On the Islamic-ness of calling Isis un-Islamic

Recently, as one of the two directors of the Dialogue Society in London, I co-signed a letter with another 21 British Muslims; the letter was addressed to Prime Minister David Cameron and called on him to stop referring to Isis (I use the letters as a name, not an acronym) as the “Islamic state,” but instead to use a more apt description, namely the “un-Islamic state.”

Some objected to the letter’s premise on the grounds that (i) if that is the name by which these people call themselves and the motivation by which they justify their acts, then who are we to argue otherwise, and (ii) the “un-Islamic argument” is irrational given that “our Islam” — by which we are declaring “their Islam” to be “un-Islamic” — is all a matter of interpretation. Since “true Islam” cannot be independently tested, who are we to call another interpretation untrue?

Let me state that in an ideal world, Prime Minister Cameron and other world leaders would refrain from calling Isis “Islamic” or “un-Islamic.” By referring to these terrorists as “un-Islamic,” we are in fact reinforcing people’s tendency to associate them with that which is Islamic. At the subconscious level the link is made; but perhaps we are a little beyond that consideration now. The second reason for proposing the name change was to make the message clearer to the media that Muslims object to Isis, among other things, for religious reasons and want to reclaim the name of their religion from those who have hijacked it. Simply asking the prime minister to stop using the term “Islamic” was less likely to convey that message.

‘If they say Islam, it must be Islam’

Now let us turn to the two counterarguments given above. People have the right to call themselves whatever they want. I, however, have a right to raise questions if it misleads or in some way infringes on my own rights. Let’s recall copyright and intellectual property laws at this point. Dyson vacuum cleaners can sue me if I put out a product under a name resembling theirs (a) because I usurp their profit by usurping their brand, and (b) because I diminish their brand name by selling what is most likely a substandard product. So in this context, even if I can’t invoke the law, I wish at least to invoke this argument or principle in defense of my religion. After the July 7, 2005 bombings in London, many insisted on calling the bombers “Islamic/Islamist terrorists” on account of the justifications they presented in their “martyrdom videos.” Yet, the bombers claimed that their understanding of Islam coupled with their interpretation of UK foreign policy had compelled them to act in they way they did. Why is it that we can deny the role of the latter but insist on the former? Surely, we must be able to doubt and question both.

These “martyrdom videos” and proclamations are useful in giving us insight into the perpetrators’ minds and motivations. But there is a difference between understanding someone’s subjective justification and finding that subjective justification “objectively” justifiable. Recall our courts making this distinction through the “reasonable person” test, as well as psychiatrists trying to understand, diagnose and treat patients. Accepting that these bombers and killers had some self-motivating justification (be that their perverted interpretation of their religion and/or perceived foreign policy grievances) is one thing; calling them by that name, by which we implicitly accept the objective veracity of that justification, is another.

‘Your Islam, their Islam — it’s all relative’

The argument that there is no independently verifiable “true Islam” against which we can test the various manifestations of Islam is reminiscent of the relativity argument: Everything is relative, so we cannot speak in absolutist terms. The problem with this point is that the statement itself is absolutist. If everything is relative, so must be the statement that purports it; but of course it is not, and therein lies the paradox.

It is true that in Islam, there is no clergy to state an absolute position or interpretation. This seems to suggest that all is open to interpretation. However, Islam has a built-in Prophetic criterion by which something can be safely declared “Islamic,” by which one interpretation may be independently considered more weighty, more authentic compared to another (at that point in time): This is called ijma (consensus).

Ijma refers to the consensus among Islamic scholars (and according to some, of the Muslim community) on any given religious issue. Opinions differ as to whether that consensus needs to be unanimous or by simple majority. The principle of ijma derives from the Prophetic saying, “My people will never agree on an error.” It constitutes the third of the four sources of Islamic jurisprudence, the others being the Quran, the Sunnah and deductive reasoning (qiyas). If there is ijma (consensus) on a particular interpretation among the scholars (and the people, according to some) then that interpretation can be held to be “Islamic” based on Islam’s internal criterion of Islamic-ness. If a particular interpretation does not have such consensus, then its Islamic-ness is open to greater criticism and questioning.

A great many national and international polls and surveys (YouGov 2006, Gallup 2008, Zogby 2010, Pew Research 2013 and others) demonstrate that the vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims oppose the al-Qaeda and Isis mentality of indiscriminate killings. To my knowledge, no survey has been done to map the views of Islamic scholars on the matter (researchers would first need to determine the criteria for an “Islamic scholar”), but the overall impression is that they are opposed in equal, if not greater, measure to such violence compared to the wider Muslim populace. In this sense, one can at least speak of the ijma of the Muslim community and its scholars by overall majority. Even where ijma is taken as the unanimous consensus of Islamic scholars, a majority view such as this is weightier than any other view that has less agreement.

As for any interpretation lending support to Isis and other terrorist groups, what is clear and definitive is that they have no consensus whatsoever, however the term is construed, at any level, be it among the scholars or laypeople. And those that engage in such vile acts constitute a zero decimal point percentage of the worldwide Muslim populace. Ironically, these terrorist groups cannot even achieve consensus among themselves, with al-Qaeda openly objecting to Isis.

So to those that question our right as Muslims to call Isis un-Islamic, I say that by offering freedom of thought as a vehicle and consensus as a measure for understanding my religion, Islam itself gives me the right (and at another level the responsibility) to question their Islamic-ness. Logic tells me that this is internally coherent and consistent. Logic also asks, however, why those that object to our calling such groups un-Islamic don’t first question Isis’s right to call themselves and their misdeeds “Islamic” as in doing so, Isis and others like them negate the interpretation of the vast majority of Muslims, as their perversion and our interpretation are so diametrically opposed that they are mutually exclusive.

Originally published in Today’s Zaman on 24th October 2014.

Dr Ozcan Keles

Dr Ozcan Keles

Chairperson of the Dialogue Society

Ozcan is a non-practising Barrister and member of the Honourable Society of Gray's Inn. He is the Chairperson of the Dialogue Society since 2008; was the Executive Chairperson of the same organisation between 2008 and 2014; the Executive Editor of the peer-reviewed biannual academic Journal of Dialogue Studies since 2014 and a full-time PhD candidate in the sociology of human rights at the University of Sussex. Between 2006 and 2009 he was a research student with Prof Kevin Boyle at the Human Rights Centre of the University of Essex, where he held the Scholarship Award of 2006. Ozcan was called to the Bar in 2005 after successfully completing the Bar course at the Inns of Court School of Law. He obtained his LLM in Human Rights Law from SOAS, University of London, in 2002.

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