Unlike the Catholic religion, Islam has no central authority, no pope who can make definitive rulings on what’s orthodox and what’s not. With regard to orthodoxy, Islam is more like Protestantism, which has hundreds of competing sects and denominations, all of them claiming to offer the “true” version of Christianity.
At least this is how it used to be in the Protestant world, up till about a hundred years ago. With the coming of ecumenical Protestantism, however, a large portion of the Protestant world – the non-Fundamentalism portion – decided that all versions of Christianity are approximately equal in truth. The Islamic world has not yet arrived at such broad-minded ecumenism. Muslims still insist that this is the true version of Islam or that is the true version of Islam.
ISIS (or ISIL, as President Obama prefers to call it) holds that itself is the true version of Islam. In other words, the true version of Islam is a form of the religion that establishes (or re-establishes) the Caliphate; that attempts, using military violence, to conquer the world; that pressures Christians and other non-Muslims, through the use of persuasion and persecution and terror, to accept Islam. This is a present-day version of Islam that mimics early Islam, which, coming out of the Arabian peninsula immediately following the death of the Prophet, quickly conquered the Persian Empire plus a very large section of the Roman Empire from Syria in the East to Spain in the West.
Most Muslims, including the great majority of Muslim scholars, would of course say that the ISIS version of Islam is not the true version. They may not agree among themselves as to what the true version actually is, but they are agreed that, whatever it is, it is not ISIS.
But to this objection ISIS has two replies. One is a rhetorical reply: “Our aims and practices resemble, much more strongly than yours do, the aims and practices of the early caliphs, those who immediately succeeded the Prophet. Like them, we are militant Muslims. We are warriors for Allah. We are jihadists. You on the other hand are pussycats. You’re not willing to kill and die for our holy religion.”
The other reply is not given in action. ISIS is having success. It has established a state (or quasi-state) in Iraq and Syria. It has established alliances with similar militant Islamic organizations from Indonesia to Nigeria; in effect it is now the president of a worldwide jihadist federation. It has struck blows against infidels in France and Russia and elsewhere, and will very probably strike more blows in the near future. For the first time since the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the West fears militant Islam. “You can’t argue with success,” ISIS can say, “and we are successful, not you.”
There is, as I said, no Islamic pope who can say, “ISIS does not represent true Islam.” The true definition of Islam will be decided in a kind of informal referendum conducted over the next 50 or 100 years by the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. If ISIS continues to be successful, and grows to be even more successful, it is very conceivable that a majority of the world’s Muslims will eventually decide that the ISIS version of Islam is the true version.
This would be the real justification for using massive military force, including a few hundred thousand “boots on the ground,” to snuff out ISIS before it gets any larger and has any more successes. The great problem is not that ISIS may kill a few hundred people in Paris and a few thousand more in places like London, Rome, Berlin, Madrid, Moscow, Washington, and Las Vegas. We can tolerate a few thousand murders. Here in the United States we tolerate more than 10,000 murders every year. What we cannot tolerate is a redefinition of Islam according to the ISIS model – an Islam that mobilizes one-fifth of the world’s population to conduct holy war against the other four-fifths.
In snuffing out ISIS, we’d be doing ourselves, or at least our great-great-grandchildren, a great favor. But we’d be doing an equally great favor, perhaps even a greater favor, to the majority of the world’s Muslims. Clearly the Islamic world is at a crossroads. It senses that it must make a definitive response to the culture of modernity that comes from the United States in particular and from the West generally, a culture – quite incompatible with the traditional Islamic way of life – that is relentlessly enveloping the world and transforming it.
One possible response is the one ISIS is proposing: a return to the militant Islam of the first century after Muhammad. Another possible response is to modernize Islam so that it will be able to embrace many of the less noxious elements of modernity. If ISIS is effectively eliminated, the Muslim world will have no alternative but to turn to the modernization response.
That’s a big “if.” When predicting the future to my students, I always add this caution: “While it is quite possible to predict the movements of the sun and moon and planets, it is virtually impossible to predict the human future.”