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How ISIS uses and abuses Islam

A Muslim holds placard reading "Terrorism is not Islam. Islam is like this flower. Terrorism has no religion," during a gathering at Le Carillon restaurant one of the site of the attacks in Paris, on November 15, 2015, in the 10th district of Paris.
A Muslim holds placard reading "Terrorism is not Islam. Islam is like this flower. Terrorism has no religion," during a gathering at Le Carillon restaurant one of the site of the attacks in Paris, on November 15, 2015, in the 10th district of Paris.
DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Of the many questions that people tend to ask about ISIS, before the attacks in Paris and now after, one of the most common is about the degree to which the group's bloodthirsty ideology is influenced by Islam. You hear this especially in much of the rhetoric against allowing Syrian refugees, or any non-Christian Syrian refugees, into the United States and Europe.

The question of whether the Islamic State really is "Islamic" is a complex one. But it's imperative to understand, so that people can make decisions based on facts rather than feelings, because this question is at the foundation of some of the most critical debates taking place right now — including how to defeat ISIS, whether or not to accept Syrian refugees, and how Muslims fit into the broader fabric of Western societies.

I called up William McCants, director of the Project on US Relations With the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, a fellow in Brookings's Center for Middle East Policy, and one of the foremost experts on militant Islamist ideology, whose recent book The ISIS Apocalypse looks at these very questions.

ISIS, he said, "sees itself as more faithful to scripture than other Muslims, and they've got religious scholars in their ranks who are able to make finely crafted arguments to that end." Its commitment to what it sees as the correct interpretation of Islam isn't just cynical, he said, and in fact early on led it to some "very poor decisions on the battlefield." But that doesn't mean ISIS's interpretation of Islam is correct, of course, and sometimes when the group goes against widespread understandings of Islam, it's not out of ignorance — it's exactly the point.

What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.


Jennifer R. Williams: Let's start with the basics — what does ISIS want?

Will McCants: They want to restore the early Islamic empire called the caliphate and eventually take over the whole world.

Jennifer R. Williams: Why a caliphate? What does that mean for ISIS, and why is that so important?

Will McCants: As Sunni Muslims, particularly of the ultra-conservative variety, they believe that the caliphate is required in order to properly implement Islamic law and Islamic governance. They consider other systems of governance, even if there's a Muslim sitting at the top, as illegitimate as long as the caliphate is absent.

Jennifer R. Williams: More broadly, what's the relationship between Islam and ISIS? Does everyone in the organization buy into this ideology? Is it just the leadership? Do the foot soldiers care about this? Are they all true believers?

Will McCants: The Islamic State justifies all of its actions by citing Islamic scripture and the example of Mohammed. The guy at the top of the organization [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] is a scholar of the Quran — he has a PhD from a real university in the subject — and he had the reputation among his family members and friends before he was the so-called caliph for being deeply pious. He knows his stuff when it comes to scripture.

As for some of his top lieutenants around him, some of them are more versed with scripture than others. Many of his senior advisers and commanders are former members of Saddam Hussein's security apparatus and the military, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're impious or aren't religious, because a number of them came up through the ranks in the 1990s when Saddam was emphasizing the Sunni identity among the officers after his defeat in the first Iraq war. Even if they didn't get religion then, many of them did later, in the early days of the insurgency when they were captured and put into American prisons. A lot of them were radicalized by the jihadists at that time.

There are a lot of former Baathists [members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party], and many of them chose not to join the Islamic State. A lot of the guys, I would say even most of the guys in the senior leadership positions, got into the [Islamic State] organization in its early days when they could have made other choices, but they gravitated toward the insurgent group that had the most hardline Islamist ideology.

As for the foot soldiers, most of them do not know a lot about scripture, but that doesn't necessarily mean they aren't attracted to the religious message the Islamic State is preaching. I would note that many evangelicals in this country don't know much about their scripture, but they're still pretty enthusiastic Christians.

Jennifer R. Williams: What do we know about what's motivating foreign fighters like those who might have conducted the Paris attacks? Are they fighting more out of a political, grievance-based motivation? Or is it more a religious motivation?

Will McCants: It depends on the individual.

If you look at the motivations of people who join the American military, they are very different depending on the person. Some join for patriotic reasons, some join for a paycheck, and some join because they just want to kick some ass.

I would anticipate that many of the people joining the Islamic State are joining for a variety of reasons, and some of them may be joining primarily because they're attracted to the religious message of the Islamic State and the fact that it has made good on its promise to rebuild God's kingdom on Earth.

Jennifer R. Williams: In your book, you talk about ISIS wanting to establish a caliphate but also wanting to bring about its vision of the apocalypse. How can they want both?

Will McCants: The two ideas are in tension. State building and the end of the world don't really fit well together.

In the organization's early history, they were not really focused on state building; they were much more focused on the end of the world, and they believed a savior figure called the Mahdi was going to appear at any moment and the great cataclysmic battle with the infidels was going to transpire.

That made the Islamic State make some very poor decisions on the battlefield as a consequence, and over time the organization changed the nature of its apocalypticism. It focused much more on institution building as a fulfillment of prophecy — i.e., the caliphate — as opposed to the appearance of a messiah-type figure.

That did two things for them: One is that it put their political program on a much more stable, long-term footing. But, two, they were able to maintain the apocalyptic expectations of their followers and potential recruits. They could argue that it was just around the corner. The first major stage in the end-of-days drama had been fulfilled with the appearance of the caliphate, and there was more to come — just not immediately.

This apocalyptic recruiting pitch has been especially powerful among foreign Muslims, particularly younger Muslims. If you think about what it takes to excite a young person to leave his family, leave his friends, leave his job and travel abroad, the idea that the world is coming to an end at any moment and that you want to be fighting on the side of God as everything comes crashing down can be a very powerful motivator.

Jennifer R. Williams: How do more established Islamic scholars view ISIS and its theological arguments?

Will McCants: Established scholars would argue in the first instance that ISIS's claim to have reestablished the caliphate is illegitimate because they did not consult with the people in authority — i.e., other leaders or religious scholars — and that they just did this by fiat.

In the second instance, they would say that the entire ISIS project is misguided, that there may be bad Muslim rulers in the world, but that's not a good excuse to rebel against them and overthrow them.

Sunni Islam itself was born as a reaction to these revolutions in early Islam against Muslim rulers and really frowns upon declaring any other Muslim an apostate — because, of course, that's not just a religious designation; it also carries with it a political consequence, which is death. The Sunnis, for much of their history, at least in their scholarship, have been very wary of what they call "fitna," or discord, and contemporary traditional Sunni scholars today would argue that ISIS is sowing discord in the community.

Jennifer R. Williams: How does ISIS feel about that? Do they care that the majority of respected Sunni scholars completely reject them? I know with al-Qaeda, obviously they talked about rejecting the traditional clerical establishment, and yet after 9/11, in response to condemnation from the Sunni world, they wrote that entire theological treatise justifying killing civilians.

Will McCants: ISIS does not care about mainstream opinion among Sunni scholars. They're not trying to curry favor with them — in fact, for ISIS it's a badge of honor if mainstream Sunni scholars reject their doctrine. They would point to it as proof that they are on the right path, because in their eyes all of these traditional scholars have been bought off by the state and are just repeating the state's talking points.

ISIS, in some ways, does horrible things to deliberately provoke a debate about the "Islamicisity" of their actions, and they welcome the ensuing argument that breaks out.

For example, with the burning of the Jordanian pilot: Burning an apostate, according to Islamic scripture, is strictly forbidden. Mohammed says on several occasions not to do it, that burning an apostate is only a punishment that God can mete out in hell, but the Islamic State did it anyway against the poor pilot that they designated an apostate, knowing full well what scripture said but in a way inviting the debate.

And when objections were raised in the religious scholarly community, ISIS was able to fire back all of its arguments for why the punishment was Islamic, and they could point to other places in scripture where Mohammed had justified eye-for-an-eye type punishments when his enemies had been particularly ruthless.

All of that is just saying that the Islamic State or ISIS sees itself as more faithful to scripture than other Muslims, and they've got religious scholars in their ranks who are able to make finely crafted arguments to that end.

Jennifer R. Williams: So the strategy of countering ISIS's ideology by amplifying the voices of prominent, respected Muslim scholars who denounce ISIS and their tactics — which of course almost all of them do — you're saying that this actually further plays into ISIS's narrative that they, and not the traditional scholars, are the ones who correctly understand Islam?

Will McCants: There's not much traditional scholars can do about it except try to keep their adherents on side and present a consistent and well thought-out explanation of Islamic scripture that's relevant to their young audience.

But the truth of the matter is that it's very difficult for these scholars to argue that the Islamic State is entirely outside of the community of Muslims when the Islamic State members identify as Muslims and are just as conversant with scripture as their detractors are.

Jennifer R. Williams: You talked about the traditional Sunni scholars trying to keep their adherents on side but that the youth in particular can be attracted by ISIS's ideology. Do you think there's a disconnect, particularly in the Middle East, but I guess also in the West, between the clerical establishment — the imams — and the youth? Is it a generational difference? Why is the traditional party-line message of Sunni Islam not connecting with youth in the same way?

Will McCants: It's generational. A lot of these scholars are seen as part of the establishment as well, and ISIS is presenting itself as counter-establishment.

But it also has to be said that many of these scholars are not honest about what's in Islamic scripture, and they will protest very loudly that such-and-such an action could not possibly, in any way, be sanctioned by scripture, and then the Islamic state comes along and cites chapter and verse.

If you're a young person looking at the argument, you would be dismayed that the traditional scholar that you looked up to seems to have either been ignorant of these passages or downplayed them for some reason. I think traditional scholars would make much more headway if they would be upfront about what's there and try to impart to their young audience a more sophisticated understanding of the scripture than what ISIS offers.