TIME foreign affairs

ISIS Is Not Just Un-Islamic, It Is Anti-Islamic

ISIS Militants Raqqa Syria
Reuters Militant Islamist fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of the northern Raqqa province in Syria, June 30, 2014.

If we want to stop ISIS, we must deny it any claim to represent Islam and starve it of the fuel of injustice

Despite misappropriating and misusing the name “Islamic State,” ISIS is little more than a criminal gang that attaches itself like a leech to revered symbols of Islam. It exploits counterproductive Western policies driving desperate people into its fold and uses injustices in the Muslim world as a smokescreen to cover its own cruelty.

When ISIS uses the Islamic declaration of faith, the Shahada, and the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) seal on its flag, it quite literally – and falsely – claims to uphold the banner of Islam. When ISIS says it is establishing a “Caliphate,” an historic term that resonates with Muslims worldwide, it does so to fool those who have experienced nothing but injustice and oppression into believing past glories will be restored.

Unfortunately, the media, political analysts and public officials – really all of us – are unwilling participants in ISIS’s public relations branding campaign.

Every time we refer to ISIS as the “Islamic State,” call its members “jihadists” or in any way grant it the religious legitimacy that it so desperately seeks, we simultaneously boost its brand, tarnish the image of Islam and further marginalize the vast majority of Muslims who are disgusted by the group’s un-Islamic actions.

Islam prohibits the extremism exhibited by ISIS. An essential part of the faith is moderation.

As the Quran, Islam’s foundational text, states clearly: “We made you to be a community of the middle way, so that (with the example of your lives) you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind.” (Quran, 2:143)

The Quran also states: “O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for God can best protect both.” (Quran, 4:35)

Literally, jihad means to struggle, strive and exert effort. It is a central and broad Islamic concept that includes struggle against evil inclinations within oneself, struggle to improve the quality of life in society, struggle in the battlefield for self-defense (e.g., having a standing army for national defense), or fighting against tyranny or oppression.

While Islam allows legitimate self defense, it prohibits the killing of non-combatants, even in times of war or conflict. Aggression is never permitted. “And fight in the cause of God those who fight against you, and do not commit aggression. Indeed God does not love those who are aggressors,” (The Quran, 2:190).

Extremist Muslims who commit crimes like those carried out by ISIS should be called criminals. We must not legitimize their actions by calling them jihadists.

The American Muslim community and Muslim scholars around the world have repudiated and rejected ISIS’s twisted ideology, calling it not just un-Islamic, but “anti-Islamic.”

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the “Muslim U.N.,” said ISIS has “nothing to do with Islam,” and has committed crimes “that cannot be tolerated.”

Along with denying ISIS religious legitimacy and severing its links to revered Islamic symbols and terms, we can deny it a smokescreen for its injustices and stop driving suffering people into its arms by changing our own policies.

There would be no ISIS in Syria if we had fully supported the struggle for freedom in that nation since 2011. It was only the political vacuum created by our lack of support for the mainstream opposition to the brutal Syrian regime, and the resulting slaughter of more than 200,000 people and the displacement of millions more, which gave ISIS space to form and grow.

We need to support the mainstream Syrian political and military opposition seeking freedom and democracy. A free and democratic Syria and region is the long-term guarantee for the defeat and marginalization of groups like ISIS.

We also need to support democracy and human rights in Iraq, Egypt, and throughout the region. The fanaticism and barbarism of ISIS and other terror groups is fueled by the brutal repression of dictatorships that are sadly often supported by the United States. Religious fanaticism and political oppression are mirror images of each other and lead to the same bloody results.

ISIS was only able to penetrate Iraq because we for too long backed a government that completely marginalized the Sunni Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities. Iraqis who faced being shot at a government checkpoint for being a member of the “wrong” sect found out too late that ISIS was a worse alternative.

If we want to stop ISIS, we must deny it any claim to represent Islam and starve it of the fuel of injustice.

It is up to our political leaders to take the lead through a comprehensive international strategy, not in the number of bombs that can be dropped, but in the establishment of the freedom and justice that will spell the end for ISIS and its ilk.​

Nihad Awad is national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.


I Am a Muslim-American Leader, and the NSA Spied on Me

Nihad Awad, a target of NSA surveillance
Courtesy Council on American-Islamic Relations Nihad Awad, a target of NSA surveillance

But I am not the threat—our country's surveillance program is

As a student at the University of Minnesota decades ago, the more I learned about America’s history, the more I was inspired by our Founding Fathers. They were initially voices of dissent, who stood up and spoke on issues they thought would advance this country, with the understanding that it would not endear them to the powers of the day. This was the foundation for the Bill of Rights and the ideals that every American remains proud to enjoy to this day.

I am saddened, but not surprised, by recent revelations that I am on the list of Muslim-American leaders who have been targets for NSA surveillance. My First Amendment rights have been compromised simply because, over the years, I have expressed my views on issues relevant to public discourse. The fact that I have been individually targeted puts me on a list with very good company.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was spied on, along with Washington Post columnist Art Buchwald and boxer Muhammad Ali. Earlier this year, it came to light that the CIA had spied on the Senate Intelligence Committee, a Congressional body charged with oversight of the CIA.

Senator Frank Church, who led investigations in the 1970s uncovering FBI, CIA and NSA surveillance and illegal activity targeting minority activists, was spied on. In 1975 Church warned, “If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny.”

While I am not a figure of historical proportions like the ones I just mentioned, I am proud to be included on a long and growing list of patriots who have been spied on and subjected to an array of reputation smearing tactics by elements of our own government.

In 1994, I co-founded the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Today, CAIR is the United States’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization. For many years, I enjoyed good relations with many government agencies, including the White House. As executive director, I have adopted many positions that dissent from government policy. But, if disagreement with government policy is viewed as subversive, no wonder the government has decided to vacuum up the communications of all Americans. We are an opinionated nation.

Like millions of other Americans, I have opposed U.S. foreign policy when I thought it was misguided. It is also true that I defended American policy overseas to unreceptive audiences when I thought my country was right. I spoke out against government use of secret evidence in U.S. courts in the late 1990s. I opposed the Iraq war. I have spoken in favor of Palestinian rights while consistently rejecting terrorism. I have advocated for, and ensured that CAIR filed lawsuits aimed at preserving, the Bill of Rights. In 2006, I went to Iraq to appeal for the release of a kidnapped American journalist. More recently, I joined Christian leaders on a trip to Iran to seek the release of American hikers who had been detained in that nation. Our delegation was informed by the Iranian authorities that our stay in Iran was vital in the ultimate decision to release the hikers. I worked for the release of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson and former US Marine Amir Hekmati, both currently held by the Iranian government. I have also opposed policies that undermine our Constitution: the No-Fly List, racial and religious profiling, and entrapment to name a few.

But CAIR and I have done all of this while continuing to condemn terrorism whenever it happens, wherever it happens, and by whoever commits it in over 107 public press statements in the past twenty years. CAIR’s “Know Your Rights” guide emphasizes, “If you know of any criminal activity taking place in your community, it is both your religious and civic duty to immediately report such activity to local and federal law enforcement agencies.”

Senator Church’s 1975 warning about the technology capacity of the intelligence community and its possible consequences could easily have been made last week. It stands is a reminder to all Americans that our liberty is a gift that requires our vigilance to preserve.

America is about checks and balances, about voices that are unafraid to speak out. For too long, there has been no substantive check on government surveillance. This must change, as it is intolerable in a democratic society. My hope is that the policies and practices that result in the surveillance of law-abiding Americans engaging in public debate will be changed so that other Americans will not be treated as objects of suspicion.

Nihad Awad is the Executive Director and co-founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest non-profit Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States. A few days after September 11, 2001, Mr. Awad was one of the few American Muslim leaders invited by the White House to join President Bush in a press conference at the Islamic Center of Washington, the oldest mosque in Washington DC.

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