(CNSNews.com) – President Obama and members of his administration frequently state that there is nothing Islamic about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday went further, labeling the Sunni terrorist group “apostates.”
Even the world’s pre-eminent Sunni institution, Cairo’s Al-Azhar, has refused to declare ISIS apostate – on the grounds that its fighters are “believers” in Islam, however misguided or “false” their interpretation of the faith may be.
Speaking in Rome after talks with members of the anti-ISIS coalition, Kerry said, “We all know, all of us, that Da’esh is, in fact, nothing more than a mixture of killers, of kidnappers, of criminals, of thugs, of adventurers, of smugglers, of thieves.”
“And they are also, above all, apostates – people who have hijacked a great religion and lie about its real meaning and lie about its purpose and deceived people in order to fight for their purposes,” he added.
(Da’esh is an Arabic acronym for al-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fil-Iraq wa ash-Sham, which translates as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.)
Kerry’s use of the word “apostates” is unusual, given the controversy in Islam surrounding a Muslim declaring another Muslim to be apostate, a practice known as takfirism.
ISIS itself regularly denounces its Muslim foes as apostates – to the extent that Shi’ites like the Assad regime, Iran and its Hezbollah proxy use the term takfir to describe the terrorists.
“Apostates” is also a curious word to be wielded by an American secretary of state, since the State Department in its annual human rights reports criticizes governments of Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan for criminalizing “apostasy” and in some cases applying the death penalty to offenders.
(Kerry has used the term in relation to ISIS at least once before, during remarks at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum last December. Then he called ISIS “a mixture of killers and kidnappers, smugglers, thieves, and apostates who have hijacked a religion and combined a medieval thinking with modern weapons to wage an especially savage brand of war.”)
In December 2014 Al-Azhar, a body established in the 10th century and widely regarded as the top seat of learning in Sunni Islam, issued a statement explicitly declining to call ISIS apostate.
It said a Muslim could only be declared apostate for denying the Islamic declaration of faith, the shahada. (“There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger.”)
“Al-Azhar rejects the takfirism of ISIS,” the institution said in a statement, “because takfirism cannot be applied to any believer, regardless of his sins.”
The statement was issued after the mufti of Nigeria was quoted as calling ISIS apostate during a counter-terrorism conference in Cairo.
“All the clerics and religious figures who attended the counter-terrorism conference are well aware that they cannot issue such judgments against any believer, regardless of his sins,” Al-Azhar said.
“It is one of the tenets of Islam that only when one denies the shahada that somebody can be said to be an apostate.”
Al-Azhar has spoken out against ISIS’ “barbaric” terrorism, calling for its defeat.
The terrorist group claims to act in the name of Islam, has declared an Islamic “caliphate” and invokes Mohammed and the Qur’an in its propaganda materials designed to encourage Muslims around the world to join its jihad.