What ISIS really is: Sham Muslims, real criminals (COMMENTARY)

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Militant Islamist fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. Militant Islamist fighters held a parade in Syria's northern Raqqa province to celebrate their declaration of an Islamic "caliphate" after the group captured territory in neighboring Iraq, a monitoring service said. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Stringer 
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-LAWRENCE-COLUMN, transmitted on February 25, 2015.

Militant Islamist fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. Militant Islamist fighters held a parade in Syria's northern Raqqa province to celebrate their declaration of an Islamic "caliphate" after the group captured territory in neighboring Iraq, a monitoring service said. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Stringer *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-LAWRENCE-COLUMN, transmitted on February 25, 2015.

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(RNS) ISIS offers a version of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad that few Muslims would recognize or honor. Like many Christian charlatans, ISIS dresses itself up in all the panoply of true religion.

  • Larry

    There is a kernal of something of value here which was largely glossed over
    “As Juan Cole, a sage blogger, put it, “very large numbers of ISIS are just criminals who mouth pious slogans. The volunteers from other countries often have a gang past. They engage in drug and other smuggling and in human trafficking and delight in mass murder. They are criminals and sociopaths.””

    Mr. Cole’s article tells us more about ISIS than any religious studies professor will be able to tell.

    “That ISIL falls into the category of the destructive cult explains why the formal establishments (“churches”) of the Muslim world reject it. Scholars at Al-Azhar Seminary, the foremost institution of clerical authority in the Sunni Muslim world, and other Muslim establishments condemn it roundly, just as the Episcopal Church rather frowned on the actions of the Branch Davidians. Mainstream Muslims are outraged at allegations that the gratuitous brutality and grandstanding bloodthirstiness of ISIL can be traced to their “church.”

    Wood controversially asserted in his article for The Atlantic, “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” This assertion is theological, not sociological. No social scientist would say, “The reality is that the Ku Klux Klan is Christian. Very Christian.” If what Wood meant to say was that ISIL is a Muslim cult rather than a Buddhist one, that assertion is uncontroversial. If he means that Islam has an essence, of which ISIL partakes or indeed that ISIL is a natural outcome of the alleged Islamic essence, then he is speaking as a medieval Platonist, not as a contemporary social scientist.”

  • Eliyahu

    You really should change the headline, because “Sham” is Arabic for the Levant… as in Islamic State in the Levant. So IS are literally Sham muslims, making this an unintentionally hilarious article.

  • The Great God Pan

    Yes, yes. We’ve already heard it. No true Scotsman. Of course, of course. Thanks for sharing Are you guys boring yourselves yet? I’m definitely bored.

  • If someone shouts “Allahu Akbar” as they:
    “Slay the infidel wherever we find him” (Surah 9:2)
    Then I’m going to call that a religious action.

    If a religious extremist wants to shout “Allahu Akbar” while they are throwing flowers and candy, I’ll be happy to call that religious also.

    Unfortunately, only the deadly actions need some kind of religion.

  • Larry

    This is why The Juan Cole article I linked to is much more informative.

    ISIS is a violent cult. As if the Branch Davidians had tanks. People who take a religious belief and turn it into something used to justify nastiness. The discussions about “How Muslim is ISIS?” are a waste of time. They consider themselves Muslim. Plenty of Muslims do not agree with their views. They represent Islam the same way the KKK represents Christianity. Meaning they do, but a very nasty strain of it.

  • Fourth Valley

    Surah 9:2 “So travel freely, O disbelievers, throughout the land during four months but know that you cannot cause failure to Allah and that Allah will disgrace the disbelievers.”

    Would you like to try again?? 😛

  • Like many Christian charlatans, ISIS dresses

    Oh, I get it. ISIS is just like Al Sharpton and the Church of What’s Happening Now.

    You all are really straining at this.

  • Jim C

    The following verses from Islam’s book, the Qur’an, reveals the truth of ISIS; it is definitely pure Islam.

    Fight those from among the People of the Book* [translator’s footnote: * Jews and Christians] who do not believe in Allah and the Last Day, do not forbid what Allah and His Messenger have forbidden and do not profess the true religion, till they pay the poll tax out of hand and submissively (chapter 9 vs.29).
    Those who believe fight for the cause of Allah, and those who disbelieve fight on the behalf of the Devil (chapter 4 vs.76).
    Fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them see how harsh you can be (chapter 9 vs.123).
    O Prophet, fight the unbelievers and the hypocrites and be stern with them. Their abode is Hell (chapter 9 vs.73).
    O Prophet, urge the believers to fight (chapter 8 vs.65).
    You shall find others who wish to be secure from you and secure from their own people; yet, whenever they are called back to sedition* [translator’s footnote: *polytheism] they plunge into it. If these do not keep away from you, nor offer you peace, nor hold their hands back, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them. Those, We [Allah] have given you clear authority over (chapter 4 vs.91).
    Indeed, the punishment of those who fight Allah and His Messenger and go around corrupting the land is to be killed, crucified. O believers, fear Allah and seek the means to win His Favor. Fight in His way so that you may prosper (chapter 5 vs.33,35).
    O Prophet, struggle with the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and deal harshly with them (chapter 66 vs.9).
    Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah and those who are with him are hard on the unbelievers (chapter 48 vs.29).
    When you meet the unbelievers, strike their necks till you have bloodied them (chapter 47 vs.4).
    Allah has bought from the believers their lives and their wealth in return for Paradise; they fight in the Way of Allah, kill and get killed (chapter 9 vs.111).
    Whoever fights in the Way of Allah and is killed or conquers, We shall accord him a great reward (chapter 4 vs.74).

    Islam’s Qur’anic directives are to conquer the world by force, and according to the Qur’an, Muslims are allowed to be deceptive to gain converts.
    This professor and many others who give credence to Islam have not done their homework.

  • Larry

    So that makes the Klan and Branch Davidians pure Christians:

    1 Timothy 2:12, in which the saint says: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she must be silent.”

    1 Samuel 15:3: “This is what the Lord Almighty says … ‘Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’ ”

    Psalm 137, “Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us / He who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”

    Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.” (1 Peter 2:18)

    Prepare slaughter for his sons because of the guilt of their fathers, lest they rise and possess the earth, and fill the face of the world with cities.”
    (Isaiah 14:21)

    They warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every male. (Numbers 31:7)
    Yes scripture dumps are not very helpful when describing an entire faith.

    Why shouldn’t Muslims react to your quotes the way many Christians react to Atheist Max’s quotes?

  • James Carr

    Why do we nitpick about the legitimacy of ISIS representing true Islam? Let’s just root them out and destroy them. I could care less about the religious yammering that they spout, the group is a murderous ISLAMIC sect……..let’s rid the world of it and instill fear in any future animals of their ilk.

  • Jim C

    Larry, what does this have to do with the Klan, Branch Davidians, or Christians? Why all your quotes from the Bible? The topic was whether ISIS is Islamic. Your comment makes me think you have a hate on for the Bible or Christians. It is not Christians who are beheading women and children today, it is the followers of Islam. Notice that those “Christian reactions” you speak of are not death threats. Were you or I to make these kind of comments in a Muslim country we would be in danger for our lives.

  • Fourth Valley

    Oh hey!!

    It looks like you’re using the Wahabi sect’s translation of the Koran, a translation widely condemned by every Muslim sect except the Wahabi (the extremist sect that controls Saudi Arabia)

    I’d advise being more careful with the translations you acquire, since what you’re using right now has been twisted into Saudi propaganda.

  • Fourth Valley

    What about that Christian who shot up the Sikh Temple a few towns over from where I live??

    Or the one who killed seventy seven people in Norway just two years back??

  • Fourth Valley

    ‘Cause to rid the world of them we need to take out the root of the problem. By “nitpicking” IE showing the very basic ways in which the IS violates Sharia Law, we can remove their justification of being an “Islamic” group. Without credibility as “Islamic”, they can’t use religious justifications as a recruiting tool.

    “[Ridding] the world of it and instill fear” hasn’t worked so far. The weapons these people use were handed to them by us, back when we called them “moderates” and were convinced giving them weapons to fight OTHER terrorist groups would destroy terrorism. Now we’re arming new “moderates” and doing the exact same things that we tried to do before. Why on earth would we think it will work THIS time??

  • Jim Chapman

    What about them, the topic is: Is ISIS Islamic?

  • Larry

    About as much as the Branch Davidians and the Klan are Christian. ISIS is a violent sect. One which is being opposed by people of the same faith. What part of that do you not get?

  • Larry

    There is still the appeal of being a well armed and well funded group which is primarily sunni in the middle of a failed state. There are people who would rather be violent brigands than be on the wrong end of them.

    Most of ISIS’s victims are Muslim as well. Religious appeals do not really seem as important hare as local/tribal ones. These are still people who largely have to operate in a lawless chaotic environment.

  • Larry

    Show me terrorist groups who hold territory and drive tanks!

    There is a difference between terrorists and an army. Terrorists blend with a population and engage in asymmetrical warfare usually against civilians. An army group which wears distinctive uniforms and flags and fights using conventional weapons. ISIS is an army.

  • Fourth Valley


    I should ask YOU, you’re the one who brought them up by claiming Christians committed no religious violence.

    You can’t just claim that Christians don’t do violent things, then claim violent Christians aren’t relevant to the discussion.

    Did you honestly forget that YOU brought them up (by claiming they didn’t exist) or are you just trolling??

  • CC

    FYI Dr. Cole is also a professor. And religious studies scholar.

  • Fred

    I am really amazed at the extent to which Muslim apologists will twist and contort reality to try to argue that ISIS, AQ, Boko, etc. are not really Islam, usually trying to make some very attenuated analogy to some past action by a group that claimed to be Christian. The stark reality is that Islam has a problem- jihad. What the terrorists do they do in the name of jihad. No other religion has this characteristic. There is no hue and cry from the Muslim world over the plight of Christians in Syria or the Middle East- the truth is they could care less. They do not see us as co-equals in the eyes of God. We are inferior and unimportant. We in the West keep projecting Judeo-Christian mindsets into the analysis of folks who simply do not share our ideals, principles, or ways of thought. It’s high time that we stopped ignoring reality and started to think about these issues honestly. Making excuses for Islam will not force accountability. Muslims the world over must confront the monster in their midst and decide who they want to be. So long as the West is willing to continue to make excuses for them, what is their motivation to do so?

  • Sue

    President Amajinahad addressed the UN some years ago saying that Muslims were waiting for their 12th Imman or messiah to come soon and he will come as a man of peace. To be a good Muslim in some sects means to create as much chaos as possible so that when this imman comes all violence will stopped so he will be seen as the one who brings peace and can then rule the world under muslim laws. Unfortunately this man’s description corresponds to that of the Christian’s anti-christ. Fun days ahead.

  • Thanks to all of you who read and responded to the perceived argument of my essay, to wit, that ISIS does NOT represent the trajectory of Islamic thought and practice, either historically or presently, in any subset, Shi’i or Sunni, or in any place, from Africa to Asia, including the Americas. For those who want to see the theological rationale behind my argument spelt out in blistering detail by a notable Muslim scholar, please go to the latest issue of The Atlantic, where Professor Caner Dagli has posted his response to Wood’s inflammatory and flawed essay:

  • Charles Whatley

    Forgetting our history, we are doomed to repeat it. HIstory is filled with islamic violence, beheadings, burnings, slavery, pedophilia, and destruction. The present evil is consistent with a long history of “radical” islam.

    Historically, the invisible “moderate” muslim are the radicals of their religion.

  • Charles Whatley

    The comment to read a muslim scholar is fraught with problems, notably the Koran’s command to lie and misrepresent the truth if it furthers the goals of islam. Given a choice of which essay to trust, the “muslim scholar” is on thin ice.

  • Charles Whatley

    Any army can deteriorate into terrorism; any terrorist group can become an army. The difference is that armies follow the rules of warfare and stay within the limits of humanity; terrorists make up their own rules and operate far beyond the limits of humanity.

    ISIS might have started as an army; but after the beheadings and burnings and slaughter of children, they are without question now terrorists!

  • Larry

    There are actual definitions and distinctions between the two which are somewhat material as to how they are dealt with by adversaries.

    ISIS is closer to the Taliban than Al Queda. ISIS engages in banditry and atrocities but calling them terrorists is a bit of a misnomer.

    Technically, captured ISIS people can be treated as POW’s (although given their atrocities, they can also be subject to reprisals as well). Al Queda could only be considered criminals.

    These are the differences (at least under international law).
    1. Use of uniforms and/or flags. ISIS has a distinct black flag it flies and its people wear a distinct uniform to separate themselves from civilians. Terrorists intentionally blend in with civilian populations and avoid identifying clothing.

    2. Methods employed. ISIS uses conventional military tactics and equipment. They use foot soldiers in uniform, mechanized vehicles, artillery. They engage military targets. They claim territory and administrate it. They separate themselves from the civilian populations which they operate with. Terrorists engage in unconventional warfare (sabotage, assassination, indiscriminate attacks on civilians).

    The Ustashe, Chetniks, Khymer Rouge, and Taliban all committed atrocities against civilians as a matter of course. They weren’t terrorists. But they were still using distinct units. They were still evil.
    ISIS is simply the modern versions of the same.

    I know its a bit of semantics here, but its an important one to avoid confusion.

  • Larry

    Charles, You just went down a circular logic death spiral. But if they say they are lying, then how do you know that is the truth? They could be lying about lying. 🙂

    More relevant to the discussion is the fact that ISIS’s victims and enemies are also Muslim. If ISIS represents the faith, there would not be so much opposition from fellow Muslims.

    @ Fred
    “What the terrorists do they do in the name of jihad. No other religion has this characteristic.”

    EVERY RELIGION HAS THIS CHARACTERISTIC! Aside from a couple of minor sects in a given faith, all of them had their fair share of kill-crazy fanatics.

  • Larry

    Those ignorant of history make ridiculous statements about it.

    “HIstory is filled with islamic violence, beheadings, burnings, slavery, pedophilia, and destruction.”

    Except for about 400 years from the siege of Vienna to the Iranian Revolution. Christianity never had such an interval of relative calm. The present evil is what happens when religious fanatical opportunists operate in a political vacuum. Radical Islam as we know it only dates back to the late 1970’s. Prior to that Middle Eastern terrorists were secular nationalists and radicals.

    In your efforts to demonize the entire Muslim faith, you seem to be blissfully unaware of the efforts by Muslims in the region to turn the tide against ISIS. The brave militias of the Kurds, who are doing more to care for refugees from the conflict than any western power is right now. You have the Egyptian and Jordanian airstrikes, and the relief efforts in Lebanon.

    While nabobs in the “civilized West” are debating whether ISIS is really Islamic, there are people fighting and dying (most of the Muslims) to oppose them.

  • Glenn Harrell

    So then, we have the “Islam means “submission” Muslim and the “Islam means peace” Muslim.

    Do not the sacred texts of Islam offer peace and military appeals/solutions to its stated goal of world submission to Allah?

    Is Mawdudi style still in vogue so that House of War is preferred?

    Will the watered down, liberal, tree-hugging Muslims continue to be targets of their own religion–marked for death by the “radical” versions of the same?

    Will the Sunni-Shia divide ever find a mutually acceptable successor?

    Will the same divide preclude any truly unified effort to defeat an ISIS with their new “legit” Calif?

    Will not calling the murderers “Radical Islamists” make them love the USA any more than they do?

    Just asking.

  • Larry

    “Do not the sacred texts of Islam offer peace and military appeals/solutions to its stated goal of world submission to Allah?”

    Depends on your translation and interpretation,

    Does not the New Testament declare that all those who do not accept the teachings of Jesus are to be shunned and will be subject to eternal torment?

    Does not the Old Testament describe how genocide is justified if the victims are idolators and polytheists?

    When you have arguments which demonize an entire faith of 1.4 billion people, its impossible to take them seriously. It is certainly never going to be rational and always counterproductive to the issue at hand.

    Why not stop trying to blame the entire faith of Islam for ISIS and recognize that plenty of Muslims oppose them as well.

  • LittleDesertFlower

    It saddens me to make this correction, because I think anybody would prefer for your claim to br true.. But I guarantee that somewhere in this world there are Christians who are beheading women and children today, most days – perpetrating genocides actually (Google: Central African Republic, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Rwanda.. Among others.)

    Thing is, no group of any kind – so long as its comprised of human beings – is gonna be free of a crappy element.. And the crappier & more sordid complex & destitute & hopeless the human situation is for a group – the meaner & more f-ed up the Frankenstein’s monster it births is gonna be.

  • Fran

    The meek ones of all races, cultures and nations will soon be free of “a crappy element” because God’s kingdom or heavenly government (Daniel 2:44) will soon put an end to all wicked ones/terrorists on the planet (Isaiah 11:4; Psalm 37:10,11).

    Humans will finally know true peace, security and brotherhood of man, which will only come from God.

  • Fran


    No, because as John 3:36 brings out:

    “The one who exercises faith in the son has everlasting life; the one who disobeys the son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him.”

    So those who reject Jesus, the Messiah and son of God, will face death, and not eternal torment.

  • Jack

    James, you’re right. Whatever and whoever they are, they’re now an army that rules over territory and slaughters people. Even if we somehow come to a consensus about what part of their ideology is Islam on steroids and what part of it is something else, it will mean nothing if nobody takes action to destroy them.

    Longer term, yes, we have to fight the battle of ideas, but defeating these groups militarily is part of that fight.

  • Jack

    “Ariel,” if the “root cause of Islamic terrorism” was “the establishment of Israel,” how do you explain the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood decades before such establishment, or the rise of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia long before the Brotherhood?

    The root cause had nothing to do with the Jews or Israel and everything to do with how the Muslim world was faring as modernity was closing in. For a number of reasons, it chose as its model various experiments with the worst of the west — fascism and Marxism — rather than its best — freedom and democracy. The initial results were pan-Arabism — Nasser and Assad, Saddam and Khadaffy — followed by radical pan-Islamism once the secularist vision of pan-Arabism collapsed.

    But the roots of both pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism, were, western totalitarianism imported into the Mid East.

    Pan-Islamism looks a like medievalism, but it’s really modernist fascism’s attempts to relive a mythical Islamist past through outward trappings…

  • Jack

    Islam does have a problem — and the heart of that problem indeed is jihad. That dooms serious adherents to belief in the necessity of perpetual war against non-Islamic regimes or those deemed insufficiently Islamic.

    Thus the claim that lslam is a “religion of peace” (President Bush) is both theologically and historically flawed. Of course it needs to be pointed out that most Muslims do want peace in spite of that. Like adherents of most other religions, they quietly pick and choose what they like or don’t like about their religion.

    But while jihad is a necessary condition for radical Islamism and its terrorism, it is not a sufficient condition. While the Koran definitely preaches jihad, it can be argued that it does not give anyone carte blanche to gun after civilians deliberately. The rationale for terrorism is mostly modern — it comes from modern totalitarian ideologies like fascism and communism.

  • Larry

    In the case of ISIS their rationale is really old school. They are modern day warlords looking to conquer and subjugate people for its own sake. Real medieval, almost feudal in nature.

  • Robert Eugene Haring

    Lord of the flies – its about children – what they do is disgusting just as a child needs diapers.


    How can you defined the attack led by American on Muslims in the whole world especially in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, helping Israel to kill Palestinian throw them out of their land. Justify the killing of thousands of innocent muslim in different different parts of the world.
    If you want to make the world walk according to your reason and understanding every man in this world has the same right. All Christian armies have the “divine authority”? to kill thousands of people in Iraq,Afghanistan, Pakistan, philistine, kashmir (indirectly) and in every country where they want, then Isis has the same right to kill American and it’s allies.
    If American had the justification of atomic bombing for pearl harbour then think how many beautiful pearls and harbours you have destroyed our.
    Americans and Nato and all those who think them good and peacemakers are biggest terrorist according to every human law as well as divine law.

    Nato+American +Israel +their allies=NAZI=Terrorist…

  • Jackb

    Wow. so much hatred. You know, I did not chose where I was born. Anyone who would choose to target me, my family and my friends… none of whom have served in any army or attacked in any way… that is what I find despicable. You can blame it on GOD or Allah or the baked potato in your oven… I don’t really care. What I do know is… of all you who take death of others so lightly, what will you do when Death comes to your door. What really annoys me is that we can not see what we have in common… and we are blind to our own stupidity. Killing for an entity you do not know, slaughtering women, chidren, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers…. you are all just psychopaths, sick to your very core with an illness that gnaws at your own soul. You lash out at everyone because you know your own existence is pathetic without your childlike tantrums…. you are such evil children… you do not want to live but are too cowardly to cut your own throat. Sure I would love to get along…