Recently a debate has developed around the question of whether the terrorist group ISIS is really Islamic. Part of this has been stirred by President Obama’s denial that ISIS are “religious leaders,” and his unwillingness to call them Islamic. A lengthy piece just published in The Atlantic suggests that ISIS does indeed have a legitimate claim to the Islamic label, a label they clearly intend to own, and even want to monopolize. Others have contested the Atlantic article, while some high ranking Islamic groups have strongly denounced ISIS–or at least its actions–as un-Islamic. Still others, based on survey data, express alarm at the rising support for radical groups. And still others suggest support is not really all that high.
Why all the debate? I think the title of a recent post on The Gospel Coalition web site highlights the importance of the discussion. Does Islam Inevitably Lead to Violence? is the question posed. If it does, this has all sorts of significant implications for nations, governments, and even individuals. And a positive answer to that question would have serious implications for Muslims themselves.
I want to offer a feet-on-the-ground answer and then examine the question from a slightly different angle. Having lived in predominantly Muslim settings for about 15 years, I can say without hesitation that at a practical level the answer to the question is “No, Islam does not inevitably lead to violence.” I have yet to personally meet a Muslim who expresses support for ISIS. Certainly ISIS has its supporters, probably even in the city where I live. In some countries their support may even be strong. But not among the Muslims I know. And while surveys show ISIS does have support, they also suggest that the Muslims I know are likely the large majority.
My point here is that while ISIS may have a claim to the label “Islamic,” many Muslims do not accept the ISIS, Al-Qaeda, etc., versions of Islam. As the articles linked above demonstrate, the answer seems to involve a number of factors: interpretation and application of various texts; whether one accepts the doctrine abrogation, and how one applies it; and one’s interpretation of jihad, among may other things, some of which are not even religious matters.
I am not defending Islam or Muslims, but I am increasingly concerned that an inaccurate perception of Muslims is undermining the church’s willingness and intent to fulfill the Great Commission. For example, according to recent Lifeway research, 51% of evangelical pastors believe that ISIS demonstrates what a society will look like when Islam controls it. This simply is not true. ISIS demonstrates what a society looks like when a highly radical, narrowly interpreted, version of Islam controls it.
Why does this matter? Because it affects the church’s attitude towards engaging these countries with the gospel. If American Christians are more eager to see their country engage in military action against ISIS than they are to see their churches send missionaries to Muslim majority countries, something is tragically wrong. Especially when the perception of “Muslims” is so terribly skewed.