Terrorism is Terrorism and Islam is Islam


President Obama is correct to characterize efforts against terrorist groups as a struggle against violent extremism and not as a struggle against “Islamic” terrorism. He is correct to deny groups such as Islamic State/Islamic State in the Levant/ Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (IS/ISIL/ISIS) the imprimatur of Islam, to deny them the cover of religion.
Just as words have multiple meanings, groups, individuals, acts, and texts have multiple meanings. Meaning comes not only from what an individual or a group says it is, but meaning also come from what we agree, to what we say: “yes and amen.” When IS says it is Islamic, we can agree to that or we can say no. I say no. President Obama and other world leaders also say no. ISIS is not religious, and it is not Islamic. It is a death-dealing cult of destruction. It deserves no respect. Thus, let us call it by its Arabic name of derision: Daesh. (pronounced daEEsh or dash)
Some people argue that the reason to say “Islamic” terrorism is because to deny the so-called Islamic elements of its ideology would cause misunderstanding and miscalculation in war. It would break an important rule of warfare: “Know the enemy.” I say it is possible to know the ideological goals of Daesh while demonstrating how its ideology falls short of the goals of Islam and is not religion.
Let us consider the meaning of Islam – submission to the will of God. The Koran refers to God as the Most Gracious, Most Merciful Master of the Day of Judgment. Thus, Islam is submission to a gracious and merciful God. The concept of radical means extreme, basic, the root of the thing, so radical, extreme Islam would require an extreme, basic submission to a God of grace and mercy. Too often we use the term radical as a synonym for violent. Further, in Islam, Jesus is a revered prophet whose teachings ought to be obeyed. So Muslims, like Christians, have an obligation to love one’s enemies, to turn the other cheek, and to go the extra mile. So to refer to Daesh and other terrorist groups as Islamic is to insult Islam. To even refer to Daesh as religious is a mistake.
When we consider the etymological roots of the word “religion” in English, it takes us to the Latin religare which means: to restrain, to tie back. It is related to the concepts of reliance and to ligature, the threads that hold an entity together as a useful whole. We can readily see how the texts, rituals, disciplines, doctrines and narratives of a particular religious tradition binds like-minded believers together in unity. However it takes a deeper insight to understand that a particular religion is only a means to an end. The end is to reconnect, to reunify, to bind ourselves back to The Divine, to all of humanity, to nature and creation. It is the work of at-one-ment.
It is when we cut ourselves off from the larger unity, to allow the means to become the end, that religion becomes, small, dangerous, and tribal. The situation becomes even worse when people begin to worship a frozen, calcified, historically bound subset of a religious tradition. In this instance, religion stops being a living thing that is a pathway to a living deity, to a living Love and becomes a dead idol. People worship dead thinkers, dead ideas, dead texts, and tragic narratives that lead to violence, terror, human misery, death, and destruction. It is the idolatry that the sacred texts warn against. It is the worship of the created thing rather than worship of the Creator.
What Daesh Wants
In an essay published in The Atlantic (March 2015) — “What ISIS Really Wants”– Graeme Wood argues that it is important to recognize the religious roots of Daesh. He writes:
“Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.”
According to Wood, Daesh is different from al Qaeda because of its medieval character and its apocalyptic goals. Its functional genealogy relates it to Abu Musa’b al Zarqawi, head of al Qaeda in Iraq whose murderous brutality included killing other Muslims. Daesh will declare other Muslims apostates for a number of reasons, including voting in an election and being a Shiite. Wood quotes Bernard Haykel of Princeton University who believes that denials of Daesh’s religious nature comes from an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.” Haykel thinks that because a group of killers quotes the Koran and interprets it to justify their killing that they are religiously motivated, that their interpretation is as legitimate as that of any other Muslim. I say their interpretation is not legitimate. At its root, it is not Islam. It is not religion if it is not bringing humanity back into peaceful unity. They are worshipping a stunted and perverted deception. Again, I say: They have made an antiquated interpretation of their texts an idol. The world has no obligation to agree to this. It ought to fight Daesh in the same manner as it fights any other group of murderers.
Daesh wants to establish a caliphate, a political economic entity that would provide the basic needs of its citizens – free food, clothing, shelter, and health care. However, these things would come with Sharia law complete with stonings, slavery, and amputations. Once an adult male who is a descendant of the Quraysh tribe declares a caliphate, then Muslims are required to pledge allegiance to it and to move to the territories it controls. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a member of the Quraysh, so in the eyes of Daesh and its supporters Muslims who have not sworn allegiance and are not on their way to the territory controlled by the caliphate are apostates.
All of this fits into an apocalyptic narrative where Islamic armies and armies of Rome battle. After the Islamic armies win, an anti-Christ will come and live in Jerusalem. He will nearly destroy the caliphate army when Jesus will return to earth and lead the caliphate to victory. Until then, the caliphate has an obligation to expand through terrorism and war, the logic being that people will be too traumatized to resist. Thus the caliphate requires perpetual warfare.
Wood thinks that had the Obama administration recognized the ambitions of Daesh while it was still al Qaeda in Iraq that the administration would have acted differently. He writes:
“If we had identified the Islamic State’s intentions early, and realized that the vacuum in Syria and Iraq would give it ample space to carry them out, we might, at a minimum, have pushed Iraq to harden its border with Syria and preemptively make deals with its Sunnis.”
Unfortunately, history does not reveal is alternatives. In my opinion, this speculation presupposes that the Iraqi army had the power to harden the borders and that there would have been the will by either the Iraqi government or its Sunni citizens to cooperate. The Sunni distrust of the Iraqi government is deep, and many may have preferred Daesh to their Shiite government.
In fact, some analysts think that the true strategic logic of Daesh is rooted in the goals of former Iraqi Baathists. Journalist Liz Sly writing in the Washington Post — “The hidden hand behind the Islamic State Militants? Saddam Hussein’s ” April 4, 2015 — reports:
“Even with the influx of foreign fighters, almost all of the leaders of the Islamic State are former Iraqi officers, including members of its shadowy military and security committees, and the majority of its emirs and princes, according to Iraqis, Syrians and analysts who study the group.”
Sly quotes analyst and author Hassan Hassan saying:
“A lot of people think of the Islamic State as a terrorist group, and it’s not useful. It is a terrorist group, but it is more than that. It is a homegrown Iraq insurgency, and it is organic to Iraq.”
When 19th century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz taught: “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means”, he was teaching us that war is about political economy, about who will control the resources that are on or in a particular area of the earth. It is about who will control trade routes and shipping lanes. Former Baathists want their power to control the policy of Iraq back, and they are determined to achieve this end by any means necessary.
Hisham al Hashemi is an Iraqi analyst whose relatives served in the Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein. Sly quotes him saying that the Baathist alliance with Daesh is tactical.
“A lot of these Baathists are not interested in ISIS running Iraq. They want to run Iraq. A lot of them view the jihadists with this Leninist mind-set that they’re useful idiots who we can use to rise to power.”
If Hashemi is right, it is further evidence that the fight against Daesh is not about Islam.
This brings us to the fiction that Daesh would not have been able to form, grow, and become powerful had President Obama kept a residual American force in Iraq. President Obama left Iraq based on a timeline agreed to by the Bush administration. Let us be clear: Iraqis wanted the United States and its allies out of their country. Contrary to the Colin Powell/ Tom Friedman Pottery Barn rule: If you break it, you bought it, Iraq was broken before the American invasion of 2003. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates describes Iraq’s pre -war, or better said inter- war, dysfunction in his book “Duty.” Gates writes:
“Decades of rule by Saddam, who didn’t give a damn about the Iraqi people; the eight-year-long war with Iran; the destruction we wreaked during the Gulf War; twelve years of harsh sanctions – all these meant we had virtually no foundation to build upon in trying to restart the economy, much less create a democratic Iraqi government responsive to the needs of its people.”
Gates says it was a fantasy to think the first democratically elected government in four-thousand years of history could “resolve in a year or so the enormous and fundamental political problems facing the country” (35).
War is always, always a horror. Armies tear up stuff and kill people. The 2003 American invasion of Iraq was no different. For the most part, we did not see the dead and dying Iraqis, the children crippled because of our attacks, the humiliation of American warriors coming into one’s home in the dark of night and taking one or more male family members away to prison where their humiliation would continue only worse. For the most part, our media did not show us these images. However, they were seen across the Middle East in Muslim countries and caused Muslims to see this as a war against them waged by Western powers. So, neither the Iraqi government nor the Iraqi people wanted the United States to stay.
To suggest that if only President Obama had tried harder to convince the Iraqis to allow us to keep troops on the ground, then Daesh would not have grown strong in Iraq is to ignore and to profoundly misunderstand the depth of the resentment Iraqis have for a coalition that smashed an already broken country into pieces that may never come together again. Writing in his book “The Great War for Civilization: the Conquest of the Middle East”, journalist Robert Fisk quotes himself, writing on the evening of April 9, 2003, the day US Marines helped pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein:
“‘You’ll see the celebrations and we will be happy Saddam has gone,’ one of them said to me. ‘But we will then want to rid ourselves of the Americans and we’ll want to keep our oil and there will be resistance and then they will call us terrorists'” (977).
Had President Obama kept troops in Iraq beyond the departure date agreed to by the Bush administration, it would have been an occupation. The 2003 invasion, deBaathification, the inability or unwillingness of the Shiite dominated Iraqi government to share power with Sunnis, and the will-to-power of former Baathists created the opening for Daesh. The inability or unwillingness of the Iraqi army to fight Daesh led to the sad situation of Daesh taking the weapons of war the US left the Iraqi army. Now the United States, using the hard earned tax dollars of Americans, has armed both sides of the conflict in Iraq and quite possibly in Syria as well.
None of this has a blessed thing to do with a radical submission to a gracious and merciful God. It has nothing to do with the ties that bind us back to the Divine, to human unity, to nature and creation. It has everything to do with the violence of terrorism, including the terror perpetrated through wars by nation -states for the sake of political and economic control of another country.
Now we are faced with the problem of so-called radicalization. (Here again the word “radical” is used interchangeably with violent. Instead, let us use the term indoctrination.) How are young people from Europe and the United States indoctrinated with and by the glamor and mythology of Daesh and its promise of a caliphate?
Janet Reitman, in an essay in the April 9, 2015 issue of “Rolling Stone” – “The Children of ISIS” – tells the story of three teenagers from the Chicago area who were stopped at O’Hare International Airport on their way to Syria to join Daesh. Mohammed Hamzah Khan, 19, and his 17-year-old sister and 16-year-old brother thought it was their religious duty to join Daesh and to help establish a caliphate. These teenagers were very young children when 9/11 happened, and they have grown up in a post 9/11 America where they often felt unwelcome. They have known people and heard stories of Muslims who have been harassed. Their parents who practice a conservative yet peaceful kind of Islam tried to shelter them. However, their parents could not shelter them from the us-against-them narrative they found on the Internet. They saw the images of war and the suffering of Muslims at the hands of the United States and its coalition partners. Daesh and the establishment of a caliphate promised a place on earth where Muslims could be Muslim and also be respected and protected. They communicated on-line with people who told them of the nobility of dedicating one’s life to something as important as a caliphate. They were seduced by the idea of blessed death were the souls of martyrs became beautiful green birds. Martyrs died with a smile on their faces and their corpses smelled of musk and did not decompose.
Reitman reports more of this fantastic thinking:
“And there were more miracles in Syria: orchards sprouting endless quantities of fruit, mortar shells that in ISIS-held territory would fall and leave no damage. One jihadi wrote that, despite a lack of water and hygiene products, neither his clothes nor his hair nor his body ever smelled.”
Whether or not these teenagers believed this is an open question. It is clear that they were willing to endure hardship, even to the point of leaving their family and friends and all they have ever known to live and die for Daesh. Now they are in counseling; they are learning more about Islam to counter their indoctrination; and people who have been to Syria during the fighting are telling them the truth about life in a war zone.
I say: the way to counter the indoctrination of young Muslims is to stop associating their religion with terrorists. We ought to challenge the discourse that makes them the dangerous Other. We ought to give them our respect, even our love. The reason Jesus taught that we ought to love our enemies is because love and fear cannot coexist. We ought to see young Muslim children as our own who deserve to be respected and protected here in their home country. We ought to end our perpetual warfare in Muslim countries so that the images of death and destruction they see on the Internet will not be our doing.
I say: Terrorism is terrorism, a violent will-to-power. And, We the People of the United States ought to examine our foreign policy and determine to what extent it is terroristic. We ought to pay very close attention to the candidates for president and reject those who want to institute neo-conservative ideas about the effectiveness of the U.S. military in working our own will-to-power across the globe.
Islam is Islam in that we all ought to ask ourselves what submission to a God of grace and mercy looks like. And for those of us who do not believe in God, what does submission to grace and mercy itself require of us?

Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com. She is author of the book Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.


One thought on “Terrorism is Terrorism and Islam is Islam

  1. Thank you for this incisive and informational essay, with which I concur , as a Muslim.
    There is a saying of the Prophet Muhammad , upon him be peace “There will be some who come after me who claim to be acting in the way of Islam. They have the bodies of men and the souls of shaitan. (shaitan is the devil).”

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