A large group of Islamic theologians addressed the head of the Islamic State in an open letter, articulately accusing the movement of practices that have nothing to do with Islam, even rejecting the extremists’ right to call themselves jihadists.
Over a hundred Muslim scholars and clergymen from all over the world have released on Wednesday an address to Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, accusing the self-proclaimed caliph and his army of heinous war crimes and violation of fundamental principles of Islam, illiterate use of Islamic scripture torn from the context and perversion of the rules of morality and Sharia law.
“Who gave you authority over the ummah [Muslim people]?” the letter questions. “Was it your group? If this is the case, then a group of no more than several thousand has appointed itself the ruler of over a billion-and-a-half Muslims. This attitude is based upon a corrupt circular logic that says: ‘Only we are Muslims, and we decide who the caliph is, we have chosen one and so whoever does not accept our caliph is not a Muslim,’” the document said.
The letter has been published in two languages, Arabic and English, on a specially-created website. Though the document goes into in-depth analyses of the nuances and exegesis of Islamic texts, the general message is combined on the very first page of the address, outlined in 24 essentials downtrodden by the militants of the Islamic State - according to the authors of the letter.
The absolute majority of the essentials detailed in the letter – 20 out of 24 – have to do with acts forbidden in modern Islam. They deal with many aspects of noble human life: prohibiting such acts as killing of the innocent, prisoners and emissaries (journalists included), denying women and children their rights, the re-introduction of slavery, torture, disfiguring the dead and destroying graves, harming or mistreating believers of other religions of the Scripture, starting armed insurrection, declaring caliphate “without consensus from all Muslims,” as well as issuing fatwas (legal rulings, interpretations of the Islamic law) without proper religious education, mastery of the Arabic language, “oversimplify[ing] Sharia matters” and even “ignoring the reality of contemporary times.”
As the authors of the letter observe, all of those interdictions have been ruthlessly violated by the leadership and members of the Islamic State.
In particular, the document stresses the unprecedented number of people executed by the Islamic State militants for their beliefs.
“You have killed many innocents who were neither combatants nor armed, just because they disagree with your opinion,” the letter said, denying the Islamic State the right to call the faithful to jihad. “There is no such thing as offensive, aggressive jihad just because people have different religions or opinions.”
“Jihad is a noble concept in Islam,” told VICE News the national director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Nihad Awad. “It is the right to defend oneself and one's country. But people cannot take it into their own hands. As an act of aggression, it is a violation,” he said.
“They claim to be jihadists, but they are not. I urge everyone not to refer to them as jihadists,” Awad added.
The letter specifically focused attention on POWs being executed by the Islamic State in their thousands in Iraq and Syria.
“You have killed many prisoners,” the document states, addressing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his men, “including the 1,700 captives at Camp Speicher in Tikrit in June, 2014; the 200 captives at the Sha'er gas field in July, 2014; the 700 captives of the Sha'etat tribe in Deir el-Zor (600 of whom were unarmed civilians); the 250 captives at the Tabqah air base in Al-Raqqah in August, 2014; Kurdish and Lebanese soldiers, and many untold others whom God knows. These are heinous war crimes,” the address states.
The children who died in IS attacks or were used in combat were added to the list of shameful IS deeds.
“In your schools some children are tortured and coerced into doing your bidding and others are being executed,” the letter says. “These are crimes against innocents who are so young they are not even morally accountable.”
The letter also calls attention to frivolous handling of the holy texts and intentionally-selective citation of certain passages in order to legitimize atrocities perpetrated by the IS.
“It is not permissible to quote a verse, or part of a verse, without thoroughly considering and comprehending everything that the [Koran] and Hadith relate about that point,” the letter notes.
The beheaded American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and then British aid worker David Haines, were also remembered.
“It is known that all religions forbid the killing of emissaries,” the letter said. “Journalists — if they are honest and of course not spies — are emissaries of truth, because their job is to expose the truth to people in general.”
The slavery that returned to the Middle East with the rise of the Islamic State was not ignored in the document either.
Despite Islam's consensus taking decision to abolish slavery over a century ago, “Islamic State militants have captured women from minority communities and forced them to marry fighters or sold them into slavery.”
The most effective ideological critics of the IS should come from within the Muslim community, shared Nihad Awad, who believes that the open letter is “intended for a conservative audience” and is “very convincing.”
“People should know that what ISIS is doing is not Islam,” Muzammil Siddiqi, the chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America, which facilitated publication of the letter, told VICE News. “It's important that a large number of scholars are speaking up and saying this is wrong.”
Maher, generally anti-religion in his comedy and political commentary, has said on previous occasions that "all religions are not alike" and that Islam is worse than others because it calls for the death of those who criticise it. He also supports the idea of a "clash of civilisations", which postulates that the western worldview is fundamentally incompatible with Islam.
For proponents of this view, Islam is a blurred and conveniently adaptable category of general backwardness, and encompasses Islam, Arabs, and the Middle East as if they were the same thing. They also make the false assumption that there is such a thing as a single coherent "western" worldview and an "eastern" or "Muslim" one.
For those who missed the heated argument on Maher's show, Real Time, last week, he and guest Sam Harris, a neuroscientist who has written about religion, claimed to be standing up for liberalism and liberal principles by criticising "the Muslim world". Harris claimed that: "We've been sold this meme of Islamophobia where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people. It's intellectually ridiculous."
Affleck came back solidly: "Hold on - are you the person who officially understands the codified doctrine of Islam?"
On Maher and Harris' stereotyping, Affleck continued, "It's gross and it's racist. It's like saying 'Oh, you shifty Jew!'"
Drawing the wrong picture
During the 10-minute row, Maher said Islam is the only religion that's "like the mafia because it will f***ing kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, write the wrong book".
Harris said: "We're misled to think that the fundamentalists are the fringe." He tried to patronise Affleck: "Ben, let me unpack this for you...," and proceeded to use a metaphor of concentric circles, the central circle representing jihadists who want to kill apostates, and the next one representing Islamists who aren't entirely murderous. These two circles, he trotted out bizarrely, represent 20 percent of the Muslim world, according to "a bunch of poll results". Outside the two circles are the rest of Muslims, who are all conservative and hold troubling views about human rights, women, and homosexuality.
Hollywood has a history of left-wing politics. But pointing out racist representations of Muslims or Arabs, or - perish the thought - Palestinians, has been a no-no for both conservatives and liberals. During the recent war on Gaza, Hollywood and the music industry entered the fray - or rather, dipped their toes in it. Various celebrities posted tweets condemning Israel's bombings of Gaza, or simply expressing concern about the deaths of children, which was enough for supporters of the military operation to understand that there was sympathy for Gazans, apparently a taboo in itself, and even A-list celebrities felt enough pressure to modify their statements.
Only outspoken comedian and actor Russell Brand entered the fray wholeheartedly, taking on a new role as political satirist with his homemade YouTube clips "The Trews" (True News). Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem felt the need to clarify their position after signing an open letter in Spanish that called on the European Union to end Israel's operation in Gaza following severe criticism from some Hollywood producers and fellow actors like Jon Voight. Singer Selena Gomez ended up explaining her Instagram post "It's about humanity. Pray for Gaza." Rihanna deleted a tweet containing a "#freepalestine" hashtag after only a few minutes, and Jon Stewart's consistent criticism of the war on Gaza prompted Hillary Clinton herself to appear on his programme to take issue with him.
McCarthyism may be long gone, but certain topics are sure to generate a swift response, and Hollywood's recent attempts to challenge stereotypes about the Middle East remain cautious. Most celebrities, even those who do humanitarian work in the Middle East, prefer to remain silent.
So why is it so important for pundits and chat show hosts, who are intent on presenting themselves as educated and liberal, to trash Islam with simplifying, blanket statements? Taking a cue from Harris, let me "break it down" into circles.
My three circles aren't concentric; they overlap, and can lead to infinite combinations and variations. The circles correspond to (a) pundits who are less liberal and more racist than they claim to be, (b) pundits who have overriding political agendas and very consciously promote half-truths and stereotypes in order to influence large audiences who don’t have the time or inclination to do their own research, and (c) all remaining pundits. There is a poll out there somewhere showing that category (b) accounts for 20 percent of pundits worldwide, and 70 percent of pundits in the Christian, English-speaking world.
More seriously, what is the overriding agenda? Trashing Islam is about disseminating simplistic ideas that lend support to precise political goals, and it allows supporters of certain aspects of US foreign policy to justify past, present, and future mistakes. If American voters can be given the impression that most Muslims are sexist, homophobic, intolerant fanatics who murder and behead at the drop of a hat, then they may just believe that it is necessary to invade countries in which Muslims are the majority - it hardly matters which country, as long as wrecking its political, economic, and social fabric serves the primary goals of controlling oil resources, profiting from the arms trade, and allowing Israel to feel safe (irrespective of whether its feelings of insecurity correspond to reality).
The primary example of this in recent times was going to war in Iraq in 2003, which took place despite the largest international anti-war protests that have ever taken place, and which directly contributed to creating extremists on the ground. The perfectly rational idea that the overwhelming majority of Muslims want peace, political freedom, economic comfort, and education for their children, is far too dangerous for leaders, their advisers, and the powerful pundits who support them and disseminate a particular message, as it would require them to look reality in the eye and make decisions based on it.
Earlier last week, previous comments about Islam by Maher led to Reza Aslan's excoriation of his "unsophisticated" thought process on CNN, which went viral. Aslan is an Iranian American academic and scholar of religions, but Affleck's contribution to the debate proves that you don't need to be a specialist or a PhD to recognise racism and speak out against it. That Affleck's passionate defence is so unusual reveals, depressingly, that stereotyping relating to the Middle East, Arabs, and Muslims, who are all lumped together as if they were the same thing has remained unchallenged in mainstream US media, entertainment and television - hopefully until now.
Lana Asfour is a journalist based in London and Beirut. Her articles and photographs have been published by the Times, BBC online, the New Statesman, Observer, New York Review of Books, Daily Star Beirut, OpenDemocracy and Granta, among others.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.