Takfirism: The Key to Understanding ISIL

How the Islamic State used a centuries-old practice to justify ideological cleansing and violent extremism.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is in the midst of adding another chapter to spiraling violence and ideological cleansing in the Middle East. Though it uses Islam as a source of popularity and legitimacy, ISIL is a forgery. Key to understanding (and combatting) ISIL is an examination of its ideological underpinning: takfirism.

Takfirism is a centuries-old practice of judging someone to be an unbeliever and rendering them an apostate or hypocrite through the most dogmatic of lenses. Those thirsty for power use it to legitimize inequities and delegitimize anyone who disagrees with their authority. Under the framework of takfirism, ISIL justifies an ideological cleansing of Kurds, Yazidis, Shia, Sufis, and anyone else who does not conform to its religious tyranny. ISIL is using takfirism to accomplish its goal of ridding the region of “impure” elements — like Christianity — and symbols — like the shrine of Jonah.

Takfirism turned violent in the late seventh century with the Kharijites, an early extremist group that rejected Muslims who did not accept their political and religious views. Known for their puritanism and fanaticism, this group engaged in campaigns of harassment and terror. The Kharijites’ violent extremism didn’t last long, as it was quickly dismissed as antithetical to Islam by the independent and authoritative ulema (religious leaders and scholars) of the time.

Takfirism finds new life

Today, takfirism has found new life within the structures of contemporary Gulf monarchies. The Gulf states used takfirism to eliminate political opponents and vulnerable populations, including religious minorities and women. They legitimized their modern takfirism by co-opting religious authority, fabricating religious texts, and spreading selective interpretations and applications of Islam by establishing schools and funding those that would teach their literal and absolutist Islamic narrative.

The diverse and principled interpretations of the Qur’an, hadith, and millions of other volumes written on theology, philosophy, and jurisprudence were eventually reduced to a whisper. The heart of the Qur’an — justice, equity, and compassion — became an inconvenient footnote because it was contrary to their agenda. Instead, the austere doctrine of takfirism was promoted as both a means to solidify power and create a duplicitous strand of anti-Western rhetoric while serving Western powers.

Now, these governments wield unanimous political and religious control. The result is an unholy alliance of clergy and state along with the disintegration of an independently authoritative ulema, consequently leading to the proliferation of groups like ISIL.

In contrast to the independent ulema of the seventh century, which was able to effectively dismiss violent religious extremism, the ulema of today lacks legitimacy in the eyes of a large number of Muslims. This gives extremist groups like ISIL room to declare the resurrection of their twisted notion of a “caliphate” and become religious judges, military leaders, and government executives all under one fist.

Also adding to their perceived legitimacy is the use of the term “jihadist” to classify these violent extremist groups. This misnomer serves the interest of groups like ISIL as they rely on framing themselves within fundamental Islamic concepts to recruit members. Jihad is translated as “struggle,” which can be taken to mean anything from an internal struggle against one’s desires to outright resisting oppression.

When groups like ISIL dress themselves in the pietistic robes of a righteous jihad, vulnerable and ostracized Muslims will see them as legitimate. Their violent ideology, while not grounded in Islamic jurisprudence or political thought, is effective propaganda nonetheless. When the U.S. government counters jihad, it plays right into the hands of ISIL and al-Qaeda, groups that bank on the narrative that America is at war with Islam.

A new way of dealing with violent extremism

The U.S. strategy of dealing with violent extremism up until now has been misguided. The strength of the extremists is based on their appeal, not their equipment. Rather than waging war against groups like ISIL, the United States must attempt to end tyranny in Syria, where ISIL was formed, by supporting educational and economic initiatives in the region.

Similarly, foreign and civil wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria created power vacuums that were easily filled by the most-organized and well-financed groups — usually al-Qaeda and its offshoots, groups like ISIL and ISIS. Iraq also suffered from a haphazard, ineffective post-war de-Baathification process that became a recruiting ground for extremist groups. Using takfirism as a tactic, groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL have been able to manipulate vulnerable individuals, transforming them into mercenaries for religious violence.

While authoritarian regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria grew in power, their societies became politically, religiously, and intellectually stagnant. Dissent was met with marginalization, abuse, and death. This oppressive climate prevented the formation of viable organizations and institutions that could hold political leaders accountable. In essence, civil society was eradicated and its rebuilding is a key strategic goal to having any long-term success in countering violent extremism.

When Baghdad was a capital of the Muslim world it featured art, intellectualism, culture — everything diametrically opposed to ISIL. Rebuilding that prosperity and diversity is the key to defeating violent extremism that’s upheld by takfirism. Our enemy is the same — ISIL and all forms of violent extremism. Like the voices of moderation prevailed over the Kharijites in the early years of Islam, we need that independent rational thinking now to navigate us away from danger, empowering humanity to prevail over inhumanity.

Omar Noureldin and Cherif Abou El Fadl contributed to this piece.

Image via Shutterstock.

Salam Al-Marayati
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  • emilturner

    “Rather than waging war against groups like ISIL, the United States must attempt to end tyranny in Syria, where ISIL was formed, by supporting educational and economic initiatives in the region.” So…, instead of attempting to destroy those who beheaded our citizen, who promise our destruction, we should build them schools? Good grief!

    • Kate

      Well attempts to destroy terror groups have hardly been an outstanding success have they. In fact, fighting them has just ended up breeding more of them and more vicious ones at that.

      • askBob

        I agree, Kate. That is why loving our enemy seems contrary to the human mind, but is likely to be the only solution. “Vengeance is mine!” Says the Lord.

    • Justpeace

      As an American I too am shocked and appalled at the beheading of one of our own but its important to remember that these groups beheaded, executed, raped thousands of Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, etc., they literally ate the hearts and livers of the corpses. They are far more dangerous to the Middle East than they are to us. Do we want to wait until they take control of the whole area?

  • Victor Styrsky

    The destruction of Nazi Germany and their terrorism that rained down upon Great Britain and the entire Jewish race could be chalked up as an outstanding success. Yes?
    The difference?
    We were in it to win it.
    God forbid we lose a stadium full of people or an entire city before a leader rises up and combines our forces with the one other nation in the world that appears serious and successful in fighting terrorism.

  • askBob

    I just finished the little book “Islam: Sunis and Shiites”. Your article on the root of extremists like ISIL seems right on target. Hitler and Stalin did not pretend to have any religious authority, but takfirism is killing in the name of their god. What a powerful intoxicant…to believe everyone who has a different moral view is an infidel to be destroyed. Surely this is another warning from God to repent and trust in Him, not in our abundance or military might.