Fallacy of the week: “They” (ISIS) are not “True” Muslims

index2The No true Scotsman” ploy is an informal fallacy that is commonly deployed in order to maintain a specific position.

For example …

  • Person A – Islam is a religion of peace
  • Person B – But what about ISIS?
  • Person A – Ah but they are not “true” Muslims.

Who first pointed out that “no true scotsman” was a fallacy?

It comes from a book by well-known philosopher, Antony Flew “Thinking About Thinking: Do I Sincerely Want to Be Right?” (1975). There he writes …

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton [(England)] Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing”. The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen [(Scotland)] man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing”

Oh yes, I remember Mr Flew, he was the famous atheist who converted, so clearly he was never a real Atheist. :-)

Actually the real story there is rather more complex and sad, basically some christians hijacked him and his book and inserted “god did it” claims into it. He was quite frankly too elderly and so they essentially railroaded him, but that’s a story for another day.

So why is this the fallacy of the week?

Basically because we are now seeing a slew of Muslim condemnations of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) assuring us that “they” are not true Muslims.

This is welcomed by many, but is also problematic.

James Brandon, an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), quite rightly points this out and explains what the problem is …

Just as non-Muslims who try to tackle Islamism through defining moderate interpretations of Islam as the sole ‘true Islam’ actually undermine liberal Muslim attempts to develop a pluralist understanding of religion, so moderate Muslims’ use of takfir – the process of denouncing rival Muslims as apostates or non-Muslims – reinforces the ideological underpinnings of the very movements they are seeking to tackle.

Takfirism is the root and enabler of all modern jihadism; takfirist doctrine enables any ‘true’ Muslim to label those with a rival interpretation of Islam as no longer Muslim.

This, combined with traditional Islamic jurisprudence that mandates death for apostates, is taken by jihadists as an open license to denounce and then kill their enemies.

When moderate Muslim groups use takfirism to tackle extremism, this dangerous and intrinsically intolerant doctrine is therefore not challenged but is instead reaffirmed. Illustrating this, one British fighter in Syria, explaining why he regarded the MCB as his enemies, said: ‘The Muslim Council of Britain, they are apostates, they are not Muslims”, ironically the same argument that the MCB itself makes against ISIS.

OK, so if that is true, then what should moderate believers be doing?

A better approach is to accept that Islamist extremists, however distasteful their view of Islam, remain Muslims, however much other Muslims, and non-Muslims, might dislike their version of Islam.

Traditionally, as long as a Muslim accepted the existence of a single God and that Mohammed was his final prophet, then he/she was a Muslim. Ironically, a return to this age-old ‘big tent’ approach – that both jihadists and ‘moderates’ are now trying to hastily jettison – is arguably a better way to tackle extremism than seeking to ‘takfir the takfiris’.

And also, he goes on to expand upon this as follows …

A further problem with the ‘jihadists are not Muslims’ argument is that when mainstream Muslims deny that extremists are also Muslims, extremist arguments are not engaged with but are instead left to fester.

Take, for example, militants’ fondness for beheading captives; jihadists typically justify this practice through referencing the Quranic verse 47:4 ‘when you meet those who disbelieve, strike at their necks’ (and variants of this, according to different translations), often supported by many centuries of warlike, and literally medieval, interpretations.

Rather than seeking to effectively re-contextualise and de-fang this verse for the modern era, a blunt rejection of those who cite it as non-Muslims removes all scope for critically engaging – and dismantling – their arguments. This ostrich approach that extremists’ actions ‘have nothing to do with Islam’ not only fails to recognise how deep-rooted some hardline jihadist interpretations are, but it also effectively cedes such key theological battlefields to the extremists.

Is this a valid argument?

Yes it is and you can verify it yourself …

  • ‘Nick Griffin? We really don’t consider him to be English because he’s adopted many foreign practices, he is not a true englishman.
  • The BNP? Oh, they’re part of an insidious plot by foreigners to damage Britain., they are not truly British
  • The NAZI party members where never “true” Germans
  • etc…

You simply cannot address such issues by pretending they are not what they actually are.

It also lends rather a lot of unintended credence to the popular conspiracy theory that ISIS are a US Army / Zionist / CIA / Illuminate (pick your favourite) plot.

8 thoughts on “Fallacy of the week: “They” (ISIS) are not “True” Muslims”

  1. Dragon Fang, except that using the concept of abrogation which guides Quranic interpretation, the violent verses in the Quran abrogates or supersedes the peaceful verses. With abrogation, the verses that came last abrogates or supersedes thise that came earlier. Since the violent verses were revealed later, the violent verses are to be followed.

  2. Do you believe “A clean cop doesn’t take bribe!”, or “A true Catholic doesn’t worship Satan!” are fallacious?

    Boris: I am a Scotsman!
    Did you ever live in Scotland or have any Scottish ancestor?
    Boris: No, as far as I know my ancestors are from Russia.
    “Then you are no true Scotsman”

    There are clear guidelines which ISIS has violated and standards which allowed them to be labeled as Khawarij, therefore it is not a fallacy as it is not appealing to commitment.

    ISIS aren’t called infidels or non-Muslims or something like that, only that they don’t follow the teachings of Islam.

    • The ever so slight flaw in your argument is that they do indeed follow the words in the Quran … quite literally …

      Sura (8:55) – Surely the vilest of animals in Allah’s sight are those who disbelieve

      Sura (48:29) – Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. And those with him are hard (ruthless) against the disbelievers and merciful among themselves

      Sura (8:12) – I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them

      Sura (9:123) – O you who believe! Fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness

      Sura (5:33) – The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement

      and there is lots more, that is simply a small taste.

      • That explains why they are universally shunned (surprisingly even by Al Qaeda) except among themselves. Believing in parts of the scripture and disbelieving in others is not following the scripture literally.

        It is interesting that you apparently believe in objective morality, but let’s go through the verses.

        This like quoting: So woe to those who pray (Quran 107:4)
        And then claiming that praying will bring you closer to hell. Read the following verses.

        Who translated with word “ruthless”?

        {7} Perhaps Allah will put, between you and those to whom you have been enemies among them, affection. And Allah is competent, and Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.
        {8} Allah does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes – from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly.
        (Quran 60:7-8)

        Ibn Abu Laila reported: Sahl ibn Hunaif and Qais ibn Sa’d ibn Ubaidah were in Al-Qadisiyyah when a funeral passed by them, so they stood up and it was said to them, “It is one of the local people.” They both said: A funeral passed by the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, and he stood up. It was said to him, “It is a Jew.” The Prophet said, “Was he not a soul?”

        These verses refers to the battle of Badr and addresses to those who acted adversely toward Muslims. That is how wars operated back then; would you suggest sipping tea and await getting butchered?

        The same Sura states:
        And if they incline to peace, then incline to it [also] and rely upon Allah . Indeed, it is He who is the Hearing, the Knowing. (Quran 8:61)

        Except for those who take refuge with a people between yourselves and whom is a treaty or those who come to you, their hearts strained at [the prospect of] fighting you or fighting their own people. And if Allah had willed, He could have given them power over you, and they would have fought you. So if they remove themselves from you and do not fight you and offer you peace, then Allah has not made for you a cause [for fighting] against them. (Quran 4:90)

        Historically refers to the Battle of Tabouk after the Byzantine empire declared war by slaughtering the ambassador sent, and preparing a force .

        These punishment only apply to highway robbery/murder or terrorism. What matters is that these punishments works efficiently as deterrents and ensures the safety of citizens.


        • I picked a few small samples and you can of course rationalise them away in whatever way you wish, that’s fine. We could of course play the “Ah but it really means this” game for rather a long time, but the issue, the real problem, is not how you might claim it should be read, but rather how many others actually do.

          Regardless of how you might try to spin it, violence and intolerance is endemic. To illustrate that point, you need do nothing more than to remember what the penalty for apostasy is … as advocated by the majority of islamic scholars today.

          • Your error Dave (and it’s a dangerous one) is that you’ve given yourself interpretive privilege. When, in fact, there is not interpretative privilege (read: clergy) in Islam. You call Dragon Fang’s quote “spin” and grant yourself legitimacy. From where does your authority come that it is more reliable than Dragon Fang’s? The Qur’an speaks of two classes of disbelievers: The kafireen and the munafiqheen. Of these two, you are of the kafireen, but you’re still better than the munafiqheen pretend to follow Islam when in fact they are the enemies of Islam. ISIS and their ilk are just these people. They are munafiqheen. You, you’re just ignorant.

            • I’m not interpreting anything at all, nor am I suggesting that my “spin” is right or wrong, I’m simply pointing out that you are essentially correct Soraya, there is no interpretative privilege. I claim no authority. You on the other hand are declaring that ISIS and others are not real Muslims, so to deploy your own argument, who exactly gave you the authority to declare who is and is not Islamic or even what that term means?

    • Do you believe “A clean cop doesn’t take bribe!”, or “A true Catholic doesn’t worship Satan!” are fallacious?

      Those are the very definition of clean cop and catholic. That they don’t take bribes or worship Satan.

      The post has problems with dismissing muslims who do undesirable things as not muslims. It even addresses what the definition of muslim is: “Traditionally, as long as a Muslim accepted the existence of a single God and that Mohammed was his final prophet, then he/she was a Muslim.”


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