Reject essentialism while debating politics

In order to develop a meaningful critique of extremist groups like ISIS, we must avoid essentialism.

by Jasper Johnson

In its recently released hit list, ISIS declared that several Muslim political figures — including Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison — are “politically active apostates.” 
Far too often, people paint Muslims as some sort of homogenous group, which reveals a dangerous ignorance of the diversity of thought and practice within Islam. I can’t help but notice that ISIS has just done the same thing.
Apart from a few ignorant bigots, most people now realize that the majority of violence committed at the hands of terrorist groups like ISIS targets Muslims. Yet if you only view Muslims as a monolithic group, this statistic doesn’t make much sense. 
Ultimately, we can trace a number of serious political problems to their roots in essentialism, or the belief that certain groups of people must act or think in a certain way simply by virtue of their demographic group.
The issue of diversity within Islam is even more complex than distinctions between Sunni and Shia. For example, Ahmadi and Sufi Muslims often suffer persecution globally because many don’t consider them to be “real Muslims.” 
For example, in Scotland, a man named Asad Shah was murdered a few weeks ago by another Muslim who believed the Ahmadiyya Islam that Shah practiced wasn’t the religion’s true form. 
In this, we can see a version of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. This involves making a claim about a group of people and then, when someone cites an example to disprove that claim, insisting the example doesn’t count.
To illustrate, ISIS might say, “No Muslim wants secular government.” A critic will respond, “Ellison is a secular politician.” Finally, ISIS will retaliate, “No true Muslim is a secular politician.” 
In a disturbingly similar and ironic fashion, people try to discredit terror groups or ISIS by saying they’re not “true Muslims.” I’ll never forget the time when we were discussing Islamic terrorism in one of my political science courses — one classmate kept repeating that ISIS members interpret scripture incorrectly and therefore aren’t “real Muslims.” 
These “No true Muslim” accusations are completely insufficient as the basis for any valid argument against ISIS. Simply claiming that extremists aren’t “real” members of a religious group overlooks the fact that ISIS can and does use the same argument against those who disagree with them, often to a lethal end.
Criticism of Islamic terrorism needs to be more thorough and developed than a simple critique about the accuracy of extremist groups’ scriptural interpretations. That approach is markedly devoid of any arguments rooted in human rights or political ideology — arguments which could ultimately prove effective at discrediting ISIS and similar groups. 
Rather than disagreeing about the nature of what constitutes a “real” Muslim, we should understand that there are people of all sorts in every demographic group. Only by rejecting essentialism can we develop an intelligent and informed response to threats posed by groups like ISIS. 
Jasper Johnson welcomes comments at [email protected].