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Stop saying ISIS has 'nothing to do with Islam', says Archbishop

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Tim Dieppe reflects on Justin Welby’s call for people to stop saying that ISIS has "nothing to do with Islam". 

Tim agrees with Archbishop Welby that in order to defeat ISIS we must deal with the ideology driving their actions.

Tim is Director of Islamic Affairs at Christian Concern.    

The Archbishop of Canterbury has said it is time to stop repeating the popular politically correct mantra that ISIS has "nothing to do with Islam". In a speech delivered in Paris last week, during a ceremony in which he was awarded an honorary doctorate, he argued that "If we treat religiously-motivated violence solely as a security issue, or a political issue, then it will be incredibly difficult – probably impossible – to overcome it." He went on to say: "Until religious leaders stand up and take responsibility for the actions of those who do things in the name of their religion, we will see no resolution" – words of sense and truth from the Archbishop which prompted a number of headlines delighting in the politically incorrect nature of his comments.

This follows calls from several high profile figures for people not to use the term ‘Islamic State’. Last year, then Prime Minister David Cameron criticised the BBC for using the term ‘Islamic State’, and a letter signed by more than 120 MPs was sent to the BBC director general complaining about its use of the term. The BBC’s Head of Religion and Ethics however, Professor Aaqil Ahmed, himself a Muslim, argued earlier this year that "The Islamic State are Muslims and their doctrine is Islamic."

It is worth clarifying what is meant by saying that ‘Islamic State is Islamic’. Clearly, we do not mean that Islamic State represents most Muslims. A minority of Muslims support Islamic State, though not an insignificant minority. According to the ICM Survey of Muslims in Britain, 7% supported the objective to create an Islamic State, and 3% supported the way in which ISIS is establishing a Caliphate. From a population of 2.7m Muslims, that would make 80,000 people supporting ISIS in the UK alone.

To say that ‘Islamic State is Islamic’, at a minimum means that those leading ‘Islamic State’ self-identify as Muslim. This is clearly true, but we can go further and say that not only do they themselves identify as Muslims, they also consciously want ‘Islamic State’ to be identified as Islamic. Hence their chosen name. At this point it becomes somewhat Orwellian to deny that ‘Islamic State’ has anything to do with Islam, but we can go further still, and ask whether their doctrines and practices adhere to the doctrines and teaching of Muhammad and the Qur’an. This is the real test. If ‘Islamic State’ ignored Muhammad’s teaching, or clearly obtained their ideas from outside Islam then there would be grounds for denying that they are really Islamic.

The Archbishop compares ‘Islamic State’ with Christian militia in the Central African Republic, and Hindu nationalist persecution of Christians in South India, arguing that we can’t say that these groups have ‘nothing to do with’ Christianity or Hinduism. In this, of course, he is quite right. These groups do have something to do with their religions. They clearly pass the self-identification tests. But do they pass the doctrine and practice test? Jesus was not a war leader, neither did he lead violent campaigns. In fact Jesus criticised Peter for using a sword to defend him (Matthew 26:52). Hinduism has no clear founder or single text, so is harder to define doctrinally.  Muhammad was a warrior who led several violent campaigns and whose religion has then been spread by the sword.

This means that a violent group that kills those who refuse to accept Islam can claim to be following Muhammad’s teaching and example. Numerous texts in the Qur’an support this practice. Whereas a group that kills those who refuse to accept Christianity cannot claim to be following Jesus’ teaching or example. A cursory look at any issue of the Islamic State’s magazine Dabiq will show how keen they are to ground all their doctrine and practice from the teaching and example of Muhammad. So we are left with ‘Islamic State’ being Islamic in name, self-identification, doctrine, and practice, whilst noting that this does not mean that most Muslims agree with its practice.

The Archbishop said that "in order to defeat terrorism, we need to understand the mind-set of those who perpetrate it." He then elaborated: "However depraved it may be, groups like ISIS have an ideology, indeed a theology – which is at the heart of their propaganda, and therefore the driving force – which holds an apocalyptic understanding of human history, not as a loose term but in its strictest technical terms: they believe that the world is about to end, that the Prophet will return with Jesus, and will defeat the western powers." In this he is quite right. We are not fighting terrorism, which is only a tactic, we are fighting an ideology that makes use of terrorism. In order to defeat this ideology, we must first name it, and then understand it.

One of the Archbishop’s proposed solutions to increased religious violence is for us to be "confident to talk about the Judeo-Christian tradition of our continent." He said, though, that he is not calling for "a return to Christendom." One has to ask why not? An explicitly Christian culture would be best for this country and other countries in establishing a moral and religious foundation for society. Without this, what is the alternative? An intolerant Islam or an intolerant secularism are vying for supremacy as Christianity loses ground.

I agree with the Archbishop that it is time to stop saying ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. Let’s hope that politicians and the media listen to his advice.

Related Links:
Archbishop Justin Welby on ‘the common good and a shared vision for the next century’ (Archbishop of Canterbury)
Justin Welby: It's time to stop saying Isil has ‘nothing to do with Islam’ (Telegraph)
Justin Welby: It's time to stop saying Isis has ‘nothing to do with Islam’ (Independent)
It's wrong to claim ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, says Archbishop of Canterbury (Mail)
BBC Head of Religion: ‘Islamic State is Islamic’
BBC to review use of 'Islamic State' after MPs protest against term (Guardian)
What Does Islam Teach About Violence (The Religion of Peace)