Thursday, February 11, 2016

The trouble with ISIS

From the islands of Hawaii in Sujata's blog yesterday, to a frightening Middle East today.

My guest this week is Yusuf Toropov, whose first novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY made it to the quarter finals of Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Award.  Publishers Weekly commented: 
Smart and searing ... a deeply felt conviction of morally fraught choices that result in devastating outcomes.
And searing it is, raising questions that should always be raised, but often aren't; highlighting issues that are frequently kept hidden.  Not a light read, but an intense and important one, particularly in these unsettled times in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Yusuf is an American Muslim writer. He's the author or co-author of a number of nonfiction books covering a wide range of topics under the name Brandon Toropov, including Shakespeare for Beginners, The Complete Idiot's Guide to World Religions, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Taoism, The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Popes and Papacy, and The Encyclopedia of Cold War Politics. His full-length play An Undivided Heart was selected for a workshop production at the National Playwrights Conference, and his one-act play The Job Search was produced off-Broadway. 

He currently lives in Northern Ireland.

JIHADI: A LOVE STORY is available in e-book form in the UK and the USA from Orenda Books and will be released in the UK next week and in the USA in May in paperback.

Please welcome Yusuf Toropov to Murder is Everywhere.

There is an ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” 

I am a Muslim wondering how best to live in such times, and I know I’m not the only one. Case in point: It’s now a commonplace event for Muslims to be asked one, two, or all three of the following questions, online or in person, by total strangers:

  • ·       #1: You’re a Muslim. Doesn’t that mean you agree with what ISIS is doing?
  • ·       #2: ISIS is only doing what the Koran says, right?
  • ·       #3: Why the hell haven’t you done something to stop ISIS and people like them?

These are, I concede, fascinating and important queries, and rest assured I will answer them here, but first may I explain (because I suspect you may have been curious) why Muslims sometimes wince when they hear such things?


It is 1927. In the United States, the Ku Klux Klan – a murderous institution descended from the slave patrols that dealt out racially-motivated mayhem and terror in the South before the Civil War – is experiencing a major resurgence. Klan membership explodes among devout Protestant churchgoers, north and south, who are lethally disposed not only toward blacks, but also toward Catholics, Jews, and immigrants.  Lots of Klan members quote the Bible with authority. They kill people. They set off bombs. They burn crosses. They hold night rallies. Among their number are mayors, sheriffs, and congressmen. The numbers are sketchy, and they will always remain sketchy, but the research will eventually suggest that, in a country with a population of a little over 100 million people, an estimated nine million people belong to the KKK.

The KKK pushing Catholics out of America. By Rev. Branford Clarke in Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty by Bishop Alma Bridwell White (Zarephath, NJ: 1926)

Now. Please suppose for a moment that you are an American Christian of that period, someone who loathes the Klan and wants nothing to do with it. And then suppose a total stranger walks up to you at a party and asks:

  • ·       #1: You’re a Christian. Doesn’t that mean you agree with what the Klan is doing?
  • ·       #2: The Klan is only doing what the Bible says, right?
  • ·       #3: Why the hell haven’t you done something to stop the Klan and people like them?

Admit it. You might just wince in such a situation. Not because you want to dodge these questions. But because you feel insulted.

And also, perhaps, because you know it’s just possible that somewhere, senior KKK people are smiling at your predicament. In fact, now that you think about it, you know damn well these KKK leaders want you to live in a world where there is THE KLAN, and there is EVERYONE ELSE. 

They want you to have to choose between those two groups. Not only that, they want you to do some PR work on their behalf when you’re approached by that stranger at the party. They want you to feel insulted. They want you emotional. They want you to overreact. They want the exchange to start awkward and end awkward. They want that stranger to start wondering about your motives.

The trouble with ISIS is that they’re basically hoping for the same things.

So let’s say you and I are online. And let’s say we’ve never met. Let’s say you notice my name, and you ask me what occurs to me as a weird question, one of the three I’ve listed at the top of this article.

I need your help. I have been down this road before. I suspect I will walk down this road again. So. I don’t want to overreact. Since we find ourselves walking this road together, let me say up front what is true for me: that I am not crazy about you introducing yourself by asking me that. But you know what? If that’s what happens, it’s what happens. I am walking with you now in the possibility of making this discussion authentic, not awkward. Here, then, are my best short answers to the questions I hear most about ISIS.
  • #1: No. I promise. Just no. I don't believe in what ISIS is doing.  Can I tell you why?
  • #2: They’d like you to believe that they are following the Koran. But no, they're not. Can I explain why I say that?
  • 3: Actually, you know what? I have done something to stop ISIS and people like them. I wrote a novel. 
Now that we’ve got that tricky opening exchange out of the way, we’ve got a conversation. 

Coexistence is all about conversation. Now you and I can move on to a topic that ISIS or the Klan (which is, by the way, alive and well) would rather we avoid: What we might happen to have in common.

Like the weather. Or the interesting times we live in. Or our mutual curiosity about the best ways to lift a curse.

Nice to meet you. I look forward to continuing the conversation with you at


  1. Welcome, Yusuf, and well said. Emotions are tricky, dangerous things. They're the hard wiring that guided us before we had enough brains to think about more complex things. (Some might wonder whether that's not still the case...) If we learn to consider and be tolerant, our times become "less interesting."

  2. Great response to those questions. Don't know if you saw this video but you might find it interesting and resonant

    1. That's a really eye-opening video. Thank you for sharing it!

  3. Thank you, Yusuf. Very well put. And of course there are always those - on both sides - who want to exploit the misconceptions for their own gain. One thinks of certain presidential candidates in the US, for example.

    1. Many thanks, Michael! Yes, one does.

  4. Great read. It is sad that their is such closed mindedness in this day and age, where information is so readily available. And, it's not those without access to it that ask those questions. I do believe that some people choose to just believe whatever others have told them without delving into and researching for themselves, and then, thereby developing their own opinions.

    1. Couldn't agree more. This is one of the big reasons I wrote the novel.

  5. Thank you, Yusef. I am sharing this far and wide. I don't think these ideas can be expressed enough. And they are so well conveyed here. Bravo!

    1. Many thanks, Annamaria. Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for sharing it.

  6. The Klan will always be with us, though not always in the form of US Presidential Candidates...or so one can hope.

    These are very tough, scapegoating times. Perhaps the most widespread and mainstream of my lifetime. Glad you said what you did, Yusef.

    1. Thank you for saying that, Jeffrey. Glad you enjoyed it.

  7. Thank you for your column and answers to the questions you and other Muslims must face in the States.

    Even though white supremacists have endorsed a certain billionaire hotel owner for president, they are a very small fraction of the U.S. population, although many bigots have crawled out of the woodwork to support said candidate.

    Yes, and some people succumb to this scape-goating and the candidate knows exactly how to whip it up: fear-mongering.

    It's like the 1930s Henry Ford and Father Coughlin scape-goating of the Jews during the Great Depression.

    I hope the Klan will not be here forever and that those who follow the bigoted candidates will wake up and adapt to the fact that this is a multicultural, multinational society.

  8. That makes two of us! Thank you for sharing that, Kathy.

  9. In unity there is strength! Not to mention that it's one of the best things about being human -- meeting people from all over the world, different communities, cultures, histories. We all learn and grow as people.

    It's unfortunate that some people are afraid of learning about and meeting and befriending people and opening up their minds. It's only good.