Scholars: ISIS Abhorent To Islam Followers

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Turkey-Syria Border Explosion
An explosion rocks Syrian city of Kobani during a reported suicide car bomb attack by the militants of Islamic State (ISIS) group on a People’s Protection Unit (YPG) position in the city center of Kobani, as seen from the outskirts of Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border in October. (Gokhan Sahin / Getty Images)
Middle East Syria Iraq Islamic State Bashar Assad Wars and Interventions Hartford Seminary
At Hartford Seminary, Islamic scholars discuss ISIS
HARTFORD — The so-called Islamic State, a brutal militia that has taken control of parts of Iraq and Syria and committed widespread atrocities, is “abhorrent to almost all followers of Islam,” an Islamic scholar told a gathering at the Hartford Seminary Thursday.

“Certainly what they are doing is against Islamic law,” said Professor Mahmoud Ayoub, who specializes in Christian-Muslim relations.

Ayoub was one of four seminary faculty members, three Muslims and one Syrian Christian, who took part in a seminar that sought to explain the Islamic State’s roots, influence and how it’s viewed in the Muslim world.

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, was founded in 1999 and grew after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the scholars said. The group began to take its present form after the Iraqi government released a large number of imprisoned Jihadists, including ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, they said.

ISIS expanded into Syria about three years ago as that country’s savage civil war worsened, they said.

Last spring, ISIS shocked the world by seizing much of northern Iraq from its base in Syria. The group then proclaimed the territory it controlled a new country called “The Islamic State” and imposed a harsh, puritanical rule it says is based on Sharia, Muslim religious law.

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The group declared their new nation “the caliphate,” the traditional name for past Muslim empires, and its leader al-Baghdadi the “caliph” or leader of all the world’s Muslims.

The group has dealt brutally with opponents, Shiite Muslims and minorities, including Christians and Yazidis, driving them from their homes and even massacring them if they refuse to convert to Islam.

Feryal Salem, an assistant professor of Islamic Scriptures and Law at Hartford Seminary, said that the Islamic State’s actions are deeply contrary to Islam and Islamic law. She cited a recent open letter signed by 150 eminent Islamic scholars that refutes point by point the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed religious underpinnings, including its use of the Koran and religious law to justify savagery, murder, forced conversions and its claim to have founded a caliphate.

Salem said that Islamic law is extremely complex and nuanced and requires years of study to master. She noted that few if any of the Islamic State’s leaders are religious scholars and blamed the rise of the group in part on the deterioration of the region’s education system. Ironically, she said, what may be needed is more religious training not less.

“A little religion can be dangerous in any tradition,” Salem said.

While dismissing the Islamic State as contrary to Islam, Ayoub said that extremism has always been a problem in the religion. He noted that Islam is unique among faiths in that it was founded as both a religion and a state. The ideal was a balance between the two, with the state remaining in ultimate control, he said.

But from Islam’s earliest beginnings, some have challenged that balance and sought to impose brutal theocracies, Ayoub said. He cited one group early in Islamic history that acted much like ISIS, trying to found a theocracy and killing all those who resisted or disagreed with it.

“My view is the action of ISIS is not unique,” Ayoub said. “Extremism appears in every epoch of Islam.”

Timu Yuskaev, assistant professor of contemporary Islam at the seminary, blamed nationalism for the rise of the Islamic State. The group has won converts and support by falsely turning Islam into a form of nationalism, creating what he called a strange vision of nation building, he said. That message has an appeal for Muslim minorities in Europe and elsewhere that feel like outsiders in those societies, said Yuskaev, who studies such groups.

“If you are constantly told, ‘You are not French, you are not French, you are not French,’ you will look for an alternative,” Yuskaev said. “They can rationalize it any way they want because they are not there. If they go there, the realities are brutal.”

Najib Awad, associate of professor of Christian theology at the seminary and Syrian Christian, called himself “an intellectual soldier in the Syrian revolution.” He blamed the rise of ISIS on the brutality of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

As the country’s civil war escalated, Assad’s forces left ISIS alone and killed indiscriminately, Awad said. ISIS has won territory simply by promising not kill anyone as long as they did and believed what the group wants, he said.

“It’s a matter of life and death,” Awad said.

Now, the Assad government is using the fear of ISIS to stay in power, Awad said. The current policy of attacking ISIS will fail unless it also comes to include bringing down Assad, he said.

“The Assad regime is kept alive by ISIS,” Awad said. “If you ask the Syrian people, they will tell you ISIS and the regime are the threat.”

Yuskaev noted the well-known story of Secretary of State Colin Powell warning President George Bush that he would “own” Iraq if he “broke it,” suggesting that ISIS is a result of America breaking the nation.

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