Reading the article, ‘The attacks of Islamic State should not be considered religious’ sparked a debate in myself that reflects one that we are too afraid to have with ourselves as a society. We are afraid to talk about the negatives of religions as ideological doctrines, because we don’t want to seem racist or god forbid an anti-theist. As I understand it, the main argument of the article written in the aftermath of the Paris and Belgium attacks is that religion and ideology are separate and therefore these attacks are not religious, but ideological. However, religion is an ideology as much as, and if not more than, concepts like Liberalism and Marxism. Moreover, religion is difficult to define and was invented in times before reason and science. Hence we cannot define it clearly so how can you allude to what is religious or not? The boundaries are not so simple. Religion has been a large part of humanity’s social and cultural development and hence the two are interlocked. These attacks were religious and ideological acts. Terrorism is a tactic not a religious tool. What has made terror attacks religious is the people and their motivations behind these attacks. In my opinion not all terrorist attacks are religious, but the ones carried out by IS are because of the nature of their beliefs, recruitment system and justifications.
IS are called ‘religious fundamentalists.’ A fundamentalist is someone who interprets religious texts as complete truths with no room for alternative or ‘softer’ interpretations that moderate believers follow. The messages within religious texts are the justification behind extremism. However due to the age and nature of religious texts they are full of contradiction, so firing off quotes from the Quran does not add much to the argument because there will be another quote from a Haddith that contradicts it. For example the Quran does not explicitly suggest that non-Muslims should be killed. However some Haddith texts do explicitly state why followers should kill non-Muslims. It stems back to the change in Islam under Muhammad from when the religion grew peacefully and when he started to lead holy wars and cleanse non-Muslims in the Middle East. These violent historical accounts are just as contested as the peaceful ones. Yet we gloss over the violent ones when we’re desperately trying to be apologetic for the rise of Islamophobia in our own countries. The complicated nature of Haddith and Islamic scholarship means that what Muslim’s deem as a religious text is diverse, but this doesn’t mean that in the eyes of the believer they are any less religious. As they are sources of motivation, they cannot be separated from religion as a doctrinaire ideology and by extension the attacks that come from it. You cannot pick and choose what is religious or not depending on if you like the outcome. The Paris and Belgium attacks were of a religious distinction even though they were appalling. It is illogical to assume that all that is religious is good, but that is what denying the religious nature of the attacks is doing.
IS’s obsession with targeting ‘Western Culture’ I will admit is not completely religious, but tactical. The failed social cohesion programmes in France and Belgium have led to Muslim ghettos and high unemployment amongst young Muslim men. These countries are prime for cultivating domestic terror cells and recruiting fighters because of the social alienation many Muslims feel in the West. Islam has remained unchanged since the 13th century and like many religions is threatened by modern phenomena such as globalisation, women’s rights and sexual freedom making it difficult for some Muslims to adjust to life in a liberal democracy. However, Islam is still the connecting principle that ties groups like IS to communities that are vulnerable and it is naïve to say that religion is not the principle behind the attacks. They want young Muslims to see that Islam is an impressive force and that they should rally behind it. That is the reality. I wish it would be replaced by non-religious issues because it would make it less difficult for us to debate it, but this is not realistic.
The original article conflated IS and Al Qaeda under the same brush, yet they are divergent in their beliefs. They are not from the same sect of Islam and both groups consider the other as apostates. This approach is tarring Islamic extremism with a narrow perception and is a reductionist argument. I understand that the types of attacks are different in style and motivation, but the article suggest that Al-Qaeda’s attacks are more Islamic than IS’s which is difficult to prove because both groups see themselves as the restorers of the ‘golden age’ of Islam and both kill thousands in religious attacks. These attacks are religious even are if they against other Muslims or catch innocents because in the eyes of IS they are just restoring Islam to the traditional 13th century era. The proof is in their propaganda, in particular in their beheading videos.
When a similar attack is carried out in the West, usually by people of Christian origin, we do not allude to their religion which is a good point the article brought up. The only Christian group in the last century that could rival the scale of Islamic extremism is the KKK. As religion plays a large role in cultural identity it is a source of shame that liberal culture we hold so dear murdered a lot of innocent people. It should lead us to reflect on the religious-cultural problems in our own backyards. However it is so much easier to blow off that deep reflective activity and use the trend of Islamaphobia as a scapegoat to avoid dealing with the real issues. Another example is the run up to the Srebrenica genocide with the clash between Orthodox Christians and Muslims. We denied that it was a religious attack as did the UN and as result all those Muslim boys and men are dead. It cannot be denied that it is in the media’s interest to use the ‘other’ narrative when reporting on extremist attacks, but it does not make attacks carried out in the name of Islam less religious, just more popularised.
Islamaphobia is unfortunately on the rise in the West, but so is the counter movement of hand holding tolerance. Although this tolerance movement means well in calling IS attacks not Islamic, they sound apologist for Islamophobia which allows more extremists preachers to go unchallenged. In trying to not tar an entire religion with the same brush they are stunting debates on religious extremism. A religion is only made up by, and is what it is because of, its followers and we should engage more Muslims not just the moderate ones in our debates because in the West we clearly lack understanding. I am painfully aware our discussions are very Western-led. We can’t keep shrouding the debate away from religious attacks. It stops us admitting the root cause of them.
Photograph: Jasper Cox