Islamic Outrage Increases Over ISIS

King Abdullah poster amidst Jordan flags

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

Islamic Outrage Increases Over ISIS
| published February 5, 2015 |

By Thursday Review editors

There is outrage across much of the Middle East and many parts of the Islamic world in the wake of the release of a video showing the execution by burning of a Jordanian pilot. King Abdullah of Jordan, who cut short a U.S. visit to return to his country this week, promised his nation would wage a “relentless” war against ISIS.

“We are waging this war to protect our faith, our values and human principles, and our war—for their sake—will be relentless and will hit them on their own ground,” Jordanian media quoted the king as saying. The king met with his top military advisors, his security and intelligence analysts, and military leaders to craft a response to the burning of a fellow Muslim.

The pilot, Muath al-Kaseasbeh, was captured by ISIS militants in Syria in late December when his F-16 crashed during a coalition air attack on ISIS positions and fortifications on the ground. Over the next week and a half, Al-Kaseasbeh—dressed in the orange jumpsuit now the grim calling card of those held hostage by ISIS—was seen in videos and photos being paraded in front of the militants. The 26-year-old pilot was soon at the center of complex negotiations—possible trades between ISIS and Jordan and Japan, with the disposition of both Japanese citizens and terrorists held in Jordanian jails hanging in the balance.

As it turns out, despite attempts to barter with Al-Kasaesbeh’s life, the young pilot was already dead, killed possibly as early as January 3. ISIS militants had locked him in a steel cage, doused his orange jumpsuit in gasoline and kerosene, and then set him on fire. The videos and photos taken at the time of his burning appear to show Al-Kasaesbeh quietly praying as flames engulfed his clothing and his body.

ISIS, which often claims that it represents true Islamic beliefs and stricture, has been denounced by Islamic leaders worldwide for many months, starting with ISIS’s first appearance on the scene in war-torn Syria. ISIS coalesced around opposition to Syria’s President Bashir al-Assad, but quickly drew in, or outflanked, competing or moderate anti-Assad rebel groups. Once fully formed as an army, ISIS declared itself the governing and military component of what it called the Islamic State—a religious caliphate which it seeks to extend, violently if necessary, to all parts of the Middle East.

ISIS sprang out of Syria last year, racing across northern Iraq, seizing villages and towns, and building its military power as it confiscated some $1 billion dollars’ worth of mostly American-made weaponry left behind by the retreating Iraqi army and Iraq police. ISIS stormed into towns and villages, often killing indiscriminately, forcing citizens into pledging their allegiance to ISIS’s own extremist interpretation of Islam, and killing those who refused. ISIS seized vehicles, buildings, banks, livestock, and demanded that women stay indoors and off the streets. It closed schools. In addition to killing anyone wearing the uniform of the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army, ISIS engaged in mass murder and mayhem—killing thousands of civilians, including children, if any signs of Christianity or Judaism were present in the city or town.

ISIS also turned to kidnapping and murder as a way to generate attention to its cause, and—as in the case of its recently executed Japanese hostages—as a way to possibly extort cash from countries which might be willing to pay. Beheading has been the grim and consistent calling card of ISIS’s most recent marketing campaigns; the militants have killed American journalists and British aid workers, along with a dozen others of varying nationalities (including Syrian and Iraqi officers), and has always done so publicly—by recording the grisly executions and then making the video images available on the internet.

But this week, the burning-alive of Al-Kaseasbeh has stoked the anger of many Islamic clerics and scholars who say that ISIS has gone far beyond the boundaries of Islamic belief or Islamic law, no matter how extreme one’s methods might be in interpreting the beliefs of Muslims.

In Egypt, home to Al-Azhar, one of the most important seats of Muslim learning and interpretation of Islamic Law, academics and clerics have said that the ISIS militants have committed grievous acts, and deserve death themselves for their extreme distortions, misrepresentations, and misuses of Islam. Furthermore, Islam forbids the act of burning alive, as it infringes upon God’s right to exact appropriate punishment—especially punishment by fire—in the afterlife.

Muslim clerics in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other nations have condemned ISIS’s previous atrocities, but this time—some have said—ISIS has crossed into the realm of the unforgivable with the murder of an Islamic man by burning, an act which amounts to little more than sadistic torture. And in Saudi Arabia, the prominent and highly-respected cleric Sheik Salman al-Qudah released a widely-disseminated statement condemning the actions of ISIS as inconsistent with Islamic law, saying that ISIS had no right to appoint itself a vehicle for torture and for the sort of punishments reserved for the afterlife. ISIS, he declared, was attempting to usurp God’s authority.

And a spokesman for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the world’s largest organization representing predominantly Muslim countries, says that ISIS has disregarded the spirit of Islam in its treatment of prisoners and captive peoples. Calling Islam “the great religion of mercy,” Iyad Madani, leader of the OIC, said ISIS “utterly disregards the rights of prisoners” as established by Islamic law. Madani called ISIS a symptom of “intellectual decay” and “political fragmentation.”

Similar condemnations came from President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, the Foreign Minister and the Defense chiefs of Qatar, and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates.

“This heinous and obscene act represents a brutal escalation by the terrorist group,” Al Nahyan said, “whose evil objectives have become apparent.”

In Iran, a country which has previously assisted both Syria (its ally) and Iraq (once its mortal enemy) in their efforts to confront ISIS, the Foreign Ministry called Al-Kaseasbeh’s death by immolation “inhuman,” and said that ISIS had violated the fundamental concepts of Islam.

The outrage felt across the Arab region and across the Muslim world may turn to action, some foreign policy experts say. But the crucial question remains: what can, if anything, be done to turn the tide on ISIS and its fanatical army of militants?

In Jordan, where there were spontaneous eruptions of outrage over the killing of Al-Kaseasbeh, hundreds of thousands marched or rallied. King Abdullah not only vowed action, but promised a heavy military response. On Thursday, more than a dozen heavily-armed Jordanian jets pounded Islamic State targets in Syria and in Iraq, unleashing a withering barrage on training centers, a weapons storage facility, and several buildings and compounds believed to be homes and barracks of ISIS militants. Jordanian TV and media outlets said that the intensified air campaign would be the start of a much more visible military participation by Jordan. The attacks took place as Jordan's King paid a condolence call to the pilot's family.

Military analysts, however, are not certain that air power, even amplified as it was throughout Thursday, will be enough to succeed against ISIS. Some say that without a larger, well-coordinated effort—which will no doubt include a heavy, long-term commitment of American intelligence and military muscle—Jordan’s air power can do little to dislodge ISIS from its control over such large swaths of territory. In fact, coalition air power—made up of assets of at least six countries—has had only minimal impact on ISIS, according to many military experts. The coalition currently includes the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and the United Kingdom. Dozens of other countries are providing financial assistance, offering military hardware and materials, or offering intelligence and technology support.

But out of worry for the safety of its pilots (some of whom are women), the United Arab Emirates has suspended its bombing missions over the skies of Iraq and Syria, complaining loudly that the U.S. military has few—if any—viable contingencies for the rescue of aviators who get shot down or crash in ISIS-controlled areas. UAE said it did not want to see its pilots treated the way Al-Kasaesbeh was treated by ISIS. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told reporters that risk comes with the territory when such operations take place, but he said he also understands the reticence of countries concerned that their pilots may be tortured or murdered in gruesome fashion for the video cameras and photos of a terror group which used social media to spread its message of fear.

In Congress, Democrats and Republicans worry that the air campaign—which has proven effective only at stopping the forward advance of ISIS inside Iraq and along the border with Turkey—will ultimately be ineffective at turning the tide of battle, which in the traditional sense means reclamation of areas now under ISIS control in Iraq and Syria. Kurdish Peshmerga forces—and a few other tribal groups—have made some progress in reversing ISIS territorial gains along the border with Turkey, and in Kobani, a key border town, Kurds have reclaimed more of the city from ISIS. But that fight has been slow, often street-by-street, house-by-house. ISIS controls a vast region which now includes much of northern Syria, northern Iraq, central Iraq (as far south as about 45 miles north of Baghdad, and checkpoints along Iraq’s borders with Jordan and Turkey. After months of fighting, Iraqi troops were able to wrest control of some key oil refineries and distribution sites, as well as the hydro-electric facility at Mosul.

In the meantime, outrage has spread across the Islamic world at ISIS’s tactics, and the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot has sparked revulsion and condemnation by many Muslim leaders and clerics, and Islamic believers, who worry that ISIS has not only appropriated the traditions of Islam, but is now twisting those ideas into a grotesque and violent distortion of the faith of Mohammed.

Related Thursday Review articles:

ISIS Executes Jordanian Pilot; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; February 3, 2015.

We Are All Kenji Goto; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 2, 2015.