ISIS has become the new terror threat, and now it appears that they have succeeded in striking in the United States, leaving 14 people dead in California. Once again, the media is trumpeting that the people carrying out the attack were "radicalized." And yet, they were a sedate married couple who left a six month old baby behind. So what really happened? What does "radicalized" actually mean? What motivates ISIS fighters to so routinely and so willingly give up their lives for their cause? What motivates the enormous financial support that what appears to be a barbaric rogue state enjoys?
In the west, there are two schools of thought regarding what should be done about ISIS. The first is that we should attack them militarily with overwhelming force and be done with it. But what happened first in Korea, then in Vietnam and most recently in Iraq strongly suggests that, aside from carrying out genocide, this approach will continue to fail. The other side counsels lifting the areas where the extremist groups operate out of poverty so that young people will have opportunities in this world that will prevent them from wanting to seek solace in the next. However, this approach is equally likely to fail. If it was effective, then financially comfortable people such as the California killers would not be doing what they do.
So what’s really wrong, and what is the solution? To understand this, it is necessary to do what essentially no non-Muslims in the west do, apart from a few academics, which is to read the Koran. But once you have understood a few very basic things about Islam, you will also understand why ISIS is so durable, and why it receives no condemnation, or very little, from so many Muslims.
First, as a person who has read the Koran in two different English translations, I can attest to the fact that it is a magnificent and comprehensive document, one of the great books of religious mysticism. It weaves powerful ideas into magnificent poetry. Arab speakers with whom I have discussed it assure me that the translations I can read pale in comparison with the actual text, which is a kind of music of the soul.
So how could it be that this music translates into something as horrible and discordant as the oppression of women, grotesque public executions, eons-long vendettas and monstrous acts of terror?
The instruction that has led to this situation comes from the body of Muslim revelation, including the Koran and the Shahada. And the idea, espoused by too many western leaders, that Islam in its present state is in some way compatible with western notions of democracy, is simply false. In Islam as it is now viewed for the most part from within the religion, there is and can be no separation of church and state. If a society is to be Islamic, then Sharia must be its code, but this code, virtually unchanged in its core for over a thousand years, cannot offer anything remotely approaching justice in a modern society, any more than the Bible can.
Western society discovered the individual during the early part of the Christian era, and the valuation and protection of the individual has, over the generations, become more and more central to it. You cannot have a free society, as we conceive it, if it is ruled by a set of religious beliefs. In Islam, religious doctrine stands above the law and above the individual, and this is why it is proving so difficult to integrate Muslims into western societies, and why the influx of immigrants now taking place will prove to be so problematic.
But why? What’s wrong that a substantial minority of Muslims do not condemn the extremists in their midst? The reason goes back to the Koran, where it was written and when. There are two basic parts to it: the Mecca suras and the Medina suras, with the Mecca suras being the earlier ones. They are also where you find the Koran’s deep humanity and its defense of the dignity of man. By contrast, the Medina suras are much more warlike, and it is there that you find the admonitions to spread Islam by force and to kill the unfaithful.
When the Mecca suras were written, Mohammad was living in peace. But when he got to Medina, he soon went to war as the head of an army and fighting for the very life of his religion. Unfortunately, Muslim scholarship has, since its earliest days, advocated that the text written last is the truest word of God, and the final suras are God’s final word to man.
This means that what appear to western eyes to be extremist groups are actually something much closer to the mainstream of Muslim belief than we prefer to believe. Of course most Muslims do not carry out or espouse extremist acts. The problem is that those who do can point with authority to their holiest of sources and say that their acts are not only condoned, but are required if one is to be a pious Muslim. Fortunately, only a minority of Muslims not only believe this, but are willing to act on their beliefs. Among those who know the Koran, the vast majority simply ignore the violent suras. They are not going to kill anybody for religious reasons, and not only that, among Muslims I know, at least in the US, there is a quiet but persistent revision of the role of women, which is more and more limiting their subordinate role to religious practice and adopting a more humane approach in social and cultural life. But it’s slow. In many a Mosque and many a Muslim-American family, the inequality of the sexes is still considered not only acceptable, but morally right.
Unfortunately, the legacy of the Ash’ari school, which taught in the eighth century that the Koran was the literal word of God, has been reaffirmed again and again across the ages. In modern times, Muslim belief in this is far more widespread then is the belief in Christianity the Bible is the literal word of God. What is worse, there is really no central authority in Islam that might proclaim reform that would have to be adopted by all the faithful. So change is slow to come, and it’s not clear exactly where it will come from.
In the meantime, it is essential to understand that groups like ISIS are able to make a strong case that they are the only true Muslims, because only they uphold the admonitions in the later suras. Until there is some sort of vocal and effective voice from within Islam speaking for reform of the basic idea that the later suras are the most pure, terror groups will continue to draw support, and not only from the poor and disenfranchised, but from all who wish to practice their faith in what can be persuasively argued is its pure form.