support the use of birth control, but this fact does not mean that Catholicism condones contraception. Likewise, that many Muslims oppose ISIS and its jihad and terrorism is itself not proof that Islam, as a set of beliefs grounded in its revered texts, does not condone these things.
This stronger claim – that ISIS is not just Islamic and name and motivated by Islam by its own admission, but that it is motivated by a legitimate interpretation of Islamic texts – is certainly more time-consuming to prove, but not very difficult. After all, canonical interpretations of the Quran, hadith, and revered texts do justify much (though not necessarily all) of what ISIS does, from its establishment of a caliphate to its implementation of shari’a to its use of warfare to expand its territory and “defend,” through retaliation, fellow Muslims.
Handling the Truth
Admitting that ISIS’s actions are largely grounded in Islamic doctrine ought not be construed as “validating” or “endorsing” the group’s worldview, just as soberly explaining how the ideologies of Nazism and Soviet communism influenced their followers should not be confused with supporting these ideologies.
Moreover, identifying the Islamic roots of ISIS’s worldview ought not be interpreted as an affront to all Muslims (surely we’ve all internalized the difference between criticizing ideas and people by now) and should not be avoided for fear that such recognition “plays into the hands of ISIS” or “confirms the narrative” of the group which seeks to prosecute a war between “Islam” and “the West.”
As Sam Harris has pointed out in his criticism of the “narrative narrative,” it is bizarre what critics of calling ISIS “Islamic” are implying: apparently, merely calling the group “Islamic” and affirming a connection between Islamic belief and violence is so offensive and incendiary that merely using these words is enough to alienate and radicalize some Muslims.
If this is indeed true, then this in and of itself is a problem – that there is a sizable number of Muslims who can be turned into jihadists simply through a mere observation of fact. Do those who recommend political correctness and self-censorship not see that they are assuming that some Muslims are so insecure and volatile that merely criticizing Islam (again, an ideology, not people themselves) is enough to increase ISIS’s ranks? This assumption is an example of the bigotry they claim to decry – the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Acknowledging rather than dismissing the link between Islamic doctrine and violence also has a positive repercussion: it empowers whom we all must strive to empower – the Muslim reformers whose intellectual premise is that there is something in Islam that needs to be remedied. By claiming that Islam is already a religion of peace and that groups like ISIS misrepresent the faith, we (inadvertently) discredit the entire reformist project.
This is why we must always value truth over pragmatism and brutal honesty over willful delusion. Not until we talk candidly about what motivates ISIS and how to reform rather than protect Islam will we be able to defeat the jihadists and win the support of the Muslims who are on our side – those who want democracy, secularism, and co-existence to prevail over authoritarianism, theocracy, and apocalyptic confrontation.