Debunking ISIS' pseudo-religion

The self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has proven its technological prowess in extending its ideological reach and impact. Though reeling from physical losses in Iraq and Syria, ISIS ideology has gained ground globally, driving self-radicalisation initiatives and inspiring lone-wolf attacks. Singapore is not immune to this, as recent arrests have shown.

There is a strong correspondence between those arrested and their acceptance of ISIS as the only qualified Muslim religious authority. This belief is manifested in unreserved allegiance to the group's leader and the active promotion of ISIS propaganda online.

This worldview of an exclusive religious authority drives ISIS supporters' acceptance of its politico-religious objectives, including a global Islamic caliphate. That, in turn, translates into acceptance of the group's chosen means to achieve its end, including the use of violence against specific groups.

Recognising that religious legitimacy is at the heart of the ISIS propaganda machinery, the key to deconstruct its ideology is, therefore, to invalidate its religious legitimacy.

ISIS gains its religious legitimacy by espousing absolutist positions across religious and political issues, with selected and distorted use of Islamic scriptures. These absolutist positions advocate two things: the physical act of "letting go of worldly affairs", and the linking of "immersing oneself with the Hereafter" with participation in the group's objectives.

Additionally, ISIS has claimed that it is the absolute unit of governance that will take on the "religious responsibility" of establishing an Islamic caliphate.

These ideas of a caliphate and committing to moral uprightness are powerful pull factors for many Muslims worldwide, although not in the ISIS sense. It is through these elements that ISIS managed to pull individuals onto the pathway of radicalisation and to convince the radicalised individuals to take action in its name.

The ISIS approach in doing this is best demonstrated in its Dabiq magazine. Articles are written by the militant group's members whose chain of knowledge is unknown.

A deserted mountain village on the outskirts of Marawi city, southern Philippines, after the departure of pro-ISIS militants. ISIS ideology has gained ground globally, driving self-radicalisation initiatives and inspiring lone-wolf attacks.
A deserted mountain village on the outskirts of Marawi city, southern Philippines, after the departure of pro-ISIS militants. ISIS ideology has gained ground globally, driving self-radicalisation initiatives and inspiring lone-wolf attacks. PHOTO: REUTERS

Their religious content can be characterised by Sunni-versus-Shi'ite rhetoric, circular discourses on religious concepts and the extensive use of eschatological or "End Times" narratives.

In comparison, traditional scholars gain their legitimacy through scholarship and adherence to the Islamic chain of knowledge.

The invalidation of ISIS' religious legitimacy comes from contrasting its "shotgun" approach to religious scholarship with the long, rigorous process of conventional Islamic scholarship. Efforts can focus on educating Muslims generally with the skills to separate superficial religiosity from the rich wisdom of the Islamic traditional knowledge.

While one stokes the emotional faculties and is devoid of the values of the religion, the other is steeped in the proper etiquette of knowledge acquisition (adab) and requires the active engagement of reasoning faculties.

ISIS materials use religious concepts to justify a political end. For example, to establish a caliphate as governance, the group packages the narrative of a collective conspiracy of the West against Islam. This is characterised by the narration of global injustices against Muslims, thus presenting the establishment of the caliphate as its strongest retaliation.

Hence, unquestionable obedience to the caliph is demanded as part of its pursuit in "avenging" the religion. This "unquestionable obedience" is to be offered in the form of religious obligations, like making hijrah (migration), executing jihad (fighting) and pledging allegiance.

What needs to be emphasised is that ISIS propaganda instructs violence and destruction - something that is antagonistic to Islamic teachings. From this, ISIS clearly cannot be regarded as either a legitimate religious entity or a political one.


A key feature of ISIS propaganda is its hate spin messages. Hate spin refers to the strategy in which political entrepreneurs use incitement and offence-taking to mobilise supporters and coerce targeted groups. ISIS propaganda contains hate spin messages for a range of specified groups which it defines as its political enemies.

This is particularly relevant to the Singaporean community whose social fabric is diverse in its religious and political beliefs. That makes Singaporean society particularly vulnerable to hate spin messages propagated by ISIS, where the Muslim minority population can be influenced to take on the victim role. Socio-economic woes can also be easily woven into this narrative, thereby increasing the likelihood of radicalisation.

One approach that can be taken in Singapore is to tap into the cultural assets of the nation, namely the total defence mechanism. It must be made a part of Singapore's social defence to resist hate speech and hate spin mindsets against fellow Singaporeans. Not only will it strengthen the nation's social defence, but it will also aid in the national effort to prevent the spread of intolerance.

In the final analysis, ISIS propaganda will continue even if the group ceases to exist. To confront it, there is a need for robust tools to critically and continuously invalidate the heart of ISIS ideology, namely its questionable religious legitimacy, especially among its adherents.

Religious scholars must step forward and guide the community against misguided religious views.

It is only with acute understanding of the religion that the wisdom of Islam's various nuances can be realised.

The ability to contextualise can then be strengthened from within, thereby making it less likely for the radicalisation process to take root, irrespective of the ever-changing political and social climate facing the community.

•Mohamed Ali is assistant professor with the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, while Nurul Huda Yussof is a final-year student in the Public Policy and Global Affairs programme at the School of Social Sciences, NTU. This article first appeared in RSIS Commentary.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2017, with the headline 'Debunking ISIS' pseudo-religion'. Print Edition | Subscribe