Columns, Opinion

THADANI: ISIS and Islam: Bad Apples and Oranges

When I asked a Boston University student from the Islamic Society of BU how he feels about ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, committing barbaric actions in the name of the Islamic faith, an ideology he holds dear, he said it was simply irrelevant to him.

“It [ISIS] is not based on the Quran. It’s based on arrogance and human indecency,” Asim, who only wanted to be mentioned by his nickname, said. “It’s common sense. We [Muslims] shouldn’t have to publicly condemn it. It should just be obvious.”

The barbarianism and the lack of human decency this group practices are obvious. However, I’ve found that the logistics, motives and patterns are not. As someone who has followed the news around ISIS since it came to the international spotlight over the summer, I can’t pretend to know even half of the information there is to know about it, or act like my education gives me the right to prescribe a solution.

Given the recent beheading on Friday of Alan Henning, a British taxi driver who was delivering aid to Syria when he was kidnapped by ISIS in December 2013, I wanted to hear a different perspective on the group aside from the politicians and analysts. It’s one thing to hear a professional opinion, but it’s also important to hear the perspective of people who are more identifiable to the every day person, such as Asim and his friend Khan, another member of ISBU who asked to only be identified by her middle name.

“We’re not the people who are really affected,” Khan said, who mentioned at one point how lucky we were to be comfortably sitting in the George Sherman Union talking about such sensitive issues without the worry of being bombed. “It’s really those people living in those areas, who are unable to safely go about their day-to-day activities, where the attention should be focused.”

Very matter-of-factly and with a slight hint of annoyance at how much they have been asked about this issue, both Asim and Khan agreed that the virtues ISIS preaches are so far removed from the Islamic faith that they can’t even be compared with each other — bad apples and oranges, if you may. If anything, Asim said, ISIS is just a global politics issue and has nothing to do with his Islamic faith.

In a documentary I watched by VICE News Monday, titled “The Islamic State,” the journalist captured firsthand footage of the relentless and barbaric nature of this group through ride-alongs and military bombings. Aside from the obvious turmoil this group was shown to cause to their country, one of the most horrifying parts was the numerous clips of young boys eagerly and robotically extolling the virtues of the group.

“I swear to God, we will divide America in two. And we will divide the enemies of the religion, all of them, all who fought the Islamic State… [ISIS] will remain until the end of the world,” a young boy preached with a ferocious confidence of the destruction he planned to cause in “the name of Allah.”

This anger and lack of reverence for outsiders, Asim said, seems like a byproduct of what’s happened in the Middle East in the last decade. With the constant bombings and fear many civilians have been subjected to, it wouldn’t be surprising if many didn’t know any better.

“Islam isn’t inherently like that,” he said. “They’ve been traumatized for the last decade. … Obviously there’s going to be some sort of retaliation.”

For many people, and me, the first thing that comes to mind when ISIS is mentioned is the Aug. 19 beheading of journalist James Foley. Not just because there have been three replicated beheading videos by ISIS since then, but because, as someone who watched the video all the way through, the image of Foley’s detached and bloody head is an image one just cannot shake. The resonance of this image is a testament to how this group has unfortunately succeeded in instilling fear in people seemingly detached from the issue — such as myself.

The idea that people have been committing these barbaric acts on the other side of the world for decades, and the only reason sheltered people like myself are aware of the true extent now is because of the available technology, is incredibly unsettling and brings me back to a conversation I had with a veteran war reporter the other day at work.

When I was giving him my glamorized spiel of how I one day wanted to do the type of boundless reporting he had done in the past, he smirked at my naivety and said foreign reporting is an honorable and fulfilling field to go into if I can distinguish myself enough and acquire the right kind of training. Then he abruptly asked me if I had seen the video of Foley’s beheading. Shuddering at the thought again, I said yes.

“Good,” he said. “If you want to go into this field, you need to get used to watching stuff like that. I’ve seen several.”


  1. A beheading in Woolwich, a suicide bomb in Beijing, a blown-up marathon in Boston, a shooting in the head of a young Pakistani girl seeking education, a destroyed shopping mall in Nairobi – and so it continues, in the name of Islam, from south London to Timbuktu. It is time to take stock, especially on the left, since these things are part of the world’s daily round.
    Leave aside the parrot-cry of “Islamophobia” for a moment. I will return to it. Leave aside, too, the pretences that it is all beyond comprehension. “Progressives” might ask instead: what do Kabul, Karachi, Kashmir, Kunming and a Kansas airport have in common? Is it that they all begin with “K”? Yes. But all of them have been sites of recent Islamist or, in the case of Kansas, of wannabe-Islamist, attacks; at Wichita Airport planned by a Muslim convert ready to blow himself up, and others, “in support of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”. “We cannot stop lone wolves,” a British counterterrorism expert told us after Woolwich. Are they “lone”? Of course not.
    A gas facility in southern Algeria, a hospital in Yemen, an Egyptian police convoy in the Sinai – it’s complex all right – a New Year’s party in the southern Philippines, a railway station in the Caucasus, a bus terminal in Nigeria’s capital, and on and on, have all been hit by jihadis, with hostages taken, suicide belts detonated, cars and trucks exploded, and bodies blown to bits. And Flight MH370? Perhaps. In other places – in Red Square and Times Square, in Jakarta and New Delhi, in Amman and who-knows-where in Britain – attacks have been thwarted. But in 2013 some 18 countries got it in the neck (so to speak) from Islam’s holy warriors….

  2. Islam is indeed a crime against humanity, and its first victims are Muslims. I think that is why Muslims are so quick and ready to assume victimhood. On a subconscious level, they feel victimized, but in their search for the cause of their discomfort they incorrectly identify colonialism, crusades, Jews, racism, and so forth as the cause.
    For a Muslim to face up to the reality of Islam and to admit to oneself that Islam is the problem means to lose one’s identity. Hence the cognitive dissonance Muslims experience when Islam is called into question. Hence the scrambling for excuses and explanations that can convince the Muslims themselves that Islam is not the problem. And the explanations tend to be colonialism, crusades, Jews, racism, and so forth.
    When cultural Muslims refer to spurious arguments by Islamic apologists as a counterargument to brush aside direct quotes from the Qur’an and the hadiths, it is not that they are deliberately trying to to deceive the non-Muslims. They are desperately clinging to the hope that Islam is not the problem. When they repeat the talking points of Islamic apologists explaining how Islam is a religion of peace, their primary aim is to convince (delude) themselves and make the cognitive dissonance go away at least momentarily, which then removes the immediate threat to their identity and postpones the inevitable confrontation.
    Unlike most of the Muslim world, Turkey is a country where, thanks to militantly secularist strains, there are more Muslims who are not completely enslaved by their Muslim identity. That gives slightly more breathing space for the individual to break the chains of Islam. Nonetheless, it still means you have to turn your back on large parts of your cultural heritage and family. Families in any culture have members who seek to enforce tradition. In Muslim cultures the conservative members of the family are enforcers of Muslim identity, which brings along with it the whole can of worms that is the Qur’an and the hadiths.