Co-ops vs ISIS

The speed with which the supposedly pluralist Iraqi state has given way to sectarian extremism is breathtaking and heartbreaking. After nearly a century of contrived interethnic states carved out of the old Ottoman Empire, a period of score-settling seems inevitable as part of the movement toward a new equilibrium. This process has gone relatively smoothly in the mostly-Sunni (and sparsely populated) lands seized by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (Syria), but a much bloodier battle looms in Baghdad and the mixed communities that surround it.

ISIS now exists as a nascent state, like it or not, and the main question is about its boundaries. The speed with which ISIS has expanded using military forces generally estimated to be less than 10,000 fighters means that it will need to work with the locals to establish effective ongoing control. So governance in the areas relieved of the oppressive control of the Shi’ite-dominated Maliki government is likely to exhibit great diversity depending on the cultural conservatism, tribal influence and strength of civil society in a given community.

There is another way, and it ironically involves following the teachings contained in the Qur’an, which is the holy book of the main belligerents in this exploding crisis.

Although this conflict is much broader and more complex than a simple squabble between the two major sects of Islam, there is nonetheless a religious element involved, particularly in regards to the efforts by ISIS militants (and religious authorities) to establish Shariah law in their new caliphate.

“Shariah” is a very loaded term, so we must unpack the text on which it is based. While there are no doubt atrocities being committed in the name of Islam, it’s important not to assume these reports are true, and essential not to generalize them. I suspect that there are also a great many people already involved in more decentralist and less authoritarian structures, looking for opportunities to maintain or expand their work. We should be looking for such groups and seeking to make contact to support their work.

The cooperative model, by relieving pressure on geographically defined political structures through emphasis of voluntary mutual systems, provides our last chance to avert a future of ongoing ethnic and religious division. There are certainly cooperative financial and insurance organizations in the conflict zone, and these must be supported in some way as they join the struggle to address a massive financial disruption and humanitarian catastrophe. I don’t pretend to know the specifics of how such support should unfold, but I hope that this writing calls attention to some ideas that may help guide discussions among those in a better position to help.

Cooperators would benefit from a cursory survey of what the Qur’an actually teaches about rules and power. To that end, I’d like to revisit a section of a paper that I presented at the 2008 International Co-operative Alliance Research Conference, held in Italy. “Holy Cooperation: The Economy of Reconciliation” looked at how all three Abrahamic faiths taught something like cooperative organizing, and observed ways in which that has manifested among followers of each religion.


Because of the serious misconceptions shared by many (including myself before undertaking this research), it seems helpful to spend some time establishing what the Qur’an actually teaches in regards to belief and disbelief.

The actions of a militant fringe have led to widespread perception that Islam is an inherently rigid faith that seeks to bring the entire world under theocratic control. While it is true that this goal is shared – to varying degrees – by some Muslims, the same can be said of Christianity with its vigorous missionary tendencies and its past penchant for theocracy and crusades.

Three points must be considered when considering a Qur’anic perspective on social organization with regards to the subject at hand. First, the Qur’an clearly identifies the Jewish and Christian scriptures as being from God and teaches respect for those who follow such scriptures. Second, any calls to fight against the enemies of Islam are clearly qualified as defensive in nature. Finally, it is important to spread the word and seek converts, but that does not mean that any sort of coercion is appropriate.

Islam has a complex relationship with Judaism and Christianity, whose followers are known by Muslims as “People of the Book” (or Scripture) and distinguished from other nonbelievers. The Qur’an contains dozens of references to the stories of its older siblings. Jesus himself is mentioned more than 50 times throughout the Qur’an. His mother Mary is mentioned nearly 20 times, many of which are in the surah (chapter) that bears her name and describes her conceiving despite never being touched by a man. (19:20-21)Another passage confirms the importance of many Hebrew prophets, including Isaac, Jacob, Noah, David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, John the Baptist, Jesus, Elias, Ishmael, Elisha, Jonah and Lot. (6:83-6)

This topical overlap is complicated by a number of contradictions, and these should not be minimized since they are the essence of why we have three religions and not one. We cannot ignore these real disagreements if we are to seek a meaningful reconciliation.

In any case, the Qur’an provides a generally favorable view of the other two religions, their teachings, and their followers (misguided as they may be). In the Qur’an, Jesus is portrayed as a prophet sent to once again straighten out God’s chosen people, the Jews.

Jesus’ Gospel was a revelation from God, and his disciples submitted to God. “But when Jesus became conscious of their disbelief, he cried: Who will be my helpers in the cause of Allah? The disciples said: We will be Allah’s helpers. We believe in Allah, and bear thou witness that we have surrendered (unto Him).” (3:52)

Christians and Jews may be viewed as stray Muslims, but the Qur’an teaches that their paths can still lead them closer to God. The Qur’an explicitly calls for Jewish people to be good followers of their Law, and Christians to be good followers of Christ.

For example, those who believe in what the Torah revealed may be redeemed through good works, “especially the diligent in prayer and those who pay the poor-due, the believers in Allah and the Last Day. Upon these Weshall bestow immense reward.” (4:162)

Christians, meanwhile, should be held to their own standard: “Let the People of the Gospel judge by that which Allah hath revealed therein. Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are evil-livers.” (5:47)

What’s more, Muslims are encouraged to study Jewish and Christian scripture and teachings in order to better understand God’s wisdom: “And this is a blessed Scripture which We have revealed. So follow it and ward off (evil), that ye may find mercy. Lest ye should say: The Scripture was revealed only to two sects before us, and we in sooth were unaware of what they read” (6:155-6)

Ultimately, the Qur’an teaches respect for those of other religions as long as they live good lives. “And argue not with the People of the Scripture unless it be in (a way) that is better, save with such of them as do wrong; and say: We believe in that which hath been revealed unto us and revealed unto you; our God and your God is One, and unto Him we surrender.” (29:46)

Having established Muslim scripture teaches a generally tolerant and respectful view towards Jewish and Christian scriptures, which are revelations from the same God, we now turn towards the Qur’an’s teachings on how to handle discipline.

There are indeed specific rules about what is right or wrong, sometimes with prescribed punishments that strike the modern secular westerner as overly harsh. To cite a notorious example, “As for the thief, both male and female, cut off their hands.” (5:38)

These strict teachings have been reinforced by later writings. However, these sort of passages are difficult to square with others. When the Qur’an is examined by itself, as the religion’s central text and the final word of God, a picture emerges which demands serious consideration of how to live together in a pluralist society. It may well be best to live by a strict moral standard, but the Qur’an warns against the imposition of such a standard.

Today’s news from the so-called “War on Terror” is filled with fearsome news articles referring to a violent and apparently insatiable jihad (which literally means merely “struggle”) with a goal of establishing a strict theocracy based on shariah (Islamic jurisprudence), and it does seem that there are some militants who will not rest until all the infidels are vanquished.

However, this sort of aggressive stance is contrary to several passages in the Qur’an, which consistently call for any such struggle to cease when the opponent is no longer actively attacking.

For example: “And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrong-doers.” (2:193)

Furthermore, another passage cautions against acting in ways that might intimidate people into right behavior: “We are best aware of what they say, and thou (O Muhammad) art in no wise a compeller over them. But warn by the Qur’an him who feareth My threat.” (50:45)

There are numerous passages that emphasize this theme that moral decisions are between the individual and God. The most striking of these is a short surah near the end of the Qur’an. This passage may be understood as a warning against religious compromise, but it is incompatible with religious coercion.

“Say: O disbelievers! I worship not that which ye worship; nor worship ye that which I worship. And I shall not worship that which ye worship. Nor will ye worship that which I worship. Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion.”(109:1-6)

This passage is not an exception to some rule. The Qur’an acknowledges elsewhere that one’s belief or lack thereof is under God’s control alone, and the plurality of faiths is part of the divine will. “If We will, We can send down on them from the sky a portent so that their necks would remain bowed before it.” (26:4)

Not only that, but it is not the believer’s concern to worry about others’ faith: “Had Allah willed, they had not been idolatrous. We have not set thee as a keeper over them, nor art thou responsible for them.” (6:107)

Muslims are taught to trust that God will reveal God’s will to people: “There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error. And he who rejecteth false deities and believeth in Allah hath grasped a firm handhold which will never break.” (2:256)

The Qur’an also teaches that God speaks through people from outside the worldly power structures, and Muhammad himself was from an unremarkable background. These messengers sometimes worked in groups to support each other. For example, this passage describes what happens when two previous messengers were not heeded.

“And there came from the uttermost part of the city a man running. He cried: O my people! Follow those who have been sent!” (36:20)

Clearly, the encouragement did not come from within the halls of power.

Indeed, these messengers, much like the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, offered a message that was based in justice and mutual aid, and this was apparently not well received by those with something to lose from a more just distribution of wealth.

“And We sent not unto any township a warner, but its pampered ones declared: Lo! we are disbelievers in that which ye bring unto.” (34:34)

Ultimately, the Muslim is called to spread the word of God without attachment to its acceptance. “But if ye deny, then nations have denied before you. The messenger is only to convey (the message) plainly.” (29:18)

Not only this, the Qur’an also teaches that Muslim leaders are not to coerce others: “And lower thy wing (in kindness) unto those believers who follow thee. And if they (thy kinsfolk) disobey thee, say: Lo! I am innocent of what they do.” (26:215-6)

How does all this square with specific punishments dictated elsewhere in the Qur’an? Ultimately, this will be a decision for Muslim communities, themselves. However, it is worth noting that specific rules can be interpreted as secondary to general principles about how rules are to be applied. That is, Muslims are encouraged to make agreements that are in accordance with the Qur’an, to whatever degree of strictness they feel is appropriate. Once someone has made that commitment by joining a given community, they will be held to the more specific standards.

Ultimately, this is the same principle by which members of certain cooperatives pledge to do business through the cooperative. For example, in order for a dairy co-op to function well, it needs to know that its members are committed and will be bringing their milk to be processed. The benefit of joining the society is tied to certain expectations, which vary widely from one society to another.

This may resemble a relativism that would be promptly rejected by most Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. However, the passage is not about whether it is right or wrong to follow a specific rule. It does not say “if they disobey you, that’s no problem and Allah doesn’t mind.”

Instead, it focuses on the leader’s role of stepping back from a perceived wrong, and letting God handle any disciplinary actions through the natural consequences of the act. This is not much different than the model shown by Israel’s Judges who gave room for people to act according to their own conscience, or the conflict resolution process prescribed for Christians in the book of Matthew, chapter 18.


I encourage readers to view my whole paper, which looks at the broader religious context of the “children of Abraham” and also shows how each of the three great faiths have applied their cooperative teachings. Although the Syrian/ISIS/Iraqi conflict is currently playing out mainly among Muslims, there are communities of Jews and Christians caught in the struggle already. And while established nation-states seem to be setting aside their rivalries to thwart this new arrival, it is not hard to see how Israel may be drawn in to the conflict, or the United States might revisit its unhelpful crusader role, further inflaming the situation. Futhermore, it’s quite possible that this conflict may spread and metastasize (along with those in Ukraine, Libya and other places where centralized national power is collapsing).

This situation is dire and urgent, and I pray that my humble offering may provide some help in thinking through ways that cooperatives and civil society outside the immediate conflict zone can play a productive role.


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