The Modern World Confronts the Seventh Century

I was thinking about a topic for my next blog when news broke of the beheading of the British aid worker David Haines by the terrorist organization that calls itself the Islamic State (IS). Haines’ murder followed the same sickening pattern as that experienced days earlier by the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. IS has already identified its next potential victim: Alan Henning, another British aid worker. How should the modern world respond to barbarism of this nature? UK Prime Minister David has vowed to hunt the killers down. Haines’ killers are “not Muslims, they are monsters” says Cameron. His response is similar to that of US President Barak Obama’s on September 10 when he laid out to the public the White House’s strategy for dealing with IS: “ISIL (or IS) is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslims.”

Listening to the responses from Cameron and Obama, you have to shake your head and wonder: How can the British prime minister and US president insist that these murders have nothing to do whatsoever with Islam, when they know (I would presume) that the leader of the terrorist group that carried out these heinous acts is no uneducated recent-convert who misunderstands Islam, but a man with a PhD in Islamic Studies? Dr. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not a Muslim? And the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam? Really?

Al-Baghdadi, currently the most-wanted man in the Middle East with a $10 million bounty on his head, was born Ibrahim al-Badari in Samarra, Iraq. He grew up in a religious family: His parents were devout Sufis (a sect of Islam regarded as the most tolerant branch). He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a PhD in Islamic Studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad in Adhamiya, a Baghdad suburb.

After the US invaded Iraq, al-Baghdadi–for reasons unknown–ended up in Camp Bucca (the detention centre named after a firefighter who died in the 9.11 attack) where he spent the next four years (2005-2009). He was considered a low-level threat during his incarceration but clearly did not remain such, for at his release he taunted his American captors with “I’ll see you guys in New York.” Al-Baghdadi’s ascent through the terrorists’ ranks was swift. He became head of the Iraqi division of al-Qaeda upon the death of its leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, killed in a US-led raid near Falluja.

The name al-Baghdadi adopted, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is instructive. Abu Bakr Saddiq (‘the upright’) (573-634) was the name of Islam’s first caliph. He was purportedly the first male convert to Islam who subsequently became Muhammad’s closest companion and adviser, as well as Muhammad’s father-in-law. Upon Muhammad’s death, the Muslims of Medina made Abu Bakr Saddiq the first caliph , ‘successor or deputy of the Prophet of Allah’. The newly-appointed caliph launched a series of successful military campaigns which suppressed the political and religious uprisings by ‘apostate’ tribes that began after Muhammad’s death, thereby bringing all of Arabia under Muslim control. Following this, he commenced Islam’s expansion from Arabia into Iraq and Syria.

The self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim has followed a similar course. In 2013, the al-
Qaeda terrorist affiliate group which al-Baghdadi led expanded into Syria. On 8 April 2013, al-Baghdadi announced the creation of a new entity, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)–the name Pres. Obama continues to use when speaking of IS. On 29 June 2014, the first day of Ramadan in the year 1435 on the Muslim calendar, al-Baghdadi renamed ISIL the Islamic State (IS) and proclaimed himself caliph, Caliph Ibrahim.

How should the West deal with a man who sees himself as a modern-day Abu Bakr,a man who employs the same barbaric tactics as some seventh-century warrior? I know what we shouldn’t do: We shouldn’t so readily dismiss the notion of a connection between the beheadings and Islam. After all, with three degrees in Islamic Studies, al-Baghdadi likely does not misunderstand Islam. And thus we need to ask: What is there in Islam that motivates al-Baghdadi, a highly-educated Muslim, to behave as he does? Even more importantly, we need to ask: What is there in Islam that has drawn, and continues to draw, thousands of young people–some say as many as 30,000, many of them Westerners–to fight at his side?