Muslim leaders in the West on ISIS hit list

Mr Webb greets attendees of a seminar at the Islamic Research and Humanitarian Service Centre of America. He has held live monthly video chats to refute the religious claims of ISIS.
Mr Webb greets attendees of a seminar at the Islamic Research and Humanitarian Service Centre of America. He has held live monthly video chats to refute the religious claims of ISIS.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Imams, scholars fight militant group on the theology front, refuting its religious claims

NEW YORK • As the military and political battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group escalates, Muslim imams and scholars in the West are fighting on another front - through theology.

Imam Suhaib Webb, a Muslim leader in the District of Columbia, has held live monthly video chats to refute the religious claims of ISIS.

In a dig at the extremists, he has broadcast from ice cream parlours and called his talks "ISIS and ice cream".

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, an American Muslim scholar based in Berkeley, California, has pleaded with Muslims not to be deceived by the "stupid young boys" of ISIS.

Millions have watched excerpts of his sermon titled "The Crisis of ISIS," in which he wept as he asked God not to blame other Muslims "for what these fools among us do".

It is a religious rumble that barely makes headlines in the secular West since it is carried out at mosques and Islamic conferences and over social media.

ISIS, however, has taken notice.

The group recently threatened the lives of 11 Muslim imams and scholars in the West, calling them "apostates" who should be killed.

The recent issue of the militant group's online propaganda magazine, Dabiq, called them "obligatory targets," and it said that supporters should use any weapons on hand to "make an example of them".

The danger is real enough that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has contacted some of those named in ISIS' magazine "to assist them in taking proper steps to ensure their safety," said Mr Andrew Ames, spokesman for the FBI's field office in the District of Columbia.

The death threats are a sign that Muslim religious leaders have antagonised ISIS, according to analysts who are studying the militant group.

Their growing influence also contradicts those who claim that Muslim leaders have been silent in the fight against violent extremism.

Several of the targeted Muslim leaders said in interviews that, while they were taking the threat seriously, they had no intention of backing off.

They have hired security guards and fortified their workplaces, and some keep guns at home.

"It's an honour to be denounced by ISIS," said Mr Webb, who frequently engages young Muslims over social media, whether on YouTube, Facebook, Periscope or Snapchat, where he uses the handle Pimpin4Paradise786.

"It has only reinvigorated me," he said, "to provide the antivenom to the poison of ISIS."

These Muslim leaders say they are responding to fellow believers who are looking for a religiously based rebuke to violent movements that claim to be acting in the name of Islam.

They say that extremist groups like ISIS are a threat not just to civil society and security but to the future of their faith.

The imams named by ISIS are based in the US, Canada, Britain and Australia.

This is not the first time that ISIS has targeted Muslim leaders in the US, but this is the longest list yet.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2016, with the headline 'Muslim leaders in the West on ISIS hit list'. Print Edition | Subscribe