Inside The Confusing Ideology Of ISIS

Monday marked one year since ISIS established a caliphate under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In that time, the caliphate has been on the prowl to quickly consolidate territory in the Middle East and now presides over an "area larger than the United Kingdom," the Atlantic reported in March. ISIS has subjected people to horrifying execution methods that include beheading, burning, and throwing victims from rooftops. These grisly punishments are typically for "crimes" like adultery, homosexuality, and, most prominently, defiance of religious scripture. The militant group's shocking actions, ominous public statements, and chilling interpretations of Islam are increasingly raising the question of what ISIS is exactly. But is ISIS a religion?

In short, ISIS is not an independent religion. Its ideology is essentially a zombified, fundamentalist reflection of Islamic principles. On Monday, the Independent reported that UK Prime Minister David Cameron described the ideology that fuels ISIS as "stemming from an extremist narrative which hijacks the religion of Islam." Cameron's description is a fairly accurate one; ISIS maintains its grip on its followers, which include 42 million Muslims according to Express , by justifying its policies of violence and sexual enslavement with bizarre, draconian interpretations of actual Islamic scripture. The fundamentalist group convinces people to follow its demands for "true Muslims" by portraying itself as a legitimate defender of Islam.

As Milo Comerford, an analyst for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation's Religion & Geopolitics resource, outlines in the The Independent , ISIS's five demands that "true Muslims":

  • Follow and fight for the caliphate. ISIS "rejects the concept of the nation state," according to Comerford. The caliphate assumes the role of not a "nation state," but a global, overarching entity of Muslims that transcends geographical location.
  • Uphold jihad at any cost. And to do that, the group allegedly attempts to attract "fighters, ... doctors, teachers and engineers, to its ‘state,'" Comerford writes. (For more detail on another strong moral tenet, "hijra," and for the three other points, check out Comerford's thorough explanation here.)

ISIS's demands have been overwhelmingly condemned by Muslim communities. Despite some stereotyping that incorrectly associates Islam with terrorism, Islam is ultimately a religion that values peace and community over conflict, which countless verses in the Qur'an can attest to. By not upholding a hierarchy of authorities for Muslims to submit to, the Islamic faith offers its followers a sense of equality within their religious communities. Most religious texts were written during ancient times when cultural norms, especially those regarding capital punishment and treatment of women, were nothing like they are today. For that reason, these texts could be taken wildly out of context so that any religion could be hijacked and manipulated in the same way ISIS has hijacked and manipulated Islam.

ISIS has crafted its ideology through meticulous cherry-picking of Islam's tenets. The extremist group manipulates principles that glorify fighting for your faith to justify a wide range of atrocities. Instead of using its power to promote its religion, ISIS does the opposite, using religion to promote itself and its violent agenda. ISIS's primary goals are arguably to antagonize Western culture and usher in an apocalypse, and it's likely these goals are less related to Islam than you might suspect. Its leaders probably contrived this agenda and simply used quotes of Islamic scripture to justify it, as opposed to actually deriving these quotes from texts.

Why? Ultimately, all of ISIS's heinous acts are parts of its leaders' overarching agenda: aggressively acquiring territory, promoting mass sexual slavery, according to the Huffington Post, and controlling people through violence. And unfortunately, a gross manipulation of the Islamic religion helps get them there.

Ed. Note: A previous version of this story did not adequately cite Milo Comerford's research at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation's Religion & Geopolitics Resource. We regret this error.

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