The Islamic State and the Othering of Islam

by Matthew Phillips*

The recent atrocities committed by members of the Islamic State terror group have reinvigorated the debate in Western nations about the nature of the Islamic faith. Images of the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff are truly shocking and bring the reality of the situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria into sharp focus on our television screens.

But what do these images have to do with Islam, a faith with over 1.5 billion adherents worldwide?


Political leaders of pluralistic nations such as the United States and Australia have been at pains to disassociate the Islamic State and radical extremism with moderate Islam. US President Barack Obama recently said that “ISIL speaks for no religion” and that “No just God” would stand for what they do. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has stressed that the threat is extremism and terrorism, not any particular community or faith. Even George W. Bush referred to Islam as a religion of peace in the days following 9/11 in an attempt to reach out to American Muslims.

Politicians are saying all of the right things to promote inclusivity, social cohesion, and tolerance of Islam.

The problem, however, is they are also saying all of the wrong things. Warnings not to associate Islam with terrorism are interspersed with moralistic language that presents IS as an incomprehensible other — a force of darkness in the dualistic world of good and evil. Barack Obama has described IS as a “cancer” spreading across the Middle East, Secretary of State John Kerry has forthrightly claimed that the “despicable hatred” and “evil” of IS “must be destroyed,” and Tony Abbott considers it to be a “death cult.”

All of the above may be true. But to the average citizen struggling to understand the religious, ideological, and geopolitical complexities of the situation, the messages from political leaders must become somewhat blurred. The use of acronyms such as IS (Islamic State), ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) contain one constant: Islam.

While the intent in political discourse may be to convey that IS is violent, radical, and completely detached from the moderate and peaceful Islamic faith, the association is often formed nonetheless. Islam becomes an ideological other that is associated with the medieval tribalism and violence that have no place in the post enlightenment Western mode of thinking that celebrates liberalism, individual freedom and human rights. 

Pew Research Center: Americans Ratings of Religious Groups (July 2014)
The negative perception of Islam generated by political discourse and the media is having an effect on public opinion, with a recent poll finding that Americans’ attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims are getting worse. Favorability for Muslim Americans was just 27 per cent following recent events in the Middle East, down from 36 per cent in 2010. In addition, a Pew poll last month found that Muslims were perceived more negatively in the United States than not only all other religious groups, but also atheists.

The poor understanding of the role of Islam in the contemporary conflict in Iraq and Syria is exacerbated by the consistent use — by both politicians and media alike — of specific religious terminology with minimal explanation and context. So what exactly is a Sunni? A Shiite? An Alawite? A Caliphate? A Jihadist?

It all starts to sound foreign. Alien. Other.

Where is a copy of Islam for Dummies when you need one?

Wait, never mind. Good and evil. That, I can understand.

Matthew Phillips is a postgraduate student at the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre. He also teaches comparative religion and society and culture at Central Coast Grammar School. Religion in the United States is one of his main areas of interest. This text was also published on the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre blog.

Readers are encouraged to quote, reproduce and share this content for educational, non-profit purposes, provided the source is acknowledged. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the HR&D team.


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