Credit: Bob Grahm Center for Public Service at the University of Florida
by Daniel Patrick Shaffer
I recently attended an academic panel hosted by the newly founded Center for Global Islamic Studies at the University of Florida. The talk was titled “ISIS and the Question of Islamic Militancy: A Public Conversation.” The goal of the panel was to use the developments in Iraq and Syria as a focal point for discussing the broader topic of religious violence, and bring those discussions into the perspective of Islam and international politics. Three UF professors sat on the panel including Prof. Leonardo Villalon, Dean of the UF International Center, Prof. Matt Jacobs, Director of the Program for International Studies, and Prof. Terje Ostebo, Founder and Director of the Center for Global Islamic Studies.
Dr. Ostebo gave his professional opinion on how the Islamic State should be labeled. He stated that although the Islamic State acts in a political, economic, and social context, it is important that they claim a tie to religion. It is not necessarily an Islamist movement; it is more of a Salafist movement. The idea is to return to the past and create a community of religious purism. The Islamic State is not necessarily focused on building political institutions or infrastructure for governance. They are much more focused on ritual purity that is being enforced through violent means. We see strict dress codes and the exclusion or extermination of religious minorities. The bottom line is that the Islamic State has the goal of building a pure Islamic State.
I disagree with the assertion that the Islamic State is a Salafist movement because the principals of killing that the Islamic State is abiding by do not characterize it as Islamic in nature. If the mass killings that the Islamic State is committing were not taken into consideration, then, in principal, I would agree that they practice a Salafist Islam. However, the killings take them out of the broad spectrum of Islam, and place them in the category of terrorist and radical.
Dr. Villalon then discussed whether or not the rise of militant Islamist movements like the Islamic State is a direct product of the logic of killing in the name of God. He offered an alternative cause saying that the Islamic State and movements like it are the products of bad political situations. Dr. Villalon pointed out that these ideologies have been around for a very long time but have not manifested themselves in this way. People have received this same religious education but have not been radicalized. He gave the example of the Madrasa education. We may think that a radical ideology is the result of a Madrasa education, but when you take the number of people educated in a Madrasa and compare that to the number of people that are actually radical, the percentage is too small to provide any quantitative evidence of a correlation.
Dr. Jacobs proposed, in part, a military response to the Islamic State, but ideas cannot be defeated militarily. I agree with this recommendation and the reasoning behind it. If you neutralize one group of people, another group of people will simply fill the void and adopt the same ideas. The political situations are the breeding grounds for movements like the Islamic State. Therefor, to fight occurrences like the Islamic State, we need to actively avoid creating the bad political situations that lead to this.
This event was a very productive space for conversation about the Islamic State and Islam as a whole. After the panel was over, several Muslims stood up and condemned the Islamic State and made it clear that this is not the Islam that they know. They encouraged non-Muslims not to take the Islamic State as a representative example of Muslims around the world. This event did what the world desperately needs done now, and created a space for the public to speak out against radicalism.
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