Courtesy of UTSA Muslim Student Association
The blending of pornographic violence and social media savvy from the Islamic State has lodged the group firmly into the public consciousness. While their ascendancy has been precipitous to watch, much less attention has been afforded to the trenchant rejection of their brand of Islam by fellow Muslims, who do not see political violence as the essence or sole orthodox expression of their faith. Sadly still, senior English major Sarah Aburumuh explains that ”Muslims are constantly asked to apologize for the crimes of extremists. We face harsh comments on campus just because we look the part.”
This ideological battle within the religion and without has bred plenty of dissent towards tenets of the faith’s doctrines, the Quran and Hadith, and those who consider themselves practitioners of them.
At UTSA, the Muslim Student Association (MSA) has tried to clarify these preconceived notions by welcoming debate and dialogue about the features of Islam when their members table on campus.
With the earnest intent to explain and converse openly about a personalized Islam, Senior Ahmad Kaki, MSA member, says the group “still on occasion will face people who call them terrorists, extremists and radicals.”
The late Palestinian Columbia professor of comparative literature and post-colonial scholar Edward Said would call these generalizations “Orientalist,” or the tendency to think of Middle Eastern society and Islam as static, archaic and homogeneous due to stereotypical representations of the region and its people and the demonization of Islam in the news and popular culture.
‘Ijtihad’ or the concept of individualized interpretation of Sharia, is personified by MSA’s own efforts on campus to carve out the right to a progressive interpretation of Islam, where violence is condemned and not celebrated. This is a stark contrast to the idea of “takfir,” or religious excommunication, propagated by groups like ISIS whose ritualized use of the term serves to cast out other Muslims. This is vital to the “vanguard” component of the ISIS narrative, which views the group’s members and the creation of the caliphate as the only authentic purpose of Islam. These two competing ideas force Muslim students onto the defensive.
Kaki goes onto explain: “Rather than getting to talk about peace, love, and rationality, we’re forced to talk about things that we don’t necessarily want to.” This is not because Kaki does not understand the graphic nature of the violence occurring, but rather because “Islam has no liturgical hierarchy. There are conservative scholars and there are liberal scholars, there are differences of opinion, ” he explains.
The takeaway from Kaki is that the monopoly claimed by ISIS over questions of Islamic orthodoxy cannot be applied to such a decentralized and fluid religion.
In fact, journalists and authors specializing in radicalization now observing the Islamic State (such as Jessica Stern and Der Spiegel reporter Christoph Reuter) are beginning to uncover new evidence dispelling the primacy of religion in how the Islamic State has thrived and functioned. As opposed to divine intervention on the behalf of this group of shell-state building Sunni Wahhabists, much of the military success of the organization has been because of the tactical expertise of former Saddam Baathists, high-ranking members within the bureaucracy of ISIS.
Students like Ahmad Kaki, Sarah Aburumuh and fellow MSA members are on the front lines of changing minds with their willingness to brave the Texas heat, stand outside and engage in conversations. They answer student’s questions and when approached with belligerence MSA students respond with congeniality and candidness.
Anyone on Twitter knows the decapitated journalist’s names: James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig. But thousands of others; including the Kurds, Yezidis, Druze, Jordanians, Japanese, Christians and Muslims, have also suffered and lost their lives at the hands of the brutal group.
The orange jumpsuits and the black- masked executioners standing in the sand dunes of Dabiq, Syria are imprinted images in the public mind due to the viral spread of information. But lesser known are the videos and photos produced by Muslim students on campuses all over the world, declaring that such activity is grotesque, immoral and a crime against humanity.