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To Fight ISIS, You Have To Understand Its Ideology

When we talk about the militant group that calls itself the Islamic State, we often hear officials and pundits say they un-Islamic. But religious and regional experts say the group does have an ideology that appeals to Muslim grievances, and if the U.S. fails to understand that ideology, it will fail in its fight to neutralize the group.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to examine now the ideology driving one of today's most dangerous extremist threats. When our political leaders and pundits talk - the group that calls itself - about the group that calls itself the Islamic State, they often say the group has nothing to do with religion. Here's President Obama this fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents.

SIEGEL: But regional experts warn that the group does have an ideology that appeals to some Muslims in the Mideast and that the U.S. needs to understand that if it's going to counter the militants. NPR's Kelly McEvers reports.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The first thing most Muslim scholars will tell you is that the majority of Muslims want nothing to do with the Islamic State. Here's Jihad Turk of the Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School at a recent panel discussion on ISIS at Southern California Public Radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF PANEL DISCUSSION)

JIHAD TURK: The overwhelming majority of Muslims on the planet - and Muslims make up about a fourth of the world's population - find what the Islamic State's doing as abhorrent, as against our values and our teachings of our faith and are outspoken about it.

MCEVERS: Outspoken, he says, in languages other than English, which is why you might not be hearing them. But other religion scholars like Reza Aslan say the point is not whether the Islamic State is Islamic or not.

REZA ASLAN: No one has the right to say who is and who is not a Muslim. If ISIS calls itself Muslim, they are Muslim.

MCEVERS: Instead, what does matter, Aslan and others say, is that there are elements of the Islamic State's ideology - some religious, some historic and political - that do appeal to Muslims across the Middle East. Take, for instance, the group's name - the Islamic State. Shadi Hamid is a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He says the actual Islamic State or caliphate, which lasted for 1,400 years, spanned a big swath of the Middle East and only ended after the First World War, is something many Muslims still romanticize.

SHADI HAMID: The caliphate harkens back to this great period in Islamic civilization where the Islamic Empire was at the top of the world, whether it was in education, science, the arts. So that word - the caliphate, a caliphate - has real resonance.

MCEVERS: Unlike al-Qaida, which promised a caliphate off in some distant future, the Islamic State has established an Islamic state in parts of Iraq and Syria, the place where they claim religious law presides right now. While many might disagree with how ISIS administers its form of that law, Hamid points to a 2011 Pew poll showing high levels of support among Egyptian and Jordanian Muslims for practices like the death penalty for disavowing the faith, stoning for adultery or cutting off the hands of thieves.

Alireza Doostdar of the University of Chicago Divinity School says the violence of the Islamic State, captured and shared online, can seem comparable with violence already committed against Muslims. He recently wrote this provocative line. Perhaps a decapitation is more cruel than a blowing a body to bits with a high caliber machine gun, incinerating it with remote-controlled drone...

ALIREZA DOOSTDAR: ...But even if we limit ourselves to close-up, low-technology brutality, ISIS headings are hardly out of place.

MCEVERS: In other words, it's important to remember that ISIS, in part, was born out of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. A handful of its leaders were even held in U.S. prisons. While many Sunni tribes, most Sunni Kurds and even other Islamists actively oppose ISIS in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is still able to exploit these grievances that are held by many Muslims in the region, says Reza Aslan. And he says addressing these grievances has to be one key element in the fight against the Islamic State.

ASLAN: Addressing the disempowerment, the disenfranchisement that Sunnis in Iraq feel as a result of the Shia takeover of that government - it involves addressing the grievances of Syrians, the real lack of action by the international community to stop the slaughter in that country. Those things have to be addressed so that ISIS doesn't matter anymore.

MCEVERS: Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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