Two UN reports reveal what the world has known about IS all along.
If ever there was a misnomer, it is Islamic State. IS is neither Islamic nor is it a state. Islamic State has become indisputably the most ruthless terrorist organisation in the world, making the very name of the group a huge contradiction, for there is nothing Islamic about beheading foreign journalists, indiscriminately targeting religious minorities and instilling terror within the general civilian population where its terrorist thugs operate. There is nothing Islamic about the forced recruitment of women and children, destruction or desecration of places of religious or cultural significance, wanton destruction and looting of property, and denial of fundamental freedoms.
But if the world needed any further proof that Islamic State is alien to the sublime religion of Islam, for the second time in as many months, the United Nations has revealed what exactly Islamic State is and what it is doing: committing war crimes and imposing a “rule of terror” in areas it controls; denying food and medicine to hundreds of thousands of people; hiding its fighters among civilians; and using public brutality and indoctrination to ensure the submission of communities under its control. This comes from a UN panel, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria.
The report comes following an initial UN account in October, produced jointly by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, that found IS had been committing a “staggering array” of human rights abuses that may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity that demand prosecution.
In the last few months, IS has targeted religious minorities, like Christians and Yazidis, in a campaign to rid the region of these populations even though Islam advocates kindness to people of other faiths who live in peace in Muslim lands. Islam also prohibits the killing of anyone who is being held in captivity, including non-combatants like journalists and aid workers, and also outlaws mutilating their corpses. Any violation of these edicts is a clear violation of core Islamic principles. Despite such clear injunctions, some so-called Muslims like those who are members of IS and Al-Qaeda who claim to be killing in the name of Islam are, in fact, completely defiling its essence. The extremists and militants who attempt to hide behind the veneer of Islam are, in reality, openly violating many of its principal teachings.
For all the brutality evinced by IS and recorded by the UN, signs are emerging that IS is not the force it was just last summer. A combination of coalition airstrikes and more assertive Iraqi and Kurdish forces are inflicting serious losses on IS of both territory and fighters. One example was the major defeat handed IS over the weekend when Iraqi forces drove it out of the strategic oil refinery town of Beiji.
But this war against IS is just beginning, for this is a new kind of war. The clash is not between nations but between nations and an organisation that is not a state or a political player. Which is why, despite the allied war effort, IS is extremely hard to fight against. It is a first degree relative of organised crime. Like organised criminal gangs, it knows no recognisable boundaries as it moves from one country to the next to traffic in drugs and human beings and delve into other criminal activities.
What IS and its peers have brought to these activities is that they perpetrate them in the name of Islam. But behind that facade they still fund themselves through larceny and theft, and they still terrorise and massacre innocent civilians because, in fact, they have no values and hold nothing sacred.
IS has added a new dimension to terrorist crimes. It has established bases on the ground, thus setting itself apart from, for example, Al-Qaeda. A large alliance of terrorists has coalesced across quite a few national boundaries, all part of the great terrorist army that is threatening the entire region.
In fact, perhaps this is the crux of the strategic challenge. Every religion has had its share of extremists and fanatics, some of whom turn into terrorists which must be quelled.
That will not be easy. If an international and regional coalition has come together in order to degrade and eliminate IS, the latter is forming a counter-coalition consisting of many terrorist forces spread across a number of Arab and Islamic countries. Its cells take root and proliferate in every area where extremism and fanaticism prevail.
These nefarious cells, like those of cancer, also multiply. If the Sinai-based militant group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis has indeed pledged its allegiance to IS, their unification can only make both stronger. This is a new, dangerous chapter for the deadliest group in Egypt which has killed hundreds of Egyptian police officers and soldiers since the overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Ansar claimed responsibility for one of the deadliest attacks on security forces yet when 30 soldiers were killed last month.
While Ansar attacks, until now, have almost exclusively targeted police and soldiers, there is a fear that an association with IS could expand the threat to civilian and tourist sites.
IS and its ilk must, therefore, be called out for their blatant disregard for religion which they use to justify their terrorism. In addition to the damning reports of the UN, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation says IS has “nothing to do with Islam,” and has committed crimes “that cannot be tolerated”. And a recent letter crafted and signed by 125 Sunni Muslim scholars and dignitaries from around the world decries IS’s criminality, and the misnamed “Islamic State’s” crimes against humanity.
The Arab public, too, has an overwhelmingly negative view of Islamic State. A clear majority of Arabs — eight in 10 participants in a poll carried out in seven Arab countries and conducted by the Arab Center of Washington support the goal of the coalition to “degrade and destroy” the extremist Islamist group.
The UN and the Arab world are only stating the obvious. An essential part of the faith is moderation. Extremist Muslims who commit crimes like those carried out by IS should be called criminals. Their actions cannot be legitimised by calling them jihadists.
If the world wants to stop IS, it must deny it any claim to represent Islam. Despite misappropriating and misusing the name “Islamic State”, IS is little more than a criminal gang that attaches itself to revered symbols of Islam and falsely claims to uphold the banner of the religion.
IS tarnishes the image of Islam and further marginalises the vast majority of Muslims who abhor the group’s violence. The Muslim community and the world at large must repudiate and reject IS’s twisted ideology which is un-Islamic and in fact anti-Islamic.
Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.