In your informative description (on this blog here) of Jessica Stern’s talk about Isis, she asserts that the Isis leaders are not genuine Muslims. Rather, she says, they are criminals, indeed I’d say, psychopaths, who have chosen the trappings of Islam to gain supporters. She says that she differs in this from Graeme Wood, who wrote the excellent article in Atlantic that you reference.
I don’t claim to be an expert in this issue, either the question of who is a Muslim or who is any other particular religion. I tend to take people’s word as to what they are and what they believe. Many religious people consider who is or isn’t a genuine member of their own religion to be a serious issue, and history shows that they are willing to kill one another over this question. Indeed, the rise of ISIS involves just such a question, within Islam. The ISIS murderers assert that they are genuine Muslims and other people who live within their grasp who claim to be Muslims are false Muslims or apostates. Of course, those Muslims say the same about the ISIS thugs.
Unless both sides in such a dispute, which have been common among Christians in the past, have a live-and-let live outlook, the only resolution to such a dispute is violence. Typically, each side or rather every side in these complicated fights believe that those who differ from their correct views are not just wrong, but evil. Hence murder is the only solution because they are not only evil, but stubborn tools of the devil, and the enemy of all that is right and good.
I don’t think it is helpful or sensible for outsiders to take sides in such a dispute, pronouncing these people genuine and those fakes. I can see why Western leaders would do so, however. That fraction of Muslims who hold a violent antipathy to the West wish to enlist all Muslims to their side by portraying the West as attacking all Islam. As they attack the West, these violent Muslims assert that they act in self-defense of all Muslims. We do not wish to fight all billion and a half Muslims, most of whom do not wish us harm. Thus, our sensible and competent leaders, and even President George W Bush, try to specify that we fight against a certain small group of Muslims, who are not “genuine” Muslims. We are trying to cut those killers apart from the rest of the Islamic world.
Indeed, it ought to be possible to do this because in fact these murderous violent Muslims are mainly killing other Muslims, not Westerners. They do this because the present violence in the Middle East and in the Islamic world arises from great conflicts within Islam, not unlike the West’s ferocious religious wars of the 17th century. In this great conflict, arising in part because Muslims struggle with the relative decline of their civilization compared to both the West and the Far East during the past five centuries.
The other reason these brutal killers kill other Muslims is that is who they can get their hands on. It is much harder for them to kill Westerners because there are relatively few of us where they are.
Thus Jessica Stern’s idea that would ought not to be fighting ISIS with our own soldiers is also President Obama’s policy. ISIS is a threat to Iraq’s Muslims and others and to Syria’s Muslims and to other Muslims nearby. It is amazing that the sectarian conflict in Iraq between Sunnis (a minority) and the Shia (the majority) has left such bad feelings that the Sunni evidently find it hard to decide if they prefer to be governed by the psychopathic ISIS gang or the Shia majority government of Iraq.