Who Decides Whether It’s ‘True’ Islam?

Categories: InTheNews, Politics, Religion
Comments: 2 Comments
Published on: 2014.09.14

(Sources: David Cameron statement on David Haines, Politics Home, 2014.09.14, and Read Obama’s speech outlining his strategy against ISIS, Vox, 2014.09.10.)

U.S. President Barack Obama said, a few days ago:

“ISIL is not ‘Islamic’. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”

His statements are similar to those of UK Prime Minister David Cameron today:

“They are killing and slaughtering thousands of people — Muslims, Christians, minorities — across Iraq and Syria. They boast of their brutality; they claim to do this in the name of Islam. That is nonsense. Islam is a religion of peace. They are not Muslims, they are monsters.”

Neither Obama nor Cameron are Muslims. Obama has — since taking public office — identified publicly with Christianity. Cameron has said publicly that he is “a Christian” and “an active member of the Church of England”.

So it has struck me as odd that Obama can say, without qualification, that members of ISIL are “not Islamic” and that Cameron can say “They are not Muslims”. Neither referred to advice or statements from leading Islamic organizations or clerics, though one can assume that both have had contact with them at some point recently.

My question, I guess, is: Who gets to decide who belongs to a particular faith or religion?

Has it ever been the case that the U.S. President or British Prime Minister have the power to determine your faith? — or, more accurately, to determine whether you belong to the religion that you profess? No, it has never been the case.

And, do Muslims agree that it’s up to elected leaders in England or the U.S.? I would be very surprised if any person professing Islam as his religion would say: “Yes, I think Obama (or Cameron) are the ones who should decide whether I’m a true Muslim.”

I do remember, as a young Christian (evangelical protestant), having conversations with others of my kind about whether someone we knew — or some public figure — was “a real Christian”. Occasionally we made definitive statements about it. No one had to listen to us or believe us, and none of the people we talked about had committed terrorist acts. (Correction: some of the people we discussed were those who had bombed abortion clinics in the name of Christianity.)

But we never would have dreamed of determining that someone who professed another faith was or wasn’t a true member of that religion. (“John’s not a true Jehovah’s Witness; I saw him celebrate Christmas once.”)

Of course, the leaders of denominations and organizations have the power to technically denounce your membership in a particular organization. (“Jane is hereby excommunicated from the First Ebenezer Holiness Baptist Pentecostal Church; she was seen renting a Rated R movie last month.”) But they can’t actually say “she’s not a Christian”, because there is no organization that controls the entire body of believers.

There is, to my knowledge, no universally accepted test to determine whether someone belongs to a particular religion.

I checked several dictionaries, perhaps none of them vetted by Muslim leaders, and all seemed to agree on the definition of Muslim: “a follower of the religion of Islam” or “an adherent of Islam” or “a person whose religion is Islam : a follower of Islam” or “A believer in or adherent of Islam”.

And generally, Islam is defined along these lines:

“…a monotheistic and Abrahamic religion articulated by the Qur’an, a book considered by its adherents to be the verbatim word of God”

In every case — based on these commonly accepted definitions — it can be determined that the members of ISIL are indeed Muslims, even if they are not representative of modern Islam as a whole.

This is not to say that all Muslims agree with ISIL or its violent tactics, which would be absurd. There are nearly two billion Muslims on the globe today, about seven million of them in the U.S. alone. Simple reasoning will tell you that the world would be a very different place today if even a sizable percentage of Muslims agreed with ISIL.

You can be a rectangle without being a square, but a square is indeed a rectangle. Being a ruthless and unfair business owner does not mean all business owners are ruthless and unfair, but you still own a business. You can be a driver without being drunk, but a drunk driver still drives.

Everyone understands this, it seems, except a small minority of political leaders who find it necessary to make an illogical and incorrect distinction.

On a slightly related note, Obama’s second sentence above is incorrect too, I think, in another sense. “No religion condones the killing of innocents.” I’m not familiar enough with the Muslim holy book, but the Bible regularly condones such behavior, especially in the Old Testament. God not only did it himself, but often ordered his followers to do it.

(As usual, I’m open to correction and being otherwise convinced. It will help if there are links to credible sources or definitions that differ from the ones I’ve used.)

  1. 1. I know that you know these leaders aren’t defining anything for academic purposes. They are isolating ISIL from Islam so that when it comes time to kill them, it won’t look like an attack on Islam.

    2. I heard on the internet that Barack Hussein Obama IS a Muslim. A while back. On someone’s blog.

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