By Felipe Bueno
The terror of the Islamic State group ’s Salafi jihadism can be felt globally, whether it be the suicide bombing of two Shia mosques in Yemen resulting in 142 deaths, mass beheadings in Libya, or the downing of a Russian plane flying from Egypt to Saint Petersburg that killed 224 civilians.
Dr. Bernard Freamon, professor of law at Seton Hall University School of Law, said in an interview with The Diplomatic Envoy that many scholars argue that religion is inherently neutral, neither violent nor peaceful. If this is true, how can an “Islamic state” be so committed to such violent acts?
The answer is that ISIS is simply an organization that only claims to be Islamic, using select Islamic literature to justify its actions. Professor Freamon said ISIS “primarily relies on two sources of Islamic law to justify the homicidal actions of its members: selected verses of the Quran and selected hadith, which are accounts of events in the life of the Prophet Muhammad.”
He argues that these passages “cannot be read outside the historical context,” and that stripping these passages of context ignores the contemporary reality, the complexity of textual interpretation, and the importance of understanding progress in jurisprudence.
The most commonly cited verse used by Salafi jihadists for justification is the fifth verse of the ninth sura of the Quran, commonly known as the Verse of the Sword. When taken with a conservative and traditionalist approach, the verse “suggests that the Islamic community is in a permanent state of religious war with nonbelievers,” according to Dr. Freamon. Salafi jihadists claim this verse to be binding and mandatory, using it to recruit new members who have a very limited knowledge of Quranic studies. By ignoring historical context, they are able to persuade new members that Islam calls for a continuous war with whomever they deem to be takfiri (an Arabic term for apostates).
Dr. Freamon said that a very important – but often withheld — contextual fact is that the prophet himself pursued the more diplomatic methods of compromise, treaty-making, and forgiveness. By using select scriptures, ISIS has created a distorted version of Islam, free from reasoned interpretation of scriptures, which Freamon considered a critical aspect of religious law in general, and especially Islamic law.
“The very concept of being a Muslim is opposed to the idea that the believer is like a donkey or an automaton when confronted with text,” Dr. Freamon said.
In addition to select Quranic verses, the Islamic State uses three pieces of non-Quranic literature to strategize and justify their actions: The Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Jihad by Abu Abdullah Muhajjer; The Essentials of Making Ready (for Jihad) by Sayyid Imam Sharif; and The Management of Savagery, written under a pseudonym by the Islamic State’s caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
While the three books vary in content, three ideological similarities are present in all of them with the goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate. The first similarity, reports The Los Angeles Times, is the command to begin an “all-out war and advocate performing offensive jihad as opposed to only defensive jihad, in order to bleed the kuffar (infidels), or the enemies of Islam, thus creating chaos and fear,” heeded in 2014 when ISIS began its campaign to invade Iraq. This serves a double purpose: to capture more land, and to “create and manage nationalist and religious resentment and violence in order to create long-term propaganda opportunities for jihadist groups,” reports The New Yorker.
The second idea present in the books is the focus of jihad on both the “near enemy” (local Muslims and states) and the “far enemy” (the United States and its European allies), and focusing its attacks on any person or state that does not apply sharia law.
In an interview with The Diplomatic Envoy about the Islamic State’s military strategy, Dr. Sara Moller, assistant professor at the School of Diplomacy, said: “ISIS is all about the near enemy. It can’t exist unless it tackles that enemy. Of course, its focus on the near enemy doesn’t mean it isn’t also a threat to the international community but it does mean the nature of the threat to the U.S. (and its interests in the region) were more ‘over the horizon.’ ”
The final step of establishing a caliphate, writes Baghdadi, is carrying out a campaign of constant violent attacks in Muslim states. The Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar reports that ISIS does this to “exhaust their [enemy’s] ability and will to enforce their authority, and that as the writ of the state withers away, chaos — or ‘savagery’ — will ensue. Jihadists can take advantage of this savagery to win popular support, or at least acquiescence, by implementing security, providing social services, and imposing Sharia. As these territories increase, they can become the nucleus of a new caliphate.”
Although the Islamic State’s antagonizing of fellow Muslims does not make strategic sense, Dr. Moller said that ISIS has systematically targeted member of the Shiite sect, whom they see as takfiri.
Dr. Moller said that unlike Al Qaeda, who “was worried the Sunni-Shia struggle would hurt their standing in the Muslim world,” ISIS doesn’t seem to care, as they are “committed ideologically to a sectarian war.”
This is not the first time that a group has tried to establish a caliphate. Dr. Freamon mentioned that ISIS “frequently cites to examples from early Islamic imperial history, especially the history of the first two hundred years of the Abbasid Caliphate. Many of these legal and historico-legal justifications can be found in articles published in the group’s online magazine, Dabiq,” but he notes that “these are historical precedents, not legal precedents.”
But in order to be a caliphate, the group must first be recognized as a sovereign state. Dr. Moller said that ISIS cannot be considered a state because it does not fit the definition that most political scientists have agreed upon: a state must have territoriality, sovereignty, recognition by other states, and a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.
While ISIS “is a political entity with territory, its territory is increasingly under siege. It clearly exerts control within portions of that territory but it is does not practice legitimate use of force in the way we typically think of it. Nor is it recognized as a state by other states,” Dr. Moller said.
When asked about the Islamic State’s potential longevity, Dr. Moller believes that ISIS will be an enduring problem for the foreseeable future. “Whether in their current shape or some new form, the ideology is here to stay,” she said.
Similar groups have unfortunately been able to survive in some form or another — ISIS itself evolved form Al Qaeda.
How should the international community combat the Islamic State’s ideology? Dr. Freamon believes that teaching Islam is a good way to start showing the world that the Islamic State’s version of Islam and jihad is “perverted, distorted, short-sighted, and hypocritical.”
From a legal standpoint, Dr. Freamon said that ISIS must also be held accountable for crimes against humanity by “progressive Muslims who must seek to bring an enlightened understanding of Islamic law to the populations that ISIS seeks to control.”