There may be no more globally divisive question over the past few years than whether the Islamic State is representative of the world's global Muslim population. Speaking in Rome on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry waded into this controversial debate yet again – and took a remarkably strong position for a Western leader.
Few would argue with Kerry's intentions here. He clearly seems to be attempting to distance the Islamic State from mainstream Muslims, a reasonable and perhaps even honorable reaction to the more inflammatory comments by some of his peers.
In fact, the use of the term apostate is just Kerry's latest bid to create that rhetorical distance. The secretary of state has been a prominent Western user of the word Daesh, an Arabic acronym widely used to refer to the Islamic State in the Middle East. Supporters of the use of that word say it creates a clearer boundary between the "Islamic State" and the broader Islamic community. (Another factor in its use may be reports that the Islamic State itself hates the word due to its similarity to another Arabic word meaning to trample or crush.)
Kerry isn't the only Western leader attempting this line of attack: Obama has openly said that the Islamic State is "not Islamic," while British Prime Minister David Cameron has voiced his support for the viral "You ain't no Muslim, bruv" catchphrase. The theological line of thinking from non-Muslims seems to leave a bad taste in some mouths, however. Hamid and his Brookings colleague Will McCants have written that there's "something odd about an American president or Secretary of State opining on what is and isn’t legitimately Islamic."
Some world leaders seem to concur: In a recent interview with my colleague Ishaan Tharoor, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull suggested that no one would take his views on Islamic theology ("assuming I had any") very seriously as he was the leader of a "Western secular nation."
It's unclear why Kerry has felt the need to ratchet up his rhetoric recently. It's not like the world is wanting for examples of Muslim leaders and figures condemning the Islamic State as un-Islamic – it's been a recurring and widespread criticism of the group for years now. However, important religious bodies such as the al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo have stopped short of labeling the group apostates – perhaps aware of the weight the word carries. Presumably, the secretary of state doesn't actually think apostasy is a crime, which makes the choice of words even more confusing.
More on WorldViews