A medieval historian has said in the trial of Lisa Smith, a former soldier who denies membership in Isis, that the Islamic State created by terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi provided simple answers to life’s questions for many and was considered by respected religious scholars was considered legitimate.
Professor Hugh Kennedy said it is possible to believe in the Caliphate – an Islamic state that has existed in various places since the seventh century – but not in the ideology of the terrorist organization Isis.
He said the Isis message is compelling to some and uses a selective presentation of religious history to justify the barbarism.
While he accepted that there were many Islamic scholars who denounced al-Baghdadi, he said there were other “respectable voices” who viewed his caliphate as legitimate and could find justifications in Islamic texts for what it was doing.
For many Muslims, the caliphate offers a “fresh start” and a return to values that were believed to have been lost.
Prof Kennedy was subpoenaed by Ms Smith’s defense attorneys after prosecutors completed their evidence last week.
Ms Smith, 40, of Dundalk, Co Louth, an Islamic convert, traveled to Syria in 2015 after al-Baghdadi called on all Muslims to travel to the Islamic State he created.
She pleaded not guilty to membership of an illegal terrorist group, Islamic State, between October 28, 2015 and December 1, 2019.
She has also pleaded not guilty to financing terrorism by sending €800 in assistance via Western Union wire transfer to a named man on May 6, 2015.
Prof Kennedy told Michael O’Higgins SC, on behalf of Ms Smith, that he was a professor at the University of London and had written a book on the history of the Caliphate from the death of Mohammad in AD 632 to the 11th century.
He said that period may seem ancient but is relevant to modern discussions about the legitimacy of the Islamic State caliphate. Al-Baghdadi, he said, claims justification for his caliphate by looking at what happened in the religion’s first four centuries and by using the imagery of that era.
Islamic State, he said, is “deeply rooted in the Qur’an and Hadith, which form the basis upon which all Muslims agree that this is the basis of their faith.”
The Qur’an, he said, is regarded by Muslims as the literal truth and the hadiths are the purported utterances of the Prophet Muhammad. There are disputes about the Hadith and Muslims may believe different things.
The criteria for appointing a caliphate are “by no means clear or generally accepted”. Shia Muslims, he said, believe that the head of a caliphate – the caliph – must be a descendant of Muhammad, while Sunnis believe he must be from the tribe of prophets, the Quraysh.
There have been various caliphates over the centuries, he said, including under the Ottoman Empire, although the sultans tended not to use that title.
In the 20th century, he said, the idea had become largely irrelevant until al-Baghdadi’s announcement in 2014. He said it was difficult to prove that al-Baghdadi was descended from the Quraysh tribe, but it was not implausible given the large number of people who could claim to be members of that tribe.
While many rejected al-Baghdadi as caliph, there were a significant number of people who were looking for the new caliphate and were willing to accept al-Baghdadi, he said.
When Mr O’Higgins asked if there were “respectable voices” saying the caliphate was legitimate, he replied: “Yes. The criteria are so vague that evidence for them could be found. For large numbers of Muslims, the caliphate seemed to offer an opportunity for the revival of the power and prestige of the Islamic community in the world and for a return to the original commitment and enthusiasm that was important to people who had believed lost. “
He said Muslims around the world believed the caliphate offered a “fresh start.”
The professor agreed that Isis also stated that there is a religious obligation for Muslims to travel to Islamic State and that failure to do so would result in an eternity in Hellfire.
The witness agreed with Sean Gillane SC, the director of prosecutions, that the Caliphate’s history is rich and varied, full of color and texture, but that it can also be manipulated and distorted by ideologues for their own purposes.
He added that the caliphate and the Islamic State are not necessarily the same. “You can believe in the Caliphate without believing in the Isis ideology,” he said.
Isis, he said, used online magazines like Dabiq Presenting themselves as learned in a way most Muslims are not and telling others to follow their example. Their writings, he said, are full of references to the early texts but are often misinterpreted or distorted.
The Qur’an, he said, is a “wonderful text” but it is neither consistent nor methodical and it is a prophetic rather than a legal text. Muslims continue to find new ways to read and understand it, he said.
Mr Gillane informed him that in 2015 hundreds of Islamic scholars had written an open letter denouncing al-Baghdadi and pointing to parts of the Qur’an that showed his methods were wrong. Prof Kennedy said there are hostile comments from Muslims towards Isis, but “as in so many things one can find contrasting examples”. He said there are “scholarly voices on both sides of the community”.
Prof. Kennedy said it is difficult for non-Muslims to see how many different opinions there are in Islam. While only a minority supports the kinds of things al-Baghdadi does, he said they represent an “established strand” within the religion.
Mr. Gillane asked if Prof. Kennedy would “trust” someone who wrote for an Isis propaganda magazine such as Dabiq.
Prof. Kennedy replied: “It is not for us to trust because we are not Muslims looking for guidance on how to be a good Muslim… For some, what al-Baghdadi said seemed a way forward and a way to be out of the troubles in the Muslim community and back to a pure and exciting past where the course of right action was clear.”
He said Isis took certain aspects of religious history and exaggerated them to make her point and justify the barbarism. “If you look hard enough, you can find a way to justify anything,” he said.
Looking back at the reigns of various caliphs, he said, one finds some that were aggressive and others that were peaceful and open to new ideas.
Upon re-examination, Prof. Kennedy said the Isis propaganda was persuasive, using selected ancient texts, and speaking to people who “wanted simple answers. She provided certainty that was important to people who wanted simple answers to life’s questions.”
Mr. Gillane will deliver his closing statement to the three-judge non-jury panel tomorrow. Mr. Justice Tony Hunt presiding.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/courts/historian-tells-trial-of-lisa-smith-that-the-isis-message-was-persuasive-for-some-41496599.html Historian tells Lisa Smith’s trial that the Isis message was compelling to some