Defeating Islamic State – with an alternative vision

President Obama knows war alone will not defeat the Islamic State group. In his UN speech, he asked Muslims to offer a different vision from the IS approach of imposing a self-defined cultural purity by force.

A Free Syrian Army member helps a Syrian woman make her way to Turkey Sept. 23 to escape the Islamic State fighters as the United States and its Arab allies bomb Syria to destroy the Islamist group.

In a speech to the United Nations on Wednesday, President Obama made an impassioned plea to Muslims to offer an alternative vision to those of groups like the Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda. “No external power can bring about a transformation of hearts and minds,” he said. 

His words are a tacit admission that the American-led military war on IS would be incomplete without a different vision of Islam taking hold in the Middle East.

But exactly what is the IS vision that needs to be replaced? In its simplistic form, it is one that seeks cultural purity through force, based on a fundamentalist notion of 7th-century Islamic life, regardless of individual rights or elective governance. IS claims an authentic vision unto itself. And it sees anyone different as not only impure but a danger.

For many young Muslims living in Western societies or under dictatorial Arab regimes, this utopian vision of a presumed pure Islamic practice – uncorrupted and set apart – may seem attractive, even worth dying for. Yet it also sets up a simplistic, us-versus-them view in which Muslim “heretics” or non-Muslim “infidels” are treated as enemies of social purity who must be forced to convert or be killed.

This is not the first time in history that a group has defined a purity of practice and ideology for a society without first gaining the consensus of that society. Nazis tried it on much of Europe and communists tried it in different countries, only to discover that this vision weakens a society, bringing its eventual collapse.

The alternative vision to IS lies in understanding that purity comes only in the heart of the individual. It is a singular experience that does not need to impose purity on others to affirm one’s own purity. A desire to live in a pure society is natural, but the pure in heart must shape their relationships by persuasion, not force.

“Declaring a person an apostate is impossible and impermissible,” stated a document issued by the King of Jordan in 2004 and endorsed by some 200 Muslim scholars in many countries. And polls of Muslims worldwide show a majority favor a democratic system with freedom of religion.

Last week, a council of senior Islamic scholars in Saudi Arabia issued a statement against IS, declaring “the necessity of mutual advice, understanding and cooperation in righteousness and piety.”

The shadowy IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declares that he alone is under “the command of my Lord” and able to impose a way of life on those under IS control. Many Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria have so far either supported or tolerated IS, in part to avoid living under governments lead by non-Sunnis.Mr. Obama’s plea to Muslims to offer an alternative vision may be designed to persuade these IS-governed Sunnis to reject the IS vision.

An alternative vision would affirm a society with the self-evident truth of individual freedom, in which each person can find purity, in large part by honoring and respecting a similar desire in others.

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