The Fight Against ISIS Has Unsung Allies: Imams and Muslim Scholars in the West May 9, 2016

The Fight Against ISIS Has Unsung Allies: Imams and Muslim Scholars in the West

Here’s excellent evidence that divine books aren’t: if their texts were truly passed down by an all-knowing, omnipotent creator, they’d be clear and unambiguous. As it stands, the Torah, Bible, and Qur’an, whether carelessly read or craftily mined, support just about anything, including genocidal murder and radical peace-making; gentle tolerance and intense ethnic hatred; respect for women and the god-given right to enslave, rape, and beat them.

I’ve written a few times that just as there is no one true Christianity, there is no one true Islam. The articles of faith of different factions of Allah aficionados are varied and diverse, but all of these adherents — the gentle ones and the ultra-violent ones alike — can and do genuinely claim to be Muslims. The fundamentalist scum that is ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, etc., have about the same religious and theological legitimacy as any Muslim moderate or hardcore peacemaker.

To hear Islam’s apologists tell it, the headchoppers and suicide bombers represent a regretful “perversion” of “true” Islam; but that charge can be inversed, lobbed the other way, with as much justification.


This is all by way of saying that I have my differences with the western imams who are the subject of an admiring New York Times article. They claim that Allah represents tolerance and love. They contend Islam is innately peaceful.

The truth is that they simply emphasize different parts of the Qur’an and the Hadīth than the fundies do.

However: To the extent that the theological alternatives that the moderates offer are helping dissuade young Muslims from joining ISIS or taking up freelance Jihad, I do owe them my sincere gratitude. Their work, if effective, will do more to reduce Islamist violence than all my posts put together. And they’re taking big, real risks in condemning their violent brethren, so we’re talking sizable cojones here.

As the military and political battle against the Islamic State escalates, Muslim imams and scholars in the West are fighting on another front — through theology.

Imam Suhaib Webb, a Muslim leader in Washington, has held live monthly video chats to refute the religious claims of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. In a dig at the extremists, he broadcast from ice cream parlors and called his talks “ISIS and ice cream.”

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, an American Muslim scholar based in Berkeley, Calif., has pleaded with Muslims not to be deceived by the “stupid young boys” of the Islamic State. Millions have watched excerpts from his sermon titled “The Crisis of ISIS,” in which he wept as he asked God not to blame other Muslims “for what these fools amongst us do.”

Members of the so-called Islamic State have seen those videos too, and they’ve responded as you would expect.

The group recently threatened the lives of 11 Muslim imams and scholars in the West, calling them “apostates” who should be killed. The recent issue of the Islamic State’s online propaganda magazine, Dabiq, called them “obligatory targets,” and it said that supporters should use any weapons on hand to “make an example of them.” The danger is real enough that the F.B.I. has contacted some of those named in the Islamic State’s magazine “to assist them in taking proper steps to ensure their safety,” said Andrew Ames, a spokesman for the F.B.I.’s field office in Washington.

The death threats are a sign that Muslim religious leaders have antagonized the Islamic State, according to analysts who are studying the militant group. Their growing influence also contradicts those who claim that Muslim leaders have been silent in the fight against violent extremism.

So far, none of ISIS’ most outspoken Muslim critics seem to be inclined to wave the white flag.

In addition to preachers such as Sheikh Hamza, ISIS is also gunning for

American Muslims in government, such as Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota; Huma Abedin, a longtime top aide to Hillary Clinton; and Mohamed Elibiary, a Texas Republican and former adviser to the Department of Homeland Security.

Challenging the beliefs behind such possible future plots, at least one prominent imam is taking his message all the way to the Levant.

Sheikh Hamza will soon air a television series in the Middle East, “Rihla With Sheikh Hamza Yusuf” (rihla is “quest” in Arabic). The show applies traditional Islamic scholarship to contemporary challenges in the Muslim world, and it includes strong messages against extremism — which Sheikh Hamza said amounts to “swatting the hornet’s nest again.” It is likely to be seen in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State’s strongholds, he said.

People like him have to deal with getting a nasty earful from two sides.

“The right wing is calling me a stealth jihadist. And ISIS is calling me a sellout. We challenge both of their narratives.”

Kudos. I hope he succeeds on both counts.

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