A decade ago the Canadian Pakistani Muslim, Irshad Manji, published her controversial book, The Trouble with Islam. She identified many troubling aspects that people in the West often associate with Islam: a fundamentalist mentality, literal interpretation of the Quran, patriarchal sexism, anti-Semitism and violent jihad in the name of Islam. These are indeed troublesome issues, but such a list does little justice to the vast majority of the world’s billion and half Muslims, who stretch across diverse ethnic groups and nations. The problem is not with Islam any more than it would be with Christianity or Judaism; all three monotheistic faiths have such a broad range of views and cultural differences that no single Islam can be determined. The Egyptian anthropologist Abdel Hamid El Zein noted, wisely, almost four decades ago that there are multiple islams, especially when viewed through an anthropological lens.
But there is indeed trouble to be reckoned with in the endemic violence that is rife in the Middle East and politicizes Muslims to an extreme degree. As I write this, Israel and Hamas are locked in a bully war that has claimed over a thousand civilian casualties and devastated the Gaza Strip. The so-called Arab Spring has sprung a democratic leak, as Egypt ousted the Muslim Brotherhood, with the blessing of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Libya is experiencing a spiraling freefall, though hardly due to a specific religious cause. But the main attention today is the newly minted Islamic State or ISIS, a motley band of hardcore extremists that has made an alarming advance through Syria and Iraq to the extent that it theoretically controls an area as great as Great Britain.
The trouble with ISIS is that it is hardly unique for anyone who knows the history of the region. Would-be mahdis and caliphs, including the current ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, have risen up throughout the whole range of the Islamic empire, from the Umayyads in Damascus to the Abbasids in Baghdad and multiple regimes from Spain to the Indus. The history of the caliphate, which was forcibly put to rest by the Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258 CE, was hardly idyllic. As the surviving chronicles suggest, corruption was rampant, many of the rulers were tyrants, and mercenary troops mercilessly slaughtered civilians, especially fellow Muslims. Rival claimants and upstarts soon lost their heads. This was hardly any different than the bloodshed in Europe. Religion throughout history has never been clear of politics.
So what is the trouble with ISIS? For the people living in Syria and Iraq this is a disaster on top of a disaster. The killing and wanton destruction have become routine in Iraq since the U.S. invasion and in Syria since the Arab Spring uprising. Out of this morass of insecurity the most radical and extremist faction has emerged, brandishing an intolerant view of Islam that justifies killing fellow Muslims simply for being Shi’a, as well as any Christians and Yazidis they encounter. The recent ISIS blitzkrieg, fueled in large part by an inept Iraqi army and the regime of Bashar al-Asad on the ropes, has made an unexpected advance, confiscating military hardware and cash. But it is hard to imagine how ISIS can survive without air power, especially since the United States has stepped in with air support. None of the surrounding states support ISIS, especially Iran and Turkey; nor have any mainstream Islamic groups or scholars given solace to this radical group. Their tactics, which include intimidation, stealing, murder and rape, are not likely to foster long-term support.
The trouble with ISIS goes beyond the loss of life and displacement of Syrians and Iraqis. This is a disaster for Muslims everywhere, since these deplorable tactics feed Islamophobia. Since most people in the West have a very limited view of the diversity of Islam, the trouble with ISIS easily becomes the trouble with Islam. ISIS is doing as much harm to Islam as Osama Bin Laden did with the attack on the Twin Towers. There will be no new caliphate and the self-proclaimed caliph al-Baghdadi will soon meet his fate. But this will not end the trouble, a trouble not with religion but the overt and spiteful abuse of a religious veneer to justify political ambition and hateful vengeance.
Daniel Martin Varisco is President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies. He taught at Hofstra U from 1991-2014. Since 1978 he has conducted ethnographic and historical research in Yemen, Egypt and Qatar. His latest book is Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (U of Washington Press, 2007). He currently serves as editor of Contemporary Islam and Editor-in-Chief of CyberOrient (www.cyberorient.net).