Dr. Asaad Al-Saleh, of Indiana University, delivered a talk titled, “ISIS and Islam: How a Terrorist Ideology Twists Religion,” on Tuesday, May 3, 2016. Dr. Al-Saleh is currently a Resident Fellow at IIIT, working on a book in Arabic on the same topic.
Dr. Al-Saleh is Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature, Comparative Literature, and Cultural Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, Indiana University. He teaches Arabic Literature courses and classical Islamic texts in Arabic and English, with expertise in Arab Spring, Autobiography, and Literary Theory. In addition to scholarly writing, he contributes opinion pieces in Arabic on political, cultural, and religious issues in war-torn Syria, where he was born and raised.
Ermin Sinanović, IIIT’s Director of Research and Academic Programs, introduced Dr. Al-Saleh, emphasizing the relevance of the lecture’s topic and IIIT’s commitment to bringing clarity to contemporary issues.
Dr. Al-Saleh thanked the IIIT for the funds which enable his research. He began his lecture by drawing a distinct line between “Islam” and “Muslim.” “The question will always remain: Is ISIS Islamic or not? But this is insulting for Muslims – attaching ISIS to Islam. It also makes ordinary people think that something must be wrong with all Muslims and you never know when they’ll explode, because they share the religion of Islam,” explained Dr. Al-Saleh.
He defined “Islam” as the Qur’an and hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him – “anything beyond these texts cannot be considered Islamic. Everything else is human effort, and hence, Muslim.” He further contended that Muslim history is also misrepresented as “Islamic history,” even though “some people (in that history) were as ruthless and fanatic as ISIS.”
He added that this isn’t the first time in Muslim history that extremists have existed, calling themselves Muslim, and claiming that their actions are Islamic. The Kharijites came into being right after the death of Prophet Muhammad; they were bedouins who had recently joined the religion. They legitimized their actions based on the Qur’an, turning the text into an “interpretive tool,” Dr. Al-Saleh stated.
The roots of ISIS can also be seen in the 1960s, when a group of people tried to establish Islamic rule in Egypt, he asserted. “They considered the ruler of the Muslim state as non-believer and felt justified in removing him by force,” he explained. When they failed, many of them went to Afghanistan to fight in the Soviet-Afghan war. However, when they returned after the war they were unwelcome but their zeal remained, he said.
He listed various reasons for the formation of ISIS, such as vacuum of power, instability in the region, foreign occupation. “Everything makes a package, helps them radicalize. Ideology and psychology are also responsible for the existence of ISIS – we cannot blame any specific government,” he clarified. He also said they differ from Al Qaida in the sense they always considered themselves an Islamic State. “They have had their own government since 2004, including a Cabinet,” he revealed.
“ISIS believes they represent Islam – they want to sell this. It is very problematic but if someone believes it, then ISIS has succeeded,” Dr. Al-Saleh stressed. In addition, he said that foreign wars legitimize ISIS’ agenda, helping them recruit more and more people. “We need to address the region holistically, not just ISIS,” he advised. For instance, he highlighted that “ISIS will not vanish --completely as a radicalizing force-- without the resolution of the Israel-Palestine issue.”
Dr. Al-Saleh will be at IIIT through August. IIIT will be hosting a Round Table discussion on ISIS at the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting in San Antonio, TX, in November, and Dr. Al-Saleh will be a part of that panel as well.