Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state.
I’m going to limit my comments to the first thing the President makes clear, since I find the claim less than clear.
If we were to approach ISIL folks (and survive the contact in some way that would allow us to report on the results) and ask, “Are you Muslim,” I have no doubt they would answer in the affirmative. I take it to be indubitable that they consider themselves to be Muslims – to be an Islamic group. In fact, it appears that they take themselves to be truer representatives of Islam than the other groups out there. They are so faithful to Islam that they have declared themselves to be the new Caliphate.
When I see Christian groups standing for and doing things that I take to be antithetical to Christianity, I am inclined to say something like, “They’re not really Christians.” Considering the actual ways purported Christian groups have acted over the past two millennia, I can think of many ways of not being Christian.
But what’s the difference between not being a Christian (when one takes oneself to be a Christian) being a Christian poorly? To what degree can my understanding of real Christianity, orthodox as I am, be taken as definitive of what it means to be a real Christian? I would think that my assessment of real Christianity has more credence than the assessment of non-Christians. I’m an insider: I have a commitment to Christ, to the Christian community (considered more broadly than just my own United Methodist Church), and to the advancement of Jesus’ kingdom. I have a stake in what is really Christian, a stake non-Christians usually don’t. When I see some group, Westboro Baptist, for example, acting in a way (in fact, apparently, defined by these actions) in a non-Christian way, I would like to say, “Those people aren’t Christians.” I’d go further and want to say, “Because those folks aren’t real Christians, you should not get your idea of the nature of Christianity from them.” From this angle it’s a variant of “Don’t look behind the curtain!”
If I were a Muslim, I’d surely not want my friends and neighbors (and children!) to think that the ISIS (or ISIL or IS or whoever they are) represent real Islam. I’d be much more comfortable saying they are obviously something else altogether. I know Islam; that’s not Islam. The President’s claim is coming from a perspective like this, even though he is not a Muslim. Like President Bush before him, President Obama speaks as a hypothetical Muslim. He does not want to believe that real Islam beheads journalists, crucifies religious opponents, or flies airplanes into buildings. Since I have Muslim friends, I don’t want Islam to be like that either.
What if the ISIS people are genuine in their claim to be Muslim? What if what I want – and what our presidents want – is irrelevant? My reading of the situation is that we are dealing with a conflict internal to Islam. We outsiders have wishes and desires – we want peace & safety – but we don’t get a say in what counts as real Islam. In the way some Christians stand against the practices of Westboro Baptist, some Muslims will stand against the ISIS conception of Islam. Time will tell which Islam becomes the real Islam, and which is considered Islam done wrongly.
It is surely the case that there are phenomena that are not Islam. Muslims would likely be the best to discern that these phenomena are not Islam, but as I, a Christian, would be better at discerning that a given phenomenon was not Christian. But as with the Presidents, sometimes my evaluation leans toward the factual, sometimes to the wishful thinking (or, more nicely, the hortative).
Finally, the general point I am making is that we need to sharpen our practices of predication and evaluation so that we allow the difference between not doing a thing and doing a thing poorly.