Dear Western World, Islam is NOT Behind ISIS (Interview with Dr. Scott Alexander)

Interview By: Chris Stackaruk

These past few weeks all eyes have been on the Middle East. ISIS and Hamas have owned the summer headlines as gruesome photos spill out from daily recurrences of violence.

Unfortunately, so many cameras pointed at so-relatively-few religiopolitical extremists can tend to skew our understanding of Islam as a whole. On behalf of the tragedies done in its name, it becomes easy to dismiss Islam as a religion that desires worldwide domination through violence. Many Christians think this way, and we can hardly blame them as the media and popular entertainment make it all too easy to believe.

Yet, Christ calls us to more. As Christians, we must rise above this media-based misunderstanding to offer both dignity and love to our Muslim neighbors around the world. Of course, this begins with understanding: getting to know Islam beyond the faulty caricatures that demean its adherents and put up barriers between us and them.

As discerning followers of Christ, we must therefore re-examine the ways in which we have answered the most pressing questions about Islam in our world today. As I am no expert, I have invited Dr. Scott Alexander, a frequently sought after expert on Islam, to share his insight on the teachings of the Qur’an, Middle East conflicts, and how Christians can best engage with their Muslim neighbors.

Dr. Alexander is director of the Catholic-Muslim Studies Program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. You can see his full bio here. Check out our interview below:

Dr. Alexander, in what ways do you believe Muslims are misrepresented in the media?

Since 9-11 there has been a surge in the systematic demonization of Islam and Muslims commonly referred to as “Islamophobia.” In a nutshell, Islamophobia operates on the deeply racist premise that Muslims are the ultimate religious and cultural “other.” Contemporary Islamophobic discourse draws on centuries-old European stereotypes of Islam and Muslims, adding “undemocratic” to “violent,” “hyper-sexualized,” and “misogynist.”

Islamophobia has come to play a central role in the master narrative of Western cultural/moral superiority. This is all despite the fact that in its latest, and allegedly greatest, century the West has been the locus of two World Wars, the Shoah, and the first nation in history to use nuclear weapons against civilian populations.
How do you think the media’s false depiction of Muslims has had an effect upon Christian thinking?

Not unlike religious people themselves, the media tends to misrepresent ALL religions through a massive failure to situate religious phenomena in their broader social and historical contexts.

This failure is particularly unfortunate and harmful when it comes to Christian approaches to religious “others,” especially Muslims. It encourages inherent misunderstanding and sometimes even deliberate alienation and demonization of religious “others.”

It has become popular to believe that Islam is intolerant of religious diversity (e.g., Christianity). Is this correct?  

Religious minorities such as Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, etc. have lived (and often flourished) for centuries in Muslim majority societies. Thus any read of Islamic norms as teaching unconditional and unmitigated violence against non-Muslims is historically counterfactual.
Since the colonial period, however, and the post-colonial establishment of a variety of different Western-backed totalitarian regimes in Muslims countries, Christians, Jews, and other religious and ethnic minorities have been viewed with suspicion. As a result, in the context of social unrest, they have been the target of persecution (along with even larger numbers of their Muslim neighbors).
Does Islam specifically teach hatred toward the Jewish people? 

The slogan that “Jews and Arabs have been killing each other for millennia” (including the causal attribution of this falsehood to the alleged biblical rivalry between Ishmael and Isaac) is patently false. Indeed, when the Jews were expelled by the Spanish Reconquista in 1492, many emigrated to the Ottoman Empire where they established vibrant communities.

Contrary to what slogans might suggest, the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not thousands, but rather only about 100 years old, and far more linked to colonialism, the rise of secular nationalism, and Euro-American anti-Semitism, than any supposed longstanding enmity between Arabs and Jews as ethnic groups living in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, this conflict has become the source of a virulent new brand of anti-Semitism among many Arabs and Muslims worldwide (note the infamous Hamas Charter), as well as intensely anti-Arab bigotry and Islamophobia among many Jews and Israelis in particular (note the rhetoric of Rabbi Dov Lior and Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party).

We hear a lot about jihad in mass media coverage of Islam. What exactly is jihad?

The Qur’anic meaning of this term is the “struggle [to live righteously].” The Qur’an only permits violence insofar as it qualifies as a necessary component of the struggle for righteousness and justice.

In fact, I would maintain that this is the underlying logic for why this broad term for “struggle” (which has at its core the struggle to fast, pray, and give alms) becomes synonymous in Islamic jurisprudence with what the Christian tradition refers to as “just war” theory.
Why do violent extremist groups like ISIS justify their actions as “jihad”? Does the Qur’an ever teach Muslims that they should engage in jihad as violence against non-believers?

The simple answer is “yes.” But the key question is: who were these “non-believers” against whom the Qur’an eventually exhorts the earliest Muslim to take arms?  It is critical to note that the “unbelievers” or “idolaters” were BY NO MEANS simply those who refused to accept the Prophet and his message.
Rather, they represented the political and religious power establishment in pre-Islamic Meccan society. As such, they possessed an active and ruthless agenda to crush, by any means necessary, the new movement (Islam), and thereby silence its call for social justice and radical spiritual, moral, economic, and political reform in 7th-century Arabian society.

How then do some use the Qur’an’s teaching to justify extreme violence, even terrorism?

All this does not mean that Qur’anic language supporting and even advocating violence against unbelievers has not been, and is not now, used by certain factions in their quest for power. They use it to justify and encourage the persecution–and even the murder–of fellow Muslims (deemed heretics), as well as non-Muslims.

Both al-Qaeda and ISIS, for example, have deemed Western Christendom (does such a thing even exist?) as a neo-Crusader reality which, like the powerful persecutors of the earliest Muslim community, is bent on the utter domination of Muslim societies and eradication of Islam. These groups have also identified Zionist Judaism as one of the primary instruments of this domination.
What about ISIS? Where does it fit in our understanding of contemporary Islam? 

Ideologically, ISIS bases its extremely tenuous claims to political legitimacy in the utopian, utterly ahistorical ideal of establishing a global Muslim caliphate which would constitute the only truly Islamic state in the world. Reflective of this aspiration, the motto of ISIS is “One Banner, One Community” and the self-proclaimed caliph (i.e., successor of the Prophet Muhammad as “Leader of the Faithful”), Ibrahim al-Samara’i, a.k.a. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has called upon all Muslims worldwide to emigrate to his newly established state.

Do Muslims worldwide recognize the legitimacy of ISIS?

Widely respected Sunni clerics like Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (Qatar) and Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam of al-Azhar (Egypt) have not only declared ISIS an illegitimate caliphate, but have deemed it a “danger to Islam.”
How can movements of extremism in Islam be understood in the context of the greater Muslim faith? Are they a mainline group, a minority, or just a faction?

The good news is that the little reliable polling data at our disposal suggests that the extremists and their sympathizers make up a very small percentage of the global Muslim population. For example, only 7% of Muslims worldwide believed that the attacks of 9-11 were completely justified. This was in the early 2000s–I suspect, based on the degree to which extremism has brought untold suffering to Muslim majority societies, that the number would be lower were the polling done today.

In your experience, how has Christian misunderstanding of Muslims been harmful to the church’s mission in the world?

The Christian failure to respect Islam as a spiritual medium through which Muslims recognize and seek to live out their human dignity in relationship with God, has amounted to, and will continue to amount to the Christian failure to recognize and affirm the human dignity of their Muslim sisters and brothers. As such, it is a betrayal of the Gospel of Christ, and thus a cancer in the missional life of the Church.

Practically speaking, how can North American Christians seek to better understand Muslims both at home and abroad?

Glad we’re ending with the easiest question: Get to know Muslims. Really. Get to know Muslims in whatever way possible.

We would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on our interview. Please feel free to post comments below and to share this with others who may be interested!

  • Brandon Roberts

    i agree 100% isis and hamas are just a small part of the members of islam. most of them are pretty nice people. we should judge them individually by their actions not by the way they worship god

    • Una Salus

      If this is about judging people by the way they worship God how come Hindus don’t have the same problem?

  • KingHasNoClothes

    Pathetic article – nothing but apologist for Islamism. Is this guy really that blind or does he have an agenda? People are becoming more and more informed about Islam and the Koran and will not swallow this claptrap any more. Islam is an aggressive, supremacist ideology that intends to enslave the entire world. Some Muslims are extremists who support violent Jihad as a means to achieve this (you mention a figure of 7% above which you descrieb as “low”) while many more (between 30% and 40% Muslims in Europe want to implement Sharia law in Europe) have the same goal but are prepared to destroy Western Civilization and democracy from within. They are all supported in this by useful idiots in teh West.

  • Mike Ward

    He lost me when he blamed Muslim persecution of Jews and Christians on Western imperlialism. I don’t believe in blaming all Muslims for the acts of some, but don’t blame non-Muslims for the actions of those Muslims either.

  • Drunk_by_Noon

    Muslim terrorists enjoy widespread support among the Muslim rank and file members, or the so-called “moderates”.
    To deny that is to deny the truth.
    Islam is the only major religion to have bloody borders with all of her neighbors.
    To read this kind of naiveté from someone whom is supposedly educated makes me realize just how out-of-touch modern Christianity is with reality.
    Jesus was not a pacifist!

    He teaches love, and forgiveness of the repentant, but he never taught pacifism.
    He most certainly did not teach us to “interfaith outreach” but instead that Christianity is a proselytizing religion and that Christians have the right to defend themselves when delivering the word of God.

    Luke 22:36
    “But now,” he said, “take your money and a traveler’s bag. And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one!

  • Una Salus

    “As such, they possessed an active and ruthless agenda to crush, by any means necessary, the new movement (Islam), and thereby silence its call for social justice and radical spiritual, moral, economic, and political reform in 7th-century Arabian society.”
    - Funnily enough ISIS is able to make much the same claims about those who oppose its “new movement” of Islam today.

    Only a religious adherent of Islam or a shameless apologist for its history would be inclined to see Muhammad’s ruthless power grab as a “call for social justice”.
    In fact Muhammad may have been ridiculed and expelled from Mecca but it was he who later returned for bloody retribution.
    If the “religious power establishment” had indeed possessed a “ruthless” agenda this would not have happened.

    One understands why Dr. Alexander needs these distortions when one understands that he distorts Christianity in the same way.

  • Brett_McS

    Cheap moral preening.

  • Ford Prefect

    Why don’t we get all the Christians in Saudi Arabia to respond to this on Saturday or Sunday after church. There is no stopping the Struggle For Stupidity.

  • Dan Bruce

    My attitude toward Islam has two parts, secular and sacred. From a purely secular standpoint, I can agree with efforts to find common understanding between western societies and the Islamic world. As states, we have to share the same planet. From a religious standpoint as a Christian, however, I find it harder to find a basis for fellowship with Islam. Not many people realize it, but on the inside of the dome of the famous Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is an anti-Christian inscription in Arabic. It says, “O People of the Book! Do not exaggerate in your religion nor utter aught concerning God save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a Messenger of God, and His Word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers, and say not ‘Three,’ (instead) cease! (it is) better for you! God is only One God. Far be it removed from His transcendent majesty that He should have a son. Whoso disbelieveth the revelations of God (will find that) lo! God is swift at reckoning!” (translation published by Islamic Awareness on its website). That inscription expresses the basic teaching of Islam about Jesus, and in no uncertain terms it denys that he is the Son of God. By denying the Sonship of Jesus, the Dome of the Rock inscription means that Islam meets the definition for anti-Christ: “He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22). Islam represents the spirit of anti-Christ, and, even as I seek peace with followers of Islam, I cannot seek fellowship with them, nor can I welcome the adherents of Islam into my house, “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed” (2 John 1:9-10).

  • ucfengr

    Brandan, thanks so much for clearly demonstrating to us how Islamic theologians don’t understand Islam. Can we look forward to future articles on how Brigham Young got Mormonism wrong and how the Dalai Llama really doesn’t get that whole Buddhism thing?

  • George Reichel

    CIA/Mossad created al Qaeda and ISIS.The real bomb that Israel fears is Islamic solidarity.Gotta keep the sunni and shia fighting

    • Dan Bruce

      The Sunnis and Shiites began fighting more than a thousand years ago, long before the CIA and Mossad were established, and they have been fighting one another over the centuries ever since. You can’t blame that Muslim-against-Muslim conflict on the USA and Israel.

  • smb12321

    The silence of the Islamic “street” is deafening. We see violent protests against Jews, against Westerners over a cartoon, book, movie or rumor but when it comes to the real world of Muslims killing Muslims – 200,000 in Syria, daily bombings across the Arab world, brutal regimes – you can hear a pin drop.

    It is infuriating to keep hearing that people who preach the uniqueness of Mohammed, live by the Quran, pray five times a day, take the haj and attend mosque are “not really Muslim”. I guess the Crusaders were “not really Christians” or Indians who killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims were “not really Hindus”.

  • C. Murray Brown, Sr.

    It’s a good presentation, and I agree with many of the points made. But here we stand: Islam has as a rule been silent on all the atrocities committed by Muslims bent on some insane agenda. I don’t mean the leaders, who make their comments in relative obscurity; I refer to the millions who could easily take a stand whenever some barbarous group like ISIS rolls over the helpless. I live near a large university with numerous Muslim students who could easily made a sign and take to the streets. Students generally find it easy to take up a cause, especially an unjust cause. Then there is the Muslim community at large. They are simply invisible.
    Is it fear or is it some subtle agreement among themselves, an agreement with ISIS and other radical Islamist groups?

    I do remember the Muslims taking to the streets on the days following 9/11. That would have been commendable if they had been denouncing the atrocity that had just taken place. I think we all remember that those displays took the form of dancing in the streets in delight at the death of some 3,000 people who happened to be working at the time.

    And the position that the majority of the Muslim world takes with respect to women rights? Please, please, please! Let’s discuss what Islam really stands for. Christianity has grown out of its religious fervor; Islam is still in kindergarten. There is simply no way to defend it, and there is no reason to try to “understand” it. It is what it is.

  • Theodore Seeber

    I can only add two things to this:
    1. Islam is not a unified religion any more than Christianity is. Never has been, not since the death of the prophet, and it’s gotten worse in the last 300 years with Muwahiddun theology.
    2. 1% of a billion is ten million potential suicide bombers. With an average death toll of 30, that’s 300 million potential deaths even if they took the stupid strategy. That makes the Muwahiddun sects, tiny as they are, extremely dangerous.

  • DH

    Dr. Alexander and every other person who says that Islam is not behind Islamic State or that Islam is a religion of peace, etc., etc., is either lying or ignorant.

  • DH
  • Fearitself73

    Wow. I don’t mind challenges to the all pervading “Islam is inherently violent” rhetoric which passes for too much commentary. But this is laughably whitewashing Islamic theology and history esp in it’s attitudes to minorities, unbelievers and applications of violence

  • BeaverTales

    While I agree with many facts of this interview, the tendency to blame the outside world, however subtle, for the problems within Islam should be debunked and refuted. Problems with terrorism and fundamentalism are not the natural result of westerners “disrespecting” Islam. Like Christianity 500+ year ago, Islam is a victim of itself…the more its adherents follow the literal interpretation of Shari’a and hadiths that control everyday life, the more groups like ISIS gain power. Islam is certainly not the only religion guilty of promoting an inward cultural view without self-criticism, but that self-criticism rarely occurs publicly- except when the extremists are militarized and attacking not only infidels, but other Muslim sects as well. That criticism is usually the easiest one that requires the least amount of self-examination: “those are not True Muslims”.

    There are many beautiful aspects of Islamic faith, and the ongoing historical contributions of Muslims is something to be proud of…but there are also many atrocities decribed in the Quran itself. There are aspects of the faith that are ugly, especially the *lack of respect and tolerance* for sexual self-determination that is a basic human right of women, homosexuals, and those who have different beliefs about marriage and family that are necessary for pluralism and democracy.

    Moderate Islam (i.e. the version compatible with western Enlightenment values) exists, but is largely a creation of western ex-pats, and largely rejected in most of the largest nations that practice The One True Islam (about which there are apparently many differences of opinion, the Sunni-Shi’a split being the most well known). It’s no coincidence that every nation on Earth that enshrines punishment for apostasy in its constitution is a Muslim one, and that within Islam there is a strong tendency to demonize non-believers whenever the society’s problems are discussed- whether they be Christians, Jews, minority Muslim sects, Hindus…or those especially dangerous bogeymen, atheists.

    I don’t accept Dr. Alexander’s assertion that the bulk of problems the west has with the Muslim world are caused primarily by ‘westerners not respecting Muslims’…it’s the other way around. Liberal, secular democracies like the US and Europe have a way to go, but have at least grown used to diversity and multiculturalism, and living side by side with different people usually engenders a healthy respect for them. The Islamic world has too few examples of multiculturalism …they need to learn how it works before criticizing the rest of the world for “disrespecting” them.

  • Kate Danahy

    Thank you for this. “Do not judge” should apply to Muslims as well. I have plenty of Muslim friends who are horrified by ISIS, some of whom are actually pacifists. If you don’t actually get to know a Muslim, you have no business denouncing their religion or their practice of it as a whole, because, much like Christianity, Muslims are far from unified in what they believe about the doctrine of their religion, and the culture of whatever particular region they live in plays a great role in determining their praxis as well. (for example, the communal culture, which we as Westerners have a hard time understanding, does indeed lead to a violent response to western imperialism).

    When I came back to the States for a short visit in June, before this whole ISIS thing even was on the news, a pastor at my church proclaimed Islam to be inherently a violent religion, and I was distraught. As Christians, if you denounce a whole religion and proclaim it to be inherently against peace, you’re inspiring fear towards that group. Since “perfect love casts out fear,” you cannot claim to be loving them as Jesus would.