(CNN)The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria continues to make news by violating Islam and human rights. On Sunday came reports that ISIS had destroyed the treasured Temple of Bel, a week after images were released of the destruction of the temple of Baal Shamin. Last month also saw reports of how ISIS has created, in effect, a “bureaucracy of rape,” while this week marks a year since journalist Steven Sotloff was beheaded.
The list of horrors is a long one. Sadly, it also exposes our collective failure as humanity to respond appropriately to extremism. ISIS is setting the agenda — and highlighting our ineptness in the process.
Take, for example, how ISIS has been forcing ethnic Yazidi women into sexual slavery, a practice it says is rooted in historic precedence. Such a claim is absurd and false; yet the revelation has spurred a debate on sex slavery in Islam, as if the practice deserves any consideration at all, and as if ISIS deserves the kind of religious legitimacy conferred upon it by discussion of its proclamations.
The truth is that from a doctrinal, Islamic perspective, slavery is as an affront to the natural state of the freedom in which God created human beings that is tied to the first pillar of Islam (declaration of faith). All humans are equal before God and are distinguished only by their own good actions.
Indeed, the Quran advocated for a departure from this age-old practice of human bondage, calling for the just and humane treatment of slaves as human beings and not property. It also encouraged the act of freeing slaves as an act of worship; slavery is outlawed throughout the world and should never be reconsidered if we accept liberation as the most important value Islam.
So why is it that groups such as ISIS can use outdated dogma to rationalize murder and rape and create a facade of religious legitimacy?
The trouble comes from the fact that organizations such as ISIS and Boko Haram cherry pick tribal customs and then apply an Islamic veneer to rationalize them. And it is this deliberate muddying of reality that lies at the heart of the struggle of ideas within the Muslim world today.
Groups like ISIS try to exploit misunderstandings of doctrine to further their own agendas. Yet while some Muslim scholars have spoken out against ISIS’s false claims, others are either silent on the issue of abolishing such outrageous practices, or worse, they suggest that Muslims are committing a sin by demanding we abandon practices that should be consigned to history. Modern forms of slavery, such as concubinage and human trafficking, is an abomination.
Clearly, ISIS is too often leading the conversation, leaving American Muslims facing a two-fold challenge.
For a start, American Muslims must consistently do more to define Islam to the broader public, rather than simply responding to each outrage by an extremist group. ISIS should be treated with no more credibility than any other group of fanatics.
Second, Muslim scholars (including, I hope, more women scholars) need to connect with communities in order to produce scholarship that reflects the realities of today, separating tribal customs of the past that Islam phased out, such as slavery, from the real essence of Islam, which is based on the principles of justice, liberation and compassion.
Contrary to what many believe, Islamic jurisprudence is not a rigid and immutable law based on unchanging rules written centuries ago. Instead, it is a flexible, dynamic jurisprudence that is fully compatible with the modern human rights framework.
Indeed, Islam as a religion developed as a religion for reforming society and to elevate its norms and cultural practices closer to the Quranic ideals of freedom and equality. So to go back to the original essence of Islam is to bring dignity to humanity, to bring mercy to the world, and to establish justice in the lands within which we reside. Anything violating those tenets should be met with stiff opposition by Muslims.
With that in mind, Muslims must do everything they can to break away from misogynist, maniacal and maddening practices that are dressed up as Islamic by pointing to a tribal custom of the past. This is something we should be explicit about: anyone who tries to justify and rationalize slavery and/or sexual abuse does not belong to us and we do not belong with him.
We don’t need fatwas to understand that rape and murder and corruption and tyranny are wrong — Islam is about free thinking, and anything that runs counter to such freedom of thought runs counter to the will of God. As the Quran states, “God commands justice and goodness and generosity, and he forbids all that is shameful and what runs counter to reason.”
Islam should be seen as a breath of fresh air, a refuge from war and persecution, whether at the hands of religious or secular rulers. Unless pundits and politicians stop giving ISIS so much attention, then efforts to share this message will be undermined.
Mainstream understandings of Islam must be seen as the standard-bearer of the faith, and on the side of anyone who is oppressed and suffering. Extremists, along with their distorted view of the faith, should be shunned into irrelevancy.