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Grace Eberly

Is ISIS Islamic? Maybe – why do you ask?

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, there has been a lot of talk about the Islamicity of ISIS. Columnist Grace Eberly explains why we need to rethink most of it.

This week, I had planned to write about the recent Starbucks red cup controversy. I was going to argue that both Christians and non-Christians have more important things about which to worry.

Then Friday, 129 innocent people were killed in Paris and finally, people stopped talking about the stupid paper cups.

As the details were pieced together, I said to myself, “Please don’t be ISIS.” It was ISIS. My heart is broken. My heart is broken for the terror those 129 men and women must have experienced in their final moments. My heart is broken for their families, friends and countrymen. My heart is broken for Paris. My heart is broken for Beirut and for Baghdad. My heart is broken for Muslims the world over, and my heart is broken for humanity.

In the days since the attacks, our public discourse has obsessively concentrated its efforts on answering one seemingly-pragmatic question: Is ISIS Islamic?

The response is polarized, with both the right and the left running in opposite directions. Of course there are a great many more opinions, but it is a tragic reality in our world that you are not listened to unless you scream or say something terribly provocative (read: offensive). On the one hand, I hear the common argument that ISIS’s “Radical Islamic Terrorism” is legitimized (if not mandated) by Islam’s textual tradition. Islam is, therefore, inherently violent and we should be necessarily suspicious of any and all Muslims. Conversely, I hear (from both many Muslims and many non-Muslims) that there is no “real” Islam to be found in ISIS. The jihadists either misunderstand or pervert the core tenants of Islam or are “hijacking” religion to further their abhorrent political, economic and/or militaristic agendas.

The question at hand can be spun another way: Is ISIS using political means to achieve a religious end? Or are they using religious means to achieve a political end? Disclaimer: I’m not particularly satisfied by either answer.

Is Islam peaceful or is it inherently violent?

Are these fair or useful questions to ask? And what do we gain by asking (and answering) them?

I want to argue that both polarized responses rely upon presumptive definitions of Islam that are monolithic, static and deny personal agency. If you are going to make either claim — that ISIS is or is not Islamic — you must first define what, in fact, Islam is. Is Islam submission to Allah? Is it a set of codified beliefs — an institution? Or is it a source of moral inspiration — a way of life? You may pick a definition of your choosing, but you will, for if nothing but the sake of brevity, omit some nuanced detail which you see as secondary to an understanding of “true” Islam. But perhaps you will meet a Muslim who finds this secondary element to be central to their Islam. Perhaps you will need to modify or in some way expand your definition. If your definition becomes all-encompassing, what’s the point in having any definition at all?

The act of defining (categorizing) is, I think, a very Western practice. What we fear most is something which is not easily assimilated into an extant category. ISIS is one of those things. In this way, perhaps our conclusions reveal more about us (the definers) than they do ISIS (the defined).

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And so, when we talk about ISIS and Islam let us avoid reductionist oversimplifications. Let us avoid falling into a simplistic “us” versus “them” mentality, which ignores the complexities of the Middle East — complexities which include legitimate grievances against Western imperialism. Let us not use these flawed definitions to guide the way we respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. And, most of all, let us avoid the seriously dangerous — if not lethal — combination of unchecked fear and self-righteousness.

Grace Eberly is a senior studying world religions and biology. Do you think that ISIS is Islamic? Email her at

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