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Religious Scholars Use Social Media To Counter ISIS Interpretation Of Koran


And let's turn now to the battle against ISIS, though a battlefield we haven't heard as much about. Religious scholars are taking on ISIS, openly questioning the religious credentials of the group's leadership. Their way in, a social media campaign explaining why ISIS' violent interpretation of Islam is wrong. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: ISIS has lured tens of thousands of foreign fighters to Syria over the past two years. And the man inspiring them is the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He claims to be a religious scholar and a descendant of the prophet. Will McCants is with the Brookings Institution and just finished writing a book about Baghdadi and the history of ISIS.

WILL MCCANTS: His brother recounts that whenever the young Baghdadi would come home from the mosque, he would lecture the other family members about how to be a proper Muslim.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Now his audience isn't just his family. It's the entire Muslim world.


ABU BAKR AL-BAGHDADI: (Foreign language spoken).

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Baghdadi at the Grand Mosque in Mosul last summer, when he announced the establishment of an Islamic State.


AL-BAGHDADI: (Foreign language spoken).

TEMPLE-RASTON: Prominent religious leaders immediately denounced his declaration, saying it was a violation of Islamic law. But even so, Baghdadi found a huge audience. His Mosul video went viral on YouTube, which is where 80-year-old Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah comes in.

ABDALLAH BIN BAYYAH: (Foreign language spoken).

TEMPLE-RASTON: He wants to challenge Baghdadi's violent interpretation of Islam. And he plans to do that where ISIS' audience is largest, on social media. Sheikh bin Bayyah is a world-renowned specialist in Islamic law and a professor of religion in Saudi Arabia. He says Baghdadi isn't qualified to interpret the Quran.

BAYYAH: (Foreign language spoken).

TEMPLE-RASTON: He's speaking here through an interpreter.

BAYYAH: (Through interpreter) As a learned person within this tradition and those amongst the scholars that I know, it doesn't appear to us that he's learned. We have reference points that are known amongst the scholastic community, and many of them he seems to be clearly unaware of.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Reference points - for example, according to bin Bayyah, Baghdadi's justification for a holy war is invalid. Scholarly tradition requires that interpretations of the Quran take historical context into account. Baghdadi is trying to return Syria and Iraq to the seventh century, when the Quran was written, and that falls outside the set rules of interpretation.

BAYYAH: (Through interpreter) When people come with any conclusions about these texts, the question is always, was the methodology sound in which they arrived to that conclusion or not? That's the test.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Baghdadi's edicts, scholars say, don't past that test. For example, he's claimed that the Quran sanctions the practice of sexual slavery. But bin Bayyah says Baghdadi clearly didn't go through the necessary steps to draw that conclusion.

BAYYAH: (Through interpreter) If this is enticing the youth, this isn't a religious issue. This is a sexual appetite issue. This is an issue simply of just human appetites.

(Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He said, "this isn't Islam."

TEMPLE-RASTON: Getting that message out has been difficult. ISIS is using social media, and scholars barely have a presence there.

BAYYAH: (Through interpreter) I'm an elderly man, and I don't know things like tweeting and - but I leave that to the center that I work with. The youth do that for me.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bin Bayyah's plan is to get into the digital space. Early next year, he'll launch an online resource which targets ISIS' audience of young Muslims. The platform will provide an answer to Baghdadi's violent edicts. There will be e-learning curses and a place where religious questions can be asked and answered by scholars like bin Bayyah.

BAYYAH: (Foreign language spoken).

TEMPLE-RASTON: Sheikh bin Bayyah says the world can't beat ISIS with military power alone. Instead, it's the responsibility of Muslim scholars to engage intellectually and explain where ISIS is going wrong in the online spaces where the group's potential recruits are gathering. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.