ISIS, Islam and Credulity: More Irreverence Needed in the Fight Against Extremism

Image by Martin Schultz - EP President

Image by Martin Schultz – EP President

This week, King Abdullah of Jordan appealed to European parliamentarians to help root out both terrorism and ‘Islamophobia’. Setting aside this interesting conflation, the wholesale failure of Arab and majority Muslim countries to embody either mutual respect or inclusivity towards many of their ethno-religious minorities bespeaks of an imbalance in critical attention to how those states embody such attributes. We will never finally root out terrorism while we continue to indulge the basis of it in ideologies derived ultimately from religious beliefs with eschatological narratives. While xenophobia is undoubtedly a problem, ‘Islamophobia’ has now been reduced to a self-serving defence mechanism to ring-fence one major religion from legitimate mockery. Needless to say, criticism of ideas does not equate to racism. The unwillingness to have an honest conversation about this, without fear of being labeled a bigot by ideologues on both the Islamic right and the (supposedly) secular left, has permitted xenophobia to fester. For elements on the left it is almost as if Islam alone among the major faith traditions is bereft of any problematic dogmas. Quite a number of western citizens are not buying this. Until we re-create (yes, we actually need to re-create it now, as it has effectively been conceded through Islamist intimidation) a legitimate space for criticism and satire of religion as part of a wider exchange of views the basis of apocalyptic terrorist narratives will remain fundamentally intact. The failure to be honest in relation to this will also continue to swell the ranks of the far right.

In the aftermath of the sadistic burning alive of a Jordanian serviceman by a group of seemingly educated (Jihadi John is apparently a computer programmer) social misfits and conspiracy theorists bent on establishing an Islamic dystopia in Syria and Iraq, a series of statements emerged from mainstream political and religious leaders from the Middle East. These statements from both spiritual and temporal leaders must have chimed well with the emotional mood among western publics as they viewed spliced and pixelated images of IS militants gleefully enacting Surah 8:12  and Surah 47:4 of the Qur’an. However, no one appeared to notice, still less comment on, the inherently troubling tone and rhetoric being used by this Arab mainstream.

Political leaders like the aforementioned King Abdullah of Jordan duly pledged to fight ISIS until they ran out of bullets. Abdullah himself even went so far as to ‘suit up’ (on Twitter only), emulating the flight suit wearing antics of George W Bush, as Jordanian forces participated in the Arab version of ‘shock and awe’ in ISIS held territory. Not to be outdone, Islamic scholars of repute, such as Al Azhar University’s Grand Imam Al Tayeb, declared the violent extremists ‘un-Islamic’ and then ironically issued some unambiguously violent phraseology of his own, including punitive amputations, crucifixions and death sentences.

The problem is that most public and supposedly informed political, media and academic discussion of this has skirted and evaded, and spoken lazy platitudes about tolerance and ‘dialogue’ between faiths. But some of these faiths have at their core some unsavoury beliefs that never enter the conversation. One must seriously question the point of having a mutually respectful and inclusive dialogue with people who adhere to a religion (and not just Islam) that holds straight-faced belief in winged horses, hellfire, voices from the nether world, resurrection of the dead and scenes that would not look out of place in a Peter Jackson movie. It is perhaps time to take the gloves off and finally confront the dangerous ridiculousness of missionary religion’s eschatological dimension. We can talk all we like about ‘deviance’, ‘twisted’ or ‘warped’ religious beliefs, but these versions of belief emanate from the persistence of one unfortunate human characteristic.

At the heart of twenty-first century debate around ISIS, terrorism and the role of religious belief is the undiscussed question of human credulity. Credulity, the human tendency to believe in the improbable in the face of evidence to the contrary, has hampered our political response to religious extremism. We can monitor, track and bug all we want; if the ideas are not discredited with some hard talking, then we won’t get much further forward. Credulity is something that all religions depends on to survive. It also sustains many of the conspiracy theories thrown into the mix by Islamist and sub-cultural ideologues, whether about 9/11, Jewish plots to rule the world, the CIA or MH370. Remarkably, credulity has had an inexplicably easy pass thus far and tends to be overlooked as an important variable in understanding the most fundamental challenge to contemporary global security. It is credulity, matched with a dose of gullibility and naïveté, which prompts fifteen year old British schoolgirls to pack their bags under their parents noses, leave their comfortable British lives complete with healthcare and education, and enter the black hole of Islamic State. The emergence of ISIS, indeed of radical Islam generally, has failed to be understood on its own terms. Wood’s important recent article in The Atlantic isolated the issue well. However, what is really missing from the ‘dialogue’ is the question of why the human belief in fairy stories and the supernatural continues to be indulged by those who should really know better.

It is time to end the emerging taboo against criticizing and mocking people’s beliefs. It is about calling such beliefs exactly what they are: ludicrous. The sensitivity is perhaps understandable, but too much is at stake now. This is about more than satirizing people’s ‘deeply held beliefs’ simply for the sake of it. No one is satirizing Jainism or animism. They don’t pose a threat to international security. This is about satirizing beliefs in order to punch a hole in the bubble of indulgence and conformist ‘respect’ that has sustained these beliefs in the contemporary world of email, YouTube and nuclear weapons. When these beliefs form part of a narrative that is political as well as religious then they are fair game for mockery.

The West, as Obama rightly noted recently, is not at war with Islam. The fact that ISIS perpetuates this nonsense as they are bombed by Arab jets is neither here nor there. Obama is probably right to keep the US largely out of it and deny the End Timers their final battle. Where the cleavage really lies, however, is in the distinction between those who believe in eschatological fantasies and those who do not. And therein rests a major problem. The non-believers, the incredulous, are a minority of the world’s population. Most of the world’s citizens do in fact buy some version of this, whether Christian, Muslim or not. There is, at the very least, a reluctance to tamper with the idea of an afterlife. In the two main missionary faiths this eschatological dimension is linked very explicitly to personal salvation and redemption. The grip that ‘End of Days’ fantasies has over so many is remarkable given the age we live in. It is not coincidental that there are so many Christian leaders lining up to defend mainstream Islam from mockery. Would that they could intimidate cartoonists so effectively themselves. This is ultimately a self-interested move by Christian clerics and apologists. The premises of the critique of eschatalogical religion applies to Christianity as well as Islam. The appetite for self-criticism among believers is simply not there. Even US President Obama made use of tactical platitudes in a recent conference on counter terrorism:

All of us have a responsibility to refute the notion that groups like Isil somehow represent Islam, because that is a falsehood that embraces the terrorists’ narrative – US President Obama

It’s well meaning, but it is plainly nonsense. Most believers are happy enough to compartmentalize these aspects of their beliefs and reconcile them with day to day reality. Most are prepared to countenance such apocalyptic eventualities as occurring well beyond their individual lifetimes. Our current problem emanates from the fact that some do not consider the End Times a distant reality. They are divining ‘signs’ in the geopolitical landscape and acting on their own narratives. They are attempting to externalize their beliefs and have them incorporated and reified in real world politics. The worldview embodied by Islamic (and Christian) doctrine fully supports this narrative of End Times. The Islamic Hadith even makes clear where it will happen, hence ISIS’s formation in Syria. The result is obvious and disturbing.

We have been fed the mantra, at least since 9/11, that those who perpetrate atrocity and violence in the name of religion – and in the name of Islam specifically – are not ‘true’ Muslims. As any halfhearted constructivist would point out – there is no ‘true’ Islam. What we have are medieval texts and commentaries that have been definitively detached from orthodox religious authority and opened to individual interpretation. Add in vastly contradictory attitudes to violence in the principal texts, selective quotation and the inerrancy of divine word, and we have all the ideological structures in place for entities like Al Qaeda and ISIS. ‘True’ Islam is now that Islam that largely conforms to modern international norms. Perhaps that is the best we can hope for in the long run. This was the Islam of King Abdullah’s speech, his war stance notwithstanding. But it can never be the only Islam given the sizeable corpus of contradictory core doctrines, sayings, epithets and the obvious variable of there being 1.6 billion believers on all continents.

The Islamist and leftist efforts to prevent those who try to burst these delusional notions from being heard should be faced down. If the narratives of believers are deeply held, then satire will hardly shake their personal convictions. The trenchant reaction by mainstream Muslims, Islamists and leftists to the Charlie Hebdo controversy (and before that the Danish Cartoons controversy) seemed to indicate an unwillingness to accept that perhaps there is something within the Islamic tradition to worry about. A more honest and frank conversation is required in order to begin the process of overcoming the root cause of ISIS’s continuing appeal and success in recruitment, as well as the stubborn persistence of radical and extremist Islam. Alas, the jury is out on whether that will ever occur while writers and artists find themselves under threat of violent death. A real ‘dialogue’ is about believers being confronted by those prepared to say that the premises of what they believe in is fantastical nonsense. There needs to be a little less reverence. Satirists and critics should not be pilloried by the self-appointed guardians of political correctness. As Kenan Malik highlighted, too many assert that ‘I believe in freedom of speech. But…’.

The End of Days, the Apocalypse, Armageddon, the Final Battle, Rapture, The Resurrection of the Dead, The Second Coming. These narratives, associated conspiracy theories, and the continued indulgence of them by commentators who accuse the satirists of racism or ‘Islamophobia’, are perpetuating a mystic and allure that should long ago have been undermined. It is not only right but absolutely essential to point out their absurdity.

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About Kenneth Houston

Kenneth Houston coordinates the undergraduate International Relations program at Webster University’s Thailand campus. He holds a PhD in politics and an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland. He was previously a research intern at the INCORE institute at the University of Ulster. His research interests lie in the areas of religion and politics, European politics, conflict studies and power.

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