Representative Mike Pompeo, a Republican from Kansas, left, is sworn in as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, right, as Pompeo’s wife Susan Pompeo looks in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017.  (Photo by Ron Sachs/Pool via Bloomberg)

As Mike Pompeo and John Bolton assume two of the most important positions in the Trump administration, media reports direct attention to their association with anti-Muslim organizations and statements that frame political questions in in explicitly religious terms. Such views have been widely criticized by policy makers who worry that this kind of “us versus them” framing contributes to radicalization. Instead, critics argue, U.S. diplomats should work to clearly disassociate extremists from the vast majority of peaceful Muslims.

This criticism may seem intuitive and appropriate, but in new research, we show how classifying who constitute “real” Muslims – even when it is used to assert progressive values – can be unpredictable and contingent on the authority of the speaker and perceptions of the audience.

Understanding the high stakes of calling someone a nonbeliever

In 2017, Angela Merkel called actions by terrorist groups from Muslim-majority countries “falsely understood Islam.” The year prior, Secretary of State John F. Kerry made a habit of referring to ISIS forces as apostates. While distinguishing a radical few from a peaceful majority seems like it would bolster relationships with Muslim-majority countries and reduce religious tensions at home, statements like these often leave politicians in a minefield as they appear to define the boundaries of legitimate belief for Muslims.

Such statements constitute a kind of discourse that is hard to neatly distinguish from the practice it rejects. Accusations of apostasy, called takfir in Arabic, have often preceded violence throughout the Middle East. Some interpreters of Islamic law and their followers have argued that the punishment for apostasy is death. While this interpretation has long been contested, it has led to extrajudicial or vigilante acts of violence in a number of legal contexts. Most actors in the region therefore share the common knowledge that the stakes of takfir are high, and many who have been accused understand the practice to be an explicit threat.

As our research shows, charges of apostasy are a powerful tool for delineating group membership and assigning rights. These accusations become particularly potent — if unpredictable — during moments of institutional change, when uncertainty is high and rivals are jockeying for position in a new constitutional order. Recently, these charges have assumed sectarian overtones, with Sunni groups questioning the legitimacy of Shiite Muslims and Iranian press using the term “takfiri” (apostate or unbeliever) to attack Sunni groups in the region.

In Tunisia, takfir was blamed for the murder of two secular politicians during the democratic transition in 2013. The following year, a member of parliament was placed under personal security after a colleague reportedly called him an “enemy of Islam.” In response, Tunisia adopted an “anti-takfir” article into its constitution to curb such explicit accusations of apostasy and their implicit calls for violent retribution.

Yemen’s 2013 National Dialogue Conference was similarly marred by assassinations and acts of violence associated with a heated discourse of takfir. It contributed significantly to the amplification of sectarian tension as a prelude to the war that broke out in 2015. Though its exact effects differed, the use of takfir was consequential in each case.

When policymakers join the accusations

Accusing fellow Muslims of apostasy has been one of the main tools of the Islamic State and other militant organizations. Ironically, in his denunciation of ISIS as apostate, Kerry joined the group in declaring who is and who is not a Muslim, drawing derision and mockery from Muslims. By engaging in a war of accusations, the United States entered a centuries-old debate about who counts as a real Muslim, with potentially violent reprisals for those who don’t. What Kerry may not have reckoned with — but his Muslim audience certainly did — is that the weight of the accusation is deeply dependent on characteristics of the speaker and broader political dynamics.

Many leaders in the region, including King Abdullah of Jordan, have worked to reduce accusations of apostasy in public discourse and the violence that often follows. Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, a center of Islamic learning for more than 1,000 years, refused to declare ISIS and other violent actors apostates, arguing that doing so reinforced the cycle of mutual “excommunication.” By contrast, others, including King Mohammed VI of Morocco have actively called terrorists such as ISIS “non-Muslim.”

State-led efforts to articulate an explicitly “moderate Islam,” can spur precisely the kind of extremist competition it seeks to avoid. When Saudi Arabia asserts itself as the main source of religious leadership, research shows how this may actually prompt extreme groups to compete with it. If this is true of states that legitimize themselves in relation to Islam, consider the ramifications when it is the United States or Germany endorsing a particular religious interpretation.

Religious rhetoric and U.S. policy

The United States has been grappling with ideas of apostasy for more than a decade, with inconsistent strategies even in the same government agencies. In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties suggested that U.S. officials use the word takfir alongside phrases like “death cult” to distinguish terrorists from ordinary Muslims. By the end of the Obama administration, the government backpedaled on the strategy, with Homeland Security advising that religious terms be eschewed, again specifically mentioning takfir.

Constant and cyclical accusations and counter-accusations of who is or is not a “real” believer rarely meet their intended goal, especially for those far removed from religious communities themselves. The United States and its allies have primarily focused on how this rhetoric can bolster their legitimacy and win new allies. But evidence from the region suggests that even when mobilized by those deeply versed in Islam, the strategy can backfire. The line between criticizing takfir and engaging in takfir is difficult to spot until one has crossed it.

Stacey Philbrick Yadav is an associate professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She is the author of “Islamists and the State: Legitimacy and Institutions in Yemen and Lebanon,” (I.B. Tauris, 2013) and tweets @philbrickyadav

Ian M. Hartshorn is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is the author of “Labour Politics in North Africa: After the Uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia,” (forthcoming Cambridge University Press) and tweets @imhartshorn