The question I am most often asked as a professor of Islamic Law is precisely how Islamic ISIS is. The matter came to the fore particularly after The Atlantic published an article on the subject a few months back, relying to a significant extent on Prof Haykel, and advancing the position that it was Islamic, rather than, to quote the article, “a collection of psychopaths”. Haykel is quoted in a slightly more strident form than this in the article, suggesting that Muslims who argue otherwise are “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion.”
I am no apologist for traditionalist fiqh, as any reader of this blog will know. So the cotton candy comment actually does resonate with me, as do the castigations of the liberal elite issued by the bete noir of many believing Muslims, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I’m always somewhat surprised by American liberals who are (like me) appalled by the positions of Rick Santorum or Ted Cruz on either birth control or the right of Christians to deny gay people pizza without realizing that Rick Santorum, by the standards of family law courts in Egypt and Iraq, is a radical progressive. I’ve never heard him say a wife’s primary marital obligation is to make herself available for her husband’s sexual enjoyment at any time of his choosing. And that’s the family court mantra in Arabic, borne of long tradition, sort of like an American contracts case beginning with “the purpose of contract law is to put the injured party in the position it would have been in had the contract been performed.” You start with that obvious statement and move forward from there to the particular facts of the case.
At the same time, as a believing Muslim myself, when Hirsi Ali ties this back to the Qur’an rather than to a deep and long patriarchal tradition in Islamic discourse (one effectively dissected by folks like Amina Wadud), or when we start talking about ISIS being Islamic, I have to balk. I’ll come back to Hirsi Ali another time, but on ISIS, it’s very, very hard to see how whatever it is doing is somehow “Islamic”. It’s not the medieval “caliphate.” Nor is it sensible to argue that any association of brigands who toss a flag up and say “caliphate” somehow earn that legitimacy, and with that the ability to describe all other entities challenging them as rebels and highway robbers in the Islamic tradition, thereby subjecting them to whatever convenient rules they can pull together from the juristic texts. If you can do that, then it’s just a free for all, the realization of the reductio ad absurdum challenge to the Realists that if all law is what the judges say, then who decides who the judges are? Surely only a world of massive political instability where law is effectively meaningless could accommodate this inherently nihilistic position. If that’s the position, then there is no Islam to speak of. That there is some historical resonance that attaches to some of their actions does not somehow avoid that core problem.
Let me try to illustrate by way of analogy. Suppose for a moment that due to political dysfunction, appalling corruption, and a renting of whatever social fabric once existed, a group of white supremacists manages, by force of arms, to invade the city of Boston, kidnap thousands of its black citizens, and kill those of its police force who didn’t flee when the supremacists arrived. Now if they start selling their kidnapping victims, and sending them places to make them go work in cotton fields, separating them from their families and whipping them when they don’t work enough–you tell me, is that “American”? Is it even the position of those who speak today of the Southern tradition or their Southern heritage? If not, why not? Because they don’t know about slavery and are too politically correct to admit it existed?
My own position would be that it is a cotton candy version of American history that denies a hypothetical dystopia of the sort above as having any resonance with any aspect of American history. And it is true that too many of us Muslims are unwilling are to confront the realities of our pasts, and for that matter the medieval juristic texts that still tend to be studied in seminaries throughout the Islamic world (and in which, I assure you, the ability to deny gay people pizza would be far far more progressive than anything those texts say). So yes, say we are embarrassed by our history, and say we are politically correct. And say we need radical reform. The accusation stings, because it is accurate.
But it might well be true of America as well. Not to the same extent perhaps (American children at least study the history of slavery) but we do live in a world where a small town cop actually thinks he can shoot a black man six times in the back and get away with it because, well because cops always seem to get away with it these days, don’t they? Yet ask white Americans, an astonishing number seem to think the society is basically race neutral at this point.
None of that makes my white supremacists some embodiment of a true “America”, simply because contemporary politics proved so bad that they could actually take over territory and enslave black people. And Muslim cotton candy doesn’t make ISIS Islamic for the same reason. Whatever change we need, the fact is that they’re still just a ragtag collection of psychopaths taking advantage of political instability through the clever and opportunistic use of Islamic vocabulary. Nothing more than that.