Is ISIS a faith-based terrorist group?

Journalists and scholars disagree about how much Islam, rather than politics and power, drives Muslim extremists

The idea that the press has not done a good job of explaining the role of religion in Islamic extremism is not by itself controversial. Murtaza Hussain, a writer at The Intercept, spoke for journalists and scholars of otherwise radically divergent worldviews when he told me, “The media doesn’t know how to cover this issue.” But ask those same journalists and scholars why, and in what ways, the media have failed to explain the role that Islamic faith plays in motivating the terrorism committed in its name, and you will get irreconcilable answers.

Some, like Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, say that a fear of being perceived as anti-Muslim inhibits journalists from linking extremism to the faith. “I believe that since 9/11 the journalism community in the West has been walking on eggshells figuring out how to cover Islam,” she says. But now, due to the heavily covered ascent of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), she thinks that “people are having to confront this 5,000-pound elephant that’s been sitting in the room—an interpretation of Islam that believes in beheadings, an Islamic state, and an end-times victory of Muslims over the world.”

Others, like Hatem Bazian, a senior lecturer in near Eastern and ethnic studies at UC Berkeley, contend that the media predominantly view “terrorist actions and criminal activities committed by Muslims” through the lens of the terrorists’ religious faith. “Muslim-ness is deemed to be the problem, rather than looking at a variety of factors,” he says. “For me, religion is a rationalization rather than the root cause.”

Nomani and Bazian embody the fundamental disagreement in the US surrounding press coverage of Islam, and the degree to which religion drives jihadist groups’ behavior. In 2010, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in The Washington Post that “the risk factor, the common denominator linking all the great terror attacks of the 21st Century” was “Islamist fundamentalism” [his italics]. While Mehdi Hasan, in an August 22 story in The New Republic, asserted that “the 1,400-year-old Islamic faith has little to do with the modern jihadist movement.”

There certainly are variations of Krauthammer’s view to be found, but it is Hasan’s analysis that reflects the prevailing narrative in the mainstream media. In an email, Ben Hubbard, a Middle-East correspondent for The New York Times, summed up that narrative this way: “I think that in general their actions are driven much more by a drive for power than by a genuine effort to carry out the edicts of their faith.”

Hubbard and Eric Schmitt co-authored an August 27 news article that attributed ISIS’s success on the battlefield to the military expertise of former officers in Saddam Hussein’s army. The Baathist officers from Hussein’s purportedly secular regime were banned from government service during the American occupation of Iraq, and ultimately joined ISIS, Hubbard and Schmitt suggest, as a way to regain political power. Their analysis may well be correct, but it also seems like an attempt to counter an idea that they never explicitly address: that most ISIS fighters join because they are religious zealots. The governor of an Iraqi province now mostly occupied by ISIS is quoted as saying of the Baathist officers, “All of these guys got religious after 2003.” The piece’s final line, a quote from an Iraqi researcher, states, “There is no one in Baghdadi’s state who is not a believer,” implying that adherence to the ideology of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is mainly a survival strategy.

Some opinion pieces more explicitly downplay the role of religion in driving ISIS’s rise and behavior. A Vox card asserts that “the foundation of its power comes from politics, not religion.” And on September 4, Fox News published a piece online contending that “the politics of authoritarianism, rather than religion, explain the rise of ISIS.” Other pieces simply omit religion altogether, like a July 21 post on The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog that charges the US with fomenting sectarianism but doesn’t mention the role of religion to sectarian politics.

In the sciences, consensus tends to be built on overwhelming evidence. There are journalists and scholars who take a similar view of the idea that religious faith does not drive Islamic extremism. Bobby Ghosh, the managing editor of Quartz and a former editor of Time International, compared calls for a discussion of whether Islam has lent itself to extremist interpretations to “requiring discussion on ‘intelligent design’ as the basis of the universe.” In other words, absurd. When I asked Marc Sageman, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, if he thought it was worthwhile to debate whether the causes of Islamic extremism were ideological, he said, “I do not. I really do not. And I stress that.” Sageman argues that political violence, from the French Revolution to modern jihad, is essentially the same: a kind of “ritual,” not dependent on ideology, that people act out to earn “a sense of legitimacy within the ‘in’ group.”

But there are journalists and scholars who present compelling cases that ISIS’s actions are at least partly grounded in the teachings of Islam. In a September 1 story in The New Republic, Graeme Wood traced al-Baghdadi’s appointment of himself as caliph, as well as the group’s “taste for beheadings, stonings, crucifixions, slavery, and dhimmitude, the practice of taxing those who refuse to convert to Islam,” to its “almost pedantic adherence to its own interpretation of Islamic law.” In an interview, Wood said that while he considers the political factors behind the group’s ascent “at least as important,” it is clear that “their beliefs are central to their self-conception” and are therefore vital to grasping the differences between ISIS and other jihadist groups. He observed that journalists who do not understand the way ISIS thinks “are missing a part of the story.”

David Cook, an associate professor at Rice University who studies Islam, is more emphatic: “To say that ISIS doesn’t have anything to do with Islam is just the statement of an ignoramus or an apologist. There is support for the things that ISIS does inside the Koran. There’s support for things like beheading and different exemplary punishments that you can easily find.”

A 2005 article by Timothy Furnish, published in Middle East Quarterly, cites one such Koranic verse and lists Muslim scholars from the 10th through 20th centuries who have taken it literally. One translation of the verse (47:3) reads, “When you encounter the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads until you have crushed them completely….”

A quote from (and link to) Furnish’s article appeared in a recent Washington Post story, written by Terrence McCoy, about why decapitation is ISIS’s preferred method of execution. McCoy did not, however, summarize or critique Furnish’s main argument about the role of faith, though it directly pertained to his story. McCoy’s piece suggests that the motives of ISIS beheadings may be “ideological,” but he does not say what the basis of that ideology might be, let alone contemplate the possibility that it might be scriptural.

McCoy did not respond to written questions about his piece, so it is impossible to know the reasons for this omission. But he is far from alone among journalists in failing to wrestle with the links between Islamic holy texts and the behavior of Islamic extremists—links that ISIS repeatedly emphasizes in its propaganda magazine, Dabiq.

ISIS’s eagerness to advertise its scriptural credentials suggests one possible explanation for the infrequency with which journalists mention the connection: a reluctance to be seen as legitimizing terrorist propaganda. As Quartz’s Ghosh argues, “When terrorists cite the Koran or the hadith, they do so selectively, choosing only those passages that can be interpreted to suit their perverse view of the world. When they can’t find citations, they simply make them up by resorting to ‘fatwas.’ These deserve no credence.”

Bazian, of UC Berkeley, echoes this point, saying that noting the ideas in holy texts might be the impetus behind terrorists’ actions not only rewards the villains, but is indicative of “Islamophobia.” “When Islamophobes point to the Koran and Islam as the problem, they are epistemically reinforcing ISIS’s claims and also pushing every Muslim into the same categorization,” he says. Bazian further asserts that “Islamophobes look in the Koran, find a verse, and then argue that this is what Islamic belief is all about.”

The accusation of “Islamophobia” is not to be taken lightly. In many parts of the United States, the terrorizing of Muslims is a serious problem. In 2008, for example, a group of white supremacists burned down the Islamic Center of Columbia, TN. And plans to construct a mosque provoked outrage in Murfreesboro, TN, where, in 2010, arsonists reportedly burned equipment meant to excavate the site. Bob Smietana, a former religion reporter for The Tennessean who now writes for Religion News Service, covered both of these events. He says that he still hears from people who want him to unequivocally condemn Islam.

Ali Rizvi, a writer for The Huffington Post who was born in Pakistan and mostly raised in Saudi Arabia before moving to Canada, argues that the term “Islamophobia” puts “anti-Muslim bigotry and criticism of Islam under same umbrella,” and is therefore “an insult to the victims of anti-Muslim bigotry because it exploits their experiences for the political purpose of trying to shut everybody else up from criticizing Islam.” Both he and Asra Nomani, the former Wall Street Journal reporter, say that abuse of the term has contributed to an intellectual climate in which few people directly challenge the ideas and beliefs of Islam the way they would, say, those of evangelical Christianity.

The sweeping use of “Islamophobia” has blurred the distinction between actual prejudice and critical debate in the past. Bazian, among others, once used it to describe Nomani, lumping her comments about Muslims with those of conservative columnist Erik Rush, who, after the Boston Marathon bombing, tweeted, “Let’s kill them all.” Nomani, a dedicated Muslim who has agitated for the reform of certain traditional Islamic practices, like gender segregation in mosques, had written a piece in The Washington Post about Ruslan Tsarni, the uncle of the Tsarnaev brothers who allegedly carried out the bombing. She praised Tsarni for his candor, which included the observation that the older brother, Tamerlan, had begun saying things like insha’Allah (Arabic for “God willing”). When people begin using such “phrases of religiosity,” Nomani argued, “it doesn’t mean they’re becoming violent or criminal, but it’s a red flag,” a sign that they are involving themselves in a “game of trying to out-Muslim a Muslim,” a game that can turn fanatical.

In an interview, The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain also objected to Nomani’s assertion on the grounds that it could “spread a negative impression.” He proposed the hypothetical that, “Someone hears someone say insha’Allah and thinks, ‘Oh my god, maybe that’s a signal of something’ because of something they heard on the news.” Instead, he suggests that insha’Allah can be as innocuous as “mazel tov.” Journalists, he says, “have to report these things with care so that we’re phrasing things correctly and not in terms of a cultural clash or civilizational clash, when really this is a problem of terrorism and radicalism which is quite narrow and can be isolated.”

The real problem is that nobody can precisely calculate the aggregation of factors that have produced the modern phenomenon of Islamic extremism. And so the claims of people who cite religious causes cannot be dismissed any more than the claims of people who cite political ones. Hussain is right to caution that “Western society doesn’t have a great familiarity with Muslim culture,” and Nomani is also right to say that “we should cover Islam like we cover a city council meeting,” bearing in mind “political interests” and “ideological interests.”

For journalists who cover Islamic extremism, that city council analogy can be useful. If covering issues related to Islam is like covering a city council meeting involving people whose culture is unfamiliar to readers, then the reporters’ job is to not rush those readers to conclusions before they have had the chance to examine all the possibilities.

Christopher Massie is a CJR contributing editor.