How does Islamic State justify its atrocities in name of Islam? (McClatchy Washington Bureau)

WASHINGTON — Muslims across the globe have condemned the Islamic State’s blood lust, calling the extremist group’s tactics forbidden under Islam and an affront to humanity. So how do zealots claiming to represent a pure and true Islam square their actions with traditional Islamic law?
They cherry-pick Quranic verses out of context, apply the most rigid interpretations of jurisprudence and excuse just about any brutality by saying they’re waging a defensive jihad on behalf of aggrieved Muslims worldwide, according to Jocelyne Cesari, a renowned scholar of Islam who’s part of Secretary of State John Kerry’s working group on faith and foreign policy.
Cesari directs the “Islam in the West” program at Harvard University and leads the Berkley Center’s Islam and World Politics program at Georgetown University. Here, in remarks that have been edited for clarity or space, she explains how the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, distorts traditional teachings to justify actions that have shocked the world.
Q: Are the Islamic State’s brutal tactics permitted in Islam?
A: In the traditional Islamic theory of war, there were clear limits. The ruler had to declare jihad and you had to follow certain protocols as far as notifying your enemy and giving ultimatums. And when you waged war, there were limits to the violence: No women, no children, no priests could be attacked. It was forbidden to attack priests because you couldn’t set out to defeat an entire faith. And you couldn’t destroy the land, so not even the eradication of trees was allowed.
Q: So what changed?
A: There are two main reasons for the decline of traditional Islam: the nationalization of Islam after the fall of the Ottoman empire, and the globalization of what had been nationalist jihadist projects.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, state rulers built nations and absorbed religious entities, turning Islam into a state institution. And when you receive your khutba (Friday sermon) by fax or, now, by email from the state, the young people won’t listen. That’s when ISIS can say: “We are not the state. We are different.”
Afghanistan was also a turning point, because fighters globalized jihad and broadened the targets from political powers to anyone the fighters considered a tool of or obedient to an un-Islamic system. They consider jihad a duty for all Muslims — they don’t believe in waiting for a ruler to declare it — and there is no mercy for those who don’t participate.
Al-Qaida’s response to news that Muslims died in the 9/11 attacks was: “Tough luck. They were there and not fighting so they were legitimate targets.”
Q: What religious grounding does the Islamic State give for its atrocities?
A: They say they’re in survival mode. They believe that conditions for Muslims today are a danger to your soul as a Muslim. They don’t see their jihad as an attack; they see it as defensive jihad.
ISIS is a totalitarian project — like the Nazis or the Communists — where everyone must think the same, dress the same, act the same. If you want to understand it, don’t look at Islam. Look at totalitarian regimes.
Q: We’ve seen medieval punishments — beheadings, stonings — still used in some Muslim theocracies. But how does the Islamic State justify burning alive the captive Jordanian pilot?
A: A burning is like a sacrifice. It’s about more than killing the enemy; it’s about destroying them, reducing them to ashes. And I think the fact that he was Muslim had something to do with it. They were going to send a message.
Because they don’t see him as Muslim, his body couldn’t even remain as a Muslim body and be buried because, in their vision, he has to be completely destroyed.
Q: How does the Islamic State get around Islam’s prohibitions on fornication when fighters take Yazidi and other women captives as sex slaves?
A: They pick and choose references, but mainly they get around it by declaring these women “spoils of war.” They are possessions; they aren’t suitable for wives. But they don’t consider it fornication. It’s just continuing their project, giving relief to the fighters and producing children for the caliphate. The body of a woman becomes a weapon.
Q: Can the United States really carry through on a pledge to “degrade and defeat” the Islamic State through its bombing campaign?
A: It has to be done, obviously, but it’s not sufficient. They can defeat it in Iraq or Syria, but they cannot degrade it, because if this strong world vision is not addressed, it will always find ground. You might see it next in Yemen, Libya and the Sinai.
Addressing it has to be an international effort that looks at education, history, social media, Internet, and finds out how young people are getting in touch with their Islam. And the U.S. attempting to challenge jihadist discourse online is ridiculous. It doesn’t work. It has to come from young people here.
Q: A lot of the Salafi/Wahhabi propaganda that jihadists build on comes from Saudi Arabia. Why doesn’t the United States call out its ally for exporting a dangerous, intolerant brand of Islam?
A: There are many geopolitical reasons. And it’s not just Saudi Arabia. We all know that there are elements of the Pakistani government working with the jihadists. But U.S. officials choose the short term over the long term.
In Saudi Arabia, they propagate this theology of intolerance. The basis of the Saudi model of Wahhabism is rejection, exclusion. And they have succeeded in being present in all debates on Islam. They still believe that jihad is to be waged by the ruler, but what the Saudis don’t acknowledge is the diffusion of these ideas.
There was a combination of that Saudi theology with the techniques coming from the jihad in Egypt — this was the alliance between al-Qaida leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri (who founded al-Qaida in Iraq, the Islamic State’s predecessor).
Q: A non-Muslim American might have nice Muslim American neighbors who go to the mosque, serve their community, mind their own business. And the non-Muslim probably wonders: How can my friend and an ISIS fighter read the same text and come to such divergent interpretations? How do you respond?
A: You don’t read a text without context. A person is not a blank page; there are influences from family, culture, traditions.
I was in South Africa for a conference on redefining political Islam and there were Muslims there who fought apartheid on the Mandela side. They said, “We’re really troubled that some of the same verses we used against apartheid are now used by the most radical people to justify their acts.”
In an online forum, a young Muslim asked: Can I celebrate birthdays? The Salafi response would be: “Did the prophet celebrate birthdays in Medina? No. So you can’t.” The more traditional response would be: “Is there anything in the celebration of a birthday that violates Islam? The answer is no, so you can celebrate.”
The Quran and the hadith (collected sayings of Prophet Muhammad) are the tools of the tradition, but they are not the content. The content is the human work.
Cesari is a world-renowned scholar of Islam who directs the “Islam in the West” program at Harvard University and leads the Berkley Center’s Islam and World Politics program at Georgetown University. Last year, Cambridge University Press published her most recent book, “The Islamic Awakening: Religion, Democracy and Modernity,” which was based on three years of research in Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan and Tunisia.