Framing the death of Abu Bakar al Baghdadi, between scholar and outlaw

The Washington Post was roundly ridiculed for the way it presented the death of the Daesh leader. But even reactions from the so-called liberal media resorted to simplistic assessments of the ‘Muslim world’.

Following the purported killing of Daesh leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, in northern Syria by US Special Forces, the Washington Post ran a heavily mocked and criticised headline that labelled the group’s leader an ‘austere religious scholar’. Facing pressure, the influential newspaper quickly changed the headline, however, the criticism continued to flow.

Responding to the criticism, Washington Post Spokesperson, Kristine Coratti Kelly, tweeted: “Regarding our al Baghdadi obituary, the headline should never have read that way, and we changed it quickly.” Criticising what was seen by some as a softening of its treatment of Baghdadi out of disdain for President Trump, Donald Trump Jr. accused the Washington Post of “literally doing PR for a terrorist scumbag” by changing its description of Baghdadi from ‘austere religious scholar’ to ‘extremist leader of Islamic State’.

In any event, the controversy over the framing of Baghdadi’s death has re-opened a long-running conversation over media and academic treatment of the issue of Islam, extremist violence and the positing of religious legitimacy.

Sidelining mainstream voices

As has often been the case in the treatment of these issues, contemporary normative Muslim voices have been effectively denied a platform to articulate mainstream positions. Instead, so-called Muslim ‘reformers’, such as Maajid Nawaz, Ali A Rizvi (who describes himself as an ‘ex-Muslim’) and others, continue to be championed by special interest groups and paraded by the mainstream media in the West as examples of what ‘good’ Muslim voices should be.

Attempts to disassociate Daesh from the context from which it emerged and attach it to an imagined interpretation of the seventh century – such as those by Graeme Wood’s 2015 article in The Atlantic, What ISIS Really Wants – not only display a profound ignorance of Islamic history, they also effectively divert discussion away from a critical reading of modernity and notions of what it means to be modern. Editorialising about the ills of the Middle East, and the ‘Muslim world’ more generally, continue to display a bizarre reading of both Muslims and the Islamic tradition. A recent piece published by The Guardian strangely mentions the fact that President Donald Trump’s statement that Baghdadi “died like a dog” may cause a backlash amongst Muslims who consider canines to be ‘unclean’.

In addition to assuming that Muslims have even the slightest sympathy towards Baghdadi and his ilk, this seemingly insignificant claim in fact reflects the Orientalist perspective that pervades Western media – even of the liberal variety – by transforming a nuanced jurisprudential position into an emotive issue, thereby re-enforcing the notion that Islam and Muslims are ‘irrational’.

Contextualising Ideology

Rather than being based in an authentic reading of the Islamic source-texts or a legitimate reading of early Islamic history, the heritage of the ideology espoused by Daesh is in fact rooted in a pseudo-religious response to the conditions of the 19th and 20th centuries resulting from colonisation and the associated attempts at social, political and economic modernisation that took place across much of the Muslim world. In this vein, it is essential to recall that the intellectual, social and political project of modernity gave rise to some of the most violent episodes and ideologies in human history.

Furthermore, if religion was involved in the justification of these movements, it was only as a tool meant to mobilise people who may have been more efficiently moved through appeals to traditional religion, regardless of the authenticity of the calls. The religious justification given by Daesh’s religious scholars for some of their more depraved activities provides us with some insight into their ideological anchoring. These scholars have, more often than not, referred to fatwas from a 14th Damascene scholar named Taqi al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328CE).

Ibn Taymiyyah, although possessed with what was arguably a brilliant scholarly penchant, was a relatively unknown figure in his own time, let alone the centuries that followed. His rise from obscurity more recently is intimately connected with various Islamic revivalist movements that began to emerge in the 19th Century.

Anchoring ideology in the tradition

Ibn Taymiyyah today has been co-opted and portrayed as one of the intellectual pillars of the Salafi movement (although not exclusively), which has relied on his record of opposing scholarly consensus to ground their discontent against the scholarly tradition. While Daesh’s purposeful and ahistorical cherry-picking of Ibn Taymiyyah’s works lies in a warped understanding of his thought, his appeal lies in his penchant for opposing scholarly consensus and his almost individualistic re-interpretative approach to Islam’s source texts.

For their part, mainstream Salafis argue that Daesh has taken Ibn Taymiyyah’s opinions out of context, and on this point, they are correct. But this is in some ways beside the point. Ibn Taymiyyah’s appeal comes from the fact that he, like many of his modern interlocutors, displayed a penchant for a kind of puritanical zealotism against what he viewed as the failure of the scholars of his time to adequately distinguish between what was and what was not to be included within the legitimate grounds of Islam. Daesh, of course, is not the first to invoke Ibn Taymiyyah as a justification for violence. His views, which some would say have been misinterpreted, were also used to justify violence against fellow Muslims in Iraq, Mecca and Medina by Muhammad Ibn Abd al Wahhab, founder of Wahhabism and the pre-cursor to the modern Saudi State.

Framing the Discussion

The most present danger in continued analyses that seem to give a degree of credence to the argument that Daesh represents an authentic expression of Islam is an increase of perspectival distortion in academic, media and political discourse with a consequent impact on public perception. The ongoing neglect of contemporary voices that can speak authoritatively on the Islamic tradition could be interpreted by Muslims as an intentional silencing of authoritative voices. This results in an increase of the isolation of Muslim communities—particularly those living as minorities—and increases the distance between Muslim-majority countries and the West.

Along with the de-facto acceptance of Salafism as the most authentic manifestation of Islam, the continued analyses that give credence to the argument that Daesh represents some form of authentic Islam serves to undermine what little understanding of Muslims and the Islamic tradition exists in the West. Raising the spectre of religious violence and a view that sees Islam as standing in opposition to all that is posited as being in opposition to Western liberalism has demonstrably served to increase the fear of Islam and Muslims and to cast Muslim communities as being the perpetual ‘other’.

Muslims who have attacked the religious legitimacy of Daesh have been accused of having a naive view of their own religion. The view that Daesh represents an authentic expression of Islam also displays an additional ignorance between a phenomenon that emerges from an Islamic milieu and one that is consistent with a 1,400-year-old tradition. Such a position is given credence by an academic lens that argues that religion can only be understood phenomenologically. This perspective must continue to be challenged in academic circles. However, even if we accept the phenomenological notion that Islam is defined by ‘what Muslims do’, we are confronted with a reality in which the vast majority of Muslims hold beliefs that share no affinity with Daesh or other like-minded groups.

In contrast, it would seem that for some segments of the media and academia, the Quran and hadith literature are void of anything relevant except brutal spectacle. According to Wood’s article in The Atlantic, the Prophet’s campaign to unify Arabia was an “untidy affair”. Insinuations such as this find their rhetorical value precisely in their lack of detail and context, thus allowing the reader to fill in the blanks for themselves. Historically speaking, the institution of the caliphate has been theorised in various ways and came to be largely understood as desirable practicality rather than a religious necessity.

The historical reality of the institution speaks to the fact that it came to represent a pillar of legitimacy and an axial institution around which legitimacy revolved. While Sunni jurists and theologians have theorised the ideal conditions, they were rarely, if ever met, nor were they considered as being necessary. The late Abbasid Caliphate exemplifies this condition wherein Sultans ruled Muslim lands through the theoretical legitimising power of the caliph. In later Islamic history the Ottomans and Mughals ruled hugely diverse populations through the axiomatic shariah, of which the caliph – in the case of the former – only later formed an institutional pillar. None of them enslaved or killed off their non-Muslim populations. Daesh and those Muslims who express disdain towards these empires and accuse these Muslim polities of not ruling according to the shariah, therefore implying their illegitimacy, display ignorance of their own history.

Delegitimising the ideology of Daesh can only be accomplished through a sustained multi-pronged effort. Part of the answer lies within the Islamic tradition itself while the other lies in addressing long-held grievances of people throughout much of the traditionally Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East. On the ideological level, the Islamic tradition itself provides the best defence against the mutated approach to Islam that is invoked by, and depended on, by Daesh. The discussion should also not lose sight of the social, political and economic conditions that provide the breeding grounds for such ideologies to take root. Despite the prevalence of such conditions across significant portions of the Muslim world, the fact that the ideology of Daesh remains very clearly on the fringe testifies to its widespread illegitimacy.

Rather than the immediate requirement to defeating Daesh resting on an ‘uprising’ of the Sunni community in the Levant, as per The Guardian’s latest analysis, the ‘defeat’ in fact lies in heeding the legitimate demands of the people of the region for economic, social and political rights free of interference from foreign and regional powers. On the ideological level, de-radicalisation – with all the problems that the term holds – can only be successful if it is detached from corrupt states and firmly rooted in the localities in which it seeks to influence. Whether Baghdadi is framed as an ‘austere religious scholar’ or ‘extremist leader’, the fact is that the problematic framing of the issue in the West remains and ultimately indicates an ignorance of the real issues at play.

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