President Barack Obama's speech to the nation Wednesday focused attention on the problems and threat created by the Islamic State.
The name is significant. The group changed its name from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to simply the Islamic State. For them, the underlying vision is something found in Muslim history: the caliphate. And they don't want to be geographically limited; they want to fashion the world in their image.
So to explore that notion in greater depth, we invited two guests on "Interfaith Voices" last week to discuss the meaning of "caliphs" and the "caliphate": Graeme Wood, who has written about Islamic extremism and Middle Eastern politics since 2006 for the New Republic and The Atlantic, and Reza Aslan, a scholar of religion and author of the best-selling book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.
According to these scholars, the caliph, historically, is an office that dates to the years just after the Prophet Muhammad. The caliph was his successor, chosen in a consensus process. The first caliph was called Abu Bakr, and, interestingly, the current leader of the Islamic State calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a clear appeal to history and tradition (even though his real name is Ibrahim).
Both Wood and Aslan emphasized that the caliphate was a secular institution, not a religious one. This was never the equivalent of the Vatican, and the caliph was never like a pope. The caliphate has many positive resonances in the Muslim mind, recalling earlier days of power, but it is not rooted in Islam. Some caliphates were successful (especially the early ones), and caliphs often went out of their way to be tolerant of other religions. Others ended in defeat and disaster.
I asked both guests how the teachings of Islam could be used to defeat the Islamic State, and Aslan noted that there are some passages in the Quran that seem to justify violence and others that call for strictly peaceful actions. The Islamic State prefers the ones justifying even horrible "smiting" like beheading, but the vast majority of Muslims hearken to the texts about peace and tolerance. When Muslim leaders emphasize those themes, they said, it can be helpful in dissuading young Muslims from following the Islamic State. (The same problem crops up in the Bible, of course. I recall passages in the Old Testament about beating little kids' heads against a rock.) It's all in the interpretation.
However, both men were emphatic that the vast majority of American Muslims reject -- indeed, are deeply offended by -- the ideology of the Islamic State. They do not regard it as the "real" Islam.
At one point, I made the mistake of asking them why we did not hear more American Muslims condemning the Islamic State. Aslan especially was aghast, since he has been on TV for weeks doing just that. He noted that every major Islamic organization in the United States has denounced the Islamic State in the strongest possible terms. Those condemnations don't get the attention they deserve.
In the same vein, I was delighted that Obama was emphatic in his speech: "ISIL is not 'Islamic.' No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL's victims have been Muslim."
The so-called "Islam" of the Islamic State is not the real Islam. And Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? He's not a real caliph either. He's simply an international criminal hiding behind religion who needs to be brought to justice.