Reflections on a Letter to ISIS

Dr. Homayra Ziad

The open letter to al-Baghdadi is just one example of the many Muslim voices raised in protest against the marriage of Islam and violence. 

On July 4th of this year, 126 high-ranking Muslim religious scholars, preachers, and community leaders around the world published an open letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the self-declared Islamic State. In twenty-four points, and in no uncertain terms, the letter demolishes al-Baghdadi’s contention in multiple online sermons that ISIS acts in accordance with Islamic religious law. Rather, the statement maintains that al-Baghdadi is woefully ignorant of the credentials needed to issue a religious opinion that has normative weight. Issuing opinions in the realm of religious law is not a layman’s exercise. It requires sophisticated content knowledge and mastery of a methodology of reasoning and argumentation much like any lawyer would need today. The letter accuses al-Baghdadi of harboring simplistic and de-contextualized notions about the law, of cherry-picking Qur’anic verses to undergird his political ideology, and of mistaking severity for piety and healthy disagreement for apostasy. The authors of the letter dissect every action of ISIS through the lens of religious law. These include declaring jihad; establishing a “caliphate”; killing non-combatants, including children, journalists, and aid workers; destroying Islamic and other holy sites (graves and shrines); rebelling against the state; enslaving captives; abusing women; declaring Muslim enemies to be unbelievers; coercing people into Islam; enacting cruel and unusual punishments; and decrying allegiance to a nation state as un-Islamic. Each one of these actions, the letter maintains, is fundamentally opposed to Islamic morals and ethics as established by the historical consensus of religious scholars worldwide.

The letter is an antidote to a common question, often posed in exasperation: Why are Muslims silent in the face of atrocities committed by Muslims? I often pose a question right back: Does the silence that you perceive mean that nothing is being said? The reason that myriad Muslim peacemakers around the world never make it to the front page is a question that requires a conversation about media, money, and the politics of representation and would take much more space than this blog post to unpack. The open letter to al-Baghdadi is just one example of the many Muslim voices raised in protest against the marriage of Islam and violence.

Coming back to the letter, there is something almost grotesque about offering an intellectual response to the barbarity of men who kill bystanders for faulty knowledge of liturgy. But that is only if we imagine that the audience of this letter is ISIS. It is not. The barbarity of ISIS is not a question of misguided hermeneutics. Rather, the letter is meant to be read by any Muslim who would find some appeal in the goals of ISIS. Terrorism experts know that most recruits to terrorist groups like ISIS are only minimally versed in religious knowledge and easily duped by ideological appeals. Radicalization is a process that takes time, strategy, money, and commitment. The group’s recruitment strategies are sophisticated and involve the expert use of social media like Facebook and Twitter. Whether appealing to the pocketbook (ISIS pays its mercenaries well), psychological needs (disaffection, the need to belong) or ideology, al-Baghdadi and his fighters make ample use of scriptural texts in their calls to arms, portraying their fight as a just war and a religious obligation. The open letter to al-Baghdadi takes this argument head-on. And the letter has another purpose: to show ordinary Muslims, who are as shattered and confounded by global terrorism as the rest of the world, that they are not alone.

While the letter is a necessary and well-intentioned step in the global fight against terrorism, I take issue with some aspects of the authors’ methodology. In their privileging of the hermeneutic of mercy, the authors gloss over some of the more problematic historical interpretations of the Qur’an, particularly in the realm of slavery and war. Like the Bible, which was used for centuries to justify the enslavement of other human beings, the Qur’an, too, has been used in the pre-modern era to drum up support for reprehensible practices like concubinage, aggressive warfare, and slavery. As al-Baghdadi cherry-picks his way through religious commentary, such arguments may provide fodder for his worldview. Scripture is not a clear how-to manual for every ethical question. Rather, its narrative ambiguities are meant to activate human conscience and give us space to perfect our moral compass. The Qur’an was used to justify slavery. It was also used to argue for manumission and emancipation. The choice is ours.