Editor’s note: Over the last several weeks, Providencemag.com has been running a series of posts on the use of language when referencing terrorists who claim fidelity to Islam and terrorist actions that inspired by the perpetrator’s understanding of Islam. The series began with a piece by Marc LiVecche and withThe  a response by Gideon Strauss. Katharine Gorka and Kyle Shideler added to it and, earlier today, Gideon Strauss offered a follow-up response. The post below forms a part of a talk by Jack Rusenko, founder of the Washington Academy, to be held tonight at the Westminster Institute in McLean and, while not written purposefully for this series, weighs in an obvious and informative way. For more information on Rusenko’s talk, and to register, look here.

A New Proposal: ISIS is a very specific type of cult

The media and the current US administration have struggled, since 2014, to define ISIS. Many don’t even get its name right. The group is known by several acronyms: ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Es-Sham – Sham being the Arabic word for the Levant) and DAESH (the same acronym using Arabic words). It is not surprising then, that a definition of this group is far from simple.

Some have said ISIS is not Islamic at all, which, while well meaning, seems to fail on its face, as ISIS quotes Islamic texts to justify their actions. The idea supporting this is that the beliefs of ISIS are very different from that of the large majority of Muslims. Due to this fact, if we then use the word Islamic to define ISIS, we will offend and alienate Muslims around the world. While some political leaders affirm that ISIS is not Islamic, I have yet to meet a Muslim scholar who says ISIS is not Islamic. I have attended numerous meetings of renowned Muslim scholars and they generally point out how ISIS the many ways in which ISIS has deviated from the accepted interpretations of Islamic texts. I would side with the theologians rather than politicians when defining religious phenomena. At the same time, it is incumbent upon us to sympathize with Muslims who say that ISIS has nothing to do with what they believe. Muslims around the world are ashamed of ISIS and, on an emotional level, we need to acknowledge their need to distance themselves from this group.

Others have advocated that ISIS is actually practicing the true version of Islam. While ISIS’ interpretation of Islamic texts is certainly literal, it greatly differs from how conservative Christians interpret the Bible. ISIS’s interpretation is disjoint, while most all Christians strive for a systematic and contextual one. If Christians interpreted the Bible in the manner ISIS interprets Islamic texts, you would see pastors citing Joshua’s mandate to destroy every living creature in a certain city. The current application would then be to go to the neighboring town and kill everyone. Christians wouldn’t accept this as valid because it would obviously be out of context.

Still others claim that acts of barbarism done by a group automatically excludes it from being followers of a major religion. We should remember that the problem is not that the texts ISIS uses give examples of brutality, as this type of violence during warfare was the general practice during that time. It is on a par with common practice during the Dark Ages in Europe. The problem many have is that ISIS wants to adopt 7th century practices in the 21st century. However, even the 20th century was filled with numerous widespread acts of violence. Examples include: Jewish genocide by the Nazis, the 40% of US POW’s killed (many of them beheaded) by the Japanese during WWII, and the millions killed under Stalin and Mao. Don’t forget the huge piles of human skulls found in Cambodia after Pol Pot’s reign or the hacked up bodies in Rwanda. I would propose that barbarism is not unique to any one religion or belief system, but something that cuts across humanity. It is tied to the condition of the human heart.

How then, should we refer to ISIS? I propose that it be referred to as a cult. A very specific type of cult. ISIS is an Apocalyptic, Genocidal, Islamic Cult.

ISIS is Apocalyptic. This is evidenced in their emphasis of end times and the battles they believe signal this period. One of their major media recruiting platforms is their online magazine, Dabiq. Dabiq a city in northern Syria, near the Turkish border. ISIS believes that it is here that Muslims will defeat invading Christians in a battle similar to Armageddon. If we do not understand the apocalyptic aspect of ISIS, we will not understand them at all. The hope of this apocalyptic victory is a factor in their ability to recruit Muslims from around the world.

ISIS is Genocidal. On March 17th, the US State Department confirmed what many human rights organizations have been stating for the last several years: ISIS is responsible for genocide in the regions they control. The plight of the Yazidis has been widespread in the media, yet Christians in the region have suffered equally. The goal of ISIS is to kill men and use women to propagate more followers.

For the reasons stated above, we need to concede that ISIS is also Islamic. While many argue that they have little or nothing in common with Islam as it is widely practiced, it is clear that the roots of their beliefs are derived from Islamic sources. Some political leaders say that Americans will confuse all Muslims with ISIS if we use the word Islamic when defining them. Yet I believe that Americans are able to distinguish between traditional proponents of a religion and a distorted offshoot, also known as a Cult.

Muslims are now referring to ISIS as an Arabic term similar to a cult. After the Orlando mass shooting, one American Muslim organization’s president referred to these Muslim extremists as “Khawarij”, other prominent Muslims leaders abroad have said the same of them. This word literally means “those who have gone out” or “outsiders” and refers to a group of Muslims soon after Mohamed who opposed his fourth successor, Ali. They developed extreme doctrines, were very intolerant, labeled other Muslims as non-Muslims and started a civil war. The fact that Muslim leaders are using this term demonstrates they acknowledge that ISIS represents a deformation of Islam.

Since “cult” is a term that is used for a group that has widely deviated from generally accepted religious beliefs, let’s look at five elements of a cult and see if they apply to ISIS. While we could list more elements of a cult, ISIS would also fit those as well.

  1. An authoritarian, charismatic leader who demands total obedience and respect. The adherents demonstrate zealous and unwavering commitment to him. The leader is not accountable to anyone else and is in total control. He is the only one who can correctly interpret the beliefs that the adherents must follow. As does ISIS, the leader takes phrases out of context to arrive at startling conclusions. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi certainly fits this profile.
  1. A claim to holding exclusive truth. ISIS claims that they are the only ones who have the truth and that others, even who follow the teachings of the same holy books are believed to be in error. Within Islam, people who declare that some Muslims are not really Muslims are known as Takfiris. The doctrine of Takfir was made popular by a well known Muslim theologian named Ibn Taymayyah. He lived in the 13th and 14th century and used Takfir to proclaim that the Muslim Monghol invaders to the Middle East were in fact not Muslims at all. He is one of the favorite theologians of ISIS. If you ever have the chance to chat with an ISIS leader, he will certainly enjoy telling you all about Ibn Taymayyah. ISIS uses this doctrine to kill Muslims who don’t agree with their particular interpretation of Islam. In fact, they have killed more Muslims than Christians or Yazidis because Muslims make up the great majority of the region’s population. The irony is that when our political leaders declare that some who call themselves Muslims (namely ISIS) are not Muslims at all, they are in a way adopting the Takfiri doctrine. It is clear that ISIS claims exclusivity of truth.
  1. Dissent is discouraged and punished. As made clear by the Takfiri doctrine, ISIS does not tolerate any interpretations of Islam apart from their own.
  1. Very high control of their adherents. They often forbid the adherents from reading books other than the ones they approve and from spending time with those (even family members) outside the cult. The leader dictates how adherents must think, act and feel, sometimes in great detail: specifying who they marry, how many children they should have, what job to take, what clothes to wear and where to live. ISIS does all of the above. They have a female police force that enforces clothing restrictions. They give their soldiers captured women as slaves/wives, and they have a central “government” that provides salaries for everyone. We have not seen any group in our lifetime that has such high control as ISIS.
  1. Punishment and ostracism of adherents who choose to leave the cult. In the USA this often means shunning, but in some cases bodily harm. With ISIS, there are numerous stories of the execution of members who try to leave.

In the USA, we have seen many well known cults which are derived from most every world religion. Most of these are just groups that stay to themselves and recruit more followers. Some, however, have become violent as well. Two recent, well-known examples of violent American cults are:

  1. The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ, led by Jim Jones. This ended at their camp in Guyana in 1978 with mass suicide, killing almost 1,000 adherents. This was prompted by the visit of Congressman Leo Ryan from San Francisco who had come to investigate complaints of his constituents. The Congressman and three journalists were shot at the local airstrip. This was the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act prior to September 11, 2001.
  1. The Branch Davidians led by David Koresh. He had changed his name from Howell to Koresh after Cyrus the Great of Persia, claiming to be a prophet. He was accused of child abuse and statutory rape, as well as firearms violations. In 1993, the ATF raided their compound in Waco, TX, and after a long standoff, 90 of the adherents were killed along with Koresh. Two years later, on the same day the siege ended (April 19), Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, citing the siege against the Branch Davidians.

ISIS well fits the definition of a cult. We have seen a number of cults in America that have turned violent so I believe that this term is one Americans can understand. It describes a group that originated from a traditional religious thought, but goes terribly astray. American cults have been much smaller in size than ISIS, but ISIS still represents a very small fraction of Muslims worldwide.

I think that by labeling ISIS an Apocalyptic, Genocidal Islamic Cult we will be able to put ISIS in it’s proper context. Maybe the government would want to create a new acronym to describe ISIS: AGIC. It even sounds a bit like allergic.

Jack Rusenko is a petroleum engineer by training who has lived the majority of his adult life in the Arab world, working on educational projects. He spent 20 years living and working in North Africa. In 1998 he founded the largest American school in the region. In Morocco he did extensive work on interfaith dialogue as a lay leader of the Anglican church. He can be readed at [email protected]. His website is: www.jack.rusenko.com