As the world awakens to the destruction of the ancient Mesopotamian cultural heritage and more killings of Christians by the Islamic State or ISIS, most people will just simply sigh and move on. Devastations on such a scale don’t seem to upset oversaturated TV viewers and news consumers. Our world heritage is being assaulted by savage men while we sit watching as if in a circus. The macabre show goes on.
It’s quite obvious that no one knows how to handle ISIS. World leaders condemn the barbaric ways of the self-proclaimed caliphate but they make sure to exonerate mainstream Islam from any responsibility. The much discussed article by Graeme Wood on the apocalyptic theology of ISIS in the Atlantic says that dismissing ISIS terrorists as non-Muslims won’t do since they abide by Islamic teachings and guidelines better than their wishy-washy moderate co-religionists do. ISIS members are genuine literalists whose strength is based on their clear-eyed mission to conquer the world till everyone on earth turns Muslim. In this way, they adhere to a purer strain of Islam than does al-Qaeda, for without a caliphate, Islam, in their view, will be reduced to a troublesome underground movement, not the ideology of a powerful and, ultimately, universal state. The only way to counter this bloodthirsty movement, the author suggests, is to lure its potential recruits into the ranks of the equally conservative but quietist Salafists, since the latter share much of ISIS’s theology but are willing to postpone a military takeover to an indeterminate future. Most Arab and Muslim-majority nations are using this approach, albeit they are deploying softer versions of Islam to counter ISIS and al-Qaeda, not hard-core Salafism, to achieve the same results.
I am afraid that such a strategy, while based on good sentiments and respect for world religions, will not make a significant difference. Religious extremism is plaguing our lives because Muslim societies simply can’t decide on how to live in the modern world. The teenagers and young men of Egypt or France who choose the ISIS way are trying to live out their principles without apologies. Since their parents, teachers, and political leaders keep telling them that they are Muslim and should live as good Muslims, they quit the modern world that lures them with endless temptations and migrate to the rigors of medieval certainty.
The problem is that Muslim nations have not been able to work out the role of religion in their modern lives. Skyscrapers, six-lane highways, luxury malls, and satellite channels may project a sense of modernity, but the daily life of an average person in Muslim societies is permeated by medieval religious ideas. Ear-piercing call to prayers from loudspeakers and smart phones, amulets and bumper stickers on buses and taxis, TV programming, overtaxed alcoholic beverages (if they are available), the lack of exposure to other people’s histories and literatures, and the systematic erasure of religious differences accompanied by lofty statements about tolerance are making it exceedingly difficult for secularists, let alone non-believers, to do their work. It seems as if more than one billion and a half people have no option but to inhabit one of the available straitjackets of Islam.
The solution to the predicament of the Islamic world is not to find refuge in Salafism or moderation, but to invest heavily, and unapologetically, in a secular vision, one that allows people to propose different ways of being and encourages research that challenges the beliefs that motivate terror. Many extremists are being duped into committing atrocities because they believe what their preachers say, not because they have historical proof for their convictions. Very few Muslims suspect that their beliefs and view of their prophet were elaborated by men in Iraq and other distant places and that, in some cases, they have little or nothing to do with the Koran. The Muslim world needs a protected space where such discussions could take place, not more mosques that preach more of the same.
Of the many voices opining on Islam and the Islamic world, we need to make some room for those who espouse different opinions, jarring as they may sound to the voices of tradition. We used to say that Wahhabism is an aberration, then we said the same about al-Qaeda, and now we are saying the same thing about ISIS. All three movements, along with others, continue to exist side by side, each deriving legitimacy from a common Sunni canonical literature that is hard to refute in the name of Islam. After the horrors of Charlie Hebdo, many Muslims distanced themselves from the Muslim terrorists, but Islamic law (not the Koran) is crystal clear that any offense against the Prophet Mohammed should be met with death. An apostate can save his life with proper redemption, not someone who offends the prophet.
Using Islam against Islamic extremism can only buy us a precarious truce. The only way we can insure a better future, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is to support scientific research into the birth and meaning of Islam, just like scholars have long done in the cases of Christianity and Judaism. History may yet save us from the furors of blind faith.