Faithwashing ISIS 20 February 2015

Soldier in patrolAbdul-Azim Ahmed argues we need to see ISIS in the cold light of day, and not the heated rhetoric of civilizations clashing.

Journalist Sana Saeed has come up with one of those great terms that has incredible utility — ‘faithwashing’. Her article “An Interfaith Trojan Horse” goes into some more depth about the issue, but a decent summary of the term (in her own words) is below:

“Faithwashing is about changing the cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or, rather, Israeli occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine) from a mid-20th century Euro-American settler-colonialist project (that brought anti-Semitism to the Muslim world) to a non-existent centuries long enmity between Jews and Muslims.”

She uses the term to criticise how coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as discussion of its solutions, can descend into a theological discussion about religious intolerance rather than focusing on the very worldly geopolitical roots of the issue. I saw this myself as I taught an undergraduate seminar on Jerusalem. Too many students conflated the sacred importance of the city and the Holy Lands with the cause of the modern conflict.


During the most recent spate of bombings of Gaza in Summer 2014, the Israeli government tweeted a picture of the varying claims of the religious importance of Jerusalem (above). The image was a red-herring, an attempt to hide the true source of the conflict which lies in the millions of Palestinians who lost their homes in the creation of Israel. Saeed calls this faithwashing.

With a bit of a stretch, the term has applicability in other contexts, particularly reporting on Islam and the Middle-East. In my own view, it is simply an extension of the pre-existing Orientalist narratives that dominate reporting of the Other.

James Gelvin, an academic and researcher on the Arab Spring, quite succinctly put it to me that:

“In terms of the Middle East, the straw people always grasp at first is religion. They don’t do that in the case of the West. If there is a problem, it’s not a national problem, it’s not an economic problem, it has to be nailed on religion. It’s facile, simplistic and lazy analysis.”

And so it isn’t surprising that ISIS have been faithwashed in the same way. Their claims of Caliphate are repeated with little question, their half-baked theological justifications are presented as their motivations, and their religious identity becomes their only identity. There are countless examples of this, not least Graeme Wood’s article ‘What ISIS Really Wants’. More recently, we can see faithwashing take place in an article by Hassan Hassan, who argues there is a “need to revisit traditional religious texts that extremists use to justify their practices”, citing historical and contemporary debates about hadith and textual validity.

The fundamental problem with Hassan, Wood and many others analysis was described with prophetic accuracy by Edward Said in Covering Islam. The Palestinian Christian scholar writes:

“I am not saying that Muslims have not attacked and injured Israelis and Westerners in the name of Islam. But I am saying that much of what one reads and sees in the media about Islam represents the aggression as coming from Islam because that is what “Islam” is. Local and concrete circumstances are thus obliterated.”

Local and concrete circumstances are not too be ignored. The fault that lies at the heart of Wood and Hassan’s article, and others similar to it, is that they are blind to context. Do Wood or Hassan believe that without colonialism, modern imperialism, the Iraq War, Arab despots and the Middle-East’s incredible value as a source of oil, ISIS would exist? In reducing the conflicts to issues of theology, they serve a function in removing the impetus to address the political realities of terrorism. The onus is removed from the UN, Russia, and the United States, and instead is placed on religious seminaries.

Muslim scholars from across the spectrum have already issued extended treatises addressing how the actions of extremists go against the spirit, ethos and teachings of Islam (see “Refuting ISIS” by Shaykh Muhammad al-Yacoubi for once example of many). These obviously have no real impact since groups like ISIS are a law unto themselves alone. The theological justification is more often than not a rationalisation of decisions, not the primary motivator.

There has however been emerging counter-narratives to this simplistic analysis. For example, Al Jazeera’s Musa al-Gharbi competently compared Mexican drug cartels to ISIS, arguing the former is worse. He draws accurate comparisons to the violence committed by drug cartels (public beheadings) and their notorious semi-state power over regions of Mexico. Notably, he highlights the cartels have a pseudo-Christian religious ideology to them (much like ISIS has an Islamic ideology it perpetuates) – something also argued by Joshua Foust who writes in a similar vein that:

“Latin American cartels, from Los Zetas to Sinaloa, have clear ideological and often religious aspects to their campaigns (though many in the U.S. mistake them as purely “commercial” gangs out for material gain).”

These write ups are important, not simply because they give the public a more accurate reflection on the nature of ISIS (and thus how it can be combated), but also because they stem the Islamophobic deductions that ISIS’ violence is an inherent by-product of Islamic theology, and thus every Muslim is a potential terrorist.

Faithwashing is often not only applied to ISIS as an organisation, but their radicalised recruits from Western countries. As much as I enjoy historian Tom Holland’s witty Twitter presence and captivating historical books, he is incredibly wrong to suggest, as he does in a Theos opinion piece, that ‘bone-headed literalism’ is part of the cause of young men joining ISIS — as if an otherwise well-centred and content individual would read the Quran, take a literalist interpretation from it, and, because of it, travel hundreds of miles to the Middle-East to kill and maim as a consequence.

An alternative, and thoroughly more grounded analysis, comes from Simon Cottee, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Kent, who writes how gang-culture can be a way of understanding the particular appeal of ISIS — as he puts it, their ‘badass path to paradise’. The following quote illustrates his point well: –

“Islamic State’s propaganda – especially its notorious execution videos – is saturated in badass iconography. Look at this material – if you dare – and you will see unspeakably terrible things. Men brandishing AK-47s, handheld rocket launchers or large, curved machetes, glistening with intent…Unquestionably, these men project – in Katz’s phrasing – the “awesome, ominous presence” so integral to the aura of the badass.”

Cottee notes that this appeals to a particular type of young male, particularly those already involved in violent gang crime. According to Cottee, these notions of masculinity are central to understanding their appeal.

Valuable too is Mehdi Hasan’s insights on the religious naivety of jihadis. “If we want to tackle jihadism” argues Hasan, “we need to stop exaggerating the threat these young men pose and giving them the oxygen of publicity they crave, and start highlighting how so many of them lead decidedly un-Islamic lives.”

Dr Matthew Francis (an academic specialist on radicalisation) writes on The Conversation how it isn’t simply ‘bad religion’ but a host of other factors that lead to radicalisation: –

“Radicalised people who act violently have often previously felt that they are worse off than other people, and don’t feel that they have the means or opportunities to improve their situation (regardless of whether this is strictly true). It is these people’s engagement with a peer network which encourages violence, occasionally over the internet but more commonly in person.”

For a more in-depth look at the political factors that lead to ISIS, look no further than Haroon Moghul’s clear-headed piece in the Salon or Murtaza Hussain’s rebuttal to Wood’s article in The Intercept.

What Cottee, Hasan, Francis, Moghul and Hussain have written is not ground-breaking or revolutionary. They are simply doing two things. The first is basing their thoughts on published academic research; all three articles are grounded in empirical research. The second thing is that they are employing the regular and reliable means of analysis available in understanding human behaviour to ISIS. They make no exceptions for Islam.

It really is time to stop faithwashing ISIS and stop faithwashing radicalisation, and begin to see both more fully. It is the only way the global community can stop Isis and help the peoples of Syria and Iraq who have suffered terribly in recent years.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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