Could ISIS Exist Without Islam?

Why “Is the Islamic State Muslim?” is a trick question

Akhtar Soomro / Reuters

“The question of how Islamic is ISIS … is actually a bit of a trick question,” said Dalia Mogahed, the research director of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. Even so, it’s one that has defined discussion of the group and its aims, with U.S. President Barack Obama having declared that the group “is not Islamic,” and The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood countering in a cover story: “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.”

Mogahed said it’s “kind of an obvious point” that the group uses Islamic texts to justify its brutality. “But I want to answer a slightly different question, which is: If Islam did not exist … would a group like ISIS, with all the other realities as they are, exist today and do the same things?”

“My answer to that hypothetical question is a resounding yes.” Discussing global terrorism at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Mogahed, who formerly led research on Muslims with the polling organization Gallup, said that extremist groups all over the world commit the same kinds of violence using what she called “the local social currency” to justify it. “That is sometimes Christianity. That is sometimes Judaism. That is sometimes Buddhism. And it is sometimes secular ideologies. So a world without Islam would still have a group like ISIS—they would just be called something else that may be less catchy.”

In the Middle East itself, she said, there was terrorism before there was a “pronounced Islamic social currency.” In the 1950s, the secular, left-wing fedayeen committed attacks on Israel in the name of Arab nationalism which, Mogahed said, was the prevailing social currency of the time. Given this history in the Middle East, and global history from Peru to Northern Ireland to Japan, in which terrorism emerges again and again from societies with no Islamic traditions to speak of, there’s a limit to the Quran’s explanatory power when it comes to political violence.

Mogahed suggested that the relationship between Islamic texts and ISIS’s brutality is actually the reverse of what both ISIS and many of its enemies claim. It’s not, she said, the group’s interpretation of Islamic texts that drives its brutality—it’s the group’s desired brutality driving its interpretation of the texts. “We start at the violence we want to conduct, and we convince ourselves that this is the correct way to interpret the texts,” she said.

If that implies that it’s not terribly informative to question the degree of ISIS’s Islamic-ness, it still leaves the question of why ISIS has emerged now. Mogahed said one possible reason involved Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “He has massacred far more people than ISIS has,” she said. A key variable in the group’s seemingly sudden emergence, then, is not its interpretation of Islam, according to Mogahed. “I think it’s the product of the brutality of this war that we’ve ignored.”