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Americans Wonder If Islamic State Is Truly Islamic


It was called the Iconoclastic Fury — when Protestants went on a rampage through churches in the Low Countries and elsewhere in 16th century Europe, smashing statues they considered idolatrous.

Sound familiar? Militants in Iraq have been destroying priceless treasures deemed un-Islamic, giving many people around the world the sense of living in a time warp.

“This is not 1015. This is 2015,” Lindsey Graham, Republican U.S. senator from South Carolina, last week told a Senate hearing that focused on the Muslim militants’ killing of Christians and other minorities.

“As I speak, people are being crucified, people are being burned alive, they’re being beheaded,” he said.

The hearing, titled “Protecting Religious Freedom Abroad,” focused on how America should respond to Islamist militant groups.

There is, however, a broader debate in the United States about whether the militant group that calls itself Islamic State should be seen as a natural outgrowth of Islam, or as a perversion of the faith.

“I think we’re making a mistake if we say this is not part of Islamic theology,” said conservative Christian activist and talk show host Jay Sekulow, who testified before the panel. He said Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, claims to be the khalifa, or caliph, of a re-established medieval Muslim empire.

“That’s what they call themselves,” Sekulow told VOA after the hearing. “They call themselves the caliphate. Khalifa Ibrahim believes he’s the leader of worldwide Islam. So, whatever we want to call them, in one sense, is irrelevant, because that’s who they are.”

Islamic studies professor John Esposito disagrees.

“From my point of view, what you’ve got is the hijacking of religion,” he said in an interview at Georgetown University.

Esposito, who directs the university’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, said militants have taken the injunction in the Quran to “slay the unbelievers wherever you find them” out of context.

“When that scripture was uttered, it had nothing to do with Christians and Jews at that point,” he said. “It had to do with pagan Meccans who were at that point persecuting Muslims. And God in the Quran was saying to them: If they’re fighting you, you have a right to fight back.”

Others argue that Quranic passages about warfare are being used to justify violence by militant groups that rely on mainstream teachings.

“The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic,” wrote Graham Wood in The Atlantic magazine. “Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe; but, the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

Some commentators argue that Muslims need to reject traditional interpretations of scripture — in the same way Protestant leader Martin Luther challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century.

In an article titled “ISIS is the Islamic Reformation,” in Religion Dispatches magazine, Ed Simon of Lehigh University recalled that the iconoclastic rampages of the 16th century were triggered by the reformers’ own interpretations of the ban on graven images in the Ten Commandments.

Esposito said those calling for an Islamic Reformation are really saying, “Genocide ought to take place, or close to it, because we think of the Reformation as the Enlightenment and we forget the Hundred Years Wars.”

European history certainly had its share of sectarian conflicts, as well as a cooling of religious zeal after the bloodshed. But, one thing that cuts across the boundaries of time and faith, Esposito said, is the use of religion to legitimize political power — and warfare.

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