Fighting ISIS’ ideology requires learning from our past

In view of the current social commotion caused by the killing of innocents, the murdering of children and the enslaving of women, among many other ISIS barbarities, one may feel tempted to erroneously link these atrocities to Islam, assuming that the Qur’an is a book that tells Muslims around the world to commit terrorism. We should be very careful when we make these kinds of conclusions, and be aware of the consequences that an approach like this can have.

There are many reasons why the spectator may take this approach. The most obvious one may be because it is easier to reach a conclusion without a careful examination of the history. Another reason may be due to the spectator’s failure to realize that it has not been only Islam in the past and present that has been an example of how the perturbation of religious beliefs can transform into fanaticism. We only need to go back 100 years to find Christian radicalism, for instance, with the Ku Klux Klan where, by belonging to any ethnic minority, one could be a target to this fanaticism that based its acts in Christianity. Does the Bible, perhaps, preach that blacks are inferior and need to be murdered? The answer by Christians and non-Christians is most likely negative.

Everybody has heard about the Christian Crusades, the Islamic jihad, and the Jewish Milhemet Mitzvah (Commanded War). However, we should become aware of the fact that an example of religious perversion is not present in Abrahamic religions only, but also in other ancient beliefs. Buddhism, a religion that most people would consider non-violent, is subject to religious fanaticism, too. During the period of 1868-1945, Japanese Buddhists perverted their religion into a warlike doctrine that supported the Japanese emperor no matter how brutal the acts were. During the Asia-Pacific War (1937-1945), all Japanese soldiers were indoctrinated with a program of Bushido-promoting “spiritual education” based on the unities of Zen and the sword. The Buddhist priest Brian Daizen Victoria explores this idea, which took place in World War II, in his book “Zen at War”. He explains that the fanatical support that the Japanese militarism was given by the Zen School of Buddhism undoubtedly violated Buddhism’s fundamental beliefs. “He should not kill a living being, nor cause it to be killed, nor should he incite another to kill”- Gautama Buddha, Sutta Nitapa II, I4. Victoria explains in his book that Japan’s vaunted Bushido (Warrior Code) evolved from a corrupted Buddhist metaphysic that not only sectioned battlefield slaughter but also exalted the Zen-trained warrior’s willingness to die as the antinomian expression of full enlightenment.


Nevertheless, we do not have to go far back in time to find corrupted Buddhist ideas. In Myanmar, for instance, a country where a minority is Muslim, 4 percent of the population, and a majority Buddhist, 80 percent of the population, Buddhist monks, in particular Ashin Wirathu – who strangely enough calls himself “The Burmese Bin Laden” – have attacked Muslims and encouraged the population to murder and prosecute Muslims in the country through a movement called 969. Also, in Sri Lanka, Buddhist group members of Bodu Bala Sena, the Buddhist Brigade, called for direct action, the boycotting of Muslim businesses, and railed against the size of Muslim families.

Another contributing factor to negative views toward Islam may be due to a lack of knowledge of true Islamic values. The “Open Letter to Baghdadi,” written in 2014 by 120 Islamic Scholars, condemns ISIS atrocities and clearly lists all acts committed by ISIS which are forbidden in Islam, a total of 23 points followed by explanations. Point No. 6 states “it is forbidden in Islam to kill the innocent”.  The Qur’an says, “Whoever kills a person [unjustly]…it is as though he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind.” (Qur’an, 5:32).

It is true that ISIS attempts to use other verses in the Qur’an to justify its violence; “Kill them wherever you find them” (Qur’an, 2:191). However, Islamic scholars state that Quranic verses should not be taken out of context, which is, indeed, what ISIS does. Islamic Scholar Nouman Ali Khan, does a very good job attempting to put this verse in context. He says that this verse was revealed to The Prophet Mohammed during a time in which he had to migrate from Mecca to Medina due to conspiracies in the Quraysh tribe to kill him. This revelation came to The Prophet Mohammed after the Muslims escaped to Medina. What is important to put in context, Khan states, is that since all Muslims in Mecca were threatened with death and therefore, expelled from their homes, if an event like this were to happen today, even the U.N. would not consider it unlawful to fight for their rights due to it being an act done in self-defense. Something that is even more important to understand is that along with this revelation, another revelation came once Mecca was conquered peacefully. This revelation allowed the defeated four months to think about either converting to Islam if they wanted to continue living in Mecca or leave from Mecca if they didn’t want to convert. “So travel freely, [O disbelievers], throughout the land [during] four months but know that you cannot cause failure to Allah and that Allah will disgrace the disbelievers” (Qur’an, 9:2).

Because of our lack of knowledge about Islam, a religion followed by 1.5 billion people, the assumption that this religion promotes violence is dangerous and should be avoided by all means. It is dangerous, on one hand, because it leads to social panic and can fuel violence and paranoia. And on the other hand, this lack of knowledge of Islam is what ISIS uses for their own benefit by spreading fear in the West. The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once described fear as the paralyzing gas that enters every home and implants itself in every citizen’s soul. What ISIS is doing is exactly this. By taking advantage of the West’s lack of knowledge about Islam, ISIS is attempting to use it as a tool to gain adepts. The western media is doing exactly what ISIS expects: spreading a paralyzing gas of fear throughout the west and becoming a tool for ISIS.

In the aftermath of Islamic terrorism in the west in this century, people demand out of fear to attack and bomb Syria. These acts would only lead to more civilian casualties and refugees. This would only minimize ISIS’ power. It would not completely eradicate their fanatic ideology. We cannot forget that this war that we are fighting is a type of war that we have not fought before. The same fanaticism that has existed in the past takes place, but this fanatic group has a weapon that those groups didn’t have yet: mass media and Internet as propagandistic tools. This helps ISIS be decentralized and gather people from all-around the world. In order to fight this monster, it is important that we first understand that religious-inspired brutality, like ISIS, knows no sectarian label, and then ask for the advice of the Muslim community in order to undermine ISIS linkage with Islam, to eventually learn that the war that needs to be fought and won, is not a war of armament, but rather, an ideological one.