With the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or IS), an old apologia meant to exonerate Islam of violence has become prominent again. Because ISIS is killing other Muslims, so the argument goes, obviously its violence cannot be based on Islam, which bans Muslims from killing fellow Muslims in its name.
This point is always stressed whenever Islamic jihadis commit massacres in the West. Speaking soon after the San Bernardino terror attack that left 14 dead, U.S. president Obama, who earlier insisted that the Islamic State “is not Islamic,” elaborated:
ISIL does not speak for Islam. They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death… Moreover, the vast majority of terrorist victims around the world are Muslim (emphasis added).
Similarly, after last November’s Paris terrorist attack, which left 129 people dead, the UK’s Independent published an article titled, “Paris attacks: Isis responsible for more Muslim deaths than western victims.” And the Daily Beast argued that, “Before the Paris horror, ISIS was killing Muslims on a daily basis. We Muslims despise these crazy people more than anyone else does…. But the number one victim of this barbaric terror group is Muslims. That’s undisputed.”
Along with distancing Islam from violence—real Muslims are not supposed to kill other Muslims in the name of jihad—this argument further clouds the issue of who is the true victim of Islamic terrorism: Why talk about the Muslim slaughter of non-Muslims—whether Western people in Paris or California, or Christian minorities under Islam—when it is Muslims who are the primary victims most deserving of sympathy?
Yet this argument is flawed on several levels. First, the Islamic State does not view its victims as Muslims. Indeed, mainstream Sunni Islam—the world’s dominant strand of Islam which ISIS adheres to—views all non-Sunnis as false Muslims; at best, they are heretics who need to submit to the “true Islam.”
This is largely how Sunnis view Shias and vice versa—hence their perennial war. While Western talking heads tend to lump them together as “Muslims”—thus reaching the erroneous conclusion that ISIS is un-Islamic because it kills “fellow Muslims”—each group views the other as enemies. (It’s only in recent times, as both groups plot against the West and Israel, that they occasionally cooperate.)
Overall, then, when Sunni jihadis slaughter Shias—or Sufis, Druze, and Baha’i, lesser groups affiliated with Islam to varying degrees—they do so under the same exact logic as when they slaughter Christian minorities, or European, American, and Israeli citizens: all are infidels who must either embrace the true faith, be subjugated, or die.
In fact, that ISIS kills other “Muslims” only further validates the supremacist and intolerant aspects of Sunnism, which is hardly limited to ISIS. Just look to our good “friend and ally,” Saudi Arabia, the official religion of which is Sunni Islam, and witness the subhuman treatment Shia minorities experience.
But what about those Sunnis killed during the Islamic State’s jihad? These are rationalized away as “martyrs”—collateral damage—destined to enter Islam’s paradise. Indeed, the topic of fellow Sunnis being killed during the jihad has been widely addressed throughout the centuries. It received a thorough analysis by Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri in his essay, “Jihad, Martyrdom, and the Killing of Innocents” (The Al Qaeda Reader, pgs. 137-171). After delineating how three of the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence—Hanafi, Shafi‘i, and Hanbali—do not forbid the accidental or inevitable killing of Muslims during the jihad, Zawahiri concluded:
The only thing mujahidin [jihadis] are specifically required to do, should they knowingly kill a Muslim [who is intermixed with the targeted infidels], is make atonement. Blood money, however, is a way out of the dispute altogether. Payment should be made only when there is a surplus of monies, which are no longer needed to fund the jihad. Again, this is only if their [Muslims] intermingling with the infidels is for a legitimate reason, such as business. And we assume that those who are killed are martyrs, and believe that what the Sheikh of Islam [Ibn Taymiyya] said about them applies: “[T]hose Muslims who are accidentally killed are martyrs; and the obligatory jihad should never be abandoned because it creates martyrs.”
But what of those Sunnis whom ISIS intentionally kills? Here the jihadis rely on takfir, the act of one Sunni group denouncing another Sunni group of being kafir—that is, non-Muslims, infidels, whose blood can be shed with impunity. Takfir has existed alongside Islam almost from its inception, beginning with the khawarij (Kharijites)—who ritually slaughtered Muslims for not following the letter of law—and was/is the primary rationale used to justify jihad between different Sunni nations and empires.
In short, to Sunni jihadis—not just ISIS, but al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Hamas, et al—non-Sunni peoples are all infidels and thus free game. As for fellow Sunnis, if they die accidentally, they are martyrs (“and the obligatory jihad should never be abandoned because it creates martyrs”); and if fellow Sunnis intentionally get in the way, they are denounced as infidels and killed accordingly.
The argument that ISIS and other jihadi organizations kill fellow Muslims proves nothing. Muslims have been slaughtering Muslims on the accusation that they are “not Islamic enough” from the start: So what can the open non-Muslim—such as the Western infidel—expect?
In the end, it’s just jihad and more jihad, for all and sundry.