Center for Strategic Communication

[ by Charles Cameron — a new angle on the “fatwa” approach to defeating IS / Daesh? ]

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The Sudanese journalist Nesrine Malik, writing on the Huffington Post under the title The Futility of Fatwas, has some ideas worth considering. I’m by no means conceding that fatwas against IS / Daesh are futile, but think her reading of some Islamic cultures deserves our attention.


First she lays out the fatwa approach to combatting IS:

Over the past few months, there has been a furious debate in the Arab World about how to combat ISIS ideology. It dominates everything from TV debating programs, to dinner parties and family discussions. It has even spawned an Arabic term ‘Al fikr al Daeshy‘ or ‘Daesh Thinking’, a pejorative term meaning warped or extremist ideas. The main theme that has emerged so far is that the most potent way to respond to the group in the realm of ideas is to highlight how ISIS departs from ‘the real Islam’. But this is a dead end. There is no ‘real Islam’ as such. It exists only in the minds and contexts and specific historic and cultural environments of a people, each one differing from the next, and each one continuously evolving. [ .. ]

Like a duel of spells, both parties, ISIS and those clerics that oppose it, quoted verses from the Quran and hadith at each other, each party hoping to vanquish the other in some futile attempt to land that one fatal blow, that discredits the other once and for all as acting falsely in the name of Islam. Muslim governments enlisted their grand muftis, and think tanks such as The Quilliam Foundation called upon their house clerics to tailor anti-ISIS fatwas and condemnations.

This does indicate that there is a mainstream rejection of ISIS, and this consensus is new and significant. And yet it is futile.

Then she lays out her general objection:

Islam in particular, and holy text religions in general, are open to interpretation and selectivity. By responding to ISIS from within its own paradigm, one only validates its basic premise – that there is some authority to be derived from religion, and that there is one valid interpretation that trumps all others. There isn’t.

She’s undoubtedly right about the interpretation and selectivity, but there’s a non-sequitur there, and I don’t believe that responding to ISIS from with an Islamic scriptural paradigm is the same as responding with ISIS own scriptural paradigm. The logic slips a bit there..

Then she says something that may be true for the ex-Baathists now fighting under the IS flag — but not in my view of many others.

It’s then that her argument takes a very interesting turn.

She suggests that there is “still no honest reckoning about .. the fact that many Muslims are indeed selective with literal application of the religious text” — and then proceeds to what she considers “the knot at the heart of the question of Islamic ‘reform’”:

Where is the so-called ‘moderate Muslim’, the promised ISIS vanquisher? The Muslims that Ben Affleck pointed out just want to go to work and eat some sandwiches, and not kill any infidels? In many parts of the Muslim world, they are stuck, certainly not endorsing extremism, but living in societies where notional endorsements are implicitly made every day. A simple survey of alcohol consumption in private across the Arab world is a basic but effective indicator of the schism between private irreligious practice under cover of darkness vs pious public dissimulation during the day.

She then gives an eloquent example of a harsh official interpretation of sharia from her own native Sudan, couple with an indicator that practice is very different from official theory:

In Sudan for example, ostensibly one of the most hardline Islamic states in the Arab world, there has been one incident of execution for apostasy in its entire history, and that was a political murder in the guise of a religious sentence.

It is that sort of officially sanctioned though behaviorally ignored lip-service to Islam she would like to dismantle — and that’s where she offers what seems to me to be a refreshingly new insight:

In the Arab World, the question isn’t about reform, the question is about ejecting this hypocritical mandatory religion from public life altogether, with all its potential for political and social scapegoating, radicalisation, and sectarian agitation.

I suspect, in passing, that this concept could be tied in very nicely with Richard Landes‘ often voiced concerns about the anthropology of “honor / shame” societies — but that’s an area I’ve been meaning to research, and probably need a university library card to accomplish.

And with that insight, she also makes her overall approach — and even that simplistic title — seem a whole lot more interesting. She concludes:

The most powerful response to ISIS is to not play the religion game at all – to recognise that all religious rhetoric can be instrumentalised to suit whatever political purpose. So far Arab governments and clergy most threatened by ISIS have chosen to go further down the hypocrisy route, to distance ISIS from their version of Islam while explaining away ISIS extrapolations as ‘out of context’ or ‘misunderstood’. This is a fool’s game. The start, is less religion as justifier for political actions, not more.


Here’s the basic argument laid out in the British fatwa:

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