ISIS: Theology or Revenge?

Yasir Qadhi

Channel: Yasir Qadhi

Episode Notes

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Shaykh Yasir Qadhi ponders over the origin of ISIS and the factors that have catapulted them into a major nuisance. According to the Shaykh, the source of ISIS is “the hellish conditions that Western powers created in the region.”

ISIS harbours itself as the face of establishment of oppression and protection of the Muslims, but the reality is far from its mission. They contradict themselves on so many levels that it deters the very concept of Islam. This group has annihilated the beauty of Islam and distorted the reality of the teachings of our Noble Prophet ﷺ  like never before.

This talk needs to be listened to so that a comprehensive understanding of the world and its dire circumstances into which it is plunged an be explicitly fathomed .

Episode Transcript

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In the March issue of the Atlantic, journalist Graham wood wrote an article about the religious motivations of ISIS that quickly became the most read story the Atlantic has ever published online. It's called what ISIS really wants. And in it, he says, make no mistake, ISIS is Islamic, very Islamic, and the only way to fight them is to understand their medieval brand of Islam.

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But a heated debate is brewing online about how accurate that is. Graham's reporting has been criticized for ignoring important debates among mainstream Muslim scholars, and for making to close a link between ISIS and Islam.

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One of what's most respected critics is yasir Qadhi, a popular voice in the American Muslim community and an assistant professor of religion at Rhodes College. He says that Woods article is, quote, tantamount to shouting fire in a crowded theater and deserves a rebuttal. So we decided to take him up on that. We've asked both the asset Makati and Graham wood to respond to each other directly. And to help us understand why this story has provoked such a strong debate online. So welcome to both of you, Graham and Yasser. Thank you. Thank you for having me on the show. Now, Graham, I'll start with you. I I think the thing that's gotten the most attention is the question of

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whether members of ISIS are actually following Islam. And you wrote, and I'm quoting here, the reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic, very Islamic. Can you explain your position here? Sure, I'd be happy to explain the position. Now to say that they're following Islam is a very complicated statement. They're following an Islam. There are many different interpretations of Islamic scripture in text. There are many different ways of being a Muslim. And yes, there's no question that they are inspired by texts inspired by the history of Islam, they have a fringe interpretation of Islam. But the idea that they are making things up as they go, that they don't

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care at all about about Islamic history and text is simply disproven by almost everything that they've put out. Now, they're rejected by almost all Muslims, as Yasser will correctly tell you, but, you know, we would say certainly that Mel Gibson's a Catholic that David Koresh was a fringe, death cult Christian. And by the same token, ISIS is an Islamic organization. Hmm. And yeah, Sir, what's your reaction to that? are members of ISIS very Islamic? Does ISIS have some basis in Islamic theology, however medieval? Well see, here's the point. No one, as far as I know, is denying that ISIS claims to be acting in the name of Islam. I mean, clearly, they're not Buddhists or Jews. But

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the question that I have, and this is my main criticism of Graham's article, is Islam the cause of the actions of ISIS, or the justification and excuse of those actions? Imagine an article or a series of articles that describes the phenomenon of the IRA in England, in terms of his Catholic heritage, of the pride that his members viewed their religious background with of the disdain that they had for Protestants, the derogatory terms that they had for them, perhaps the article would reference historical Catholic incidents, maybe the Inquisition, maybe even the crusades, and thus place the entire thrust of the IRA, in the view of the teachings of the history of Catholicism,

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while completely sidelining the political grievances that the Irish had against the British government. Here's the point, perhaps each individual part of that article, just like each individual part of Graham's article might be true. But the big elephant in the room, frankly, the scenic one on of its existence is ignored. Of what use is it to say the IRA is Catholic, very Catholic, when you ignore the real reason why the IRA exists, which is the political grievances that one group of people had against another group of people. And, and I would say Graham's. Okay, so, my response to that would be to say, if you read the article, it's very clear that what I'm describing

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is the ideology of ISIS. It is what ISIS really wants it what it's what ISIS says it believes. And I make also very clear that without acknowledging factors, like the bad governance in the region, and of course, more than anything else, the invasion of Iraq that allowed this group to arise in the first place, then you cannot explain the Islamic State. Now to say that that people have always admitted that the Islamic State is a religious organization is simply false. There have been many people who have said that it is purely political, that their religious veneer is simply cynical. They've said that this organization is nihilist that it's psychopathic

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Now what my article was saying was that it does have a religious basis. It claims these things and it sincerely cares about them. Now, there are many other things we can talk about that are important about the Islamic State. But without acknowledging this, we don't have the full picture. And yasir you wrote in response that, that ISIS has been driven by political motivations. So do you want to say more about that? What is your theory of the rise of ISIS? Absolutely. The question that we need to ask ourselves is, if we as as as a country had not directly contributed to the current political and social chaos and disarray in Iraq, would a phenomenon such as ISIS have emerged? So the question

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that we need to ask ourselves is who is directly more to blame the religion of Islam or our own foreign policy, Iraq, in particular, has not had a history of jihadist movements, even during the height of the brutality of Saddam's years, this is a very, very modern phenomenon. So why Iraq, what exactly has happened in Iraq in the last 35 years or so that has brought about the circumstances from within which ISIS can emerge. And the fact of the matter is that we ourselves have been interfering in that region for over 35 years, we have killed directly over a half a million people, and this is conservative, probably even close to a million as a result of our invasion of Gulf War

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Two. And then we take a step back and say, Oh, look at those medieval barbarians that are quoting Islamic traditions. Again, it's very simplistic, it's actually reductionist to the point of being criminal to talk about Islam and the role of Islam, and to ignore what we ourselves have done in that region. And Graham, would you would you agree with Yasser, on that it? Does the US have some responsibility in this? I'm afraid, yes, sir, is pushing against an open door here, there's no question that ISIS would not have arisen without the Iraq invasion. Without it, I think even for going further the bad governance in the region region that's afflicted it for entire my entire

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lifetime. Certainly, the question, though, is, when you have a region that is destroyed like this, when you have a region where authority has been predatory, and nothing else, then what finally steps in to take its place. And you know, ISIS would agree with the author that it would never have arisen, except in this context, as well. And they believe that it was a blessing that there has been such such such problems, political problems in the region. And the result of those problems ISIS says is that it was able to step in with its ideology, which it says is religious, and then it gives its evidence for its actions, the author should and can point to the ways in which that evidence is

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unacceptable to almost all Muslims. But to say that it has this origin. And to describe the political background of it is relevant, of course, but it is completely beside the point of what the group actually believes in what its ideology consists of. At now, Graham, you describe in your article what is a distinctive medieval apocalyptic theology of Islam, which as you both admit, the vast majority of Muslims today reject. Now, as a Christian myself, if I went back centuries, I can find in fact, I looked it up online, a theology of the Inquisition, or a theology of the crusades, and these justify all kinds of violence and oppression and terrible acts against other human beings.

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And I can find plenty of scriptural passages in the Judeo Christian Bible, which describe horrible, violent acts in a positive way. But almost no Christians today would call any of this Christian, can you call this group Islamic, then when so many Muslims reject it? Absolutely. And I think that most Christians would describe the book of Revelation and what it says as Christian. Likewise, the medieval punishments or pre medieval punishments of the Old Testament, the stoning of adulterers to deny that these are Jewish is a very strange position to take. And likewise, what's distinctive about ISIS is that they have this incredible lack of humility and saying that they are part of this

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Apocalypse, they know exactly how it's going to unfold. And that their blood the bloodbath they've unleashed is part of it. It's very important to realize that there are literalist interpretations of all sorts of religions that are incompatible with certain types of liberalism. For the record, I'm not saying that these interpretations of in this case Judeo Christian scriptures are offensive to Christians today because they're out of step with liberalism. I think they're out of step with most people's understandings of Judaism and Christianity today. Yes. And likewise with Islam, the number of Muslims who walk around

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Thinking that the apocalypse is happening and that they're part of it is extremely, extremely small. The number of Christians who have the same type of view, also pretty small. And I think it's important to understand how fringe these beliefs are. But of course, there is an apocalypse in Christianity, there's an apocalypse in Islam. And that's the sense in which ISIS is Islamic. And Yasser, how do you deal with the apocalyptic theology that ISIS claims? Well, before I answer that, I really have to comment on this issue of Islamic or non Islamic. I think one of the main problems of the article was the usage and the ambivalence of the term Islamic. What exactly does Graham mean?

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And does the the academic that he quoted mean, when they say ISIS is Islamic, what they mean primarily, and especially what the academic that he quoted means is that they're coming out of the Islamic tradition. However, when I, as a Muslim theologian, say that I don't view ISIS as being Islamic, I'm actually using it more as an adjective, ie, it is not living up to the mainstream normative interpretation of Islam. And I as a Muslim cleric, all Muslims around the world have the right to claim what is a proper interpretation of their faith. And I have said in many lectures, I don't view ISIS as acting upon Islamic principles. They're not faithful to the methodology to the

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legal scriptures, to the understanding of our faith, I am not claiming that they're coming out of Buddhism, of course, they're coming out of the tradition of Islam. And so here's this ambivalence Islamic and Islamic. Do you mean it as a noun or an adjective? Do you mean to describe the group as people who believe in Islam? In which case? Of course, they're Islamic? Because they say so? Or do you mean as a group that is faithful to the mainstream normative understandings of Islam? And here's my point, we in the West have no problems judging other governments when they say they're liberal or not, when they say they're democratic or not. The mere claim that a government is liberal doesn't

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make them liberal. And Mr. Graham and others want to say, well, simply because I says it's Islamic, who am I to judge? They're, they're an Islamic, fine. That's your perspective. From my perspective, as a practicing and believing Muslim, as a theologian, as a scholar, I have every right to say, I don't view ISIS as being Islamic, in an objective sense, ie subscribing to the normative interpretations of the faith. As to your question about apocalyptic views. I do think that many conservative Christians, and Muslims do believe quite literally, that there are things that are going to happen at the end of times. But the fact of the matter is that most of these groups

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dissociate from those views in their daily lives, you can believe in some type of apocalyptic event that's going to happen. But that's not the same as expediting it yourselves, which is what ISIS is doing. I think that's where the danger arises. And Graham, when you talk about ISIS as an Islamic group, and you definitely make an emphasis on that, I think one of the concerns that I read in your master's essay, is that this foments Islamophobia. It links this very violent group, with the vast majority of Muslims who reject them. What do you say to that? I'm happy to say that their article has been read in a much more nuanced way that then yasir thinks it will be read or has been read the

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number of people who have been able to read it and then say what the differences are, between the mainstream Islam, the type of Islam that's accepted by, by almost all other Muslims, and ISIS is much larger than it was before they read the article. Now, if the article is read by people as saying that Islam is ISIS, then it's read by people cannot read. And you can't blame an article for fomenting Islamophobia if it does not attempt to foment Islamophobia. Graham, Can I just add to that, as with all, with all respect to that, your perception of the article, my perception is that the reception of the article in both left and right wing circles was quite scary. In essence, the

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message that people took away from the far right and yes, even from the left, is that somehow, since ISIS is quoting religious texts, that the religion itself and the adherence of the religion are somehow complicit, they're tacitly supportive of some of these doctrines. And let me quote you from the article itself. And here's my point, you really seem to sideline you're not ignoring there are references here and there. But you seem to sideline the main point. And the main thrust of what I'm trying to say, which is that ISIS is more reaction to our politics into the religion, I quote you and you say, the rise of ISIS, after all happened only because our previous occupation created space

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for Zarqawi and his followers and quote, created space is that the language that euphemism you're going to use, it's as if we were mowing the lawn and clearing the weeds so that ISIS could plant its flowers. I mean, here's my point, Mr. Wood, the barbarity and the inhumanity of our occupation.

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In the hundreds of 1000s of civilians murdered, the jobs lost the peace and security on the streets demolished the upper grades and the collapse of civil society. That is what should be the thrust of your article. I want my fellow Americans to understand it's not Islam that is creating ISIS. They don't need to fear me and their fellow American Muslims, they and I, as Americans need to take a step back and take account of our government and what our government is doing in those lands and the chaos and the and the confusion that is being sold because of our own foreign policies. This is the type of brave journalism that I would wish you and others would engage in, and grammar are your

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chance to answer that. Yes, I'm glad you quote the article. You know, if you say that that Zarqawi headspace created for him by the American invasion, I would say that that is a pretty strong ding against American foreign policy in Iraq. Clearly, that was an incredible blunder. It was not a pretty thing, this invasion. And you know, it's but that's been described in far more forceful terms than then you just gave by many others. What I was describing is what Zarqawi and his successors stand for. And that's what I did in great detail.

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I'm speaking to journalist Graham wood and Muslim scholar yasir Qadhi. We'll be back after a short break.

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I'm Maureen Fiedler and this is interfaith voices.

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A recent article called what ISIS really once has become the most read story ever published in the history of the Atlantic. In it, Graham Woods says that pretending that ISIS isn't actually a religious group with a coherent theology has led the rest of the world to underestimate its power. But his article has caused an uproar online. One of Wood's most thoughtful critics is Muslim scholar, yasir Qadhi, who calls the article deeply flawed, and alarmingly tone deaf. So we've invited both of them on the show to respond to each other directly. Let's get back to my conversation. Now. Yasser, I wonder if you could tell us something about yourself because you have

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some past connection with Salafi Islam. So is Salafism related to ISIS at all?

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Yes, at one stage of my life I was a Salafi and I studied at one of the most prestigious perhaps the most prestigious institution in the world for 10 years in Medina, and I understand the theology of Salafism obviously very well. ISIS is an aberration of mainstream Salafism and I have to agree with Graham wood that he did point this out and very clearly, that mainstream Salafism is very much like, or ultra Orthodox Judaism. Its main emphasis is on personal rituals, personal purity of very, very pious, artistic very quietest. It's actually very apolitical, because it views politics as inherently corruptive to the soul. So mainstream Salafism of views ISIS as an aberration, not

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necessarily because of its ethics, but because it views itself as implementing God's law, and its excessiveness in its tech fear or excommunication. When al Qaeda tells you that you're too radical, which is little Qaeda has done to ISIS, then you definitely know that you know, something is wrong. I guess a somewhat similar analogy would be david koresh with the Seventh Day Adventists, the Seventh Day Adventists are a mainstream branch of Christianity. David Croatia is a type of aberration from that. And I think ISIS is it can similarly be understood in light of Salafi Islam. Now, one of the questions I have had, as I've watched ISIS in operation is, what in the world is the

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appeal of ISIS, particularly to young people in the West who have tried to get themselves to Syria, or at least a turkey to get into Syria? And I'm sort of baffled by this appeal. What is so attractive about them to young men? Graham, I'll start with you. I think it's very clear, we can look at the propaganda that ISIS has put out, and what it claims to do. And what does it show it shows Muslims under attack, it shows the depredations of the Assad regime, also of Shia militias in Iraq nowadays. And it shows that if you go to Iraq, if you go to Syria, then you can be part not only of the defensive Muslims who are under attack by what was called a army of refusers or of

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apostates, but also you can be part of an enormous battle between good and evil. They make a great deal of emphasis on Apocalypse, on the ways in which you can be part of the greatest game, the greatest war of all time. So I think it appeals in many ways to the same kinds of adventurism, the same kind of joiner spirit that you'd find in other

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Previous types of wars, the children's Crusade, the Spanish Civil War. And it takes a kind of feeling I think of absence of failure. And it fills that with what I think is an extremely dangerous ideology that's also buttress by these political messages. And what you're saying is it's their political message that's quite attractive to a lot of these young people, if I'm hearing you correctly. Yes, it's certainly politics. But you know, when they find that there are these political grievances, what do they fill that with? What's the response that they offer, as an alternative to it, and that is this apocalyptic view, it's the view that ISIS is fighting a civilizational war

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between Crusaders and Islam. And that if they fight on the side of Islam, that they'll be involved in the greatest battle that's ever, ever known, ever been known. And that will end the world triumph, at least for their side. And yes, here, what's your view on this? What is so attractive to young Muslims that they would travel there in order to fight with ISIS? Well, in this particular case, believe it or not, I completely agree with everything Graham said. And when I add a few more points here that, of course, the primary motivation, and I deal with sympathizers of ISIS online all the time, they're tweeting at me, or I should say, they're tweeting against me these days. And I can

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tell you firsthand that the number one cause of recruitment is this illusion, that they're somehow defending innocent Muslims against foreign invasion, or the Assad regime, or some type of political issue. And you find these young men and women thinking that they're somehow going to contribute positively to society, believe it or not, they think that they're going to find their self worth, they're going to validate their religious beliefs. And quite honestly, the same reasons why young men might join a gang and be cool being in that gang. The same reason why quite honestly, a young man might want to join the Marines and think that he's doing something for his country. These are

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the same psychological factors that might possibly attract a young Muslim mind, who is not familiar with the faith. Another symptom of almost all people who join ISIS, are the fact that they are not scholars have the tradition, they don't quite understand the tradition very well. There was the classic case of two British kids who went over and joined ISIS, they actually ordered on Amazon, the Quran for dummies and Islam for Dummies. Unbelievable. Somebody who's going to join the jihadi cultish movement to die, and he doesn't even know his own faith, and he's got to order Islam for dummies from Amazon. The fact of the matter is religiosity. Proper religiosity is one of the best

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antidotes to extremist ideologies. And so what then is the solution? What does the West need to do differently in response to ISIS? gram and again, yes, here. I think there's a very limited range of options that the United States in particular has, the United States has no theological authority to say that ISIS is wrong in its interpretation of Islam, I would not want my government to be weighing in on religious disputes like that. What the United States can do is to show that this narrative of Islam versus Crusaders is simply false. And to have voices like the authors, and also the coalition governments of Muslim countries, doing what they're already doing, which is describing the ways in

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which ISIS does not have a proper interpretation of their faith and fighting them. These are things that we can do to avoid the perception that we've got Islam versus the rest of the world. Beyond that, though, I think the the only other thing that I would counsel is some humility in what the West in particular can do. When it comes to occupation of a place like Syria, there are voices that say we should simply invade Iraq and invade Syria. And I think we know how that ends, not Well, it turns into chaos. And it allows space to open up for groups like this. And perhaps who knows, there could be a worse one in the future if we mess up as we have in the past. And yes, here, what's the

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answer, in your view? Well, I don't have a simplistic answer. But I do know a number of things. Firstly, that the first step to solving a problem is to recognize where and how the problem was created. And so we need to have an honest and frank dialogue here in America about what we ourselves have done in that region. Because I think one of our mortal sins is that we keep on making the same mistake over and over and over again, we think more bombs, more troops, more invasions, more toppling is somehow going to make the situation better. And we haven't learned for the last 35 years, maybe even before that in Vietnam, we simply haven't learned that you cannot interfere in

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other nations and think that there's not going to be any repercussions. And I was very happy to hear President Obama yesterday say quite explicitly that ISIS was a direct result of our failure as an American country in our foreign policy. I only hope that that sentiment is trickled down and translated to the masses. Secondly, definitely the answer to ISIS is not more invasion and more toppling and more bombs, because we did that to al Qaeda 13 years ago. Look what happened.

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We got ISIS, you cannot kill innocent people, because that's what happens when you invade a country innocence die, you cannot take away people's livelihood and don't expect them to become more and more radical in their anger against you. So I think one of the things we need to do is have a lot more humility. I agree completely with Graham here. And understand we are not the world's police force, we are not in charge of everyone in everything. And as a Muslim, I would say, I would wish that other Muslim countries would take the lead in dealing with ISIS. Because when America takes the lead, this feeds into this whole notion that there is a crusade going on, I don't want my country to

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bomb other lands to send drones and other lands. I do want fellow Muslim nations, whether it's Saudi Arabia, whether it's Jordan, whatever to deal with this problem, and therefore this notion of there being a crusade cannot possibly arise. And by the way, I do have to point out, it's not just ISIS that is using Crusade, President George Bush has, you know, mistakenly uttered the fall, Paul, of saying that we're undertaking a crusade, and others are also using that term. So I find that pretty interesting and ironic.

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Okay, you both said what we shouldn't do. But what should the united states do? What what I hear when I hear voices in Congress and other policy circles here in the United States and in Western Europe? All of them are talking about some kind of military response. And should we bomb this area? Should we put down some kind of economic sanctions? Should we send military aid to, let's say, the groups that are fighting ISIS? What should be the response of the West, then should it not be military at all? I would definitely say that America should not get involved militarily, because for every terrorist that they kill, at least 100 to 200, innocent people have died. That's a very simple

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statistic. Look at how many people have died in Iraq, because of our invasion. on the conservative side, half a million civilians have been killed directly because of our invasion. These are civilians. And these are academic studies that have been done. So you think you're going to bomb one person bombs are not nice and tidy instruments of destruction. These are weapons of mass destruction. And for every terrorist you're going to kill, you're going to kill on average, 100 innocent people, for every innocent person you're going to kill, you're going to create another 10 or 20 terrorists. And so definitely a military solution is not the best way forward. Unfortunately,

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I don't have an answer what we should do, because, frankly, we dug ourselves into this hole and this mess, we're now sinking in the sand. And we don't know how to get out because there is no easy fix and solution to what we have done for the last 35 years in that region. And Graham, do you have a way out?

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No, I'm humble enough to know that I don't know the way out. But I do disagree with Yasser about something. And I think it's important and good that this has come out because it demonstrates the importance of understanding the ideology of the group. I think that a military solution is something that we should consider, in the following sense. We can arm Muslim allies, we can arm the Iranian proxies, Kurdish proxies, these groups are not pretty groups, they will engage in ethnic cleansing, it will be ugly. But there is something that the Islamic State has repeatedly said, and it's part of its propaganda part of its raison d'etre, and part of its self justification, which is that it's an

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ever expanding militarily expanding caliphate. And I think one of the things that we can do is make sure that its propaganda is repeatedly shown to be wrong. And if we can contain it, that is, if on the fringes, we can make sure that the city of Baghdad, the city of Erbil, and eventually the city of Mosul are defended against the Islamic State, and that it is what it really is, that is a shrinking Group, a shrinking political state, that is rather than triumphant and chosen by God, but is pathetic, then I think, will have done a lot to diffuse the attraction of the group to the people who would otherwise be be interested in the claim that it is it's favored, and that it will

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inevitably inexorably grow to encompass the entire globe.

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And any final thoughts? Yes, sir. Well, I would respectfully disagree, because anything that we do is literally the kiss of death, I firmly believe that the Muslim in the Arab world is going to have to step up, not aided by us and take charge of their own affairs and try to solve this issue internally, so that the solution will actually be given some shred or credibility of respect. If we prop up another military person or a dictator. The people are going to view this person rightfully so as a puppet. It's not our job to invade or to install dictators or presidents let the people judge by themselves and ruled by themselves. And if I'm in hearing you correctly, you would simply

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leave the solution to the people in the Middle East, the rulers in the Middle East, and not have the United States involved at all, militarily for sure.

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We should not get involved. Graham wood is a journalist and the author of the most popular article in the history of the Atlantic called what ISIS really wants. And yasir Qadhi is a popular voice in the American Muslim community and an assistant professor of religion at Rhodes College. Thank you both for joining us today. Thank you. Thank you for having me.