The speech of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden last Saturday at the memorial for the five unarmed servicemen killed in Chattanooga demonstrates the difficulty, uncertainty, and confusion among politicians in dealing with Islam and Islamism. The speech shows the apparent dissonance among the various voices in the same political party.

In his speech, Biden identified the shooter, Mohammad Youssef Abdul-Aziz, as “perverted jihadist.” His words even described the shooter as a part of a group of “perverse ideologues, warped theocrats.” This description significantly links the shooter with a specific religious system that itself possesses a unique ideology, and goes clearly against earlier reluctance of his administration in addressing the matter.

Defining true Islam and what Islamism really means is not only difficult among politicians. Followers of other faiths, including evangelical pastors, also find similar difficulty as the various faces of Islam create significant ambiguity in determining which is the true Islam.


Religiously Motivated or Not?


Last month, Jeh Johnson, secretary of U.S. Department of Homeland Security, refrained from using the term “Islamic” in commenting on such attacks, preferring to downplay any religious motivations behind them. For Johnson, this is simply a case of “violent extremism” rather than a shooting rampage motivated by religion. While it is officially confirmed that the shooter attacked servicemen after texting an authentic saying of the prophet Muhammad, “Whosoever shows enmity to a friend of Mine, then I have declared war against him,” official investigators have not been able yet to determine a motive behind the attack.

It appears obvious to me that today’s global West spends considerable effort, significant time, and extensive resources attempting to differentiate Islam from Islamism. It is an effort to disassociate and unlink any violent extremist attack (that looks Islamic in its essence) with any religious motivation embedded in Islamic tenets. The emphasis is on choosing words that offend nobody without identifying the role of theology or the motivating sacred texts. Thus, we hear comments that ISIS is not really Islamic and Boko Haram is a bunch of lunatics who have nothing to do with Islam. Ironically, both of these militant groups constantly portray themselves as applying the authentic texts of Islam.

In the Muslim world, the matter is quite different.


Moderate Islam?


Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in his response to the U.S. labeling his country a “moderate Islamic country,” affirms that “It is unacceptable for us to agree with such a definition.” For him, “Turkey has never been a country to represent such a concept,” as “Islam cannot be classified as moderate or not.”

Erdoğan’s strong statement appeared in Hurriyet Daily News, a major leading news source for Turkey. This statement is not only against America’s constant attempt to emphasize moderate Islam and downplay its radical and extremist faces, but also against the very concept of how the U.S. approaches and defines Islam.


Muslim Scholars


Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, the most prestigious seat of Sunni Islam, does not agree with the deeds of militant groups such as ISIS, but still considers its members true Muslims. Al-Azhar insists that it cannot label any Muslim man as kafir (disbeliever or infidel) based merely on his evil deeds, as long as this man does not reject Allah’s strict monotheism and the prophethood of Muhammad.

The statement of al-Azhar stems from a deep conviction based on a religious, doctrinal, and theological understanding of the Quran and Muhammad’s authentic sayings. ISIS members, according to al-Azhar, are Muslims, and no one can identify them otherwise. ISIS’s understanding of Islam, it appears, is one of the various legitimate ways the religion is interpreted.


Political Correctness vs. Theological Correctness


I am convinced that most Muslims and non-Muslims alike are horrified with groups, or individuals, claiming to be Muslim while selling and raping non-Muslim women, slaughtering and massacring innocent unarmed civilians, abducting and kidnapping children, and marauding and looting entire cities under the banner of Islam, claiming obedience to Allah’s commands.

However, while the non-Muslim world, in responding to violence and extremism done under the banner of Islam, continuously seeks to be politically-correct, the Muslim community worldwide is more concerned with theological-correctness, as the sacred texts direct behaviors, control discourses, and drive convictions.

The same text that motivates and supports ISIS is the one used by al-Azhar to refrain from labeling its members as non-Muslims. Thus, to be accurate in describing Islam of all stripes, we must take it on its own terms.


Ayman Ibrahim is assistant professor of Islamic studies and senior fellow for the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. A native of Cairo, Egypt, Ibrahim earned his Ph.D. with an emphasis in Islamic studies from Fuller Theological Seminary.