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New Book Fails to Convict ISIS of Islamic Heresy

“Islam according to ISIS has no basis in the actual scriptures” of Islam. So wrote the authors of the new book [1] ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. While the many interviews with Islamic State defectors – including their brutal eyewitness accounts of the group’s atrocities – do provide compelling reading, this volume often suggests a more agnostic assessment of the militant group’s Islamic legitimacy than the authors may have intended.

Terrorism researcher Anne Speckhard [2] and former Turkish police detective Ahmet S. Yayla [3] wrote the book while leading the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [4], an “action-based, interdisciplinary research center working on psychosocial, cultural, political, economic, ideological and technological topics impacting global peace and security.” The book’s translator-assisted interviews demonstrated the authors’ belief that “disillusioned ISIS defectors who tell their authentic stories about life inside the Islamic State are the most influential tool to counter ISIS’ robust propaganda.” Deserters ­– who spoke to Yayla in southeastern Turkey and to Speckhard from Istanbul and Washington, D.C. via Skype – said that ISIS (or Ad-Dawlah, which in Arabic means “the state”) “does not represent Islam. Ad-Dawlah are kafirs [unbelievers].”

According to the book’s authors, their view of the Islamic State’s “perfect young candidate” as a naïve, believing Muslim who is unfamiliar with his or her religion, is contradicted by what they are often told about the ISIS fighter sharia indoctrination. Yayla said that he was surprised to find that a certain well-educated law school student’s critical thinking and training did not keep him from admiring his ISIS mentor, a Jordanian sheikh and former university English professor. That student and his fellow ISIS recruits actually looked up to the militant who taught them. “Ad-Dawlah chooses very high-level teachers who are well educated in shariah,” the student said, adding that those in the militant group are often looked at as having “very good characters.”

Similar admiration came from a former high school teacher and senior Islamic State commander in Raqqa, Syria the de facto capital of the group’s caliphate. Commenting on the group’s foreign fighters, he said, “I looked at the mujahideen and saw them as heroes – like the companions of the Prophet Muhammad. [They] always talk about Allah, Prophet Muhammad and jihad … the life hereafter and more divine things, [while] alcohol, gambling – vices were all banned.”

Speckhard herself provided insight into the Islamic doctrine [5] that motivates individual jihadists to sacrifice their lives on behalf of groups like the Islamic State. “The vision of hell in Islam is fiery and horrific, and there is no way – aside from relying on Allah’s compassion – to guarantee on the final day of judgment that one’s good deeds will outweigh the bad – except by dying as a ‘martyr,’” she said. Thus, “desiring to martyr oneself is a story I’ve heard many times from Islamic extremists who fear the everlasting repercussions of their sins.

“For Muslims growing up in Western culture, a strong tension exists between conservative Islam and Western freedoms,” Speckhard added, pointing out that this mindset makes jihad martyrdom particularly attractive. Muslim teenagers often assimilate to the behavior of their non-Muslim friends, who “drink and smoke pot, wear revealing clothing, have sex.” The resulting Muslim “hidden ‘sinful’ self is something terrorist recruiters in Europe know how to manipulate.”

A Flemish Muslim convert in Belgium who spoke with Speckhard about his troubled childhood and riotous adolescence demonstrated how such Islamic doctrines could also appeal to non-Muslims. The former altar boy said that his “father and mother were very religious and took us to church, but I had only Western society borders and those of the Catholic Church – and those two borders were not very good.” By contrast, the former ISIS supporter said that Islam “is clear cut; no grey. Black and white – no doubts.” This individual turned himself over to the Belgian authorities, yet said that he considers the group’s 2015 Paris attacks [6] to be “understandable.”

As a university professor in Brussels, Speckhard learned that those clear-cut, black-and-white standards can have brutal results for women who do not conform to Islamic dress codes. “All the female students I taught had their stories of being threatened and assaulted by North African immigrants (first or second generation; no one was sure),” she said, while writing about several vicious, often maiming attacks. While “dressed in an acceptable manner for Western culture,” the women “apparently made the men believe they were nothing more than prostitutes.”

Although not specifically discussed by Speckhard, European Muslims also appeared to exhibit to her the Islamic doctrine (noted in the book’s glossary) of al Wala wal bara [7], or “amity among Muslims; enmity toward non-Muslims.” “You risk having your building set on fire if you rat out community members,” said a second-generation Moroccan immigrant in Brussels’ Molenbeek Muslim neighborhood, following Paris jihadist Salah Abdeslam [8]’s arrest there. Another Muslim in Antwerp, who refused to betray a local Al-Qaeda recruiter, argued, “You don’t understand our culture. We would never turn someone in our community into the police.”

These criminal manifestations of Islamist ideas concerning veiling and communal loyalty undercut the book’s thesis of the rampant discrimination against – and unemployment among – European Muslims that drive them to jihad. The authors wrote that “many economically and socially disenfranchised youth find the dream of trying to build an alternative Muslim utopian universe with ISIS attractive.” But studies [9] have disproven this commonly contended link between deprivation and jihad, and the Islamic State’s “sophisticated propaganda campaign that is dominating in the social media” has revealed a savvy management [10] that is not materially disadvantaged.

The book also contains other questionable issues, like the misspelling of right wing, anti-Islam [11] Dutch politician Geert Wilders [12]’ name as “Girt Wilders,” which is the same spelling found in an Al-Qaeda hit list [13].

The authors conceded that the Islamic State has a “historic basis in Islam for taking unbelievers as slaves,” but merely dismissed evidence [14] of ISIS fighters enjoying prostitution-like “temporary marriage” (jihad al-nikah) as “pure and simple Russian propaganda.” And the book’s glossary defined military jihad as the “defense of Muslim lands, people and honor” without any reference to goals of Islamic global supremacy [15].

In ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate, Speckhard and her Muslim colleague Yayla indicated that an atrocious ISIS has no monopoly on interpreting Islam, and that – notwithstanding the zeal of some – the group suffers from all-too human vices. Although “hypocrisy with ISIS is a recurrent theme” among the defector interviews – such as with respect to tobacco or marijuana use – the Islamic canons [16] that motivate the “true believers” of ISIS will continue to inspire jihadist dreams long after the forthcoming collapse of this current “caliphate.”