On March 22, sadness and fear swept the globe in the aftermath of the Brussels terrorist attacks, which killed 31 people and injured hundreds more.
ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, took responsibility for the attacks, just months after taking responsibility for the November Paris attacks that killed 130 people. ISIS has also taken credit for attacks in many other countries, including Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, and Turkey.
A video released by ISIS on March 4 shows images of the British Parliament and the Roman Colosseum, while a member of the group says, “If it was Paris yesterday, and today Brussels, Allah knows where it will be tomorrow. Maybe it will be in London or Berlin or Rome.” ISIS is infamous for spreading messages of hate and releasing violent videos showing the executions of hostages.
Fears only continue to rise in the U.S.; a recent New York Times/CBS News poll concluded that seven in ten Americans now see ISIS as a major threat to domestic security.
Because ISIS insists that its actions are supported by the religion of Islam and are undertaken completely in devotion to God, ISIS and Islam are often conflated. In fact, a 2015 YouGov poll found that 55% of Americans hold an “unfavorable” opinion of Islam.
However, it is a statistical reality that all the terrorist groups that fight in the name of Islam comprise an extremely small minority of Muslims. The US Department of Defense estimated ISIS numbers at between 20,000 and 30,000 in Iraq and Syria, less than 0.002% of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and 2.75 million Muslims here in the United States.
What is the truth about Islam? According to the Oxford Islamic Studies, an international research database on Islamic studies, The Five Pillars of Islam, which set the foundation for Muslim life, are: 1) Declaring that there is no god but God and Muhammad is his Prophet (shahadah), 2) performing the five daily prayers (salat), 3) giving alms to those in need (zakat), 4) Fasting from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan (sawm), and 5) Performing a pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj).
Islam traditionally focuses on the qualities of caring and empathy. For example, according to the Oxford Islamic Studies, fasting during Ramadan is intended to “[remind] the believer of the pain and hunger experienced by the poor,” and giving alms to those in need, traditionally 2.5% of a believer’s total liquid assets, is intended to help the community.
Deerfield student Iqbal Nurjadin ’18 said, “My interpretation [of Islam] is that everything [Islam] asks you to do…is just to be a good person.”
Saher Al-Khamash ’17 explained how Islam has shaped who she is: “Islam has taught me a lot about modesty, not just in clothing, but about the way I behave and interact with people. It’s taught me to be grateful for what I have and [think of those] who are less fortunate when I fast during Ramadan.”
Saba Al-Qubailat ’17 commented on the disconnect between true Islam and Islam seen in the media: The actions of ISIS contradict Islamic teachings, she said. ISIS spreads hate, but the Qur’an preaches love and empathy; ISIS murders “infidels,” she said, but the Qur’an explicitly condemns killing. “[Islam] means love; it means caring for each other,” she explained, “and the core principles of my religion have nothing to do with what the media portrays.” Indeed, she said that Islam itself is against the atrocities that ISIS commits.
Arabic Teacher Samar Moushabeck explained that Muslims actually see the Qur’an as an addition to older scriptures such as the Torah and the Bible. “The Qur’an celebrates the stories of the Bible,” she said, “and refers to Jews and Christians as ‘People of the Book’ who worship the same God.” Why, then, does ISIS perform such atrocities?
ISIS claims that its actions are “jihad,” which is often translated as “holy war,” claiming that it is holy to fight in the name of Islam. Ms. Moushabeck explained, “In a literal sense, ‘jihad’ means to strive or struggle for something at any intensity. For example, the daily struggles to be good or bad are considered jihad. In a religious context, ‘jihad’ refers to the inner struggle to stay good and the duty to inform others about Islam.”
Talha Tariq ’17 further noted that ISIS actually harms Muslims as well as non- Muslims, showing that its actions are not even consistent with its own version of Islam. He explained, “On Easter Sunday, Christians in my family’s country of Pakistan were mingling with the largely Muslim population, but a suicide bombing occurred in the park they were celebrating in, and both Muslims and Christians were killed in the crossfire.”
Ms. Moushabeck also pointed out that on Deerfield’s spring break trip to Jordan, it became very apparent to the students on the trip that the vast majority of Muslims strongly disapprove of ISIS. In other words, ISIS poses a threat to both Western and predominantly Muslim countries alike.
Although ISIS does not conform to Islam, it and many other extremist groups are still able to gain many new recruits, convincing the recruits that what they are doing is holy. Al-Qubailat stated, “Extremist groups use the religious texts out of context, so they seem Islamic, but they’re really not… Their dramatic videos appeal to youth and help them recruit more people, which is both scary and dangerous.” Ms. Moushabeck said that she did not know exactly what ISIS is trying to do or what its ultimate goal is, but it is clear that the group is using the pretext of Islam both for money and a political agenda. She said, “Money has corrupted these power-hungry people. They took over oil wells and now they’re selling the oil to get money. They’re preying on people who don’t have strong knowledge or direction about Islam.”
The Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister, Adel Al-Jubeir, has pointed out that every religion has extremist groups that abuse religion for their own agendas. He stated at the Munich Security Conference, “For anyone to argue that Daesh [ISIS] is Islamic is preposterous. In the Islamic faith, the Qur’an reveals that you have your faith and I have my faith. You are free to practice your faith and I am free to practice mine. What greater sign of tolerance and acceptance do you have than this?”
Despite the inconsistencies between ISIS and the Islamic faith as most Muslims interpret it, the actions of extremist Muslim groups greatly shape the world’s view on Islam, and this deeply saddens most Muslims.
Ms. Moushabeck said, “It hurts me to see [extremist groups] ruin the reputation of Muslims. It saddens me to see the damage that they are doing. They’ve damaged historical artifacts that are thousands of years old…. They have no respect for human culture or life.”
The actions of extremist groups also have very tangible impacts on how Muslims are treated. Tariq recounted an event that was particularly traumatizing: “When I was seven or eight … in rural Virginia, there came one day on a weekend when I invited a friend over and five or six other boys came, too. I thought they were going to play, too, but they stoned me until I bled and called me ‘terrorist.’ I hated myself for being Muslim, and I hated myself for my skin.” He emphasized that those kids likely acted the way they did not because of any fault of their own but because of influences from their parents or society, but added that this event definitely changed the way he viewed his place in the world. He explained, “I wanted to go into politics, but then I realized that may not be a possibility for me.”
For fear of their own safety, many Muslims feel afraid to freely practice their faith. Al-Qubailat explained, “My scarf [hijab, the traditional covering for Muslim women] means a lot to me, but when I go to airports or a foreign country, I might take off my scarf. I also wonder, ‘Should I pray or should I just wait until I get home?’” Al-Khamash experiences a similar pressure to conceal her faith at times, saying, “Sometimes my family will tell me not to tell outsiders I’m Muslim for my own safety.”
Despite not knowing the ultimate goal of ISIS, it is clear that like other extremist groups, ISIS uses religion to achieve its own agenda. It is also clear that the vast majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims living peacefully in the world are not the true enemy, but rather victims of ISIS as well. Al-Khamash urged, “People should take some time to learn about Islam and not take what they see in the media…as the whole of Islam, but to look at Muslims as individuals.”