ISIS is a cult – a very specific type of cult
The media and the current U.S. administration have struggled since 2014 to define ISIS. Some have said they are not Islamic at all, which, while well-meaning, seems to fail on its face as ISIS draws upon Islamic texts to justify their actions. ISIS is an apocalyptic, genocidal, Islamic cult. We must address and combat ISIS as a cult to defeat it. The media and the current U.S. administration have struggled since 2014 to define ISIS. Some have said it is not Islamic at all, which, while well-meaning, seems to fail on its face as ISIS draws upon Islamic texts to justify its actions. ISIS is an apocalyptic, genocidal, Islamic cult. We must address and combat ISIS as a cult to defeat it.
About the speaker
Jack Rusenko has lived and worked the majority of his adult life in the Arab world, 18 years of which were in Morocco where he focused on educational projects.
In 1993, he initiated a committee to bring the Internet to Morocco, and in 1998 he founded the largest American school in the region: George Washington Academy. During his years in Morocco he did extensive work on interfaith dialogue as a lay leader of the Anglican church, working with religious and governmental leaders. He is personally acquainted with the Moroccan Muslim intellectuals who have taken the lead in fighting Islamist ideology. He is intimately familiar with the Moroccan government’s counter-radicalization efforts. Jack currently resides in Northern Virginia where he leads the George Washington Amity Series, working with Muslim and Evangelical Christian Communities.
Jack brings a wealth of experience to the subject through the many years he lived and worked with business, government and religious leaders in a Muslim-majority context. He holds degrees in Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University; French Language and Civilization from the Sorbonne in Paris, and Arabic from the University of Tunis.
Robert R. Reilly:
Now, tonight we are very happy to have with us Jack Rusenko, particularly because his extensive experience in the Arab world, his mastery of several languages in the country in which he lived for 18 years, in both French and Arabic, and his astonishing achievement during those years of establishing a[n] extremely successful school titled the George Washington Academy, which continues today and I believe Jack is up to 700 students… 800… 850 students in the George Washington Academy in Morocco.
During Jack’s years in Morocco he did extensive work on interfaith dialogue as a lay leader of the Anglican church, working with religious and government leaders. And this is going to be another particularly interesting thing to hear about tonight is Mr. Rusenko’s acquaintance with leaders in Morocco and that includes government-sponsored leaders who are trying to detoxify the radical Islamist strain of Islam. So without… no I will not go without further ado for a moment because you should know that holds degrees in petroleum and natural gas engineering from Pennsylvania State and French language and Civilization from the Sorbonne in Paris and Arabic from the University of Tunis. Please join me in welcoming Jack Rusenko on the subject, “How to Define ISIS and How Morocco is Fighting It.”
Thank you very much. It is a pleasure to be with you and I have enjoyed so much all the different times I have been here for the different events that you have. I am glad you are turning off your cell phones. I remember once watching on TV- When you live in a kingdom, the King is a quite central figure. And to meet the King is a big thing. I met King Hassan II once. And you see on the nightly news people walk up and see the King and I remember the day that one of the cabinet ministers was getting appointed and he walked up to see the King and as he was shaking hands his cell phone rang. And they should have a picture of the guy’s face it was like, ‘Oh no. I am dead. I am so dead.’ You know? Anyway.
I would like to start to wish our Muslim friends Eid Mubarak. Today is the fast for the end of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, and Eid al-Saghir, the small one that they have so it is an important day for them. This is- I use this as a backdrop and then I realized, ‘Oh no, I do not want to correlate this with ISIS’ in any way. This is Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem… in the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest place in Islam. It was built by Omar in 705. So I want to talk tonight about how we- first how we define ISIS and then- so really, it is two separate parts; how we define ISIS and then secondly what Morocco’s been doing to fight ISIS. It has been frustrating for me to hear in the press how people have defined ISIS and talked about it. There are different ways, different things that you see, and I will explain them.
The first, we will start with the Arabic one, Daesh. In Arabic, it is ad-Dawlah al-ʻIraq al-Islāmiyah, Islamic State in Araq wa Sham, in Iraq and Sham. And the media says Iraq and Syria. [It] does not mean Syria. There is nobody in their world that ever says Syria. But Sham is the Levant, which is the eastern Mediterranean, Lebanon and Syria but also Jordan, Israel, and Palestine so when they say the Sham, the Levant, they are claiming immediately that whole eastern Mediterranean area. Then of course ISIL is the English translation, Iraq and Levant and ISIS would mean Iraq and Sham, so that is half-Arabic, half-English.
The Obama administration and many others have affirmed that ISIS is not Islamic at all. There is nothing Islamic about ISIS. I think people can understand that there is. They can differentiate [between them] and I think it is a good thing. The kind of idea behind it, that we [do] not offend Muslims and claim that or try to say that all Muslims are like ISIS or something like that, that is a good thing. We should I think constantly affirm that, but people can differentiate between a mainstream and a twisted deformation of that, I believe. So… the other thing that I noticed is political leaders, ours in particular right now, are saying that ISIS is not Islamic at all, but as I have gotten to know Muslim theologians and Muslim scholars, I have never met a Muslim scholar that says ISIS is not Islamic at all, so I think in the case of religious things it would be better to stick with theologians and not the politicians. I think they would know a little bit more in this area, and so the other thing that I think is that I think we have to be careful when saying this is that we do not lose credibility.
So when you live in the state and this was pretty much the whole Arab world up until- most of the Arab world up until 2011, and there is no independent media, what you have- is you have the official truth, that is what the government tells you, and then everybody else knows there is the real truth. And if you have an independent media, that is good, that gap will close very quickly, but if you do not, you will have the state organs out there, saying this is what is happening, this is the truth, and everybody knows that is not right.
So, what happens is the media says that, but the people say no, that is not right. You know what is really happening here, so I think that we run the risk of losing credibility. If we are saying something and the people [are not, we lose credibility]. I have not met Muslims [who say that]. I have met Muslims that say [this], and the King of Jordan said it is so far from what I believe, I cannot even recognize it as Islam, so I can understand that, but to say that there is nothing Islamic about it I think is a little bit too much.
The other thing is that some say that ISIS actually are the true Muslims, and if you are really a good Muslim, you will end up like ISIS. They really do interpret the text literally in a direct way and so there they have the proper way to interpret Islam. And what I would like to note here is that they interpret literally to be sure, but they do not interpret it contextually. It is a disjoint[ed] interpretation and that is a big difference. And it saddens me to hear Christian leaders and people here in the United States that think, well, we interpret the Bible in a straightforward literal way, and they do that with ISIS, and so if I were a Muslim, I would end up like that.
Again, the difference is it is not contextual. An example would be if you were reading in the Old Testament Book of Judges and the Israelites are told to dispossess the people, take over the land of Canaan, and God says go and basically chase these people out and who is ever left kill every living thing that is left, right? Now, the ISIS interpretation of that would be if I am a pastor here in McLean and I get up on a Sunday and say, well, we are going to apply that verse today and we are going over there to Alexandria and we are going to kill everybody.
Well, no Christian would ever say that. Well, not- no- There are actually- actually… no- no- It reminds me because actually in Rwanda some people said that. Some Christians were saying this is, you know the two tribes, and the other tribe we are going to dispossess so not that it has not happened, but we would not certainly say that because it is not contextual. It is totally out of the context. I do not think that we should give them the upper hand to say that they have a good interpretation of the Quran and the holy books.
Morocco’s effort, that I will get to in the second part of the talk, is basically saying no, ISIS does not have true Islam, and we are going to show you why they don’t, so they are not ceding that ground and telling them. Another example is much-quoted Surah Al-Baqarah, where you probably heard somewhere it says slay them wherever they may be found, and ISIS quotes this quite a bit. Well, the verse right before says do not aggress upon them, but if they fight you, then go and slay them where they may be found.
So, we have the same passage, and you have ISIS saying kill whoever is in our way, and then you have most Muslims saying no, no, no, it says, basically, it is a self-defense thing. [It says] if they attack you, then you can defend yourself and kill them, which I think we would agree with, right? So you see how it is so much out of context that opposite sides use the same passage to prove the opposite thing, and I do not think ISIS’ way is the right way.
ISIS’ Barbarism is By No Means Unique
Then the other thing I want to say is some have said that ISIS is unique in their barbarity, and because they are so brutal and barbaric that they could not be anything to do with the religion, and the problem here is that what the Qur’an is saying, these stories from the Hadith and the Qur’an, that was kind of par for the course in the seventh century and warfare in the Dark Ages. Europe was in the Dark Ages at the time. That was not anything especially brutal or shocking, that is the way things happened in the seventh century.
The problem with ISIS is they want to then bring that into the twenty-first century, and make that the norm for the twenty-first century, which is then very shocking to us. The point I am trying to make is I do not think ISIS has a corner on brutality. They are very brutal, and I am not saying they are not, but if we take a quick survey of the twentieth century, we have millions of Jews being killed by the Nazis, we have Stalin and Mao killing millions in their countries, we have Rwanda (that I cited) [with] hundreds of thousands if not millions of people [killed].
And then you have in World War II, the Japanese [who engaged in] terrible brutality. Forty percent of U.S. P.O.W.s died in Japanese prisoner of war camps, many if not most of them being beheaded, so very brutal, even beheading, which is what ISIS does as well, in our not-too-distant past. Maybe there are some veterans here from World War II. The point I do want to make is the core problem is not an ideology. I think it shows that there is an across-the-board condition of the human heart, that man is capable of doing very evil things, and nobody has a corner on that.
So then how should we define ISIS?
Well, I would like to propose that ISIS is a cult, and there are three adjectives that I would like to use to describe it. The first one is they are apocalyptic, and actually many if not most cults are apocalyptic. There are non-violent ones that say – I met a guy a couple years ago, 2012, who said the world is ending, everybody sell your things, the end is coming – this is a very common theme for cults. ISIS is particularly so.
Their recruiting magazine is called Dabiq. Dabiq is a town in northern Syria near the Turkish border, and Islamic eschatology, if you will, says that Muslims will defeat the invaders, Christians and others, in a battle somewhat similar to Armageddon in this city in Syria, and so they use that to say the end is near, the end is coming, rally around, come, and we are going to bring the end of the ages in. And that is one of the strategies they use, so ISIS is clearly that.
The second is genocidal, and I do not think this needs much supporting data to show. On March 17th, the State Department finally declared that yes, they are genocidal. They do not discriminate. They kill Christians, Yazidis, Shiites, and then non-Salafist Sunnis, so they kill across-the-board anybody who does not agree with their way of thinking.
And the last one is Islamic, I think because they came from Islam. Obviously, the sources they draw from are Islam, but I do think that people can differentiate. I am a Christian, and if somebody tells me they are a Christian cult, it would not offend me as a Christian. I think I would not take that as a slight against my faith because I would understand they are some weird deviation from normal Christianity, so to say it is also an Islamic cult I do not think is something that would offend the majority of Muslims. The Muslim leaders who I have talked to said no, that would not offend them.
Muslims are using a word, Khawarij, in Arabic also to describe them. Now, kharij in Arabic just means the verb to leave. In Arabic, if you have an exit sign by a door, it is khoorooj. And then if you have the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it would be wizarat alshuyuwn alkharijia.