ISIS, Political Rhetoric, and Principled Pluralism: It’s Complicated

Anyone interested in principled pluralism is currently faced with a rhetorical problem.  This problem, as the title of this article suggests, is complex.  It is controversial.  But it is something that is too important to ignore.  It can be best understood by looking at the deep ambivalence embedded in President Obama’s rhetoric about ISIS.  Specifically, I am referring to his frequent and impassioned declarations that ISIS is “not Islamic.” 

When I first heard President Obama’s comments, I was relieved.  I was glad that he was making a concerted effort to rhetorically defend the majority of Muslims from association with the type of Islam practiced within ISIS.  This is desperately needed.  He seems to be using his platform to keep a bridge with the Muslim world and to combat the vast ignorance and misinformation many Americans have about Islam.  Many have welcomed his defense of Islam, and his intentions seem to be aligned with the spirit of respect that is necessary for principled pluralism. 

But then I read an article in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood titled “What ISIS Really Wants”.  In the following excerpt he reveals the potentially troubling irony of what President Obama has chosen to do.

“Western officials would probably do best to refrain from weighing in on matters of Islamic theological debate altogether. Barack Obama himself drifted into takfiri [declaring someone an apostate] waters when he claimed that the Islamic State was “not Islamic”—the irony being that he, as the non-Muslim son of a Muslim, may himself be classified as an apostate, and yet is now practicing takfir against Muslims. Non-Muslims’ practicing takfir elicits chuckles from jihadists (“Like a pig covered in feces giving hygiene advice to others,” one tweeted).

I suspect that most Muslims appreciated Obama’s sentiment: the president was standing with them against both Baghdadi and non-Muslim chauvinists trying to implicate them in crimes. But most Muslims aren’t susceptible to joining jihad. The ones who are susceptible will only have had their suspicions confirmed: the United States lies about religion to serve its purposes.”

A president will inevitably make statements and decisions that offend certain groups or privilege certain religious interpretations above others (certain Christian groups feel this way about each president and policies).  Faith and public life are in a constant dance, but this is a different matter.  It is hard not to see ISIS as one possible (although horrible and lamentable) interpretation of Islam.  Wood argues very convincingly that our international policy is amiss if we do not acknowledge that.  Therefore, President Obama has intentionally stepped into a question of Islamic interpretation.  He has placed himself directly into a theological ideology dispute and conversation.  This intervention and public commentary by an American president only confirms exactly what ISIS proclaims about an overreaching, arrogant West.

Anyone interested in principled pluralism is currently faced with a rhetorical problem.


We should not rush to conclude that President Obama’s rhetoric is wrong.  As I stated earlier, he appears to have solid reasons for choosing the path he’s on.  And, after all, this international crisis is not just an issue of Islamic interpretation. It is ISIS itself that has attached religious motivations and methodology and eschatological meaning to its enterprise.  It has created an international issue, via security and territorial and human rights abuses, out of its religious interpretations.  There is no denying that ISIS has brought this on itself.  It is not as if we would allow their interpretation of Islam to exist with our Rule of Law (as if that were possible). 

According to the Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Government,  “On occasion governments may be obligated to restrain or prohibit certain practices even though some citizens consider them proper to the exercise of their religions." In other words, government does have the right to weigh in on matters of religion.  The foundational ideology within ISIS  (as opposed to even some within Al Qaeda’s ranks) demands an unyielding, swift division of true believers and apostates.  In some ways, we all have to respond – and that certainly is true of the president. 

President Obama clearly wants to take a more forceful line and disassociate ISIS from Islam totally and completely, but is that his job?

That is the most difficult and complex question for us today.  President Obama’s intentions are understandable and even admirable.  They are certainly a brave attempt to build a bridge and to speak on behalf of many Muslims in America who despise and spurn association with ISIS.  For their sake, I applaud the president’s attempts. 

But Wood’s article points to an important problem in our pluralistic world: secular governments and entities asserting their own ideology by deciding, indeed pronouncing, who practices legitimate religion and whose interpretations are acceptable.  Certainly the interpretations within ISIS are not acceptable.  But does that make it “not Islamic”?  Indeed, “…government does not have the authority to define true religion and thus must protect the religious freedom of all citizens.”  And that nicely summarizes the warning.  We should be wary of a secular authority making such religious definitions, even if, as in this case, it is for a good cause.

In his defense, the president can hardly be expected to conflate ISIS and Islam.  To treat ISIS as anything but a religious movement is untrue, even risky.  But it is also unfair to label all of Islam with ISIS. ISIS is just as atrocious, and even more tragic in the eyes of many of our Muslim neighbors.  But to say that ISIS is “not Islam” is misleading as well.  What should the president say?  In this case, acknowledging the complexity would be a great start, such as, “ISIS is a grave threat and their theology  is not the interpretation of Islam that the vast majority of the world’s one billion Muslims hold.”  That’s still a strong statement and is perhaps more accurate.  But it’s also a mouthful.  And nuance is often lost on us, the public. So maybe our role is to welcome and encourage nuance from our political leaders and to offer not only correction, but grace.

-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.