I read this often, in social media updates and in tweets from blue-tick media mavens, that an overwhelming majority of ISIS violence is on Muslims (in this case 90%) , and so, by an extension, what are you non-Muslims getting your chaddis in a bunch for? The dissonance, in the above statement, stems from the overloading of the word ISIS in popular discourse, used as it is to refer to both a group in the Syria-Iraq region and also to radical Islamic fundamentalism in general, where the kill count of the former, or more precisely per-centage of Muslim on Muslim violence, is used to make a point about the latter.
But before we get into all that, let’s first talk about ISIS, the organization. It is intellectually lazy to call ISIS a radical Muslim group, especially when someone is purporting to have a serious discussion. Of course it is that only, but that’s not what defines them. The ISIS, more precisely, is a radical Sunni Muslim organization that espouses Salafism, a philosophy of intense Islamic fundamentalism. Salafists emphasize a return to the roots of Islam, to the rule of the rightly-guided Caliphs (the first four leaders of the Islam faith, after the death of Prophet Mohammed), in a very literal way. Which is why they seek to establish their vision of medieval utopia in the lands they control. They are kind of like auditors, in that they are extremely literal in their interpretation of standard operating procedure and standards. For instance, they take Islam’s strictures against idol worship to extreme levels. They are violently against music, even music that is Islamic and religious, and sometimes against even their own places of worship, as is evidenced in the recent attack at Medina.
This however should not be spun, as it is done, that they are against Islam. Of course they aren’t. They are against practices in Islam they believe are un-Islamic, practices that the rest of the world, including a majority of Muslims, think are perfectly Islamic. This naturally puts them against many Muslims. Shias and Sufis are particularly hated, and so are homosexuals and liberal Muslims of all sorts. Even many Sunnis, who might consider themselves to be orthodox enough, but do not meet the standards set by Salafists, lie squarely in their crosshairs. And as the ISIS has shown, time and time again, the distance between “against” and “I will kill you using methods that would be considered extreme in a Saw film” is a very short straight line for them.
One of the fundamental tenets of Salafism is that the rulers of the Islamic world, post the reign of the rightly-guided Caliphs, have allowed Muslims to deviate away from the original moral ideals of Islam, and, if that was not bad enough, have allied with enemies of Islam, like the West and the Jewish state of Israel, to cling onto power. This is why for more than a century, Salafist preachers have found themselves in jail, and on death row, in Sunni Islamic countries like Syria and Egypt. Salafists have always been anti-establishment, where the establishment is defined as a Muslim Sunni Arab government, their message of returning to a hypothetical state of medieval purity attractive for Arab Sunni Muslims, disgusted by the corruption of their governments, and their failure to solve the overwhelming Arab problem of the last hundred years. Palestine. This is a point often missed in many word-riots in the media, the fundamentally Arab identity of ISIS, and this is why any beyond-perfunctory understanding of who they are killing and why they are killing them requires you to understand Arab & Middle Eastern politics.
In the 1920s, the House of Saud scouted the sands for hardy nomadic tribesmen, proselytized them with a local strain of Salafism called Wahabism, named after a certain Muhammed al-Wahab, and converted them into a militia called the Ikhwan, which they then used to assert their hegemony over an area, where the discovery of oil, had opened up many wars. But soon the House of Saud found themselves in conflict with the Ikhwan, because the Ikhwan felt that the Sauds were, and you may want to be sitting down when you read this, not Islamic enough, because they had done things like bring in modern automation, and had sent their princes to the land of non-believers, namely England, for study and fun. Over the years, the conflict became more marked, leading to the Ikhwan revolt, which was put down savagely by the House of Saud. In 1979, another group of Wahabi fanatics, calling themselves al-Ikhwan as a shout-out to the original Ikhwan, seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, leading to an armed conflict with the House of Saud once again.
The reason I give this brief history is to establish, that the most orthodox of Arab rulers, the House of Saud, has had persistent problems with Salafis (in the case of Saudi Arabia, the word Wahabi is used), a problem they have sought to solve by throwing money at Wahabis, by financing their proselytizing activities in other lands, under the assumption that if they are engaged elsewhere, they won’t come creating trouble in their backyard. So yes, the Saudi ruling class have killed a lot of ISIS-like people over the ages, probably more than anyone else, but does make them tolerant or less of an enabler or honestly, significantly better, than the ISIS?
I am going to go with no.
Now to specifically ISIS. ISIS rose as a result of the US invasion of Iraq, that overthrew a secular (by the standards of the area) Sunni leader Saddam Hussein. The Shia majority of the country welcomed the US invasion, stoking Sunni fears of a loss of hegemony. Sectarian violence broke out, and combined with the rebellion in Syria, led to large territories with minimal control, and ISIS rose to fill in the gap.
It is thus only natural that most of ISIS’s conflict would be with other Muslims, whether it be Shia groups or Sunnis who fought for the Iraqi army or Syrian army against them. The region has never been known for ethnic and religious diversity, and for good reason too, but the kind of savagery heaped on the Yazidis, specially Yazidi women, should be enough to convince anyone with an open mind that for the ISIS, all their enemies are not created equal. That Muslims, mostly Shias and Sunnis who fought for the other side, form a large majority of ISIS’s victims is simply because they are the vast majority in the regions in which they operate.
Which brings me to the fundamental confusion. ISIS the group is different from ISIS, the global Jihad brand. ISIS, the group, with its very successful social media campaign, an irony given their Luddite roots, has caught the attention of many Islamic groups all over the world, with very different political compulsions and goals. and thus created ISIS, the brand.
In Kashmir, the raising of ISIS flags is the adoption of the supremacist brand of Islam, rather than a deep acceptance of Salafi principles. A Kashmiri militant’s enemy is the Indian government and the Kashmiri Pandit, he has no history with the troops of Bashar-al-Assad, nor does he want the fall of the House of Saud. The same way, the ISIS leader, sitting in Mosul, won’t be able to point out Kashmir on a map, and wouldnt even care for the struggles of non-Arab Muslims of any denomination, unless for strategic brand-building reasons. And yet both are being referred to as ISIS in the eight o clock news, which is where the confusion originates.
Similarly, when a bunch of rich Dhaka boys, bored with their life of privilege, take a crash course online in Salafi philosophy, take some pictures and send them off to the ISIS social media people, they end up appropriating Arab headgear and their names, but are unable to lose their Bangali identity. That is why they go around the restaurant butchering guests, they ask “Are you Bangali?”. In their fundamentalism-addled brain, the Salafi philosophy has been cross-producted with their Bangali identity, leading them to equate “non-Bengali” with “non-Islamic”. Were their victims 90% Muslims? I am guessing, given their criterion of releasing people who could reside the Quaran, possibly not. What about the Paris bombings? What about the Florida night-club shootings? What was the religious distribution of the victims there? One can go on, but the point, I believe has been made.
The crisis we find ourselves today is less from ISIS the organization, which is largely contained in a small area and will not expand, but ISIS the brand. Islamic groups, and damaged individuals, across the world, who adopt the brand do to serve their own political interests or to provide a religious justification for their homicidal agendas. Just as we can do without targetting an entire religion for the activities of a few, as Donald Trump and Islamophobes of different hues say we do, so too can do without the semantic sleight of hand of trivializing the threat of ISIS, by conflating the organization in Syria-Iraq by the name of ISIS with the global brand of radical Islamic fundamentalism which goes by the same name.