The answer to Islamic State: by sword – or word?

More than by military attacks, the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS or ISIL, can be defeated if more Muslims counter its message that faith can come through coerced acts of presumed piety rather than freely chosen spiritual understanding.

AP Photo
Displaced Christians wait for relief last July near Mosul, Iraq. Iraqi Christians fled the city in the wake of threats from Islamic State militants who imposed a deadline for Christians to convert to Islam, pay a tax, or face death.

As world leaders try to counter the killing spree of the militant group Islamic State, better known as ISIS, they should take note of this trend: More Muslim leaders are challenging the group’s core message that faith can be compelled by the threat of violence.

The basic error in the group’s message is more than simply that terror in the name of religion – in this case Islam – is permissible. Rather, the Islamic State is also mistaken in a more fundamental way: It demands an outward conformity in behavior, such as women being veiled in public or men wearing beards, as a necessary first step for a person to achieve an understanding of doctrine.

In other words, doing religion will necessarily lead to believing in it. Action somehow begets spiritual thought. And if a person does not act with certain physical signs of faith, then killing is justified.

Many religions have fallen into this trap of trying to compel understanding through coerced deeds. But debunking it is crucial to countering IS. The more Muslims stand up for the idea that faith is first from the heart – a personal commitment to the peace and selflessness that all major religions teach – the more likely is it that young Muslims will decide not to join IS.

The ultimate response to this jihadi advance, in other words, is active persuasion by the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims about their peaceful approach to faith.

To be sure, IS’s advances in Iraq and Syria will likely need a military response to halt the ongoing killing of innocents, whether Muslims, Christians, Kurds, or others. But the more critical “frontline” is among Muslims in those countries where young men are being tempted to join IS, often through social media. And those countries range from North America to Europe to the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia, of all such places, is on that frontline. Hundreds of young Saudis have joined IS over the past year. They have not been deterred by a law against doing so. This finally pushed King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud to strongly denounce the Islamic State last month, saying Islam teaches tolerance and a maximum preservation of life.

But his words were not enough. On Aug. 19, the leading religious figure in Saudi Arabia, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, also spoke out. “Extremist and militant ideas and terrorism which spread decay on earth, destroying human civilization,” he said, “are not in any way part of Islam, but are enemy number one of Islam, and Muslims are their first victims.”

His words are an echo of similar sentiments uttered recently by top Islamic figures from Iran to Egypt, a sign of how much IS challenges Muslims.

For Saudi Arabia, such denunciations are a sign of progress. The kingdom has long promoted a brand of Islam that uses the authoritarian, nonelected state to impose religious behavior as a way to prevent apostates and create a society based on a literal interpretation of ancient texts. The Islamic State is simply a more virulent and less organized version of that approach. The IS commander, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has proclaimed himself as both the military and religious leader of a newly declared caliphate, or a state built on the kind of strict rule as recorded in the early centuries after Islam’s founding.

The long history of spreading a faith by the sword – which includes Christianity – must come to an end. But using sword against sword will not be enough. Religion, to live up to its role as a fount of peace, must be seen as something freely chosen. And that starts in a person’s thinking, not acts of enforced piety.

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