Graeme Wood’s “What ISIS Really Wants,” published in the March 2015 edition of The Atlantic, has quickly become the most widely read article on the militant group. Indeed, it is becoming the most read article ever published by The Atlantic.
Popular as it is, Wood’s essay is deeply flawed and alarmingly tone-deaf – dangerously so. What is so objectionable about Wood’s essay is encapsulated in his statement: “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” While Wood acknowledges that “nearly all” Muslims of the world reject ISIS, ultimately his thesis is that the atrocities committed by the group have a theological basis in Islam. In support of his thesis, Wood cites Princeton academic, Bernard Haykel, who not only agrees that ISIS is “very Islamic,” but even goes so far as to say that those Muslims who denounce ISIS as un-Islamic are either ignorant about Islam or are simply being politically expedient by deliberately whitewashing the legal and historical dimensions of their religion.
By characterizing ISIS as Islamic, Wood and Haykel in effect, if not intent, attribute cruel beheadings, wanton massacre, and all other manner of savagery to Islam. In their minds, such an attribution is neither factually incorrect nor particularly damaging to “nearly all” Muslims who reject ISIS. But are Wood and Haykel too naïve to understand that by making such attributions to Islam, they ipso facto implicate and foment suspicion about all those who subscribe to Islam?
Of course, their attributions are factually incorrect and conceptually confused as we will discuss below. But their mistakes are especially egregious given the current climate of anti-Muslim bigotry. In light of the recent hate crimes directed towards the American and European Muslim communities, Wood’s piece is tantamount to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre and, therefore, deserves a thorough rebuttal, if nothing else.
Below are twenty-one points that not only critique Wood’s essay and ISIS’s ideology but also take stock of the larger discourse surrounding Muslims, the War on Terror, and the intersection of government policy and the study of Islam in Western academia.
1. The Banality
By now, the McCarthyist script should be mind-numbingly familiar. Group A argues that Muslim crazies – in this case ISIS – are acting in accordance with the tenets of Islam, i.e., they’re “very Islamic.” Group B – in this case Muslims along with non-Muslim specialists – denies this, marshaling all manner of theological, historical, and sociological evidence. Group A, without skipping a beat, accuses Group B of being apologists for extremism and demands that Group B denounce the crazies (ignoring the copious denunciations Group B has already made in the past).
2. The Witch-Hunt
This is the back and forth playing out over and over again ad nauseum since 9/11, and, much like the McCarthyism of the past, its primary purpose is to restrict dissent and silence political criticism of government authorities. Few realize that an integral strategic component of the “Global War on Terror” and the invasion and occupation of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan by Western powers is the Islamophobic witch-hunt at home, which stigmatizes and prosecutes actual and would-be opponents to such foreign policy and shores up public support for more war against the “Muslim enemy.” That was the raison d’être of McCarthyism during the Cold War, and now American Muslims are the new communists in our midst.
3. The Profiling
Even as President Obama solemnly declares that ISIS and terrorism have nothing to do with Islam and the Muslim community at large, his administration still oversees a “Countering Violent Extremism” summit that primarily focuses on the American Muslim community. Despite the fact that only a tiny fraction of the extremist violence in the US is perpetrated by Muslims, the Obama administration and other federal and local agencies have made it crystal clear that it is primarily the average American Muslim who is the object of their spying, surveillance, entrapment, etc. And for some, this is still not enough.
4. The Diversion
Speaking of President Obama, remember how just a couple of weeks ago he sparked controversy by drawing parallels between ISIS and historical Christian violence, e.g., the Crusades, Jim Crow, etc.? How convenient for the President to highlight Christian violence in previous eras while ignoring all the more recent, salient examples of violence, death, and destruction wrought by, among other things, his drone program. By focusing on the crimes of others and the threat from without, the administration is able to maintain a façade of innocence in the face of all the injustice rocking the nation, e.g., the burgeoning prison population, an increasingly brutal and militarized police force, the slow death of the American middle class, the widening wealth gap in the face of Wall Street lawlessness, the increasing influence of money in elections and public policy, and a host of other injustices eating away at our country. But pay no attention, people. There is a grave threat over yonder!
5. The Racism
At some point in American history we, as a society, decided it was unseemly, hateful, and downright false to attribute the bad actions of a few to an entire minority race or demographic. Though some have yet to get the memo, it is ludicrous to try to understand, for example, disproportionately high black incarceration rates by arguing that black culture has a violent strain, and, even though “nearly all” blacks denounce criminal activity, nonetheless muggings, gang violence, drug dealing, etc., is “very black.” No one in academia, media, or elsewhere would make such attributions in the case of African Americans vis-a-vis blackness or Jews vis-a-vis Judaism, but, in the case of Muslims vis-a-vis Islam it is, apparently, still open season.
6. The Fear
Going back to The Atlantic piece, it is hard to tell how Wood’s argument differs substantively from those of bona fide anti-Muslim bigots like Pamela Geller or Steve Emerson, who profit handsomely from their crass fear-mongering. Of course, Wood is savvy enough to package his conclusions in the veneer of objective reporting – quoting heavily from a single Princeton scholar as well as interviewing a handful of colorful would-be militants “in the field,” i.e., coffee shops in London and Melbourne. But for all the gravity Wood tries to muster, references to Orwell and Hitler notwithstanding, the takeaway in the end is still essentially “Islam is the problem.” Is it any wonder that the biggest Islam and Muslim haters of the world have been tripping over themselves to gush over Wood and his “unparalleled expertise”?
7. The Sowing
Wood insists that ISIS’s apocalyptic theology is pivotal in understanding the origins and behavior of the militant group. But, beliefs don’t arise in a vacuum. Isn’t it just a little bit relevant to consider the hellish conditions the US, UK, and other Western powers created in the region in the last thirty years, by way of the First Gulf War, the years of economic sanctions on Iraq, the 2003 invasion, and subsequent military occupation? Isn’t it slightly pertinent that many ISIS militants were captives in US detention centers, like Abu Ghraib, experiencing all kinds of lurid humiliation, abject torture, and vile sexual abuse at the hands of their “liberators”? Isn’t it at least somewhat germane that many eventual ISIS militants witnessed their communities decimated, their family members raped and massacred, and their newborns disfigured with nightmare-inducing birth defects caused by the US military’s use of depleted uranium weapons against civilians? And beyond Iraq, isn’t the proxy war in Syria that has resulted in the brutal massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians apropos to the spread and support of ISIS in that region?
8. The Reaping
In short, ought it be surprising that if we rain down a veritable apocalypse upon a people, they just might start adopting apocalyptic views? A simple question: Why has a group like ISIS come to power in lands that have been subjected to continual political strife, civil war, and bloodshed? All else being equal theologically, had the US not pummeled that region for decades, would ISIS have ever arisen? Normally, there would be nothing inherently objectionable about Wood focusing on ISIS’s religious beliefs in lieu of these historical and sociological considerations. But, in this case and given the political climate, Wood’s omission purely serves the interests of power and effectively exonerates US war-mongering at the expense of its victims, namely Muslims at home and abroad.
9. The Deflection
Along those lines, it is not surprising that the same Washington punditry and policy analysts that cheered on the 2003 Iraq invasion would now, in 2015, much prefer us to think of the rise of ISIS as having everything to do with archaic religious interpretations and nothing to do with the grossly incompetent, highly immoral foreign “intervention” they supported that tilled the soil for the seeds of ISIS’s extremism to take root.
10. The Coffee Shops
Wood can’t be bothered with that wider context. What interests him is chatting theology with armchair militants over lattes. Isn’t it notable that Wood couldn’t find ISIS supporters in the US, but had to travel across the world to meet them in the UK and Australia? Isn’t it notable that, for someone who is so interested in theology, Wood couldn’t be bothered to meet with a single mainstream Muslim theologian of repute? Isn’t it notable that Wood conducted his interviews in coffee shops and not mosques? Maybe it is because self-taught, fringe cartoon characters like Anjem Choudary and Musa Cerantonio don’t have mosques or any kind of institutional presence, let alone authority, in the Muslim community. Not that that is what Fox News wants you to think, as it parades these agent provocateurs on national media instead of allowing them to asphyxiate into anonymity.
11. The Sophomore
Wood ultimately admits, “[ISIS supporters] lectured me garrulously and, if one accepts their premises, convincingly. To call them un-Islamic appears, to me, to invite them into an argument that they would win.” Perhaps Wood does not have the humility to recognize that it really doesn’t say much that he, personally, can’t win an argument with ISIS fanboys about the Islamic-ness of ISIS. Perhaps Wood should leave such arguments to people in the know. One would expect the fact that not a single Muslim scholar of repute, from across the theological schools of Islam and spanning the entirety of the Muslim world, has ever issued a fatwa sanctioning ISIS should carry weight in determining legitimate application of the word “Islamic.”
12. The Academic
Wood quotes Princeton academic, Bernard Haykel: “People want to absolve Islam,” [Haykel] said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do and how they interpret their texts.” Wood could have saved everyone a lot of time by starting his essay with this. If Islam is nothing above and beyond what particular Muslims do and the idiosyncrasies of how they interpret religious texts, then, by that definition, it is trivially true that ISIS is Islamic. If the Queen of England became Muslim and somehow interpreted the Quran as telling her to record a rap album, would we then consider the release of “Royal Hustling LP” an Islamic act?
13. The Bait and Switch
To make matters worse, there is a central conceptual inconsistency in the essay that undermines Wood’s entire thesis. The problem is Wood and Haykel equivocate on the word “Islamic.” Wood uses “Islamic” in an explanatory sense – by characterizing ISIS as “Islamic,” Wood means that studying Islam and its “intellectual genealogy” will explain ISIS’s origins and behavior in a way that can inform policy decisions and military strategy. This is because, in his view, ISIS’s theology, in some sense, proceeds from the broader Islamic paradigm, so by understanding the latter, one gains insight into the former. Haykel, in contrast, uses “Islamic” in a descriptive sense. For Haykel, ISIS being “Islamic” merely amounts to: “They are Muslims and they have an interpretation of Islamic texts.” But, this vanishingly thin descriptive notion of Islam says nothing about whether ISIS’s theology proceeds from or is even connected to a broader Islamic paradigm. In fact, Haykel explicitly denies that such a broader paradigm even exists. So that explanatory dimension upon which Wood’s entire essay is based disappears. By equivocating on these two senses of the word “Islamic,” Wood attempts to gain academic legitimacy from Haykel while also positioning his essay as politically and strategically significant – in essence, having his cake and eating it too.
14. The Goatee
By the way, what a colorful picture Wood paints of Haykel, with his “unplaceable foreign accent,” his “Mephistophelian goatee,” standing there in front of an array of Arabic tomes, gazing into the abyss with all the solemnity of a man who knows too much. Coincidentally, Haykel is not the first “Bernard” to come out of Princeton with his fingers on the pulse of Muslim fanaticism. While Bernard Lewis did a fine job advising Bush in all the success that was the Iraq War, maybe Haykel can curry enough favor to win an advisory role in America’s next great excursion.
15. The Sacred Way
The present debate about the Islamic-ness of ISIS is premised on a fundamental confusion about the nature of Islamic Law. Islamic Law is not enshrined in one particular text or the opinions of one particular medieval scholar. In fact, rather than characterizing Sacred Law as textual — akin to codified law on aged parchment or commandments on stone tablets sent from on high —it is far more accurate to understand it as a methodology that synthesizes a variety of textual and non-textual indicants. While a text is stagnant, a methodology is dynamic. By emphasizing Islamic Law as methodology, several things are accomplished:
16. The Literal
First, we avoid the cliched “literal vs. non-literal” dichotomy used to reductively and inaccurately characterize “extremists” and “moderates.” To understand how useless this distinction is, consider this. What does it mean to be a “literalist” about the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution? Should America maintain its “literalism” about the 2nd Amendment given that the US has one of the highest rates of gun violence out of all developed nations? Or, is North Korea being “literal” or “figurative” in its interpretation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and which interpretation is most consistent with enlightenment?
17. The Medieval
Second, we also avoid the confusion about “medieval vs. modern.” As a methodology, Islamic Law is inherently (and, in certain cases, necessarily) sensitive to a variety of contemporary local and global variables. Certain juristic legal opinions (fatwas), for example, are invalidated if present day conditions differ from the cultural context in which the opinions were originally issued. In this way, Islamic Law as a methodology is inexorably contemporaneous. (Of course, all legal systems are inexorably contemporaneous in that they have to keep up with social developments and accommodate novel legal scenarios that continually arise. It’s no different for Islamic Law.)
18. The Inconsistency
Third, if Islamic Law is a methodology, with well-defined principles and a consistent internal logic, then it becomes clear who is objectively Islamic and who is not. For Wood and Haykel, all it takes for a Muslim group to be “very Islamic” is that they use the language of the Quran and hadiths in articulating their interpretation of Islam. But consider this analogy. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Liberia, the UAE, China, Syria, and Iran have signed and ratified many international human rights treaties. Their political leaders also wax poetic about the importance of freedom and democracy with a fervor that would make Thomas Jefferson himself blush. But does the use of such liberal democratic language make these political regimes, in actuality, liberal or democratic? Of course no one would agree with this, but using the logic of Haykel and his cohorts in the academy, who’s to say otherwise? The underlying bias is that religions, like Islam, have no objective existence above and beyond the beliefs and actions of individual adherents, whereas Western normative systems, like secular liberalism, do have objective content that is not open to limitless interpretation. This is the bald-faced double standard that allows the ivory tower to remain coyly noncommittal about the un-Islamic-ness of ISIS.
19. The Methodology
Finally, then, how is ISIS decidedly not Islamic? Well, what characterizes ISIS’s approach to Islamic Law is a glaring lack of methodology beyond textual cherry-picking. They cite broadly, scanning classical Muslim texts for whatever expediently fits their agenda. But this post hoc scrapbooking is the exact reverse of legitimate juristic methodology. The proper derivation of Islamic legal opinions, as practiced for centuries by Muslim jurists, begins from general methodological principles (usul al-fiqh), takes into account the relevant scriptural and extra-scriptural indicants, and then arrives at specific rulings. ISIS, of course, has no usul al-fiqh, no consistent methodology, and, hence, no connection to Islamic Law. And this is precisely what Muslim scholars around the world have been saying in denouncing and debunking ISIS’s “McSharia.” A casual observer, like Wood, may be impressed with all the citations ISIS propagandists have up their sleeves, but anyone with a basic understanding of the way Islamic Law works will know better.
20. The Point
Finally, before anyone accuses us of “missing the point” of Wood’s expose, let us clarify something. As Professor Haykel intimated, and we agree, Islamic Law as a comprehensive legal system is not going to perfectly align with all dictates of liberal secularism. And why should it? Islam may be illiberal in certain respects, but so is classical Confucianism, historical Jainism, traditional Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Sub-Saharan Fulani Tribal code, and countless other moral and legal systems that don’t share the idiosyncrasies of one particular philosophical outlook developed by a handful of seventeenth-century British and French thinkers.
That doesn’t mean Muslims or Catholics or Orthodox Jews cannot live peacefully in secular liberal democracies. Even so, some take it as a given that to be even slightly illiberal is to be a barbarian. This, of course, smacks of ethnocentrism and dehumanization of the “other,” things we would think card-carrying liberals would elide. Nonetheless, we should understand that, as a point of fact, there is a vast and categorical distance between those certain illiberal areas of Islam and the atrocities of ISIS, and no amount of hermeneutical gymnastics can bridge that gap.
21. The End
As much as commentators want to portray ISIS as authentically Islamic, the facts tell a different story. Instead of insight, The Atlantic peddles the same stereotypes of the “Muslim savage” and Islamic Law while pretending to do serious journalism. The Christian conservative mob was just recently riled up by the feature film of a certain Mr. Eastwood. Now, thanks to another Wood, the other side of the socio-political spectrum can join the madness.
Daniel Haqiqatjou was born in Houston, Texas. He attended Harvard University where he majored in Physics and minored in Philosophy. He completed a Masters degree in Philosophy at Tufts University. Haqiqatjou also studies traditional Islamic sciences part-time. He writes and lectures on contemporary issues surrounding Muslims and Modernity.
Dr. Yasir Qadhi has a Bachelors in Hadith and a Masters in Theology from Islamic University of Madinah, and a PhD in Islamic Studies from Yale University. He is an instructor and Dean of Academic Affairs at AlMaghrib, and the Resident Scholar of the Memphis Islamic Center.
My seven-year old son sat on the ground, digging a hole. Around him, other children ran, cried, and laughed at the playground.
“He’s such a strange kid,” my oldest daughter remarked. “Who goes to the playground and digs holes in the ground?”
In an instant, scenes of my ten-year-old self flashed through my mind. In them I ducked, hiding from invisible enemies in a forest of tapioca plants. Flattening my back against the spindly trunks, I flicked my wrist, sending a paper shuriken flying towards my pursuers. I was in my own world, alone.
It feels as if I have always been alone. I was the only child from one set of parents. I was alone when they divorced. I was alone when one stepmother left and another came in. I was alone with my diary, tears, and books whenever I needed to escape from the negative realities of my childhood.
Today, I am a lone niqab-wearing Malay in the mish-mash of a predominantly Desi and Arab Muslim community. My aloneness has only been compounded by the choices I’ve made that have gone against social norms- like niqab and the decision to marry young and have two babies during my junior and senior years of undergrad.
When I decided to homeschool my children, I was no longer fazed by any naysayers. I had gotten so used to being alone that it became almost second nature to me. My cultural, religious, and parenting choices no longer hung on the approval of social norms.
Believe it Or Not, We Are All Alone
In all of this, I realize that I am not alone in being alone. We all are alone, even in an ocean of people. No matter who you are, or how many people are around you, you are alone in that you are answerable to the choices you make.
The people around you may suggest or pressure you into specific choices, but you alone make the ultimate choice and bear the ultimate consequence of what those choices are. Everything from what you wear, who you trust, and how you plan your wedding is a result of your own choice. We are alone in society, and in the sight of Allah as well.
The aloneness is obvious when we do acts of worship that are individual, such as fasting, giving zakah, and praying. But we’re also alone in Hajj, even when surrounded by a million other Muslims. We are alone in that we have to consciously make the choice and intention to worship. We are alone in making sure we do Hajj in its true spirit.
We alone are accountable to Allah, and on the Day of Judgment, no one will carry the burden of sin of another.
مَّنِ اهْتَدَىٰ فَإِنَّمَا يَهْتَدِي لِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَن ضَلَّ فَإِنَّمَا يَضِلُّ عَلَيْهَا ۚ وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَىٰ ۗ وَمَا كُنَّا مُعَذِّبِينَ حَتَّىٰ نَبْعَثَ رَسُولًا
“Whoever accepts guidance does so for his own good; whoever strays does so at his own peril. No soul will bear another’s burden, nor do We punish until We have sent a messenger.” Surah Al Israa 17:15
On the day you stand before Allah you won’t have anyone by your side. On that day it will be every man for himself, no matter how close you were in the previous life. It will just be you and Allah.
Even Shaytaan will leave you to the consequences of your decisions.
وَقَالَ الشَّيْطَانُ لَمَّا قُضِيَ الْأَمْرُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَعَدَكُمْ وَعْدَ الْحَقِّ وَوَعَدتُّكُمْ فَأَخْلَفْتُكُمْ ۖ وَمَا كَانَ لِيَ عَلَيْكُم مِّن سُلْطَانٍ إِلَّا أَن دَعَوْتُكُمْ فَاسْتَجَبْتُمْ لِي ۖ فَلَا تَلُومُونِي وَلُومُوا أَنفُسَكُم ۖ مَّا أَنَا بِمُصْرِخِكُمْ وَمَا أَنتُم بِمُصْرِخِيَّ ۖ إِنِّي كَفَرْتُ بِمَا أَشْرَكْتُمُونِ مِن قَبْلُ ۗ إِنَّ الظَّالِمِينَ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ
“When everything has been decided, Satan will say, ‘God gave you a true promise. I too made promises but they were false ones: I had no power over you except to call you, and you responded to my call, so do not blame me; blame yourselves. I cannot help you, nor can you help me. I reject the way you associated me with God before.’ A bitter torment awaits such wrongdoers” Surah Ibrahim 14:22
But, Isn’t Being Alone Bad?
The connotation that comes with the word ‘alone’ relegates it to something negative. You’re a loser if you sit in the cafeteria alone. Parents worry when they have a shy and reserved child. Teachers tend to overlook the quiet ones, and some even complain that they can’t assess the students if they don’t speak up.
It is little wonder that the concept of being alone has a negative connotation. Being alone is not the human default, for Adam was alone, yet Allah created Hawwa as a companion for him. According to some scholars, the word Insaan which is translated as human or mankind or man comes from the root letters that means ‘to want company’. We’re naturally inclined to want company.
You might think, “What about the social aspects of Islam? Being alone is like being a hermit!” That’s true, but in Islam, there is a balance between solitary and communal acts of worship. For example, some prayers are done communally like Friday, Eid, and funeral prayers. However, extra prayers like tahajjud, istikharah, and nawaafil are best done individually.
There is a place and time for being alone, and a time for being with others. Islam teaches us this balance, and with that, it teaches us that being alone is also praiseworthy, and shouldn’t be viewed as something negative. There is virtue in alone-ness just as there is virtue in being with others.
Being Alone Has Its Own Perks
It is through being alone that we can be astute observers and connect the outside world to our inner selves. It is also through allowing aloneness to be part of our daily regimen that we can step back, introspect and develop a strong sense of self-based on a direct relationship with Allah.
Taking the time to reflect on worship and the words of Allah gives us the opportunity to meaningfully think about it. It is essential that a person gets used to being alone with their thoughts in order to experience this enriching intellectual, emotional and spiritual experience. The goal is to use our thoughts as the fuel to gain closeness to Allah through reflection and self-introspection.
Training ourselves to embrace being alone can also train us to be honest with ourselves, discover who we truly are, and work towards improving ourselves for Allah’s sake. Sitting with ourselves and honestly scrutinizing the self in order to see strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement is essential for character development. And character development is essential to reach the level of Ihsaan.
When we look into who we want to be, we are bound to make some decisions that might raise eyebrows and wag tongues. Being okay with being alone makes this somewhat easier. We should not be afraid to stand out and be the only one wearing praying or wearing hijab, knowing that it is something Allah will be pleased with. We should not be afraid to stand up for what we believe in even if it makes us unpopular. Getting used to being alone can give us the confidence to make these decisions.
Being alone can strengthen us internally, but not without pain. Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that people who dissent from group wisdom show heightened activation in the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the sting of social rejection. Berns calls this the “pain of independence.”
All our prophets experienced this ‘pain of independence’ in their mission. Instances of different prophets being rejected by their own people are generously scattered in the Quran for us to read and reflect upon. One lesson we can extract from these is that being alone takes courage, faith, conviction, and confidence.
We Come Alone, Leave Alone, Meet Allah Alone
The circumstances that left me alone in the different stages of my life were not random. I always wanted an older brother or someone else to be there to rescue me from the solitude. But the solitude came with a blessing. Being alone gave me the time and space in which to wonder, think, and eventually understand myself and the people around me. I learned reflection as a skill and independent decision-making as s strength. I don’t mind being alone in my niqab, my Islam, or my choices. I’ve had plenty of practice after all.
You are born alone and you took your first breath alone. You will die alone, even if you are surrounded by your loved ones. When you are lowered into the grave, you will be alone. Accepting this can help you make use of your moments of solitude rather than fear them. Having the courage to be alone builds confidence, strengthens conviction, and propels us to do what is right and pleasing to Allah regardless of human approval.
Why Israel Should Be ‘Singled Out’ For Its Human Rights Record
Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians.
Why is everyone so obsessed with Israel’s human rights abuses? From Saudi Arabia, to Syria, to North Korea to Iran. All these nations are involved in flagrant violations of human right, so why all the focus on Israel – ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’? Clearly, if you ignore these other violations and only focus on Israel, you must be anti-Semitic. What else could be your motivations for this double standard?
This is one of the most common contentions raised when Israel is criticized for its human rights record. I personally don’t believe in entertaining this question – it shouldn’t matter why an activist is choosing to focus on one conflict and not others. What matters are the facts being raised; putting into question the motives behind criticizing Israel is a common tactic to detract from the topic at hand. The conversation soon turns into some circular argument about anti-Semitism and the plight of the Palestinian people is lost. More importantly, this charge of having double standards is often disingenuous. For example, Representative Ihan Omar has been repeatedly accused of this recently and her motives have been called ‘suspicious’ – despite her vocal criticism of other countries, especially Saudi Arabia.
However, this point is so frequently brought up, I think that perhaps its time activists and critics simply own up to it. Yes – Israel should be singled out, for some very good reasons. These reasons relate to there being a number of unique privileges that the country enjoys; these allow it to get away with much of the abuses it commits. Human right activists thus must be extra vocal when comes to Israel as they have to overcome the unparalleled level of support for the country, particularly in the US and Canada. The following points summarize why Israel should in fact be singled out:
1) Ideological support from ordinary citizens
When Iran and North Korea commit human right abuses, we don’t have to worry about everyone from journalists to clerics to average students on campuses coming out and defending those countries. When most nations commit atrocities, our journalists and politicians call them out, sanctions are imposed, they are taking them to the International Court of Justice, etc. There are instruments in place to take care of other ‘rogue’ nations – without the need for intervention from the common man.
Israel, however, is unique in that it has traditionally enjoyed widespread ideological support, primarily from the Jewish community and Evangelical Christians, in the West. This support is a result of the historical circumstances and pseudo-religious ideology that drove the creation of the state in 1948. The successful spread of this nationalistic dogma for the last century means Israel can count on ordinary citizens from Western countries to comes to its defense. This support can come in the form of foreign enlistment to its military, students conducting campus activism, politicians shielding it from criticisms and journalists voluntarily writing in its support and spreading state propaganda.
This ideological and nationalistic attachment to the country is the prime reason why it is so incredibly difficult to have any kind of sane conversation about Israel in the public sphere – criticism is quickly seen as an attack on Jewish identity and interpreted as an ‘existential threat’ to the nation by its supporters. Any attempts to take Israel to account through standard means are thwarted because of the political backlash feared from the country’s supporters in the West.
2) Unconditional political support of a world superpower
The US is Israel’s most important and closest ally in the Middle-East. No matter what war crimes Israel commits, it can count on America to have its back. This support means the US will use its veto power to support Israel against actions of the UN Security Council, it will use its diplomatic influence to shield any punitive actions from other nations and it will use its military might to intervene if need be. The backing of the US is one of the main reasons why the Israeli occupation and expansion of the colonial settlement enterprise continues to this day without any repercussions.
While US support might be especially staunch for Israel, this factor is certainly not unique to the country. Any country which has this privilege, e.g. Saudi Arabia, should be under far great scrutiny for its human rights violations than others.
3) Military aid and complicity of tax-payers
US tax-payers are directly paying for Israel to carry out its occupation of the Palestinian people.
Israel is the largest recipient of US-military aid – it receives an astonishing $3 billion dollars every year. This aid, according to a US congressional report, “has helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world.”
Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians. Activists and citizens thus have a greater responsibility to speak out against Israel as their government is paying the country to carry out its atrocities. Not only is this aid morally reprehensible, but it is also illegal under United States Leahy Laws.
4) The Israeli lobby
The Israeli lobby is one of the most powerful groups in Washington and is the primary force for ensuring continued US political support for the nation. It consists of an assortment of formal lobby groups (AIPAC, Christians United for Israel), think-thanks (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), political action committee or PACs, not-for-profit organizations (B’nai B’irth, American Jewish Congress, Stand for Israel) and media watchdogs (CAMERA, Honest Reporting). These organizations together exercise an incredible amount of political influence. They ensure that any criticism of Israel is either stifled or there are serious consequences for those who speak up. In 2018 alone, pro-Israel donors spent $22 million on lobbying for the country – far greater than any other nation. Pro-Israel lobbies similarly influence politics in other places such as the UK, Canada, and Europe.
5) One of the longest-running occupation in human history
This point really should be the first one on this list – and it is the only one that should matter. However, because of the unique privileges that Israel enjoys, it is hard to get to the crux of what it is actually doing. Israel, with U.S. support, has militarily occupied the Palestinian territories (West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) since 1967. The belligerent occupation, over 50 years old, is one of the longest, bloodiest and brutal in human history.
Israel continues to steal land and build settler colonies the West Bank – in flagrant violation of international law. It has implemented a system of apartheid in these territories which is reminiscent of the racist regime of South Africa. The Gaza strip has been under an insufferable siege which has made the living conditions deplorable; it has been referred to the world’s largest ‘open-air prison’. In addition to this institutional oppression, crimes committed against Palestinians include: routinely killing civilian protesters, including teenagers and medics, torture of Palestinians and severe restrictions on the everyday movement of Palestinians.
The brutality, consistency and the duration for which Israel has oppressed Palestinians is alone enough reason for it being ‘singled out’. No other nation comes close to its record. However, for the reasons mentioned above, Israel’s propaganda machine has effectively painted itself as just another ‘liberal democracy’ in the eyes of the general public. Any attempt to bring to light these atrocities are met with ‘suspicion’ about the ‘real’ motives of the critics. Given the points mentioned here, it should be evident that the level of support for Israeli aggression is uniquely disproportionate – it is thus fitting that criticism of the country is equally vocal and unparalleled as well.
Co-written by Shaykh Osman Umarji
As writers on MuslimMatters, it came as a surprise when the website we write on marked itself zakat-eligible on its fundraiser for operations in Ramadan. This website has previously highlighted the misuse and abuse of zakat for vague and dodgy reasons, including instances of outright fraud by nonprofit corporations. We have lamented the seemingly inexorable march from zakat being for living human beings in need to financial play-doh for nonprofit corporate boards.
Estimated global zakat is somewhere between $200 billion to $1 trillion. Eliminating global poverty is estimated at $187 billion– not just for Muslims, but everyone. There continue to be strong interests in favor of more putty-like zakat to benefit the interests of the organizations that are not focused on reducing poverty. Thus, in many ways, a sizeable chunk of zakat benefits the affluent rather than the needy. Zakat, rather than being a credit to the Muslim community, starts to look more like an indictment of it.
No, it’s not ikhtilaf
The recent article on this website, Dr. Usama Al-Azmi seemed somewhat oblivious to the cavalier way the nonprofit corporate sector in the United States treats Zakat. The article did not do justice to legitimate concerns about zakat distribution by dismissing the issue as one of “ikhtilaf,” or a reasonable difference of opinion, as it ignored the broader concern about forces working hard to make zakat a “wild west” act of worship where just about anything goes.
It’s essential to identify the crux of the problem. Zakat has eight categories of permissible beneficiaries in the Quran. 1 Two are various levels of poor, distribution overhead; then there are those whose hearts are to be inclined, free captives, relieve indebtedness, the wayfarer, and the cause of Allah (fisabilillah). The category of fisabilillah, historically, the majority of scholars have interpreted as the cost of jihad (like actual fighting). However, in recent times, Muslim nonprofit corporations, with support of learned Muslim leaders, have adopted an increasingly aggressive and vague posture that allows nearly any beneficial cause to get zakat.
The concerns about the abuse of zakat, and the self-serving desire by corporations to turn fisabilillah into a wastebasket Zakat category that could be “incredibly broad” has to do with far more than a difference of opinion (ikhtilaf ) about the eligibility of Dawah organizations. Let’s assume dawah and educational organizations are eligible to administer Zakat funds. We need to know what that means in practice. What we have is a fundamental question the fisabilillah-can-mean-virtually-anything faction never manages to answer: are there any limits to zakat usage at all?
Show Your Work
We fully understand that in our religious practice, there is a set of rules. In Islamic Inheritance for example, for example, we cannot cavalierly change the definition of what a “daughter” is to mean any girl you want to treat like a daughter. There is an established set of rules relating to acts of worship. For the third pillar of Islam, zakat, there seem to be no limits to the absurd-sounding questions we can ask that now seem plausible.
Unfortunately, we have too many folks who invoke “ikhtilaf” to justify adopting almost any opinion and not enough people who are willing to explain their positions. We need a better understanding of zakat and draw the lines on when nonprofit corporations are going too far.
You can be conservative and stand for zakat as an act of worship that contributes to social justice. You can have a more expansive interpretation friendly to the nonprofit corporate sector’s needs to include the revenue source. Wherever you stand, if you don’t provide evidence and develop detailed uniform and accepted principles and rules that protect those people zakat was meant to help, you are inviting abuse and at the very least, opening the door towards inequitable results. 2
Can you feed the needy lentils and rice for $100 a meal, with margins of $99 a meal going to pay salaries to provide these meals and fundraise for them? Why or why not?
Can a Dawah organization purchase an $80 million jet for its CEO, who can use it to travel the world to do “dawah,” including places like Davos or various ski resorts? What rules exist that would prevent something like this? As far as we know, nothing at all.
In the United States, demographic sorting is a common issue that affects all charitable giving, not just giving by Muslims. The most affluent live in neighborhoods with other people who are generally as prosperous as they are. Certain places seem almost perversely designed to allow wealthy residents to be oblivious to the challenges of the poor. There are undeniable reasons why what counts as “charity” for the wealthy means giving money to the Opera, the Met Gala, and Stanford University.
The only real way affluent Muslims know they supposed to care about poor people is that maybe they have a Shaikh giving khutbas talking about the need to do so and their obligation of zakat once a year or so. That is now becoming a thing of the past. Now it is just care about fisabilillah- it means whatever your tender heart wants it to mean.
As zakat becomes less about the poor, appeals will be for other projects with a higher amount of visibility to the affluent. Nonprofits now collect Zakat for galas with celebrities. Not fundraising at the gala dinner mind you, but merely serving dinner and entertaining rich people. Educational institutions and Masajid that have dawah activities (besides, everything a Masjid does is fisabilillah) can be quite expensive. Getting talent to run and teach in these institutions is also costly. Since many of the people running these institutions are public figures and charismatic speakers with easy access and credibility with the affluent. It is far easier for them to get Zakat funds for their projects.
People who benefit from these projects because they send their children to these institutions or attend lectures themselves will naturally feel an affinity for these institutions that they won’t have with the poor. Zakat will stay in their bubble. Fisabilillah.
Dawa is the new Jihad
Jihad, as in war carried out by a Khalifah and paid for with zakat funds, is an expensive enterprise. But no society is in a permanent state of warfare, so they can work towards eliminating poverty during peacetime. Muslim communities have done this in the past. Dawah is qualitatively different from jihad as it is permanent. There was never a period in Islamic history when there was no need to do dawah. Many times in history, nobody was fighting jihad. There was no period of Islamic history when there were there was never a need for money to educate people. Of course, earlier Muslims used zakat in education in limited, defined circumstances. It is not clear why limitations no longer apply.
Indeed dawah is a broad category. For example, many people regard the Turkish costume drama “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” as dawah. Fans of the show can’t stop talking about the positive effects it has had on their lives and their iman. What prevents zakat from funding future expensive television costume dramas? Nothing, as far as we can see.
No Standards or Accountability
Unfortunately, in the United States, there are no uniform, specific standards governing zakat. Anything goes now when previously in Islamic history, there were appropriate standards. Nonprofit corporations themselves decide if they are zakat-eligible or not. In some instances, they provide objectively comical explanations, which supporters within the corporation’s bubble pretty much always swallow whole. Corporations don’t have to segregate Zakat-eligible funds from general funds. When they do, they can make up their own rules for how and when they spend zakat. No rules make zakat indistinguishable from any other funding source since they can change their standards year after year depending on their funding needs (if they have rules at all) and nobody would be the wiser. It is exceedingly rare for these corporations to issue detailed reports on how they use zakat.
The Shift to Meaninglessness
Organizations with platforms (like the one that runs this website) are going to be eager to get on the zakat gravy train. There is no cost to slapping a “zakat-eligible” label on yourself, either financial or social. It seems like everyone does it now. Some Zakat collectors are conscientious and care about helping the poor, though they are starting to look a little old-fashioned. For them, it may make sense to certify Zakat administrators like halal butchers.
Zakat used to be about helping discrete categories of human beings that can benefit from it. It can now mean anything you want it to mean. In the end, though, without real standards, it may mean nothing at all.
- The sunnah also highlights the essence of zakah as tending to the needs of the poor. For example, the Prophet commanded Muadh bin Jabal, when sending him to Yemen, to teach the people that Allah has obligated charity upon them to be taken from their rich and given to their poor (Sahih Muslim).
- In Islamic legal theory (usool al-fiqh), sadd al-dhariya is a principle that refers to blocking the means to evil before it can materialize. It is invoked when a seemingly permissible action may lead to unethical behavior. This principle is often employed in financial matters.
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