Steven Aiello

Countering Islamic State and Its Ideology

President Barack Obama declares that Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam.

The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood argues lengthily that Islamic State is “very Islamic”. Who is right? More critically, why does it matter?

I think that both statements, and their underlying positions, miss the important bigger picture. Unfortunately, this merely evidences the many wrongheaded notions, foolhardy ways, and misdirection which society and political leadership have shown in what is turning into one of the greatest challenges of the post-Arab Spring Middle East.

First for Wood’s argument. It boils down to this: Islamic State has the word “Islam”. They and similar groups cite the Quran, and certain hadiths which support their views (the usage and in fact fabrication of hadith for political expediency is an old challenge). They “look and sound Islamic”. They support primitive, backwards attitudes, ideologies, crimes and punishments, and they do so in the name of, and with the selective use of Islamic sources. They claim to follow in the ways of the Prophet Muhammad. They pool their support from Muslims of various backgrounds. And among their goals are ones which sound Islamic, especially the establishment of a caliphate.

Where does Wood go wrong? Just about everywhere. His analysis of Islamic State, if not Islam, on the basis of self-chosen textual references, is sloppy. One could of course go through many religious texts, if not many contemporary constitutions and legal corpora, and cherry-pick supporting verses. To cover one example I’ve looked at recently, the Quran uses jihad or its derivatives in numerous instances, at times to advise against or prohibit warfare, at times to limit warfare, and at times to call for violence, even potentially absolute warfare (See Chs 3 & 4 in Firestone’s Jihad.). One could easily cherry-pick verses to make contradictory arguments, and indeed, a complex science of textual interpretation has developed to address that reality. Thus one mistake that Wood and those who follow his line of thought make, is in implicitly siding with a radical, extreme, and unconventional view held by Islamic State and their ilk. In finding that Islamic State is “very Islamic”, Wood tips his hand, making a value statement that assumes that there is something very, if not exclusively, authentic about their understanding, in contrast to the billions of Muslims world-wide who, by word and deed, have a thoroughly different view of Islam.

Nor is Islam unique in this regard. Judaism and Christianity, as with many other religions, have holy scriptures, and strikingly similar issues arise. One can find verses in the Torah for instance, which call for capital punishment. Slavery is expressly allowed, women’s rights limited. There is an explicit call for genocide. Were there to be a group that called for genocide, abused women’s rights and practiced slavery, would Wood call them “very Jewish” on that basis, and if so, how would his claim be accepted?

That’s the second reason that Wood—and Islamic State’s spokespersons, are wrong. They ignore any attempt at historical context. To assume that slavery is “Islamic”, or “Jewish” is akin to arguing that camel riding is Islamic. To assume that women’s rights are an “innovation” for either religion, is akin to arguing that eating pizza is an innovation, simply because it was never done in the first century of either religion. That slavery existed, and that women were not considered equals, for much of history, is a fact, not a pillar of religious faith. That both religions fundamentally attempted to advance human rights in both issues, as with many other issues, is also an objective observation, one which Wood overlooks in his haste to take IS at its word.

That comes to his third, and most egregious, error. Wood’s argument, at its basis, legitimizes Islamic State by handing it a victory. Islamic State’s origins, ideological and political, are as complex as their motives. Yet Wood, for all of his lengthy description, seems to take the group at its word.

What is clear, true in fact, is that Islamic State very much wants to be perceived as an Islamic group, as an authentic form of Islam. Indeed, its members want it to be perceived, and likely believe as well, that its version of Islam is the only version. But that in and of itself does not make them Islamic, let alone “very Islamic”.

Thus Wood, by accepting IS at their word, simply hands them the battle. They are Islamic, “very Islamic”, because they tell us that they are, because their arbitrary and politically expedient choice of textual interpretation, misinterpretation and historical ignorance seems “very Islamic” to Wood. Never mind that in virtually every instance, they are at odds with the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world, or with centuries of Islamic jurisprudence.

In one instance Wood quotes Islamic State leadership citing Muhammad as evidence that Islamic State is following in the ways of the founder of the faith. But he glosses over the fact that the reference to Muhammad limited violent behavior toward one’s enemies, while it was being used by IS to justify violent behavior (“his exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops alone” in Wood’s piece).

Even in one of his few explicit examples, Wood inadvertently illustrates the flaw in his—and Islamic State’s argument. It is not just not a “Very Islamic” approach that IS promotes, not just one of many acceptable understandings of the religion. It is an extreme, but also highly superficial manifestation, one which places a priority over using similar sounding language, even words, over following the teachings, principles or explicit laws, of Muhammad, or generations of his followers. Similar arguments looking at treatment of women and children in war, establishment of due process of law, and many other topics could and would illustrate that IS’s claims to follow the ways of the Prophet, ignoring centuries of interpretation, are not only innovative themselves, they are simply, objectively, wrong. But Wood, for all of his writing, is fine with his very superficial analysis. Islamic State says that they are Muslim. So they must be. Very.

President Obama’s statements and approach, as one might guess, are also flawed. Although I have endeavored to argue that Islamic State is quite inauthentically Islamic, its leaders, followers, and others like them, do have one important thing “to do with Islam.” They purport to be Muslim, and they purport to speak for Islam, and for “true Muslims”.

That fact is key to defeating them, not militarily, but ideologically. It means that part of the strategy must go towards showing that the group’s ideology is wrong, its presentation and understanding of Sharia twisted and thoroughly flawed. And yes, of course the job of doing that falls to Muslim leaders (including lay leaders) around the world, although President Obama and the rest of us should do what we can to support such efforts.

If Islamic State wants to be known as being Islamic, then we should listen. Not so that we can determine that they must be Muslim on the basis of superficial statements, but to decry their claims, and to show in depth, where and how they are wrong. They must be defeated on the battlefield, but their ideology must also be defeated in a Muslim-led, free exchange of ideas.

Many Muslims have risen to the challenge, on numerous occasions. Others have not. Some question why they must proclaim their disassociation from a group of misguided whackos thousands of miles away, or proclaim that they are not connected. The answer to that is—because the situation exists. Without pointing any fingers, the very fact that atrocities are being done in your name, assuming your name matters to you, should be enough to galvanize you to action. Islamic State represents the most virulent form of an extreme ideology within a peaceful religion practiced by billions. The Islam that it presents to the world isn’t “very Islamic”, nor very authentic, despite its statements to that effect. But it will take much more than President Obama’s relatively powerless statements to show where Wood, and Islamic State, are wrong.

About the Author
Steven Aiello is the Director of Debate for Peace (, and a board member of the NGO Committee on Sustainable Development NY. He has a BA in Economics, MA in Diplomacy and Conflict Studies, and MA in Islamic Studies. He teaches Model UN for schools throughout Israel. Among his other hats he serves as Regional Coordinator for Creating Friendships for Peace, and Dialogue Officer at Asfar. Steven has also served as Chief of the Middle East Desk Head for Wikistrat, interned for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the American Islamic Congress. His writing has been published in the NY Daily News, Jerusalem Post, Iran Human Rights Review; Berkley Center at Georgetown;, and the Center for Islamic Pluralism. He can be reached via email at