ISIS and the Future of Islam and the Arab World

Faisal Saeed Al Mutar

Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism—the extremism of the rulers and t hose in opposition—than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.

—Hisham Melhem, Lebanese journalist and currently Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel, from his famous Politico article, “The Barbarians at Our Gates”

The quotation above is not the only grim assessment of today’s situation in Iraq and Syria on offer from Arab writers and knowledgeable analysts of the Arab world.

The images of the barbaric crimes committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are nothing new for me. I lived in Iraq during the first sectarian civil war, and though it’s been more than five years since I left, I still clearly remember the dead bodies that al-Qaeda and other militias used to pile up in the streets. Sometimes the bus that I took to go to my high school had to stop short of the school. We students would have to walk past the corpses—and sometimes on them—just to get to the building.

Does that sound disturbing to you? But that was only al-Qaeda! Imagine what atrocities ISIS—which is considered “extremist” by al-Qaeda—is committing today.

It is hard to imagine, but al-Qaeda have become the new “moderates.” In the battles now wracking Iraq and Syria, they are projecting themselves as a “rational” and “liberal” influence.

An August 14 Washington Post column by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria captures one aspect of the region’s surreal dynamics. It was titled, “The Fantasy of Middle Eastern Moderates”:

Senator Clinton was expressing what has become Washington’s new conventional wisdom when she implied . . . that “moderates” might have prevented the rise of the Islamic State. In fact, the United States has provided massive and sustained aid to the moderates in the region.

Remember, the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, was created in Iraq and grew out of that country’s internal dynamics. Over the past decade, the United States helped organize Iraq’s “moderates”—the Shiite-dominated government—giving them tens of billions of dollars in aid and supplying and training their army. But, it turned out, the moderates weren’t that moderate. As they became authoritarian and sectarian, Sunni opposition movements grew and jihadi opposition groups such as ISIS gained tacit or active support. This has been a familiar pattern throughout the region. For decades, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been to support “moderates.” The problem is that there are actually very few of them.

I think we should redefine the terms moderate and radical when it comes to the Muslim world. In my view, Muslim reformers such as Maajid Nawaz and Irshad Manji—activists who support LGBT rights, marriage equality, and women’s rights—are the true radical Muslims. Those who oppose them, however regrettably, are the mainstream.

We have always been stuck in the mentality that extremists—more precisely, individuals whom persons holding liberal values would view as extremists—can always be dismissed as a fringe minority, as radicals whom no one likes and who enjoy little support. But that is not true in the Muslim world. In Muslim-dominated countries, a great many people hold views that most in the West would consider extremist.

That’s not to say, in any sense, that the majority of Muslims are extremists. But the extremists are anything but a negligible minority.

Atheists and other religious skeptics can be executed in at least thirteen nations: Afghanistan, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan (it has nuclear weapons), Iran (it is trying to get nuclear weapons), Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Can anyone tell me what all of these countries have in common?

Also, which are the only countries in the world that have no female elected officials or representatives serving in any public capacity? According to a 2009 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs report, they are Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen—all Gulf Arab states and, yes, all Islamic.

In a recent Pew Research study, 64 percent of Muslims in Egypt and Pakistan said that they supported the death penalty for leaving Islam. We are talking about millions of people, not just a fringe minority, whom most Westerners would rightly label “extremist.”

Radical Muslims have come in significant numbers from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and even Britain and the United States to fight with ISIS. How many Muslims have traveled to Iraq or Syria to fight against ISIS?

Let me be clear: I support Western progressives, liberals, and moderates all the way. But some of them spend too much time debating or attacking critics of Islamic extremism and too little time focusing on the Islamic extremists themselves.

No one needs to convince me that Islam is a religion of peace and that it is opposed to violence. I only wish that someone could convince ISIS, al-Qaeda, and their supporters that that is so. Because at the end of the day, it is not me, not my friend Islam critic Ali A. Risvi at The Huffington Post, nor anyone else who is critical of Islamic extremism who is spewing violence into the world.


Faisal Saeed Al Mutar is an Iraqi-born writer, public speaker, web designer, and social activist now living in the United States. He is the founder of the Global Secular Humanist Movement and Secular Post. Al Mutar is a community manager at Movements.org, a division of Advancing Human Rights.

Faisal Saeed Al Mutar

Faisal Saeed Al Mutar is an Iraqi-born human rights activist and president of the newly launched organization Ideas Beyond Borders (IBB). The mission of IBB is to promote the free exchange of ideas and defend human rights to counter extremist naratives and authoritarian institutions.


Western liberals underestimate the extent to which, in the Arab world, Islamic extremism is a mainstream phenomenon.

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