It is difficult to consider the end goal of the Islamic State. Something synonymous to “contradictory, apocalyptic pandemonium” are the first words that come to mind — though the recent spike in the group’s stream of terror certainly prompts a more concrete definition of its overall objective. In reality, however, “contradictory, apocalyptic pandemonium” might just be as tangible as the details get.
ISIS is not a conclusive effort working toward any strain of a practical goal. It is a group that somehow justifies its exploitation of modern technology and social media in fulfilling its alleged guidelines of re-instilling “pure,” ancient, seventh-century Islamic framework. Most notably, ISIS both defines itself and thrives off instilling fear and multiplying chaos within any and all societies that exist outside its ranks.
Earlier this year in its online magazine, ISIS published “The Extinction of the Grayzone,” an article which claimed to declare the militant group’s goal as eliminating any coexistence between Muslims and the West.
To agree, even passively, that Western Muslims in the “middle” compose the party being backed into the proverbial corner is to license this terrorist organization a legitimacy it does not deserve, nor one we can afford.
Religious harmony, the group rules, defines the root cause of evil in this world; “Muslims,” it commands, must join the Islamic State with full fervor — “believers” — or eject from any religious affiliation altogether, effectively dissolving into the greater mass of “non-believers.”
By this logic, anyone who straddles both a Muslim identity and a Western reality is simply the lingering repercussion of contemporary intersectionality — a plague, apparently, whose immediate dichotomy and thus prompt destruction are key.
As ISIS continues to broadcast this mantra however, it is becoming increasingly clear how weak this vision is of an “end goal.”
Lending them such a term, in fact, is actually quite generous, considering this is anything but a goal. It is nothing more, honestly, than some form of strategy (a rather unsustainable and weak one, might I add).
ISIS predicates all of its beliefs, actions and attacks on (offending) the current infrastructure of the Western World. It is simply fighting against something. All of its achievements are scored off a rubric whose literal backbone is our everyday routines and security.
Without the West, ISIS is nothing.
That, however, doesn’t mean that ISIS is not something. Clearly, we, along with many, feel their impact. They have robbed both Muslim and non-Muslim lives around the world, from Syria to Paris, Mali to Tunisia — and there are real people and real families struggling through the direct, everyday consequences of these casualties.
ISIS has rekindled racism throughout the Western World, thus triggering a spike in hate crimes and overall Islamophobic attitudes. But to grant ISIS the position of power in this debate — to agree, even passively, that Western Muslims in the “middle” compose the party being backed into the proverbial corner is to license this terrorist organization a legitimacy it does not deserve, nor one we can afford.
Since the article’s February publication, the “gray zone” has recurred from time to time, in this headline or that, often in narratives by Muslims in the West who certainly agree their lives play out along this hazy sort of backdrop that no singular identity can comprehensively define.
Most recently, on Nov. 20, the New York Times published Laila Lalami’s account of her relationship with the “gray zone.”
“This gray life of mine is not unique,” she said. “I share it with millions of people around the world. My brother in Dallas is a practicing Muslim — he prays, he fasts, he attends mosque — but he, too, would be considered to be in the ‘gray zone,’ because he despises ISIS and everything it stands for.”
The rest of the article elaborates upon ISIS’ logic that Lalami so concisely summarizes:
“The gray zone is the space inhabited by any Muslim who has not joined the ranks of either ISIS or the crusaders… Every time the gray zone recedes, ISIS gains ground.”
While the aforementioned diagnosis of ISIS’ attitude toward the gray zone is considerably accurate, the lexicon of this specific approach feeds dangerous rhetoric into how we view the “Western Muslim” space.
I often heard the term “moderate Muslim” thrown around quite a bit in my early childhood — in mosques, from relatives, via friends.
But what began as positive emphasis on a phrase eventually unraveled into comprehensive critique by my early teens. After all, what even defined “moderate,” and who got to decide that?
Muslim communities often struggle to reach a consensus on far more concrete matters, let alone globally deciding where to delineate the boundaries for such a subjective classification of faith.
Plus, what even makes “moderate” a good thing? What does moderate entail, and what does it rule out? If I fully believe in God, aren’t I just fully Muslim — not some floating “moderate?”
Frankly, ISIS relies on this supposed “gray zone” — a territory, to underscore, of its deranged but calculated fabrication. Its flag bears the stark combination of simply white on black: an emblem for its ludicrous vision of a world modeled solely along a juvenile binary of “them” and “everyone else.”
It is, thus, our responsibility to establish this “middle” arena as its own powerful body of people — not just some frightened dusty bunch grasping onto the ashy fringes of a ‘receding’ crossroads.
Yes, ISIS relies on this “zone.” But to call it, to believe it, to embrace it — to affirm that Islam and Muslims exist solely along a one-dimensional, binary, white-to-black spectrum, inducts ISIS as in control of a situation that aggressively aims to dissolve some “middle-ground cage” it creates in order to enclose and trap other Muslims.
This mindset begins to verify ISIS’ self-declared authority while also reducing the rest of us unaffiliated with its horrific savagery as dames and damsels in distress, hastily finagling to cling onto a charcoal middle whose inevitable evaporation will compel us to promptly pick a side.
This rationale is largely the catalyst that aids in disguising a barbaric, haphazard strategy into an alarming, tenable goal.
The reality is that this situation is far from black and white. Religious diversity, especially within Islam, cannot be condensed into just an x-axis of white to black. It is a palette of colors, shades and hues — of brightnesses, opacities and saturations.
It is a world where we are continuously discussing long-held debates while tackling new issues that encourage even more perspectives.
To paint Islam as a swatch of rainbow proportions is not some cheesy, tacky approach to lessen or lighten the grave issues and heavy concerns put forth by religion, religious diversity and even religious fanaticism; it genuinely is meant to highlight how impossible it is to confine our definition of Muslims — or really any religious group at all — to a stark dichotomy whose unsorted middle area is at the vulnerable brink of extinction.
It is, thus, our responsibility to establish this “middle” arena as its own powerful body of people — not just some frightened dusty bunch grasping onto the ashy fringes of a “receding” crossroads.
It is this very plurality that petrifies ISIS. It is the idea of a second dimension, of a third, God forbid anything further, that threatens their very sense of self-proclaimed dominance and “religious” authority.
Without the West, ISIS is nothing.
While ISIS’ disgusting claims deviate far from the overarching Islamic ideals of peace, respect and overall human decency, it is difficult to fully deem the group assuredly “un-Islamic.” As exaggerated, selective and antiquated as most of their views are, they are nonetheless interpretations of what the group claims are religious ideas.
I cringe as I pen that, but it simply follows the parallel logic of any extremist group in religion, including the KKK.
After all, as Reza Aslan wrote last November in the New York Times, “No religion exists in a vacuum. On the contrary, every faith is rooted in the soil in which it is planted. It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.”
It would be false assuagement to constantly rehash the same echo that is so tempting after a terrorist attack: “ISIS isn’t really Muslim!”
The problem with that statement is that religion is a self-identifying characteristic. It is one’s own agency in choice and belief in self that ultimately categorizes religious affiliation.
Likewise, it’s not ISIS’ right to decide who is and who isn’t a “believer” and who’s left in the “still needs to be sorted” pile. ISIS has falsely trivialized an infinitely diverse range of ideas, opinions, and people into a single middle-muddled pewter puddle up for a partition as acute as the Red Sea.
The only thing more hazardous than this classification is our mental adoption and silent swallowing of such an extreme, monochromatic lens of the world.
Without the West, ISIS is nothing.
But the West (obviously) need not a radical organization to define itself — and the same must go for the specific communities of Muslims in the West.
We do not exist to facilitate ISIS’ goal or strategy. We do not exist in some homogenous party or group or word or definition or zone. We cannot allow ourselves to be gray and undefined, receding and diminishing. Our dialogue and debates, discussion and diversity are points for thought, growth and celebration — not soft spots for fragile vulnerability.
It is easy to become locked into our definitions of faith, but respect for the plurality and diversity in our communities is a crucial point.
Conversation no doubt introduces disagreement, but we must mold that into dialogue — not straight argument or simple alienation. Such immediate humiliation between cultures, generations, races, genders, even sects, is what causes division within our communities and drives people to one extreme or the other.
It emulates an eerily similar process to that which occurs when attacks like those in Paris prompt backlash reaction — a process that cracks community, breeds bigotry, fuels fear and harbors hate; the very severance, rupture and catastrophe that ISIS wants to incite to hence fabricate this “gray zone,” before immediately pulverizing it.
There isn’t only one shade of gray of Muslims in the West. There aren’t even just 50 shades. Black and white and whatever may lie in between might be a way for some to describe overall, general extremism — that is a different matter — but it is no way appropriate vernacular to discussing religion.
This language of the “gray zone” has got to go.
In times following such terror attacks, it is difficult to chisel and discern an exact “next step.”
Many are divided on whether or not Muslims are obligated to speak out and condemn violence publicly. What is undeniable, however, is that as diasporic Muslims who straddle both these Muslim identities and Western realities, it’s our duties to proclaim ownership of our voice in the global conversation.
Surrendering to this role of an unsupported, supporting character who is wilted into a livid prop and objectified for extremists with delusional conquests both diminishes ourselves and fulfills radical desires.
It is simply no lie that sweeping together “Muslims” and demanding all individuals, or even community-by-community in the West, to unanimously agree upon any one issue is all reducing, ridiculous and stupid.
But it’s equally true that we Muslims retain some sort of duty in restructuring our role in the world’s conversation — from the false narrative as defendants corned into a vanishing “gray zone” to our true potential as leaders owning the beauty in our plurality.
It is this very plurality, the colors, the hues, the shades and tones that threaten the black-and-white fanatical fantasy of ISIS.
We, Muslims in the West, are living proof that the rest of the rainbow is in fact what exists — and it will never be time for some radical revision or rescission to reclassify us as otherwise.
Written by Zoha Qamar
Image by: Wikipedia