Like Bush, President Obama has weighed in on matters that must ultimately be left up to Muslims. Take his remarks this Wednesday, when he said, quite rightly, that “we are not at war with Islam.” Not content to stop there, or to simply explain that we are at war with various apocalyptic death cults that have declared war on us, he added that “we are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”
In great detail, Obama explained that ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, and other extremist groups seek religious legitimacy in order to recruit young people to their cause, and that they “depend upon the misperception around the world that they speak in some fashion for people of the Muslim faith.” According to Obama, [terrorist] groups base their claims to legitimacy on falsehoods and selective readings of Islamic texts. Obama’s position seems to be that the leaders of these groups aren’t sincere in their beliefs. He suggests that what ISIS is really after is power, as if its obsessive focus on acting in accordance with practices that were widespread in the days of Muhammad is merely window-dressing for thuggery and theft. But why do the leaders of ISIS have to be insincere in their beliefs in order for us to reject their brutality? . . .
This week, Graeme Wood published an excellent cover story for the Atlantic on ISIS, which has deservedly drawn a great deal of attention. What he has found is that ISIS is attracting not just psychopaths motivated solely by bloodlust, but also sincere believers who embrace it for its rigorous, uncompromising adherence to the doctrines of early Islam. As Bernard Haykel, one of the experts Wood interviews, puts it, Islam is perhaps best understood as “what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Other Muslims can certainly reject the interpretations of ISIS and its followers as perverse, as the vast majority of them do. But it’s not as though these Muslims, let alone two Christian presidents of the United States, have some unquestioned monopoly on the right to interpret Islam. You can declare that the leaders of ISIS are in fact apostates. You can also declare that Shiite Muslims or Ahmadiyyas are apostates, as Salafi Muslims do as a matter of course. To do so won’t settle anything, as no one owns Islam, just as no one owns Christianity.