More than once I've bristled at the term, "Radical Islam," especially when applied to folk like ISIS. I've also grieved when I read or hear a statement that begins "Christians believe..." and goes on to include something I most definitely do not believe. More than once my response has been... "that person is not a Christian," which is likely the same thing they would say about me.
In every religion with which I'm familiar, there is a degree of heterogeneity that includes folk at one point of the spectrum excluding folk at other points on the spectrum as not being real representatives of that tradition. I have read Orthodox Jews say that Reformed Jews are not really Jewish. I know Muslims who would say that the members of ISIS are not really Muslims and of course, those same members of ISIS routinely kill folk who call themselves Muslims but who do not measure up to their definitions. Just the other day I had lunch with a very conservative Christian woman who flatly said that her family as not "Christian" - some of whom are central members of a church I know intimately. Then there are those outside of the various religious traditions who often point to the very worst as examples... those who look at Islam and only see ISIS, at The Family Research Council as the spokespeople for Christianity... you get the picture.
Once I had a discussion with a hyper-conservative Calvinist. At the end of our talk, she remarked, "We worship a different Jesus." She was right. It doesn't seem unreasonable then that the same title doesn't fit both of us.
So, who gets to decide? And using what criteria? Or is a decision even possible?
I would say, yes, a decision is possible and necessary. We live in a world where information travels virtually instantly and every faith tradition finds itself out there, being judged in the marketplace of ideas and actions. It is all too easy for folk to point at one element or another and generalize when that element may or may not fairly represent a religious tradition. The label "Christian" is important to me and the way that label is read by others is then also important to me.
So... first, does the individual or group fit into the general trajectory of the tradition? Every religious tradition changes through history, some more than others, but all change. I would argue that in my tradition, we become more able to understand God's yearnings for humanity and move ever so slowly closer to God's "will." While questions related to the founder like "what would Jesus do?" or "What would Mohamed do?" might be helpful, we must realize that we always see those founders through the lens of our current experience and even our theological stance. The Jesus I see would be clearly different than the one Jonathan Edwards saw or the one that Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council sees. Still, I believe we can look at the broad sweep of a tradition to see what direction it is moving and I would argue judge that something that spins off wildly from that trajectory doesn't fit the definition. In spite of calling themselves "Christian," those in the Christian Identity Movement simply are not. In spite of the word "Islam" being in the title of ISIS, they are not.
I would also argue that a group or person who claims to be trying to go back to the original intent is likely falling outside of the definition. You can't go back... and indeed, God does not go backwards. If the individual or group argues that everyone else has gone astray for the past decades or centuries... that is simply hubris.
Second, look at that trajectory again and ask how the tradition's understanding of who God is has moved... if the individual or group seems to be advocating a "God" outside of that tradition's trajectory, then clearly they are not one of them.
Finally, where did they come from? If they pop up out of nowhere, they don't meet the definition.
The hard question of course is whether God can work outside of the tradition. Of course. God is God and can do whatever God wants... but those radical changes begin something new. Christianity has Jewish roots, but it is not Judaism. Islam has roots in Judaism and Christianity... but it is neither. You get the point.
So, for today, I have no difficulty at all saying that ISIS is not Islam. I'm a little more shy in my own tradition but if you asked me privately I'd tell you what I think about whether or not Westboro Baptist is really a Christian church.
What would your criteria be? Or do you think it is not a worthy effort?