When people talk about ISIS and Islam, as they are today and will surely be for some time in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, they tend to take one of two positions: either that ISIS has nothing to do with "real" Islam, or that ISIS represents the ugly truth of Islam, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.
The debate, on the surface, often turns on theological questions: Is ISIS's piety sincere or just a cynical tool? Does its horrific ideology have real roots in Islamic text and history, or is it all distortions and lies? Does it violate Islamic law? Just how Islamic is the Islamic State, in its words and deeds?
But often, there is a deeper debate just below the surface, or sometimes not hidden at all: To what degree is Islam to blame for ISIS? And, just beneath that, the same question put a different way: Is ISIS what it is because Islam is inherently violent?
There has been and will continue to be mounds of scholarly research and debate on what role, if any, Islam and Islamism play in ISIS's actions and its worldview. But when it comes to the question of blame that will be sadly prevalent in the coming days, I have found that one of the most effective and to-the-point contributions is this 30-second clip from historian Reza Aslan, responding to hostile questions on CNN suggesting that Muslims are inherently violent:
SAY IT LOUDER FOR THE PEOPLE pic.twitter.com/8QqzRl8wWQ— amina (@MadrihdMiley) May 31, 2015
Islam doesn't promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion and like every religion in the world it depends on what you bring to it. If you're a violent person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism is gonna be violent. There are marauding Buddhist monks in Myanmar slaughtering women and children. Does Buddhism promote violence? Of course not. People are violent or peaceful and that depends on their politics, their social world, the ways that they see their communities.
Aslan's point is simple and correct: Religions are big and diverse, and people get out of them what they bring into them.
I suspect that some scholars who study Islamist extremism might quibble with Aslan and worry that he is downplaying the role of Islam. And there is extensive scholarship showing Islam is not irrelevant to ISIS. For example, Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution has written that Islamic ideas of the religion as also being a state, which don't quite exist in Christianity, are crucial for understanding ISIS and its obsession with a caliphate. The evidence that ISIS's worldview is rooted at least partially in accurate and earnestly believed scripture is significant.
But I don't think it's all that hard to square those facts with what Aslan is saying. Islam, like all the Abrahamic religions, is more than a thousand years old and in that time has developed a tremendous wealth of traditions, texts, ideas, prominent figures, and institutions past and present. Someone who brings to Islam a disposition for political violence will find justification for it, as well as ideas on how and why to indulge that disposition. But the exact same could be said of anyone who brings to Islam a disposition for peace and tolerance, as most people of any religion do. It is true that Islam's text and history might shape how a violent and hateful person channels his hate and violence. But it is not the case that Islam will make people hateful or make them violent. That might not be an obvious distinction to everyone, but it is a crucial one.