ISIS commits the great name robbery

Terror group not only perpetrates violence but also exploits the name of Islam

Let's be candid: Events in the Middle East are too complex for most people far away to follow with sustained interest.

An almost daily media menu of repressive regimes, radical extremists and feckless puppets in power often impels us to turn the page for more palatable news.

As a Muslim, however, it is harder to pretend it is no concern of mine.

This predicament first surfaced after Sept 11, 2001. Following the attacks against the United States by a group of mostly Saudi-born militants 13 years ago, words like extremism, jihadism and terrorism were regularly linked to my religion.

In the initial months after 9/11, like many other Muslims, I felt the need to go out of my way to engage. Over time, though, I wondered why the actions of every fanatic in every corner of the world became my baggage to disown. There were too many calls for "moderate Muslims" - a label I loathe because of the implication that most Muslims aren't - to step forward and speak up.

It does not help that when Buddhists egged on by radical monks torch Muslims in Myanmar, there is no equivalent expectation for peace-loving Buddhists to denounce such acts. Jewish citizens of faraway countries are not asked to clarify where they stand when the Israeli military, displaying the Star of David, massacres women and children in Palestine.

Sure, violence in the supposed name of Islam seems more easily exportable than other forms of terror. But considering what a tiny proportion of Muslims actually shop at that store, it should not be surprising that most grew rather weary of having to defend their faith. It became clear to many that we had to endure - and just quietly resent - some of that prejudice as a given.

But ISIS has changed that inclination to retreat.

The group hasn't just perpetrated unspeakable violence. It has also appropriated the name of the religion. Its name has morphed: It was called Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, before settling on Islamic State, plain and simple. In every version, though, it exploits the name of Islam.

With Al-Qaeda, one could make the case that it shouldn't be labelled Islamist terrorists. But what do we do with a group that formally calls itself Islamic?

The Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association or Pergas last Friday urged the media not to call it by its full name, but just IS, because its "propaganda and ideologies do not reflect the teachings of Islam" which is based on the Quran and the sayings of Prophet Muhammad. Pergas' concern is valid.

For some, the phenomenon is so troubling that it is easier to believe conspiracy theories. Like the one about the "hornet's nest" strategy: This was actually a CIA and Mossad plot to lure disaffected Muslim men and then kill them off.

Of course, the West hardly has clean hands when it comes to the Middle East or indeed many other conflicts. Let's not forget that ISIS is a breakaway faction of Al-Qaeda, that terror group forged in the years when the United States backed the mujahideen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. American mismanagement of post-war Iraq certainly helped to fuel the support for ISIS.

Journalist and author Patrick Cockburn comments on the irony: "For America, Britain and the Western powers, the rise of ISIS and the caliphate is the ultimate disaster. Whatever they intended by their invasion of Iraq in 2003 and their efforts to get rid of Assad in Syria since 2011, it was not to see the creation of a jihadi state spanning northern Iraq and Syria run by a movement a hundred times bigger and much better organised than the Al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden."

Yet, to look the other way and blame all this entirely on the machinations of the US and other Western powers is damaging ultimately to Muslims themselves.

ISIS is different from all other radical movements and far more menacing.

On a day when Muslims are marking the completion of the haj, when millions have gathered together as one community or ummah in peaceful self-reflection and to commit to renew one's faith, here is a force of evil that claims to be part of the whole and to speak on its behalf.

ISIS symbols amount to gross sacrilege. Marauding men carrying out unholy acts of murder have been waving black flags bearing the holy declaration of the Muslim faith. There are myths around the significance of the black flag in Muslim history, but as local scholars Mustazah Bahari and Muhammad Haniff Hassan wrote in an academic paper: "There is not even a single intimation in the Quran that promotes the use of the black flag or regards it as holy or sacred."

ISIS' audacity in declaring an Islamic state on behalf of all Sunni Muslims speaks of delusions of grandeur on an epic scale. An open letter (lettertobaghdadi.com) penned by 125 Sunni religious leaders a week ago explains why ISIS' actions are "an offence to Islam, to Muslims and to the entire world".

The leaders wrote: "Who gave you authority over the ummah? Was it your group? If this is the case, then a group of no more than several thousand has appointed itself the ruler of over a billion and a half Muslims. This attitude is based upon a corrupt circular logic that says: 'We are Muslims, and we decide who the caliph is, we have chosen one and so whoever does not accept our caliph is not a Muslim.'"

ISIS has gone about not just wanting to push its agenda with Muslims, but against everyone and everything else standing in its way. It kills, it invokes clauses in scripture that either do not exist or are considered weak and of dubious origins to legitimise its atrocious actions. As the religious leaders noted, for example, there is no such thing as offensive or aggressive jihad or war "just because people have different religions and opinions".

Part of this struggle can be fought only with military force. ISIS may dress up its campaign with slogans and videos, as if this is a battle for hearts and minds, but let's not imagine that it is open to negotiation.

There is also a larger struggle to be waged against injustice, which enlarges the constituency of ISIS. As Pergas rightly points out, "the issue of terrorism and violence in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Myanmar and any other country will not be solved if tyranny, discrimination, corruption and oppression still exist".

Muslim civilians have no choice but to get involved. Even Muslims who have misgivings about the world as it exists today - a status quo that in many respects is far removed from their ideals of justice and decency - must surely agree that ISIS is no improvement.

ISIS is attempting to rob Muslims of our name, our identity and our dignity. We have little choice but to assert our own claims - this is ours, this is us.

zuraidah@sph.com.sg

@zuibrahim