Pitfalls of Comparing the Terrorist Crimes of ISIS With Crimes of Other Religions
American writer Susan Jacoby wrote a very interesting article for The New York Times about the crimes of the Crusades. She cited the valuable contribution of James Carroll in his book, “Constantine’s Sword.” Jacoby intended to compare this horrific chapter in the church’s history to the crimes being committed by ISIS. But, is that method useful, or does it do more harm than good?
Some well-meaning leftists have trouble understanding and explaining ISIS’ crimes. The horror of the images produced by their scary propagandists has spread around the world. ISIS takes its terrorist mission very seriously. Terror is an end of itself, and is often unrelated to the mission. Some will counter by saying that ISIS aims at establishing and broadening the scope of the caliphate. But does anyone really think that ISIS, as delusional as its leaders are, is considering seriously the project of including the US and Europe in the borders of their precarious caliphate? Why would ISIS wish to also terrorize the citizens of Europe, the US and clearly the rest of the world? ISIS possesses certain theatrical qualities; the theatrics are not less important than the caliphate, although they don’t seem to be winning new converts to their cause. ISIS is not a global movement but a localized movement that operates inside Syria and Iraq (or even in Lebanon), but only on the basis of local issues based on the exploitation of sectarian grievances — real or imagined.
But the attempt by Susan Jacoby and others to remind Westerners about the long-forgotten history of crimes of Christianity or Judaism may not in fact help improve Western rhetoric about Islam and Muslims. The invocation of religious analogies unwittingly helps to provide religious — not political — legitimacy to ISIS. No matter what anti-Islam bigots maintain — and this is reflected in the recent ISIS article in the Atlantic Monthly — one should insist that ISIS not be analyzed or discussed within the framework of Islam, even if the intention is to absolve Islam from responsibility for ISIS. Similarly, no one dares — and no one should — discuss Israeli war crimes in the context of Judaism, as such an invocation would be viewed as a manifestation of anti-Semitism.
ISIS is a non-state actor engaging in criminal terrorist activities. It uses religious slogans, but is comprised of a variety of previously non-religious criminals, gangs, and war thugs from Syria. Religion is their language and the framework for their theatrics. The fact that no one among mainstream and less mainstream Muslims takes the discourse of ISIS seriously is a sign that ISIS is feared but not believed. So if one wants to make an analogy between the crimes of ISIS and the crimes of other entities, one does not need to go back in history to dig out the scenes of the crimes of the Crusades. ISIS is more a modern phenomenon and not a historical movement in Islam. It is more related to the world of the wars that were generated by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The crimes against civilians by ISIS should be instead compared to the crimes of the American armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan (or to Israel although ISIS and the jihadist terrorists don’t seem to be concerned about Israeli crimes, which raises a lot of questions in Muslim minds about the agenda and sponsors of ISIS). The orange prison uniform of ISIS’ prisoners was not ordained by the Qur’an, obviously.
Many critics of the American and Western policies in Syria from 2011 warned of deadly consequences of the glamorization and romanticization of a Syrian “revolution” that didn’t exist. Western governments provided Jihadi recruits with the licences to travel and operate in the Syrian non-revolution. It was only after it became too obvious that the Syrian rebels were largely comprised of Jihadi terrorists that Western governments (and the Gulf sponsors of those Jihadis) changed course. But Islam should not be part of the discussion about ISIS. Indeed, politically, the Saudi royal family and its policies and vision are more relevant.
Dr. As’ad AbuKhalil is a Professor of Political Science at California State University, Stanislaus, a lecturer and the author of The Angry Arab News Service. He tweets @asadabukhalil
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