Some 120 Muslim religious scholars this week published an open letter refuting the Islamic State’s claim to be a religious political movement, joining a series of high-profile condemnations of the extremist group by Islamic religious and political leaders.

The letter, signed by current and former grand muftis of Egypt, the former grand mufti of Bosnia, and the Nigerian Sultan of Sokoto, along with many other prominent Muslim leaders from around the world, offered a thorough, 24-point condemnation of the Islamic State’s behavior. But it still left the question of how a group that calls itself the “Islamic State” and uses religious scripture to justify its actions can possibly be described as not Islamic.

The answer is complex, but boils down to the fact that while the Islamic State is superficially and opportunistically Islamic, it owes at least as much to secular revolutionary ideologies as to its claimed religion, and borrows heavily from Western systems of organization and pop culture as well.

How ISIS Actually Works

In their “Open Letter to Baghdadi” the scholars – who hail from the Middle East, South Asia, Europe, Africa as well as North America – provide their own critical examination of the group’s practices from a purely theological standpoint.

According to their view, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is flagrantly un-Islamic in its behavior. ISIS’s treatment of women, religious minorities, non-combatants, as well as its employment of gratuitous violence and aggression, is found by the scholars to be fundamentally out of step with traditional Islamic belief and practice. In providing a thorough critique of the group’s behavior, the signatories note: “everything said here…reflects the opinions of the overwhelming majority of Sunni scholars over the course of Islamic history.”

This letter is only the latest in a string of ISIS condemnations by Islamic leaders and ordinary Muslims. But to casual observers, it raises the question of what the Islamic State actually is, if not a religiously grounded group earnestly trying to create a new Caliphate.

The answer starts with the fact that ISIS is at least superficially Islamic. Similar to any other belief system, Islam is not a monolith, but rather a discourse subject to interpretation. ISIS was created during the U.S. occupation of Iraq and revived by the brutality of the Assad regime. Unsurprisingly, its religious worldview is a merciless, fanatic and supremacist one.

But while their religious convictions are no doubt sincerely held, like extremists everywhere ISIS inevitably has a utilitarian view of religion which seeks to manipulate the norms of the prevailing society in order to win legitimacy for its actions. In Muslim-majority countries this means employing religious rhetoric and symbolism to help appeal to the local population. Making use of cherished political symbols like the Flag of the Prophet Muhammad and the historic Muslim Caliphate is simply one aspect of this strategy.

The group doesn’t just draw on Islam to win support. Just as ISIS makes use of concepts drawn from Islamic history, it also seeks to employ aspects of Western civilization and pop culture to attract adherents. Video game trailers, sophisticated filmography and glossy financial statements are only the most superficial part of this effort.

The very idea which ISIS embodies – a ruthless revolutionary vanguard using extreme violence to bring about a utopian society – is one drawn directly from 20th century European radical movements like Marxism-Leninism. People like Sayyid Qutb and Abul Ala Maududi who were the ideological founders of modern-day “radical Islam” were themselves hugely influenced by contemporary Western ideologies. Neither were religious scholars, but both ended up inspiring modern revolutionary movements which drew upon Islamic concepts.

ISIS’s Unlikely Antecedents

The behavior of radical groups such as ISIS therefore tends to have more in common with Mao’s Red Guards or the Khmer Rouge than it does with the Muslim empires of antiquity which they claim to be heirs to. In synthesizing aspects of both Western and Islamic civilization, the group has crafted a radical ideology which is distinctly modern despite its glorification of a pre-modern past. Recognizing this is the first step to negating the clash of civilizations narrative upon which they thrive.

In the eyes of most Muslims the Islamic State is as “Islamic” as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is “Democratic”. The Open Letter to Baghdadi is simply another example of the degree to which this violent, utopian project has been rejected by a broad consensus of Muslims around the world. From a Western perspective, it’s important to not play into ISIS’s hands by giving them the type of religious or political legitimacy they crave but otherwise do not possess.

At the end of the day Islam is what its adherents say it is, and if by and large they deem the “Islamic State” to be outside of the Islamic tradition it would be foolish and counterproductive to argue otherwise. In order to effectively fight this group, it’s important to amplify the voices of the vast majority of Muslims who are condemning them, instead of listening to those on both sides who insist that this is at heart a conflict between Islam and the West.

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