It’s not difficult to understand how the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) can seem appealing to a particular group of Muslims. With its slick, promotional videos (complete with spectacular special effects), its claims to be working for Islamic glory and its promises of brotherhood and identity, the group is convincing Muslims around the world to join and fulfill what it asserts is a “religious duty.” ISIL promises a way for Muslims to regain control of their occupied lands and right the wrongs that have been committed by the West against Muslim brothers and sisters in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. And if they are killed, members are told they will be martyrs and will be guaranteed a spot in heaven for their jihad.
Promises about the afterlife aside, let’s examine what ISIL is in real life: a smooth propaganda machine that exploits the emotions of vulnerable individuals searching for identity and purpose. After researching international lone wolf terrorism extensively for the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate, my team and I found that if you are a young male age 15 to 35, are a second- or third-generation immigrant, have difficulties in school or career progression, experience a sense of rejection and tend to look for an ideology to project your personal beliefs onto, then you fit the profile of many lone wolf terrorists and are vulnerable to being indoctrinated into joining this violent cult that has no basis in Islam.
ISIL claims its ideology is embedded in the Quran and Hadith (teachings, sayings, and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad — peace and blessings upon him), but in fact shows absolutely no respect for either. In the Quran, God is absolutely clear about the sanctity of life:
If anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder or to spread mischief in the land — it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind. (Surah Ma’idah, verse 32).
ISIL beheads innocent Westerners, which it gleefully publicizes, and it targets innocent civilians, including women, children and the elderly, Muslim and non-Muslim. Just last month, ISIL executed three Sunni women in Mosul, allegedly for refusing to treat ISIL fighters, and four more were killed just a few days ago. Teachers, doctors, and journalists have been abducted for failing to pledge allegiance to the organization. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced without access to food, water and medicine. Even religious leaders have not been spared, with several imams killed for denouncing the organization or failing to pledge allegiance to it.
These practices were not those taught by our beloved Prophet Muhammad. In fact, as some Muslim scholars point out, he predicted the coming of ISIL — modern day deviants referred to in Hadith as khawarij:
There would arise people who would recite the Quran, but it would not go beyond their throat; they would kill the followers of Islam and would spare the idol worshipers … They would glance through the teachings of Islam so hurriedly just as the arrow passes through the prey. If I were to ever find them, I would kill them like ’Ad. (Sahih Muslim)
Is violence and beheading what Islam preaches? Would anyone be able to stand before God on the day of judgment and justify these horrific actions as jihad — as noble striving for Islam? ISIL, despite its name, is not acting in accordance with Islam. Rather, it has manipulated the religion for its political gain to control territory and dominate the Middle East. It will destroy anyone who stands in its way, its own recruits included.
ISIL justifies its actions by pointing to the West’s destructive impulses. Take the innocent civilians killed abroad as a result of U.S. drones in Yemen and Pakistan; look at how the Iraq and Afghanistan wars obliterated the region’s governance, infrastructure and economies; consider the unquestioning Western support of Israel while the country strips Palestinians of their land, their livelihood and their dignity. What if ISIL offers the chance to bring justice for the Muslims who have been wronged for so long?
Joining ISIL will not solve problems, provide long-term stability or unite the ummah.
These frustrations are understandable, and I really do empathize with anyone who resents the U.S. and its allies for their deplorable behavior. But ISIL is not the answer. It is a criminal organization, funded by oil smuggling and looting banks that hold the hard-earned funds of the very Muslims the group claims to protect. Villagers living in ISIL territory are being forcefully taxed, extorted and robbed every day. This is no foundation for the peaceful and prosperous society people in the region desire.
Instead of joining a terrorist group, it would make more sense for young Muslims who are rightly disgusted by the way their people are treated to become civically engaged and active in their communities. To quote the Quran, “Let there arise out of you a group of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong. And it is they who are the successful.” (Surah Al-Imran, verse 104)
Muslim youth should urge their community leaders to adopt programs, such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Safe Spaces Initiative, in which they, with the assistance of psychologists, counselors and teachers, are free to discuss controversial topics like culture, politics, religion and personal issues and engage in tolerance-building exercises without fear of retribution by law enforcement or community members. These programs also give family members an option between calling the police and doing nothing when a potentially dangerous situation arises.
It is the duty of every Muslim to speak out against injustices against all human beings. But this must be done in a peaceful and productive manner. Joining ISIL will not solve problems, provide long-term stability or unite the ummah. Even Al-Qaeda, once the most feared terrorist network in the world, has criticized ISIL for killing civilians and waging war on other Muslims. ISIL is a terrorist network through and through and will corrupt anyone who is foolish enough to believe its propaganda. Despite the sensational videos and murderous theatrics, we do not live in a Hollywood movie. We get onlyone shot at life and must arm ourselves with the facts to ensure we choose our path wisely.