New York Times: Death threats shadow anti-ISIS imams who denounce terrorism

Why don’t Muslim leaders ever condemn terrorists? Actually, they do, over and over. They just don’t get the daily coverage that the killers do.

The New York Times helps offset that with a sweeping, detailed newsfeature on the many leaders who are, in fact, denouncing ISIS on religious terms -- and drawing death threats from the terrorist group in return.

"As the military and political battle against the Islamic State escalates, Muslim imams and scholars in the West are fighting on another front -- through theology," the Times says.

The article has two or three rough spots, which we'll get to. Overall, though, the 1,300-word story is alert and perceptive when it details the variety of imams, sheikhs and others who have attracted ISIS' hate.

Highlighted are four men in the United States and Canada, plus eight others -- including three in the U.S. government. And they can get caustic:

* Imam Suhaib Webb in Washington holds live monthly video chats -- called "ISIS and ice cream" to belittle the terrorists.

* Sheikh Hamza Yusuf of Berkeley asks calls ISIS "these fools amongst us" and asks Muslims to turn away from the "stupid young boys."

* Mubin Shaikh, a Canadian and a former extremist himself, says that "This is what hurts ISIS the most."

* Sheikh Yasir Qadhi of Tennessee has said that "None of our senior scholars of any school -- any school -- has justified these deeds [of ISIS]."

They and other leaders have used mosques, conferences and social media, yet they’ve seldom gotten into secular media.

"The Islamic State, however, has taken notice," the Times says:

The group recently threatened the lives of 11 Muslim imams and scholars in the West, calling them "apostates" who should be killed. The recent issue of the Islamic State’s online propaganda magazine, Dabiq, called them "obligatory targets," and it said that supporters should use any weapons on hand to "make an example of them."

In fact, a Saudi preacher with 13 million Twitter followers was shot and wounded in March in the Philippines after ISIS called him an apostate, the newspaper says. American Muslim leaders have been consulting the FBI; some have hired security guards; and some reportedly have bought guns. But they remain defiant -- Webb has even declared it an "honor to be denounced by ISIS … It has only reinvigorated me to provide the antivenom to the poison of ISIS."

The shooting illustrates the Times' point that the Muslim enemies of ISIS are not merely secularized Middle Easterners: they include mystical Sufis and puritanical Salafis, and even the more militant "Salafi Jihadis."

Especially sharp is when the story tells how the critics counter the ISIS claim to have revived the original caliphate, or pan-Islamic kingdom: "Instead, in a highly effective bit of rebranding, they call the Islamic State Kharijites, a reviled group of Muslims who killed women and children and rebelled against the caliphs in the seventh century."

The source for the Kharijite charge is not given, but the sentence is similar to one in Al-Monitor in January 2015. If the Times writer read that, it would have been nice to add the article's report that even the Al-Nusra Front -- Al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria -- used the Kharijite insult against ISIS as well.

Beyond that, however, I see little here in the way of theological arguments against ISIS. Why is it wrong to kill unbelievers like Yazidis and Christians? On what basis do the scholars reject ISIS' claim to a new caliphate? Providing chapter and verse from the Quran, the Hadith and elsewhere, perhaps as a sidebar, would have helped plug up this hole.

And how do the anti-ISIS leaders know if they're effective? Are there polls? Informal questions? Anecdotal evidence -- perhaps a young man or two who was steered away from terrorism by their messages?

All I see here is the Marrakesh Declaration, in which Muslim leaders agreed in January that religious minorities must not be oppressed. The newspaper adds that the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation also signed onto the document. But the Times doesn't show that its interviewees took part in that.

Just as the Times team prepares to wrap up the article, it throws in this segment:

Sheikh Qadhi, however, said that, based on several frightening experiences recently in Tennessee, he has more to fear from right-wing Muslim-haters than from adherents of the Islamic State.
"I’m not scared of ISIS in America," he said. "I feel very safe in every mosque I go to. But I am scared of other people in this land who are very ignorant and bigoted."
He said he had gotten used to being vilified by both sides: "The right wing is calling me a stealth jihadist. And ISIS is calling me a sellout. We challenge both of their narratives, even as their narratives feed into each other."

Frightening experiences? Like what? Insults? Threats? Physical violence? How did he know they were right-wing? And does he believe people are more anti-Muslim in Tennessee?

I can fully sympathize with Qadhi's complaint, however. As a former religion writer for a daily newspaper, I remember how both secular and religious people criticized me. But you don’t just toss in a vague allegation, then base a complaint on it.

I get the impression that a careless copy editor simply chopped off the tail of the Times story. Whether it's that, or the writer simply stopped writing, it's a sad ending for a powerful, penetrating article.

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