Is there anything Islamic about Islamist terrorism? No, say the faithful; Islam is peace. Yes, say the fearful; the clue is in the name. In truth, neither answer is adequate. What the question demands is something that Muslims today struggle to supply: a party line to demarcate the boundaries of the creed that all respect.
Of those Muslims who have anything at all to do with Isis ideology, the overwhelming majority are its victims. The group targets Muslims far more than it targets anyone else — and most of the people fighting Isis are Muslims, too.
Muslim religious scholars consider the group’s followers heretical deviants whose actions have no grounding in Islamic thought; some even hold that they are apostates from Islam. But however that may be, there is no denying that Isis tries to justify its actions by appealing to religious tenets.
There is no church in Islam — no hierarchical, ecclesiastical authority akin to, say, the Vatican. But that is not to say that religious authority does not exist or never did. For more than 1,000 years, Islamic religious expertise was defined through asanid, academic chains of training that gave ijaza, or authorisation, to teach and instruct.
Those systems of authority gave rise to famed scholars such as Averroes, the 12th century polymath, and to Ibn Khaldoun, whose 14th century writings are the precursor to modern sociology. They also resulted in Sufi mystics such as Rumi, whose Spiritual Couplets, or Mathnawi, is regarded in some quarters as the epitome of Persian poetry.
But in the past 200 or so years, those systems of authority have been disturbed. Reformation movements, such as one that began with the students of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in 18th century Arabia, cast doubt on the legitimacy of the traditional channels through which religious approval percolated. This created the space for violent strains of ideology to develop — even though few modern-day adherents to Wahhab’s thought subscribe to them.
Isis flourishes in the void that has opened as the hierarchy has cracked. Anyone can claim religious authority — because, when that precious commodity no longer flows from agreed systems of authenticity, no one knows what it is. In this war of ideas — with Isis on one side, and the western and Muslim worlds on the other — a nourishing Islamic religious authority will need to reassert itself, in the image of an Averroes or a Rumi. That will take a genuine restructuring of education in the Muslim world so that religious leaders are better equipped, better grounded in their own traditions as well as the contemporary world. Many political leaders, having reached this conclusion, have tried supporting religious figures and establishments in the hope they can make it happen. But the credibility of such efforts is damaged when religious scholars are identified with the power of the state — particularly when the state is an instrument of injustice and repression, as in so much of the Arab world.
If such thinkers are to succeed in the “war of ideas”, they may need to express themselves as critical voices speaking truth to all kinds of power — state power as well as the power of Isis. It is far from clear that many states in the Arab world are interested in this. But that may have to change; the alternative is something far more troubling.
For now, Isis is here to stay. But there is reason to hope that it will not be a permanent feature of Islamic thought. Other such fringe groups have wrought havoc in the past, only to fade away. It is reasonable to hope that the appeal of Isis will prove equally perishable.
We have to be clear about what — and who — we are up against. It is not Islam, or the overwhelming majority of Muslims. But we have to understand what distinguishes from Islam — and to do that we have to understand how something can be deemed Islamic. It will not do to say that Isis is Islamic. But it is insufficient to simply insist that Islam is peace.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington and the Royal United Services Institute in London