November 6, 2014
Pens, Swords and the Ideology of ISIS
By Nihad Awad
Executive Director, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)

Bombs will not eliminate the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The most advanced militaries in the world have bombed Al Qaeda for more than a decade, and while members of that terror group may be routed and generally in hiding, they live.

I believe two elements are crucial to ridding the world of ISIS’s horror.

First, any serious unwinding of ISIS’s virulent ideology must incorporate justice. Islam’s Prophet Muhammad put justice in a nutshell with these words: “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” I think anyone looking at Iraq and Syria today will not see circumstances they would wish for themselves.

Syria’s Assad regime operated essentially unchecked for three years as it exterminated its own civilians. In August 2014, the United Nations estimated that more than 191,000 people had been killed in Syria’s civil war.

More recently, the UN’s refugee agency concluded that “almost half of all Syrians have been forced to abandon their homes and flee for their lives.” In the United States, this is equal to war displacing every person in California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, and Michigan.

When the Assad regime gassed its own civilians, the world community insisted only on taking away the weapons of mass destruction. That odd response is similar to punishing a murderer by taking away one of his guns.

Similarly, in Iraq, the West turned a blind eye as the Maliki government abandoned equal treatment of its citizens in favor of a sectarian model.

The international community ignored Syria and Iraq as people were denied life, liberty, equality under the law, and other fundamental human rights. This fostered an environment in which ISIS could rise. In both nations, we have seen some people embrace ISIS because it presented a way out from ill treatment at the hands of the Assad or Maliki regimes.

For the international community, the solution going forward is to put our principles above politics. We must always place justice and the things we wish for ourselves over political expediency. We cannot delay for three years or turn a blind eye. We must act. When the world projects the best of its principles, it is a better place and fewer bombs are needed.

Second, Western media has an important role to play in denying ISIS legitimacy.

Healthy Islamic responses to ISIS’s religious corruption abound.

Recently, more than 120 international scholars of Islam and Muslim leaders, myself included, wrote an open letter to the head of ISIS refuting the group’s ideology.

Such positive actions rarely get prime coverage. Instead, ISIS, Al Qaeda, and their ideological allies have dominated coverage of Islam in the West for more than a decade.

What impact does this have?

Consider this: According to the FBI, there were 14,827 homicides in the United States in 2012. That same year, there were 84,376 reported cases of forcible rape. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that more than one-third of American women have suffered from domestic abuse.

Imagine if a foreign news organization focused exclusively on these statistics to paint a false image of the United States as a place of violence and abuse.

Such a skewed picture is clearly going to impact perceptions, and ISIS is all about controlling perceptions of its “brand.”

Let’s go further by considering two options Western media have before them:

1) Overwhelming coverage of beheadings and other war porn produced by a tiny minority, accompanied by news anchors labeling ISIS as a group of “jihadists” and “Islamists.”

2) Overwhelming coverage of the vast majority of worldwide Muslim leadership rejecting ISIS and its false interpretations of Islam.

Which do you think ISIS prefers? Which do you think furthers its propaganda goals?

Every reference to ISIS as the “Islamic State” or to its members as “jihadists” boosts its brand.

For instance, to Muslims, the term “jihad” means a struggle against evil inclinations within oneself, a struggle to improve the quality of life in society, a struggle in the battlefield for self-defense (e.g., having a standing army for national defense), or fighting against tyranny or oppression.

ISIS’s core message is not Islamic. It is a political message improperly couched in Islamic terminology. I say improper because, as evidenced by the overwhelming rejection of ISIS by Islamic scholars, no faith sanctions its atrocities. Instead of misusing Islamic terminology, Western media should refer to ISIS as a criminal organization.

These two elements – justice, and a media willing to deny violent extremists a pulpit – are often missing from discussions on ridding the world of ISIS’s corruption. It is time to change that.

Nihad AwadNihad Awad is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim advocacy group in the United States. Awad also served on Vice President Al Gore’s Civil Rights Advisory Panel to the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security.