Scholar Tells Senate of ISIL's 'Parallel Religion'

6/22/2016 12:13:00 PM, Britain Eakin
     WASHINGTON (CN) - The Islamic State group lacks religious literacy, is far removed from the teachings of Islam, and its followers are a minority, experts told members of a Senate committee.
     Before extremist groups declared war on the United States, "they declared war on Islam," said Tarek Elgawhary, testifying Tuesday before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee.
     A doctor of Islamic law from Princeton University, Elgawhary called the Islamic State, often abbreviated as ISIS or ISIL, an existential threat to Islam.
     "They are unlettered war mongers who have in essence created a parallel religion," Elgawhary said. "Yet this parallel religion that they call to is no more Islamic than a pool with one lemon squeezed in it is lemonade."
     Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., questioned whether Muslim leaders and the leadership of al-Azhar university - one of the oldest universities and one of Sunni Islam's most revered teaching institutions - have done enough to openly condemn the group's brutality.
     The question is one posed often to Muslims in the wake of grotesque violence carried out by extremist groups.
     "Yes and no," replied Elgawhary, who also studied Islamic sciences at Egypt's al-Azhar seminary.
     He said some religious leaders are very outspoken, but others lack media savvy. Elgawhary said religious scholars need better media training to get their message out.
     "You can't write a 40-page legal opinion and expect that to be trending on Twitter, that's just not going to happen," he said.
     To his point, top Islamic figures offered a comprehensive, point-by-point refutation of the group's philosophy and its use of violence in 2014.
     Sheikh Shawqi Allam, the grand mufti of Egypt, was among those who signed the 18-page open letter in Arabic to ISIL's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. So far, the letter has been translated into nine languages, including English, and 175 Muslim leaders, including the vice president of al-Azhar university, have signed it.
     Media attention has been light on the letter, though its executive summary offers 24, easy-to-read points. Point 6 states: "it is forbidden in Islam to kill the innocent."     
     Elgawhary said Muslim religious leaders must band together for "an unequivocal counter-narrative."
     The scholar noted that seminaries like the one he attended focus on all of the 60,000 to 70,000 prophetic Islamic texts that have more than 100,000 narrations.
     Students cannot study Islamic texts, however, without first mastering about a dozen sciences, including Arabic grammar, syntax and morphology.
     Elgawhary said this discipline helps students understand the context in which religious texts were revealed, and how to apply them to the current moment.
     "Not everyone is endowed with that type of talent," he said.
     Elgawhary said groups like ISIL reject a robust interpretive methodology, demonstrating a gross misunderstanding of Islamic texts and fundamental misapprehension of the religion.
     Hassan Hassan with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy told the committee about missteps in the campaign against ISIL.
     The group has cloaked itself behind a veil of Sunni victimization, but Hassan said it is not a sectarian war, nor is it a war of Islam versus the West, and it should not be portrayed that way.
     "The very people that ISIS claims to represent are victims of its brutality just as much as everyone else," he said of the group's Sunni victims, noting that this reality is often missing from U.S. media coverage.
     Hassan, who is from an ISIL-controlled part of Syria in Deir Ezzor, says U.S. media was largely silent when ISIL launched one of its bloodiest offensives in 2014. The attack killed 700 Sunni villagers within several days who were revolting against the group in Abu Hamam in eastern Syria.
     "Highlighting that this war is not sectarian, that Sunnis are victims of this group just like everyone else, is key to defeating it," he said in his written testimony. "You can defeat the group in Raqqa, Mosul, Fallujah, but these defeats will remain tactical defeats unless the group is discredited by the same people it claims to represent," he added.
     Hassan said that those who believe in ISIL's ideology are in the minority, but cautioned that territorial losses for the group will not entirely diminish its international appeal.
     "The campaign against ISIS has not been done properly," he said. "Using the wrong forces to fight ISIS in towns where these organizations are viewed suspiciously is a disastrous campaign."
     He called it wrong to use Kurdish YPG fighters, who are affiliated with the Turkish PKK, a U.S.-designated terror organization, to fight ISIL in Sunni Arab areas.
     Among those who also criticized the use of YPG fighters in the fight against ISIL, Hassan noted, were the more than 50 U.S. State Department officials who recently drafted an internal memo sharply criticizing the Obama administration's Syria policy and calling for air strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
     "Kurdish YPG fighters cannot - and should not - be expected to project power and hold terrain deep into non-Kurdish areas," the memo said.
     The anti-ISIL campaign is only making the group stronger, Hassan cautioned. He said this is especially problematic when viewed in light of the group's long-term goals.
     ISIL wants to wage a war of attrition that will exhaust the West's appetite to fight it militarily. Moreover, it wants to polarize its enemies - including Sunni Muslims - and the societies where Muslims live, he said.
     One month ago, the group's spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, issued a call for the group's sympathizers to step up attacks in Europe and the U.S. until "every neighbor fears his neighbor." But the group has also departed from the likes of al-Qaida, which sees the killing of civilians as justifiable only as collateral damage, Hassan said. ISIL, on the other hand, openly espouses killing civilians.
     "They justify this through the religious concept of reciprocity, even though that Islamic texts explicitly state that killing one innocent life is equal to the killing of the entirety of the human race," Hassan said in his written testimony. "But this goes to show that it is time governments took this threat more seriously than they currently do, and recognize it is different from previous threats."