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Interpreting Scriptures In The Islamic State Caliphate

Interpreting Scriptures in the Islamic State Caliphate

by Anne Speckhard & Ardian Shajkovci

Interpreting Scriptures in the Islamic State Caliphate is the 108th counter narrative video in the ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brand series. This video features 29-year-old Belgian Abu Usama al Belgique, who was interviewed by Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci in August of 2018 in a detention facility in northern Syria run by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The video clip was video edited and produced by Zack Baddorf and our ICSVE team.

In this video, Abu Usama, following in the footsteps of many young extremists who left for Syria in 2012 and 2013 from Vilvoorde, Belgium, alone or in small groups, expresses deep disappointment in the Islamic State Caliphate. Like many ISIS cadres ICSVE researchers have interviewed to date, Abu Usama was deeply troubled when ISIS ordered its foreign fighters to slaughter the Sunni Muslim Sheitat tribe who had refused to submit to ISIS. Many foreign fighters who could not speak Arabic and didn’t understand local Syrian politics failed to realize and understand that they were killing fellow Sunni Muslims. In addition, many started wondering why the Sunni tribe members were also being targeted. As these realities dawned, Abu Usama began questioning the ISIS leaders’ manipulation of Islamic texts to justify their actions. “I was thinking, ‘Why they make this, you know?’ ISIS and radical Islamic groups, they bring texts, verse, and he say this interpretation, ‘We can do this.’ But you see many texts are not in its place.”

Abu Usama was also stunned to witness ISIS crucifixions. He recalls, “You want to walk to go buy bread and see this [crucifixion] on the street. I saw him and I became shocked.” Abu Usama repeats what many ISIS cadres have told us—that human life inside the Caliphate was devalued and killings were routinely carried out in order to terrorize and force into submission both the local population and ISIS members. “ISIS kill people like nothing,” Abu Usama tells us, and they often punish, torture and kill mistakenly. “But they kill so many people. [They say], ‘He is [a] spy.’ And then after few months, you know, he was not a spy. Why? Because he torture him, he torture him, he torture him, he torture him. He say, ‘Ok, I make it,’ because he is tired from torture. [They say], ‘Ok, you going to be killed. ‘And so many things happens in ISIS. Killing people for nothing.”

Like most ISIS members who were too intimidated to challenge them openly and directly, Abu Usama, also, began to internally question ISIS, asking himself, “This human being have family and why kill him for nothing?”

Looking back at how easily he accepted the Shariah4Belgium extremists messaging while still living in Vilvoorde, Belgium, Abu Usama begins to understand that the so-called scholars he was learning from primarily preached hate and spun a utopian dream. Abu Usama and his classmates easily believed, while missing the full message of Islam about just governance. “Now with experience, we understand it,” Abu Usama says of his time living under the ISIS Caliphate. “Because, before in the time of Shariah4Belgium, it was, ‘We want this and we want to be like this.’ But, in the end, you understand.” Abu Usama says he now understands that real Islamic scholars study Islamic texts and scriptures for years and have real expertise in interpreting the religion, unlike the “scholars” he blindly followed. “You have Belgian people thinking, ‘Hey, I’m a scholar. I have the most knowledge. ‘People taking like Sharia4Belgium, because they meet for the [religion] and they say, ‘We are people of the scholars. ‘We have the ideology. Listen to us.’”

Now, with the bitterness of hindsight and a destroyed life, Abu Usama sees that ISIS leaders were mainly interested in power and enrichment and wanted to use the 40,000+ foreign fighters who streamed into Syria and Iraq for their own gain. “If you see, ISIS play many things, play like a big game that all the soldiers follow ISIS like a sheep, like we must listen to them, you know,” Abu Usama explains. “If you see this [ISIS], all this thing is to take power and this thing is stupid, ” he adds.  

Likewise, the ISIS practice of declaring others takfir—that is, declaring other Muslims as apostates—made it possible to kill even Sunni Muslims on behalf of the ISIS leaders’ goals. “[ISIS says] ‘They are Muslims, they are not Muslims, like this.’ And you have many people don’t know this,” Abu Usama states about the naiveté he and other ISIS cadres had as they followed these takfir principles.

The utopian dream that Abu Usama travelled to Syria to experience and fight for never materialized; instead, he experienced a brutal, totalitarian reality. “It’s a world not like the other world. ISIS is not a world,” Abu Usama tells us. “It’s not like in the West. You have many people living with each other in the West.” Wistfully, he looks back at the diversity and tolerance in his native Belgium, stating, “I live 23 years in the West. I get many friends, Belgian friends and Moroccan and Albanian and Armenian. And you know, you see the value of humanity and they can live with each other. Even these divisions about religion, you have your own religion, you have your own religion.”

“If you see the West, you see value of life there. People living with value,” Abu Usama states. He now sees that the ISIS utopian claims of providing a true Islamic State, namely where Muslims could live their Islamic lives unhindered, was in fact a nightmare, rather than the dream that groups like ISIS were pedaling to frustrated Muslims facing problems living in the West. On that note, Usama adds, “You can be a Muslim better [in Belgium] than in ISIS.”

Addressing the totalitarian nature of the group, he also explains, “In ISIS, you don’t have divisions there. You must have one flag and one ideology and one leader. It’s like this. [ISIS] is more bad than communists. And even the civilians must have the same ideology. Because even the civilians like in Raqqa, like Deir ez-Zor, we know these people. These people like freedom.” Speaking of the total lack of freedom of mind and suppression of any dissent, he continues, “And living inside in this darkness of ISIS … the civilians must speak, must … say, ‘I like ISIS. I like shariah. Democracy is not good,’ and like this. Why? Because he is scared for himself and his family.”   

Perhaps others living in countries like Belgium, where real issues of discrimination, marginalization, and impediments to integration continue to persist, especially in the case of second-generation Muslim immigrants, can learn from the words of Abu Usama who, now too late for himself, realizes that he traded freedom and tolerance for oppressive imprisonment. “Twenty-three years in my life in Belgium,” he states.” I don’t have problems. What I see in Vilvoorde is a good life there. Everybody has his own ideology. Maybe you have some people are racists, but what you have in Belgium is respect, like a human being.”

“But ISIS is like noise,” he explains, contrasting the Caliphate’s regime to Western tolerance. “Everything [by] force. We are demand and we want to make like this. To make black and white in this world. If I’m not agree with this, my head may go off. It’s manipulating religion.”

“They are monsters,” Abu Usama warns those who might still think of joining the group. “They have nothing to do with religion. This people like drinking blood, and then to kill innocent people. Is that a way to go to Paradise? And you’re going to lose your family and your children,” he concludes.

Discussion Questions:

What do you feel watching this video?

Do you believe Abu Usama is telling the truth about his experiences and observations living under the ISIS Caliphate?

Cults are said to rob individuals of their freedom of mind. Can the same argument be applied in the case of Abu Usama when he tells about how ISIS did not allow any dissent?

What do you think of a group that tortures confessions out of innocents and seems not to mind brutally punishing some mistakenly?

Why would ISIS target other Sunni tribes? Some would argue that such strategies served as a warning to others who might oppose ISIS (e.g. refuse to fight or remain neutral).

What do you believe are the challenges of living as a second-generation Muslim immigrant in Europe?

Do you believe that it’s easier to practice a true Islamic life in the freedom and tolerance of the West or in a more totalitarian environment like Abu Usama describes? Why?

Do you agree with Abu Usama’s conclusion that ISIS leaders manipulated religion and simply wanted power?

Do you believe that it is possible to build a just Islamic Caliphate?

Provided it was just, would it rely on terrorism and brutal tactics like ISIS used to create that Caliphate?

Islamic Scriptures Related to this Video

Taking hijra [migration] is a pretext ISIS is using to convince people in other countries, mainly the West, to come to their so-called Caliphate. Hijra is obligatory to a Muslim when he is in real danger, either for his life, his family’s life or his and his family’s religion, a thing that is scarcely seen in the West. The interpretation of the sacred scriptures is not an easy task. Scholars spend at least 15 years studying various books and disciplines to be able to interpret the real messages of the scriptures. ISIS’s scholars, on the other hand, do not have this capacity, as is obvious from their activities. ISIS is interpreting some Quranic texts claiming they know the will of Allah. This is a clear fabrication on behalf of Allah. In the Quran, Allah is quoted saying: “Say, oh Muhammed, those who fabricate lies about Allah will not succeed” Surah Yunus, Ayah No. 10. Exactly this state of being unsuccessful happened in the past for Khawarij who rebelled against Islam and is happening now for ISIS, and is believed by Islamic scholars to keep happening for anyone who fabricates lies against Allah. Prophet Muhammed also stated in the Quran that: “There will come to the people years of treachery, when the liar will be regarded as honest, and the honest man will be regarded as a liar; the traitor will be regarded as faithful, and the faithful man will be regarded as a traitor; and the Ruwaibidah will decide matters.’ It was said: ‘Who are the Ruwaibidah?’ He said: ‘Vile and base men who control the affairs of the people.” Sunan Ibn Majah, Hadith No. 4172. Likewise, Ali Bin Abi Talib [the Prophet’s son-in-law] quoted the Prophet (PBUH) as saying: “There will come to the people a time when non are left from Islam but its name, and non is left from the Quran but its script, their mosques are well-built but they are empty from guidance, their scholars are the worst people under the sky, sedition comes from them and comes back to them” al-Baihaqi in Shu’ab al-Iman, (3/317-318). Perhaps the time of ISIS is what they were speaking of?

Transcript of Interpreting Scriptures in in the Islamic State

I [was] born in Belgium. 

 I went to Catholic school.

I was living in the city of Vilvoorde,

not so far from Brussels.

 I finished my school in 2011.

After, I went to the university. 

My hobby was, I make eight months of boxing

and sometimes play football.

All my life in Belgium was school

and work in the same time.

ABU USAMA

al BELGIQUE

29-year-old Belgian

Former ISIS Soldier

It was 2012, 2013,

 and in this time I went to Syria.

TEXT: Abu Usama al Belgique joined ISIS

and quickly realized they were

acting contrary to Islam.

TEXT: He heard about the ISIS attacks in Iraq

on the Sheitat tribesmen

who were Sunni Muslim.

They slaughtered them.

I was thinking,

‘Why they make this, you know?’

ISIS and radical Islamic groups, they bring texts,

verse, and he say this interpretation, ‘We can do this.’

But you see many texts

are not in his place.

TEXT: Abu Usama al Belgique

saw people crucified by ISIS.

You want to walk to go buy bread

and see this [crucifixion] on the street.

I saw him and I became shocked.

 ISIS kill people like nothing. 

But they kill so many people.

[They say], ‘He is [a] spy.’

And then after few months,

you know he was not a spy.

Why? Because he torture him, he torture him,

 he torture him, he torture him.

He say, ‘Ok, I make it,’

 because he is tired from torture.

[They say],

‘Ok, you going to be killed.’

And so many things happens in ISIS.

Killing people for nothing.

This human being have family

and why kill him for nothing. 

Now with experience,

we understand it.

Because, before in the time of Shariah4Belgium,

 it was, ‘We want this and we want to be like this.’ 

But, in the end, you understand.

If you see ISIS play many things,

play like a big game

that all the soldiers follow ISIS like a sheep,

like we must listen to them, you know.

[ISIS says] ‘They are Muslims,

they are not Muslims, like this.’

And you have many people don’t know this.

You have Belgian people thinking,

‘Hey, I’m a scholar. I have the most knowledge.’

People taking like Sharia4Belgium, because they meet

for the [religion] and they say, ‘We are people of the scholars.’

‘We have the ideology. Listen to us.’

If you see this [ISIS], all this thing is to take power

and this thing is stupid. 

It’s a world not like the other world.

ISIS is not a world.

It’s not like in the West.

You have many people living with each other in the West.

I live 23 years in the West. 

I get many friends, Belgian friends and

Moroccan and Albanian and Armenian.

And you know, you see the value of humanity

and they can live with each other.

Even these divisions about religion,

you have your own religion, you have your own religion.

But ISIS is like noise.

Everything [by] force, we are demand and we want

to make like this. To make black and white in this world.

If I’m not agree with this,

my head may go off.

It’s manipulating religion.

They are monsters.

They have nothing to do with religion.

This people like drinking blood,

and then to kill innocent people.

Is that a way to go to Paradise?

And you’re going to lose

 your family and your children.

If you see the West, you see value of life there.

People living with value.

You can be a Muslim better [in Belgium]

than in ISIS.

In ISIS, you don’t have divisions there. 

You must have one flag and one ideology

and one leader. It’s like this.

[ISIS] is more bad than communists.

And even the civilians

must have the same ideology.

Because even the civilians like in Raqqa, like Deir ez-Zor,

we know these people. These people like freedom.

And living inside in this darkness of ISIS.

And the civilians must speak,

must know what he say.

He must say, ‘I like ISIS. I like shariah.

Democracy is not good,’ and like this.

Why?

Because he is scared for himself and his family.   

Twenty-three years in my life in Belgium,

 I don’t have problems.

What I see in Vilvoorde

 is a good life there.

Everybody has his own ideology.

Maybe you have some people are racists, but 

what you have in Belgium is respect,

like a human being.

The Truth Behind the Islamic State

Sponsored by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism

           www.ICSVE.org

See more at www.TheRealJihad.org

About the authors:

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 600 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past two years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=169) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing the materials from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhard and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard

Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D., is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He has been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally. He has also been studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and how to rehabilitate them. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Jordan and Iraq. He has presented at professional conferences and published on the topic of radicalization and terrorism. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University and a B.A. degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. He is also an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism and CVE courses at Nichols College. 

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