brussels attacks
Brothers Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui (L and C) died in the attacks at Brussels airport on 22 March 2016 when they detonated suicide vests. The third man, identified as Najim Laachraoui (R), has not yet been caught.CCTV

"Isis has nothing to do with Islam!" has become the mainstream response by Muslims to jihadist attacks. As a Muslim myself, I find it grotesque to observe the impunity with which jihadists murder innocent civilians, chanting the name of God who, in the Quran, likens Himself to a womb: "The Most Merciful and Compassionate".

Of course, like any Muslim, my first instinct is to deny that such savages can, and should, have anything to do with Islam – the philosophy that has played a monumental role in shaping my liberal world view. However, increasingly I find this approach problematic.

To begin answering the question of whether the Islamic State (Isis) is indeed Islamic, we must first set a suitable criterion by which to judge the 'Islamicity' of something. The criteria are plenty to choose from: either we can go by individual interpretations of Islamic texts, which would be a never-ending debate, or we could go by what the majority of Muslim scholars and mainstream Muslims believe. In this essay, I will be basing the criterion on the latter.

Hence, going by that criterion, it is safe to say that terrorism is not Islamic, considering the vast majority of Muslims condemn it. People on the far right, and unfortunately some on the left, who accuse Muslims of secretly sympathising with terrorists are clearly deluding themselves, denying all evidence that proves otherwise.

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Donald Trump said this week that Muslim communities are "absolutely not reporting" suspected terrorists, as if to say that Muslims support jihadists. But as Pew Polls show, the vast majority of Muslims condemn Isis. In addition, these jihadists don't mingle among average Muslims. As experts say, jihadist Muslims often socialise among themselves and hardly ever visit mosques or have any interaction with the local Muslim community.

However, saying terrorism has nothing to do with Islam and saying IS has nothing to do with Islam are quite different, for it is inaccurate to restrict IS to terrorism alone. After all, apart from killing innocent civilians in combat, they also kill people for apostasy, blasphemy, adultery and homosexuality, to cite a few examples.

As long as we don't acknowledge that there is a serious problem within some aspects of mainstream Islamic discourse, we cannot possibly expect Islamo-fascism to fade into oblivion

Therefore, to make a genuine case that IS has nothing to do with Islam would naturally have to involve a renunciation by the majority of Muslims of all the above mentioned beliefs that are a violation of fundamental human rights. Unfortunately, considering these beliefs are quite mainstream (at least, in non-Western countries), the hypothesis that IS has nothing to do with Islam would be misleading, when Isis clearly has at least something to do with it.

This might be a semantic point, but it is nonetheless a necessary one. For as long as we don't acknowledge that there is a serious problem within some aspects of mainstream Islamic discourse, we cannot possibly expect Islamo-fascism to fade into oblivion. Indeed, if it is religious legitimacy we want to deny to Isis, we simply cannot afford to beat around the bush any more while the monster runs loose.

The Pew Research Poll found in 2013 that at least 37% of Muslims surveyed in 39 Muslim-majority countries condoned death for apostasy

After all, the Pew Research Poll found in 2013 that at least 37% of Muslims surveyed in 39 Muslim-majority countries condoned death for apostasy. Unfortunately, in South Asia and Middle East-North Africa, such sentiments were held by the majority of Muslims.

I fail to comprehend how death for apostasy and killing non-combatants in warfare are drastically different: both involve the murder of innocent civilians for ideological purposes, putting the latter above the sanctity of human life. As long as this continues to be the case, our condemnations will remain devoid of moral courage – the courage to confront life-long dogmas that one may have been brought up with.

To deny the role that mainstream religious discourse can play in creating a moral framework which puts the "honour" of religious abstracts over human life would be thoroughly self-defeating

I am not going to pretend that Islamo-fascism is primarily a religious phenomenon. Evidently, it's not: considering that terrorist outfits such as Boko Haram, the Taliban, and Isis have thrived in countries where political instability has created a vacuum of power to fill. It would also be reckless to trivialise the effect of Western imperialism which has contributed to the conditions and an environment where Islamo-fascists can flourish. But religion does play a part, of course.

As experts point out, radicalisation is a complex phenomenon that thrives on a search for meaning, 'belongingness', heroism and identity. But to deny the role that mainstream religious discourse can play in creating a moral framework which puts the 'honour' of religious abstracts over human life would be thoroughly self-defeating. Indeed, jihadist beliefs aren't created in a vacuum: they are fuelled, among other things, by decades of Islamist propaganda that needs to be identified and rooted out of our respective communities.

We must realise that Islamic discourse is in desperate need of revival. It can only be revived when we centre our religious discourse on ethical behaviour, as opposed to rituals and dress-codes, and shunning any belief that violates fundamental human rights

And it is precisely here we Muslims can contribute our part in the fight against Islamo-fascism.

One, we must realise that Islamic discourse is in desperate need of revival. It can only be revived when we centre our religious discourse on ethical behaviour, as opposed to rituals and dress-codes, and shunning any belief that violates fundamental human rights.

Two, we must realise that not everything in the Quran is applicable today. Indeed, as we have moved on from slave-based societies, we have also moved way beyond corporal punishments. To put it simply, we must prioritise the spirit of the Quran over the letter of the Quran in some contexts that were meant primarily for seventh-century Arabia. This is pivotal.

The time for condemnations has long passed; we must begin addressing the bastardisation of Islam by Islamo-fascists and strive to change the narrative of our religious discourse. If anything, it is our moral responsibility.

As long as we do not, "Isis has nothing to do with Islam" will continue to remain a mere cliché.


Ro Waseem writes about progressive Islam on his blog. He has been published in New Statesman, Huffington Post, OnFaith and Tikkun among others. He tweets @Quranalyzeit