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There's a "crisis of legitimacy within Islam" — and it's fueling ISIS

Al-Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt.
Al-Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt.
Photo by Marka/UIG via Getty Images

Every time ISIS carries out an attack, as it appears to have done in Paris, Muslims around the world condemn the atrocities committed in their name. Prominent religious authorities denounce the group and its claim to legitimacy. Yet there is more at work in the relationship between this group and its use and abuse of Islam.

"There is a crisis of legitimacy or authenticity within Islam," Iyad el-Baghdadi, a prominent Middle East pro-democracy activist now exiled by his home country, the United Arab Emirates, told me. The debate we typically have, he said, over whose scriptural reading is the most accurate, over who has the correct interpretation of the rules, is one that plays into ISIS's hands — and is, Iyad argues, the wrong debate.

"The dominant paradigm of Islam," he said, "is rule-based. It's a rule-centric Islam. It's not value-centric. This actually plays very well with ISIS, because ISIS can just use the same rules and arguments that the establishment scholars use."

To understand ISIS's appeal, he went on, you have to understand that it's offering something that many young people feel mainstream religious authorities, many of them tied to unpopular authoritarian regimes, aren't giving them: answers. Young people, he said, are "finding the wrong answers. The people that are giving them the answers are basically the wrong people, the worst people." ISIS, he argued, exploits this: "You can't beat a simplistic answer, rather just answering with another question. Because life is really a question, but these guys just want answers."

Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.


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

Iyad el-Baghdadi: What ISIS really wants is to carve out a state eventually. It is a state-building project. But it can't achieve that without creating a space for itself and building upon its worldview. It can only do that if it polarizes the region enough to create a state in which Sunnis feel that it's their only protector.

Jennifer R. Williams: What is the relationship between ISIS and Islam, as you see it?

Iyad el-Baghdadi: There is a crisis of legitimacy or authenticity within Islam. There's a crisis of leadership, of establishing what is "mainstream." ISIS is a product of that crisis. The reason the question of whether ISIS is "Islamic" or not is such a difficult one to answer is because it's very difficult for us to even define what "Islamic" is at all because of this lack of a mainstream [consensus view of Islam].

But ISIS definitely cares about establishing its legitimacy through Islamic scripture and Islamic arguments. It will not do something unless it knows it can justify it. However, the justification is kind of after the fact. Basically, they do something, or want to do something, and then they have to construct an argument to demonstrate that it is permissible. And because Islamic tradition goes back 1,500 years, it's not difficult to find some kind of historical context or some kind of interpretation that fits the bill.

But they do care about Islamic legitimacy. After all, it is — well, it claims to be — an "Islamic state."

Jennifer R. Williams: So when established Muslim scholars, such as the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia or the scholars at Al-Azhar in Egypt, publicly denounce ISIS's actions and ideology, does ISIS care? Or does that actually play into the ISIS narrative?

Iyad el-Baghdadi: That's a good question. That actually plays into their logic, because most of these establishments are funded or founded by the regimes, and the regimes are basically tyrannical. Let's face it: The people in the region who are fighting ISIS are not exactly beacons of human rights themselves.

This is one of the main problems in the fight against ISIS: Unless the religious voice that wants to claim legitimacy is willing to take on tyranny just as harshly as it takes on terrorism, the youth of the region are not really going to tune in, because they know that this is basically government PR given through an Islamic mouthpiece.

So it does play into ISIS's strategy when they can say, "You know what, look at these scholars, they're basically funded by the government, they work for the tyrants, etc." And the scholars don't say anything against the tyrants who are probably doing the same things as ISIS; they're also torturing, they're also killing, they're also exiling people, etc.

There is another reason why this is important. It's that the dominant paradigm of Islam [the one that all of these establishment scholars follow] is rule-based. It's a rule-centric Islam. It's not value-centric. This actually plays very well with ISIS, because ISIS can just use the same rules and arguments that the establishment scholars use. It kind of throws them a curveball, because ISIS can say to them, "You say you're against what we're doing, but look at your own books, they contain this."

One of the most annoying things about this whole debate is that it's become an attempt to establish a center. To centralize Islam, in other words. So ISIS says, "We are the center," then the scholars say, "No, no, no, we are the center." It's a "my Islam is 'Islamier' than yours" kind of a thing.

I mean, the fact is that it's not centralized. That's why we don't know what "Islamic" means. Instead of saying, "Okay, fine, it's not centralized, let's be centralized," let's talk about values instead of talking about rules.

Jennifer R. Williams: What do you think it is that's attracting young people to this very brutal, rule-centric vision of Islam that ISIS is selling?

Iyad el-Baghdadi: When you talk to them, there are many themes. There are themes of heroism, meaning, belonging, forgiveness, feeling like they have a purpose, feeling like they belong to something bigger than themselves. All of these are things that any young person goes through. It's just that they're finding the wrong answers. The people that are giving them the answers are basically the wrong people, the worst people.

The fact is that rules give structure, and they give meaning. In the midst of all of this chaos around you, there are these rules, and they're defined rules and they make sense. That's why I call [ISIS's ideology] answer-focused. It's focused on the answers rather than focused on asking questions. That does have appeal.

There are many young people, even young Muslims, who have chosen not to be religious at all, but they still appreciate answers. They want answers. And you can't beat a simplistic answer, rather just answering with another question. Because life is really a question, but these guys just want answers.

Jennifer R. Williams: Do you think ISIS would still be as attractive to these young people if there hadn't been such a massive clampdown by Arab regimes in response to the Arab Spring?

Iyad el-Baghdadi: The thing that resuscitated ISIS or jihadism in general was the Syrian conflict. Because the idea of ISIS, the idea of jihadism, is based upon the idea that you cannot achieve change in this region without violence. For them, the idea of peaceful change is impossible. Violence is the only way.

So once the Tunisian Revolution succeeded and the Egyptian Revolution succeeded and then several other revolutions kicked off, this really damaged the idea of violence, the idea of jihadism. The central foundational idea of jihadism was shattered. When bin Laden died in May 2011, the idea of al-Qaeda was at its lowest, at its weakest.

The Syrian conflict resuscitated this idea because we had been seeing that violence is not the only way. There is a way for peaceful change, and then the Syrian conflict just completely destroyed that, and then you had the counter-revolution coming in, proving to a lot of young people that, no, peaceful change is not possible. Violence is the only way.

I said earlier that for young people the themes are about belonging and meaning and purpose and things like that. Now these are legitimate aspirations. The fact is that ISIS presented the wrong answers to these aspirations, and the same applies to the Arab Spring. Because the Arab Spring is a demand for dignity and for liberty and for autonomy, independence, unity, etc., and ISIS does come and present its own answers to these, which are very different of course from the Arab Spring vantage.

So in a sense it's serving the same demographic. They are competitors. Me, as an Arab Spring activist, I can tell you they're my competitors for the same mass.

Jennifer R. Williams: It looks like they're winning. And that's unfortunate.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: Actually, they're not; ideologically, they're not. People are completely disgusted with them. Ideologically they're not mainstream. They're not anywhere near mainstream. They're not going mainstream. Ideologically they are not a threat. They're a security threat. They're going to be a security threat for a long time, but ideologically they've already been defeated because they have been rejected by the vast majority of Muslims everywhere.

They are winning on the ground only, but they are not winning the battle of the heart and minds.

Jennifer R. Williams:recently spoke with Will McCants about this topic, and he talked about ISIS's apocalyptic vision and how that apocalyptic narrative is attracting a lot of recruits to ISIS. What are your thoughts on that?

Iyad el-Baghdadi: The apocalyptic narrative does inspire a lot of passion, and again, it provides answers. And things are happening in ways that actually seem to fulfill these prophesies. For someone who's very confused, this seems like a very simple answer. Forget all the confusion — here's the prophecy, this is the answer to the prophecy. It serves ISIS's agenda.

I don't want to overplay the role of the apocalyptic imagery, though. It's not like they're distributing a suicide pill to everyone and saying, "Let's have the apocalypse right now!"

The fact is, they are building a state: a state that they want to endure. Their motto is baqiya wa tatamaddad, "endure and expand." But it does infuse some passion, and it does serve as an excellent recruitment tool for them, especially for people who are confused about everything that's happening, and people who have the tendency to believe in those prophesies. Which is a lot of people, by the way.

Jennifer R. Williams: What do you think is the most important thing people need to understand about ISIS and its draw? What is missing from the conversation?

Iyad el-Baghdadi: There are two things. First is that it's not really about religion. It's about the defense of religion-based identity. It's better to look at it through the lens of nationalism rather than religion, in the sense that it's a defense of a religiously formed identity called "Islam" or "Sunnism" or whatever; of course we call it Islam.

It follows the same pattern as any kind of closed nationalism or ethnic nationalism. It's the same kind of "otherization." I actually developed a radicalization road map, and when you look at it you can see that it doesn't only apply to ISIS. It applies to all kinds of closed nationalism/radicalization narratives. Religion is not the driver. It's about the sense of identity. That's the main driver.

The second point is that ISIS cannot be defeated. It has to be replaced. If you're in the restaurant and they only serve tea or coffee, you're not going to order a soda or a shake. Even if you don't like tea or coffee and you would like to actually have a soda or a shake. The menu of ideas in the Arab world only has tyrants or terrorists. It doesn't have a third option. It's a very narrow menu.

And if you go into a restaurant that only serves tea and coffee and you look around at all these people drinking tea or coffee, you're going to think: "You know what, it looks like a lot of people here like tea or coffee." But they don't. It's just that they don't have another option.

So you look at the Arab world right now and think, "Oh, there is a lot of support for terrorism and tyranny." But the thing is they don't have another option. It's not that they like it.

So, yes, of course, in order to defeat ISIS, it's necessary to go in and actually take them out militarily. Military action is part of the solution, but if you want a sustainable solution, you have to provide alternatives — additional visions and additional ideas to actually replace what we have on the ground right now.

Jennifer R. Williams: What do you think is the reason a viable third option hasn't materialized, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood–style project of Islamist politics in Egypt? Obviously the military coup in Egypt that overthrew the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government played a role there, but is that the only reason?

Iyad el-Baghdadi: Even before the coup, the Muslim Brotherhood was in a crisis. The coup actually helped them distract people from the fact that they are in a crisis. They are in an ideological crisis. The Muslim Brotherhood, at least on the Egyptian side, is a creature of the 20th century. It's born from the same womb as the tyrants who rule us today. It's kind of like two dinosaurs from the 20th century fighting it out; that was 2013.

But going back to why there aren't other alternatives available, the fact is that you cannot have an alternative if you don't have freedom of speech or freedom of thought or freedom of expression. That's why I say that a political solution has to precede the religious reform. It can't be the other way. You truly cannot have religious reform without political reform. You cannot have religious reform under tyranny. That's why we have to start somewhere, and that somewhere has to be democracy.

Jennifer R. Williams: Is there anything you think the United States could do to help counter ISIS's ideology or to make democracy a more viable third option?

Iyad el-Baghdadi: I think it would really help if the United States stopped screwing us over. By "us," I mean the democratic reformers. United States foreign policy keeps legitimizing our oppressors, our persecutors. I mean, there's a reason why I'm a political refugee. It's because a US ally and a good US friend [the United Arab Emirates] persecuted me and expelled me. That fact is that the US keeps legitimizing these regimes, and those regimes come after us, and then the US says, "You know what, we have to cooperate with the regime because there's no alternative." Of course there's no alternative. Because you keep screwing us over. It would help if you stopped screwing us over.