Why a comprehensive theological response to ISIS is desperately needed. 
Mehdi Hasan has published a critique of the article by Graeme Wood in the Atlantic ("What ISIS Really wants"), How Islamic is Islamic State? in the New Statesman this week, with the rhetorical implication that it is really not Islamic at all (Mehdi's byline, "The conventional wisdom suggests a violent reading of the Quran is at the heart of Islamic State's political violence – but it's wrong."). When the Atlantic article appeared, I described it as important because it highlights the aspects of ISIS that appeal to its potential recruits. However Mehdi Hasan considers that Wood's article is intended to support the illiberal view that the problem with ISIS is actually a problem that the West has with Islam, and that it is poorly researched. My endorsement of Wood's Atlantic article is that the key information he does present, does demonstrate ISIS's use of millenarian and faux-Salafi theology. Mehdi Hasan points out that in reality ISIS is a cobbled together allegiance of AQ splinters, former Ba'athists and organised criminal gangs, not a theological movement. He is probably right, but Ba'athism doesn't have a following in the West, and organised crime is, one might say, a law unto itself. The arguments, rationale and propaganda that draw Western Muslims to ISIS, are very much a theological problem that Muslims must face down, and which ISIS has manipulated intelligently.

I would probably agree with much of what Mehdi Hasan has written elsewhere, and the citations he makes in this New Statesman article include ones that I would strongly endorse. Mehdi Hasan expresses strong scepticism of Wood's assertion that ISIS's violence has theological roots: he quotes Wood, “The religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”. Yes, Mehdi Hasan is right insofar as ISIS's theology is not congruent to mainstream Sunni Islam, nor even to Salafi theological representations. But Graeme Wood's article, or the one I cited by Hassan Hassan of a similar nature, is important because ISIS's audience is not mainstream Sunni scholars, it is those who are already deeply distrustful of the Muslim establishment. It is a big audience, it comprises, in every masjid in Britain, educated second or third generation young Muslims who despair of the kindergarten level of instruction that is the limit of what their local imam can provide. It is the idealistic convert who has been sold an idea of Islam as the pure way of life, achievable by strict adherence to easily accessible translations of Qur'an and Hadeeth, and corrupted by tribalistic politics of elderly Asian mosque committees. In France, it is an audience of autodidactic religious revivalists who are repulsed by highly secularised North African elders that are sycophants of a populist culture that rejects them.

The rationale that ISIS communicates through its acolytes to potential recruits is couched in religious terms, with references to Islamic sources: the Qur'an, Hadeeth and the Seerah of the Salaf as-Saliheen. So if they are to be won back, the potential recruits deserve, and are in desperate need of, firmly rooted Islamic rebuttals. Those rebuttals need to come from the mimbars of their masjids in Tower Hamlets and Saltley, and from their peers and elders in UK schools and colleges, not in some wholesome but obscure and dismissive intellectual reasoning from Al Azhar or Cambridge. Those attracted to ISIS from European and especially UK cities, not only do not have the depth of classical, orthodox Sunni, theological learning, they are actually deeply sceptical of its purveyors, and their local imams and alims have the poorest record imaginable of being able to communicate such knowledge. On the other hand, throughout the UK, and actually throughout Europe for slightly different reasons, those same newer generations, neophytes and converts to Islam, have had two or three decades of exposure to home-grown theology, from varying Salafi and proto-Salafi advocates, Hizb-ut-Tahrir propagators, vociferous catch-me-if-you-can militants in the very pliable Muhajiroun mould, and actually, including numerous purveyors of an ultra-lberal Islam that find Islamic justifications for khutbah in vernacular and female imams at Jumu'ah, and all those who thumb through books of knowledge to find justifications for their own gripes against their own local Muslim 'establishment'. All these people and their audiences, are completely familiar with the methods of propagation that ISIS uses. They are familiar with the doomsday warnings for the non-compliant, the extraordinary depth, range and co-optability of Islamic sources, the morbid dwelling on the state of Muslims in 'the final days', and the possibility that ISIS might be part of that showdown.

All ISIS needs to do, and has done, is to put forward more cogent arguments in their own favour, in a format and with sources that the recipients are familiar with, for numbers, on the periphery, small but steadily growing and very significant, to be persuaded that ISIS is on their side, that the horror and fear expressed by popular media is evidence of ISIS's robust stand against a West that despises Islam. In our academic and analytical comfort we can state the obvious about ISIS's cynicism, its manipulation, its internal contradictions and sheer mendacity. But for young Muslims especially, and those who are troubled by the dischordant clash between their own lives, the ideals of a simple Muslim way of life, the corruption and decadence of the society they are growing up in, and especially the compromises and hypocrisy of their own parents, the ISIS message offers a resolution.

Mehdi Hasan's first point is about the lack of religious knowledge among ISIS's groundlings, 'According to François, “It was more hammering what they were believing than teaching us about the Quran. Because it has nothing to do with the Quran.” And the former hostage revealed to a startled Amanpour: “We didn’t even have the Quran. They didn’t want even to give us a Quran.”'


Mehdi Hasan is scathing of Wood's sources: "Bernard Haykel of Princeton University, the only scholar of Islam whom Wood bothered to interview, described Muslims who considered Isis to be un-Islamic, or anti-Islamic, as “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion”, and declared that the hand-choppers and throat-slitters of Isis “have just as much legitimacy” as any other Muslims, because Islam is “what Muslims do and how they interpret their texts”. Mehdi Hasan and others should disagree with this insofar as orthodoxy by definition is that which places its authority in a widely accepted and long maintained corpus of religious material. The problem is, as I stated in my endorsement of the Wood article, that ISIS has been very successful at recruiting the unorthodox, radical, militant dissenters: not the intellectual dissenters but the unfulfilled ones. It has done so by exploiting the methods that Salafis have been practising among Islam's western diaspora for nearly three decades, and which are therefore familiar, challenging, methods of discourse for their recruits. They were methods that succeeded in the original wave of Salafi revival two or three decades ago, precisely because they challenged orthodoxy, they called out the traditional scholars of islam, the imams and alims of innumerable masjids away from the centres of Islamic learning. And the Hanafi, Shafi'i, even Hanbali imams and alims had no training in standing up for orthodox Sunni Islam, whatever its preferred flavour, Deobandi, Bareilvi, al Azhar, or even the rigidly conforming Saudi-employed scholars of orthodoxy.

Now that Islamic orthodoxy has been seen to fail to counter the challenges thrown down in reasonable matters by reasonable Salafis, the field is wide open to anyone, faux-Salafi, who can use the same methods to drive rather more fantastic demands. Their usually young, often disaffected, too often dissatisfied convert, audiences know that orthodox alims and imams are mute. If they weren't already mute from the absence of counter arguments, they are most certainly muted by governments and media hounds for whom any discussion of anything but the "politically correct, ... cotton-candy view of their own religion” is tantamount to endorsing extremism.

Hasan's first witness is Mark Sageman. "Few experts have done more to try to understand the mindset of the young men and women who aspire to join the blood-drenched ranks of groups such as Isis and al-Qaeda than Sageman. [...] in his acclaimed works Understanding Terror Networks and Leaderless Jihad, [that] closely analysed the biographies of several hundred terrorists." I agree.

Hasan on Sageman: '“Religion has a role but it is a role of justification,” he tells me. “It’s not why they do this [or] why young people go there.”' [If I quoted much more of Sageman here I would be pirating Hasan's work, but ... ] 'For converts to Islam in particular, he adds, “Identity is important to them. They have . . . invested a lot of their own efforts and identity [...] They see other Muslims being slaughtered [and say], ‘I need to protect my community.’” Hasan again: "(A recent study found that converts to Islam were involved in 31 per cent of Muslim terrorism convictions in the UK between 2001 and 2010.)" Indeed, a fact that MuslimsInBritain.org continues to stress till we hyperventilate!

More essential wisdom from Sageman, quoted by Hasan: '“You don’t have the most religious folks going there,” he points out. Isis fighters from the west, in particular, “tend to have rediscovered Islam as teenagers, or as converts”; they are angry, or even bored, young men ..."' and crucially, referencing 'the Lebanese-American former FBI agent Ali H Soufan, "I knew far more of the Quran than they did [...] the limits of their knowledge enabled me and my colleagues to use their claimed piousness against them.”' This is exactly MuslimsInBritain's point about why a cogent, comprehensive and cross-factional theological rebuttal is desperately needed. It isn't coming from our supposed 'alims and imams, they only know why, as Deobandis, the Bareilvis are 'qabr pujaris', or why, as Bareilvis, the Deobandis are 'ghustaq-e-Rasool', and anyone who isn't a Bareilvi is a 'Wahabbi' and in the pay of Saudi Arabia's Waqf Ministry. (Actually the most potent and well presented sectarian Salafi literature is written by mother-tongue English converts and published in the UK.) If the rebuttal of ISIS ever comes, it must be one hundred percent clear that it is uniform across Islam and that its authors can and will argue it through to every Muslim malcontent in the land. If instead it simply becomes a line of division, the polarisation of the Muslim community will actually and substantially increase support for ISIS.

Hasan's next witness is Restricted, who revealed him/her/itself to the Guardian in 2008, probably because it was a vital message that needed to be understood in public, and is still not understood by much of the media or even the security commentariat (probably because they would no longer be able to justify their sometimes idiotic and usually wrong pronouncements made for jackpot consultancy fees). This time I will quote Hasan quoting the Guardian:
“Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.” The MI5 analysts noted the disproportionate number of converts and the high propensity for “drug-taking, drinking alcohol and visiting prostitutes [...] A well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.” Quite right, if I say so myself! Again, that is actually why the Graeme Wood article, and the Weiss and Hassan study, are so important: Orthodox, mainstream Muslim alims and imams continue to fail to provide anything more than primary-school madrassah, learn-by-rote instruction in Islamic belief and practice. For converts and neophytes, the field is wide open and well populated with offers of instruction, help and guidance from anyone with a soapbox to exhort from. A very few of these are managed by a very few of the larger mosques, but even these are hidebound by the mosque's own approved sectarian allegiances. The internet provides a more accessible and readily available medium. What are now known as self-radicalisation and on-line radicalisation, and which is now recognised to be the norm for most European-based Muslims undertaking an extremist action, are actually subsets of the process of radicalisation I have been describing continuously for the twelve years that I have been contributing to analysis and understanding of violent extremism among Muslims. The Security Service document makes plain that those motivated to extremist violence are not able to be profiled through common, objective characteristics. The concepts of self- and on-line radicalisation undermine the security establishment's notion of a conveyor belt to extremism or an underground network of recruiting agents. The missing factor in European Muslim radicalisation is the one that I have continually been expounding, the 'push' factor, which is far stronger than the 'pull' factor, and it consists of disaffected neophytes' repeated and deep-felt rejection of and by, the European Muslim mainstream.

Mehdi Hasan's next witness illustrates this perfectly: "... Mohammed Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar, the two young British Muslim men from Birmingham who were convicted on terrorism charges in 2014 after travelling to fight in Syria, bought copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies from Amazon prior to their departure. Religious novices, indeed." They had grown up in traditional, Punjabi/Kashmiri communities in Pakistani-migrant Birmingham, and their orthodox education in Islam was so deficient that they had to start again as self-declared 'dummies'. What Hasan's anecdote does not explore, is what was it that made them decide not to take advice from the well-entrenched Muslim establishment. Handsworth's Muslim landscape is evenly divided between the two mutually loathing Bareilvi and Deobandi factions, both mainstream (8 mosques, 4 of each). It is because that well-entrenched Muslim establishment was too busy pronouncing takfir against each other based on an obscure 19th century quarrel, to have time to study the needs of their own children.

Hasan returns to Sageman, and again the point Hasan makes is right, and his conclusion from it is wrong. "Sageman ... says we have to locate terrorism and extremism in local conflicts rather than in grand or sweeping ideological narratives ..." He is referring to the roots of the ISIS crisis in Iraq and Syria, but what matters for our own safety and Muslims' future in Europe, is the faux-Salafi Islamic theology medium that ISISuses to attract its most potent operators from relatively comfortable London, Birmingham or Marseilles communities. It is the local conflicts there which matter, and the local conflicts in Handsworth and Tower Hamlets, in Sparkbrook and Beeston, in Derby and Dewsbury, is between disaffected Muslim youth and converts, and the complacent, self-satisfied Muslim establishment.

Mehdi Hasan cites MI6's Richard Barrett, again the focus being on the support for ISIS from within Syria and Iraq, and again while it is undoubtedly true that their motivations are often far from religious, “Acting in the name of Islam means that, for the ignorant at least, the groups have some legitimacy for their actions . . . They can pretend it is not just about power and money.” And again, for those signing up to ISIS from Europe, it most certainly isn't about power and money, it is about the perception of a legitimised jihad.

Hasan does turn to the orthodox Muslim establishment personified by the widely respected convert scholar, Abdul Hakim Murad in Cambridge. Unfortunately, Murad is a caricature of the distracted, idealistically liberal Muslim scholar that couldn't be more distant from the street-corner Islam that informs ISIS's recruits. Abdul Hakim Murad rightly differentiates between theological Salafi-ism and those who use the Salafi methods to perpetuate and deepen discord. 'Salafists tend to be apolitical, whereas groups such as Isis are intensely political. Even the traditionalist Murad, who has little time for what he has deemed the “cult-like universe of the Salafist mindset”, agrees that the rise of extremism within the movement is a consequence, rather than a cause, of violence and conflict.'

Probably the strongest of Mehdi Hasan's arguments is one of the points made by militant-turned-Sufi, Canadian Mubin Shaikh, who argues that, 'it is dangerous to grant Isis any kind of theological legitimacy amid efforts to formulate a coherent “countering violent extremism” (CVE) strategy in the west. “It is quite possibly a fatal blow in that regard because, essentially, it is telling Muslims to condemn that which is Islamic.” It is, he says, a “schizophrenic approach to CVE which will never succeed”.' But that is rather different from what MuslimsInBritain.org is asking for. I am not asking to counter theology with theology: that would be as polarising (and therefore defeating) as trying to define 'moderate' ('good') from 'radical' ('bad') Muslims. MuslimsInBritain.org wants to see 'alims and imams formulate between them, across their sects, a clear and comprehensive, wide-ranging debunking of ISIS's millenarian cult theology and have that propagated to every local mosque, madrassah, school and informal gathering. The material must unpick sectarian differences and not be weakened by the highest common factor on which sects currently agree. Crucially, those who use the confrontational devices that Salafis exploited in challenging the hegemony of village Islam in the UK's masjids, must recognise the damage those methodshave done and the way they are successfully exploited by ISIS. And equally crucially, the material must be accompanied by a determined effort to educate the two thousand or more alims and imams in the UK who currently are unable to propagate anything beyond madrassah basics and the Deobandi/Bareilvi/"Wahabbi" rant.

Hasan turns to the pollster, Dalia Mogahed and asks, 'What about Haykel’s claim that Isis fighters are constantly quoting Quranic verses and the hadith, or traditions from the life of the Prophet, and that they “mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion and they do it all the time”? Why do they do that if they don’t believe this stuff – if it isn’t sincere? “The Quran [and] hadith according to whom?” she responds. “As interpreted by whom? As understood by whom?”' Rhetorical question in reply, but it has an answer all the same: according to those who have legitimised this manner of discourse that popularises challenges to mainstream Sunni orthodoxy: the street-corner preacher, the disaffected neophyte, the alienated convert. Precisely the people who deserve a response in terms they understand. '“Islam’s authorities have loudly and unanimously declared Isis un-Islamic.” Because of this, “Making a claim that violates normative principles of a philosophy, as defined by those with the authority to decide, is illegitimate.”' Pious words, but they merely strengthen the self-righteousness of the disaffected. 'For Mogahed, ... “a violent reading of the Quran is not leading to political violence. Political violence is leading to a violent reading of the Quran.”' Clever wordplay, but I would extend it, "Political violence [in Syria and Iraq] is leading to a violent reading of the Qur'an [on Commercial Road, E1].”'

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