The rise of The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and its extreme form of intolerance, persecution of Christians and Yezidis, and brutality have shocked the world. As noted by many commentators, ISIS is too violent and intolerant even for al-Qaeda, which is some feat to achieve.
ISIS’s campaign of terror, as al-Qaeda’s actions used to do, has made many people raise questions about the dogma driving these groups. For most, these are questions about unwitting or deliberate misinterpretation of Islam, but for some Islam itself has been called into question, with the actions of ISIS being presented as genuinely Islamic. A third, apparently agnostic view I have also heard states that someone who is not informed about Islam cannot tell whether such actions are genuinely Islamic or being falsely committed under the name of Islam. This at times implies that it is difficult to tell and that this undecidedness is reasonable. It is actually not difficult to tell, so this position is not reasonable.
It is the person’s right to seek or not seek knowledge about a particular religion, philosophy, or indeed any subject matter. But this right must not be extended to not having a view on a question as serious as whether ISIS’ ways are genuinely Islamic or not. Let me explain.
According to the Pew Research Center, there are 1.6 Billion Muslims in the world. To put this number in perspective, it is slightly below a quarter of the world population. In other words, one in every four people is Muslim. Now, any person has the right to think they do not need to know much about what Muslims believe about God, how they worship, and their religious life in general. But no responsible person would take the view that they do not care to know about the attitude of 23% of the population of the world toward the rest of humanity. By any measure, the number of Muslims is very large, and how these people see the remaining three quarters of the population is bound to impact everyone. To bring this argument closer to our subject here, no responsible person would be disinterested in knowing whether or not Muslims in general are tolerant of non-Muslims.
The next question, then, is how difficult it is to tell whether Muslims are tolerant or not. This question is currently being raised specifically by the actions of ISIS, and this fact itself has the clue to the answer. The persecution of religious minorities by ISIS is “new” which is why it is making the “news.” Christians, Jews, Yezidis, and other religious minorities have peacefully lived with Muslims and under Muslim rule for some thirteen centuries. This is why their current cruel persecution by ISIS is “news.” It would not have been news if this persecution is what they have been getting over the centuries. In fact, they would not have existed in those areas if they used to be the subject of such persecution.
ISIS’ is the latest form of extreme sectarianism that has been sweeping that part of the world since the Iraq war in 2003. The incredibly naïve idea of “democratizing” Iraq through the illegal, chaotic, and ill-thought war handed over the country to “democratic” Shia sectarian politicians. I came from a Christian family from Baghdad. I lived in Iraq for 30 years, most of which was under the rule of the Baath party and Saddam, so I know well how the country was. Saddam’s exclusion of the Shia did not create a Sunni Iraq and did not encourage sectarianism. People knew that Saddam’s actions were not driven by Sunni dogma but by his dictatorial fears. He simply did not trust the Shias. Saddam was your everyday brutal dictator for whom religious thought of any denomination was a potential political danger that had to be managed and controlled. The war replaced him with highly sectarian politicians who identified themselves more as Shias than Iraqis and militias that set out to inflict revenge on the Sunni minority. When the world media was busy reporting and celebrating the popular demonstrations of the Arab spring in various countries, the demonstrations of the persecuted large Sunni minority of Iraq were being completely ignored. Iraq was supposedly a successful liberation project, so there was no appetite to tamper with this sanitized image.
ISIS has suddenly got this momentum because it is supported by Sunni tribes and groups. The latter did not ally themselves with ISIS because they shared its inhumane dogma but because they sought liberation from the sectarian persecution and policy of exclusion that the Iraqi government has been exercising for years. This sectarianism got worse when the Americans left Iraq and the Iraqi fanatical politicians got a free hand to carry out their oppressive and exclusive agenda. Nouri al-Maliki and his governments have played a major role in the creation of the current sectarian Iraq. They might be Shia fanatics, but they are also responsible for the creation of Sunni fanaticism.
Admittedly, this is a simplified picture of a complex political situation, but it captures the basic elements of how things developed. It is understandable why many people would not know much about the history of ISIS and why it persecutes other religious groups. But it does not take much effort to know that ISIS’ extreme form of intolerance is a new phenomenon to that region. Indeed, it is inexcusable to claim to know about what ISIS is doing and to claim at the same time that one cannot tell whether its actions are Islamic or not. This allegedly agnostic position is the equivalent of claiming to not being able to decide whether the centuries-old tolerance of religious minorities or the new persecution of them by the likes of ISIS is the “real” Islam. As for those who deliberately choose new events over the long history to claim that ISIS represents Islam, they have a serious credibility problem. Clearly, their view is not based on analysing facts but is reflective of predetermined prejudice.