Is ISIS Islamic?

Last week, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, President Obama addressed the nation, explaining what action the U.S. would take in response to the Islamic State — or ISIS, or ISIL — and its rising position as the world’s public enemy number one.

During the address, President Obama described the U.S. launching a new military campaign consisting fully of airstrikes, promising that no ground troops would deploy and drag us into another drawn-out, Middle Eastern war. While the announcement of military involvement was not surprising, what drew some ire from the president’s address was not his insistence on military intervention, but his insistence that ISIS was not Islamic.

Of course, there is no debate that a group, which calls itself “The Islamic State,” is comprised of the Islamic faithful; the president’s suggestion was that the group’s ideology was not in line with that of Islam.

“ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslims,” Obama said during the address.

The president’s strategy was obviously to distance the extremist group from the masses of non-violent Muslims, hoping to ensure a backlash of anti-Islamic violence in the states would not occur, as it did following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Despite the president’s intentions on maintaining peace between religious groups, his suggestion that ISIS was not Islamic was met with skepticism from some noted voices following the address.

“Sorry, Mr. President, saying ISIS isn’t Islamic is like saying Mel Gibson isn’t Catholic; religions don’t include just the ones you like,” Bill Maher tweeted following the address.

Maher, the host of “Real Time” on HBO and regular rouser of controversy and anti-religious sentiment, also appeared on PBS’s “Charlie Rose” during which he debated Rose on whether or not Islam itself was the problem, with ISIS acting only as an extension of Islam.

“Most Muslim people in the world do condone violence just for what you think … over 80 percent [of Muslims in Egypt] thought death was the appropriate punishment for leaving the religion … so to claim that this religion is like other religions is just plain wrong,” Maher said during his debate with Rose.

Notable atheist author and activist Sam Harris also weighed in on the president’s statements, his sentiments falling in line with Maher’s.

“Understanding and criticizing the doctrine of Islam — and finding some way to inspire Muslims to reform it — is one of the most important challenges the civilized world now faces. But the task isn’t as simple as discrediting the false doctrines of Muslim ‘extremists,’ because most of their views are not false by the light of scripture. A hatred of infidels is arguably the central message of the Koran,” Harris said in a recent blog post entitled “Sleepwalking to Armageddon.”

While Islam is certainly a target for Western audiences due to the decades of conflict dominating the news, it is important to note that in less publicized regions of the world, other religions have engaged in their fair share of extremist violence.

The Lord’s Resistance Army, which came to the public’s attention during Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” campaign, is an army operating in Uganda and Sudan, which slaughtered entire villages and kidnapped, drugged and indoctrinated children into guerilla warriors, all in the name of Christianity.

Our own Michael Jerryson, assistant professor in the philosophy and religious studies department, has written on the militarizing of southern Thai Buddhist temples as recent as 2004, and Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka played a pivotal role in influencing the Sri Lankan government to take military action against the Tamil Tiger terrorist organization. In 2013, hardline Buddhist groups mounted protests against the rising Islamic and Christian populations in Sri Lanka, going so far as to attack a mosque in the country’s largest city, Colombo.

And let us not forget the ever-present, ever-controversial conflict in Israel, where blowhards on both sides of the fence have gone on record saying they would prefer that the other simply cease to exist.

This is not to say that ISIS, or the myriad other Islamic extremist groups, should get a pass on their savage behavior. However, it does show that while some extremist groups are better at making American headlines, all of the major world’s religions can boast some unfortunate members.

To suggest the practicing Muslim student in your class, or the Christian Cru member that invited you to a cookout, are somehow operating on the same ideological basis as ISIS beheading journalists and aid workers or the LRA members abducting children is absurd. And most would agree with that.

The problem with distilling religious extremist action down to the notion that “since this group has done this horrific thing and they are part of this religion, that religion can be considered horrific” is that no religion is practiced perfectly. Religions are organizations of flawed human beings, making sense of the world in respect to their surroundings. While religion certainly provides a convenient tool for adding fervor and zealotry to ideological campaigns, religions are also highly flexible and interpretive. The Islam practiced by ISIS is not the Islam practiced by our students in Maag Library’s basement prayer room.

Is ISIS Islamic? Yes, absolutely.

But ISIS is not only Islamic. It is the product of political, cultural and historical components, which have created the conditions for such a group to exist.

Just like the African rebels in the Ugandan bush. Just like the Buddhist mobs in the culturally conflicted Sri Lanka.

When we simplify an ideological entity like ISIS down to the religion they claim to represent, we miss the forest for the tree. We misdiagnose the illness and administer treatment, which serves only to exacerbate the problem.

Worst of all, we shine a suspicious light on innocent members of the offending ideology.

Looking at the whole of a problem rather than one particularly juicy and easy-to-target aspect takes time, understanding and a bit of empathy. It’s not an easy task, but the people we share this planet with — be they Christian, Muslim or any other people of faith or lack thereof — deserve the work.