Popular social justice figure and New York Daily News columnist Shaun King wrotean editorial declaring that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) are not Muslims, but rather “evil men hell-bent on carnage”.
It is something that Muslims have been saying almost since ISIL atrocities took over Western media. Believers, counterterrorism experts and government officials have long been going back and forth about what words should be used to describe the group, with many loudly pushing to deny any intimation of “Islamic”.
Whether or not the debate over language achieves anything on the ground, what is clear is that language plays an important part in the public’s emotional outrage.
Who gets to define Islam?
Which is why I need to urgently request that all my non-Muslim ally friends please stop saying “ISIS is not Islam”.
We love our Muslim brothers and sisters, but we are teetering on a dangerous cliff by dabbling in this bit of theological absolutism about a community we are not a part of, especially considering our historical role in colonialism and the “war on terror”.
The vast majority of Muslims are, indeed, opposed to violence in the name of Islam, and this is a statistic we should never forget.
But does the majority get to define the identity of the minority? Surely they may reject it and ostracise that minority, but self-identification cannot be dismissed even if it’s “for a good cause”.
Shaun King is a man with his heart in the right place. His statement that ISIL is not Islam is, by and large, a reaction to the pronouncement of people like Bill Maher that Islam is ISIL.
But substituting one absolutism with its absolute opposite is not helpful. When we say “Islam is a religion of peace” it is coming from a place of love, but it is not respectful of Muslims’ autonomy in defining themselves.
There is no supreme authority in Islam. We cannot privilege one version of Islam over another just because it feels good to us. What we can do is talk about the people of Islam, for they are the supreme authority over themselves.
In Western thought, religious identity is a personal choice. Whatever religious label one personally ascribes to is what we recognise them to be.
We may add a qualifier to their label, such as “fundamentalist” or “non-practising”, but never do we deny their chosen identity altogether.
Who is a Muslim?
We may call ISIL a group of militant Muslims, but we cannot deny the identity they have chosen for their militancy. Is theirs the “true” Islam? That’s not for those of us outside the Islamic faith to judge.
“A Muslim is whoever says he’s a Muslim,” says religious scholar and noted Muslim, Reza Aslan. Aslan is adamant that neither Muslims nor non-Muslims dismiss the language ISIL uses to describe themselves, but also points to a tendency for many in the West to favour the violent definitions while ignoring the majority who proclaim Islam while acting non-violently.
“For while it is true that ISIS are Muslims,” he continues, “it’s also true that so are the tens of thousands who are battling them, and the tens of thousands of victims of ISIS. They’re all Muslim too.”
Does ISIL’s militancy represent all Muslims? Absolutely not. Around the world, we see high levels of Muslims’ aversion to ISIL, especially in countries where most of the violence has taken place.
When a Muslim tells you, “ISIL is not Islam” you must believe them. They are telling you there is nothing they recognise in ISIL as part of their Islamic identity.
Those of us non-Muslims who consider ourselves allies must be careful when making sweeping statements about a centuries-old complex system of beliefs, even though the believers are our friends.
Instead of taking up theological arguments that we aren’t qualified to make – but still sound good – we should be talking about the virtues of the people in the Muslim community. To build a truly pluralistic society, we must interact with each other as people, not concepts.
CHRISTA BLACKMON is a media analyst and digital anthropologist. She is currently pursuing her Masters in Social Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and researching the oral histories of women about the Palestinian Nakba and how they are being recorded on digital video. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.