Obama on ISIS—One Thing Is Clear

Thoughtful people may disagree over President Obama’s approach to the crisis in Iraq and Syria prompted by the horrifically brutal behavior of ISIS. We can debate the question of the clear and present threat this group poses to the US homeland. On this tragic anniversary of 9/11,we can point out comparisons and contrasts to the recent Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But one thing that I hope the President’s address to the nation last night made clear—this thuggish assault on the sensibilities of all humankind is not in any way a “religious” movement.

The President pulled no punches: “Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”

These remarks pointedly echo those that have been made time and again by prominent Muslims in this country and beyond, but which have failed to receive widespread notice because they do not fit the simplistic narrative that Muslims are violent and out to destroy those who do not share their faith.

Intersections’ friend and colleague, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf said recently in the Huffington Post, “There is no such thing as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. A terrorist group that calls itself by that name not only exists but is causing havoc, death and destruction throughout a large swath of Iraq and Syria…While these terrorists insist they are governing under Islamic law and are carrying out their atrocities in the name of Allah, they are nothing but thugs and assassins who are desecrating a religion and blaspheming the name of Allah.”

Arsalan Iftikhar, Senior Editor of The Islamic Monthly magazine and a member of Intersections’ Leadership Council told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews,  “The Islamic State is about as Muslim as The Lord’s Resistance Army or the Westboro Baptist Church is Christian….Just because you slap a religious moniker on something, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in line with the teachings…The vast majority of Muslims worldwide, including the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, The Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Grand Mufti of Turkey, Muslim public intellectuals and Muslim organizations here in the United States have all categorically condemned ISIS.”

Such comments are far more common than most Americans know, because they don’t fit the storyline perpetrated by those who seek to divide us. It is incumbent upon those of us who care about building relationships across lines of difference—race, culture, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomics, lifestyle and religion—to draw, as the President did, a bright line that separates activities of terrorist extremists from those who are faithful followers of Islam. Only in this way can we build a diverse coalition willing to lay a firm foundation for a just and peaceful world.