Hatem Bazian

The recent New York Times article “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape”, exposing the group’s attempt to provide a religious rationalization for its pervasive use of rape in its ongoing grotesque war in Iraq and Syria, is disturbing on many fronts. Most disturbing is ISIS’s attempt to codify “sex slavery in conquered regions of Iraq and Syria” into some type of legal reasoning by using classical Islamic sources—an attempt that is then deployed “as a recruiting tool.” The article’s distressing details certainly point to a case of compounded ignorance, but I am sure such crimes do not deserve to be referred to as theology. Placing the terms theology and rape in the same sentence provides legitimacy to a criminal enterprise—which ISIS certainly is—and grants it the respectability it so much desires.

The NYT article comes on the heels of an earlier Atlantic piece, “What ISIS Really Wants”, which asserted that ISIS is actually an Islamic group. The Atlantic’s piece depended on the opinion of one academic expert, who afterward distanced himself from the article’s framing but essentially gave the academic veneer stating, “In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.” The article forcefully claimed that “the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

The question about whether ISIS is Islamic is the incorrect question to ask in the first place. Rather, we should ask whether ISIS’s actions and legal reasoning are consistent with Islamic legal discourses, as codified and practiced at present by 1.4 billion Muslims, or how far off ISIS is in its angry ignorance. Merely citing classical texts and sources in a sophisticated manner does not by itself justify the actions of rape and slavery, nor legitimize rulings that support those actions.

With respect to the NYT article, it must be stressed that rape and sexual violence are about power, control, and domination—regardless of who is undertaking these acts and what rationalizations (including religious) are given. These acts should be dealt with as criminal activity, and in the case of ISIS, they constitute war crimes. Through rape, men express a distorted sense of masculinity. They use rape as a tool for control, domination, and systematic abuse, which they then rationalize on the basis of tribalism, cultural norms, nationalism, ideology, religion, financial gains, and legitimate or re-imagined historical grievances. Rape as an instrument of war has been deployed more frequently in human conflicts than we are ready to admit. We prefer not to confront this topic because it raises more questions than it answers about the propensity of human beings to become evil incarnate in warfare as they inflict unimagined suffering on fellow human beings.

ISIS’s rape strategy is “shock and awe” deployed to cause fear and wreak havoc among its supposed enemies, which in this case are the Yazidis in Iraq. The Yazidis are a traditional, tight-knit community, who have been living peacefully in the area for hundreds of years. ISIS’s use of terror, beheading, and rape is criminally strategic, intended to force the Yazidis to flee and abandon their homes and towns. Unfortunately, based on the evidence visible across northern Iraq and Syria, this strategy has been successful. It is not theology at work, but a genocidal military strategy. The problem with framing this strategy as theology is the implication that it is rooted somehow legitimately in Islam itself.

A large number of Muslim scholars have already articulately refuted the arguments and rationalizations put forth by ISIS, but more needs to be done on this front. Some have taken ISIS’s defense of slavery and rape as a reason to revisit and debate the classical sources themselves. This is always a welcome endeavor. However, in this case, it misses the point that Muslim jurists have adopted the legal position that slavery is prohibited. In 55 majority Muslim countries today, the existing Shari’a rulings and practices reflect this position. The fact that ISIS dredged up classical sources that are rich in evidence adjudicating and sanctioning slavery is not sufficient reason to ignore existing rulings on the abolishment of slavery across the Muslim world. The question of why Muslims in the past supported and engaged in slavery is a completely different question and should be disconnected from the debate and discussions about ISIS.

ISIS is usurping the ethos of the Revelation and the Prophetic tradition to support its current war. In this context, the tradition is an instrument to gain and achieve power, no matter what the consequences or the trail of blood left behind, including the negation of the tradition it claims to defend. I am not one to focus on respecting Islamic tradition just because it is a tradition; rather, I view it as a body of texts, sources, and rulings that have evolved over generations and that have become a tool to guide Muslims toward ethical and moral life within a diverse world. The tradition is a vehicle with which to cross the worldly bridge, and not an object of worship or veneration in and of itself. For ISIS, the tradition has become both the object and the vehicle itself; thus, losing its ethical and moral dimensions and assuming a merely utilitarian function.

The NYT article included another assault on Islam’s presumed inferiorities and the supposed inability of the tradition to deal with the challenges of the modern world. Certainly, the article contains factual and accurate elements that cannot be disputed. The wrenching narrative of the young girls who suffered at the hands of ISIS is a reminder of the seriousness of the challenge we face in confronting these criminals. ISIS’s actions are being used as an opportunity to call again for Muslims to “reform” their tradition or to reject Islam as unfit for modernity and the world we all share. This call is insidious because it makes condemnation of ISIS the launching pad for a sweeping attack on Islam itself and all Muslims. Most Muslims have nothing in common with those joining this murderous group; in fact, the overwhelming majority of ISIS’s victims have been Muslims. ISIS men say, “Obey us or you will die,” while others take the opportunity to say, “You are dying because you are not reforming.” In other words, it is their fault for taking Islam as a living tradition seriously.

The legal distinction between Muslims, Yazidis, Christians, and Jews that ISIS uses as the basis for differential treatment is present in classical pre-modern sources and was informed by the political, social, economic, and religious structures operative during earlier periods. The pre-modern Muslim society was organized on a confessional basis, and group relations and rights with existing authorities were regulated by it. At present, the political structure has shifted into a citizenship-based relationship, with rights and responsibilities regulated by a constitution. Despite the distorted ways through which these documents came into existence, people for the most part respect and adhere to them across the Muslim world. What people protest and oppose is their leaders’ complete disregard for the principles enshrined in these constitutions. The classical distinction made in the pre-modern period is used by ISIS to give credence to its murderous and abusive ways toward Yazidis in particular, and also at times toward Christians, Kurds and Shia. Affirming Islam’s universal and normative values is the antidote to ISIS’s claim of authenticity and creditability.

The next critical item in the NYT article is the issue of forced sexual relations with slaves and marital rape. No one should dispute the presence in classical sources of ample evidence pointing to sanctioning a husband’s right to forced sexual intercourse with his wife or slave, as well as various rationalizations for slavery. Any tradition that spans 1436 years and that covers diverse regions, cultures, and ethnicities will have enough sources to argue almost any point with or without references to an exact text. Again, the focus should be on ISIS’s crimes and its attempt to reopen the door to legal slavery, which the 55 Muslim majority countries and the Muftis and scholars across the spectrum have already rejected. The sources from the past are still available, with extensive records of cases pertaining to slavery, but the first question that must be asked is, what is the present-day ruling on slavery in the Muslim world? Slavery is prohibited, and only ISIS and its followers are calling for it to be brought back. This puts them in the same category as the Ku Klux Klan in the US, and they should be regarded and treated as is the KKK and not projected as the norm.

The rate of death and destruction visited upon the world in the last hundred years challenges the efficacy of these developments. More alarmingly, some of the countries and societies that have been at the forefront in the development of legal norms and human rights standards have collectively been the primary agents subverting these same international codes and engaging in massive violations and crimes against humanity. I bring this up not to diminish the progress made but to remedy the propensity to privilege contemporary voices in examining the past, while silence is offered and defended concerning the mass slaughter occurring in front of the world’s eyes, live on TV and the Internet. The same people who look and write scornfully about the Muslim past are embedded in fomenting and defending the current regional wars, often for no other reason than to secure or outright steal oil and natural resources.

Should it be less ethically and morally repugnant to invade a country and cause the death of 2.5 million under made-up and false pretexts if it is done by the so-called civilized world? Are rape, dehumanization, and torture in Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, black sites and rendition more acceptable and not an ethical and moral crisis because the subject is a Muslim? Should it be less an ethical and moral crisis if death comes by an invisible drone raining death on a wedding party and obliterating the bodies of those nameless and faceless Muslims in an imagined Middle Eastern geography?

Now, the so-called civilized suits sitting in boardrooms and the embedded experts on TV will insist there is no equivalency between ISIS and violence undertaken to “defend civilization.” This approach should be called what it is: a red herring intended to obscure the real issues at hand and to obfuscate the cause of the ongoing violence in the region. The question to be asked of all those championing the supposed right to use violence to defend civilization is: which parts of civilization do they purport to defend?

ISIS’s emergence in the region is directly connected to the failed and presently disastrous invasion of Iraq. What type of theology was needed to invade Iraq? And was the realm secured by it or do we also need to invade and obliterate Iran for the capitalist gods to be satisfied? Do success or rapture theology have anything to offer? The questions about ISIS should be asked of all those who pushed and lobbied their way into the so-called clean break and the Iraq invasion without thinking about the short- and long-term consequences.

The fact that ISIS is using Islamic sources should not stop us from engaging in a sound analysis of the real causes of what is taking place in the region. Yes, Islamic texts are used by ISIS, but the cause of the conflict is not religious; rather, it derives from a complex set of economic, political, social, tribal, cultural, post-colonial, and neo-liberal privatization failures that coalesced in the region and caused a collapse of the old order. By reducing the complex factors into one (i.e., Islam and the use of classical sources), we produce a primitive understanding of what is underway.

Why is it that ISIS emerged in Iraq, specifically after the US invasion and collapse of the central state? Why is ISIS spreading in Syria, Sinai, Yemen, and Libya? Who supported the rise of ISIS by providing financing, equipment, training, and logistical support in the initial stage, and why? What role is being played by intelligence services in the region and beyond that are focused on the supposed Iranian nuclear threat, and how does ISIS function within the broader containment strategy under way? What role is played by Israel in this current containment strategy, and what new regional alliances and coalitions are formed under the pretext of fighting ISIS? What is the strategic thinking relative to oil and natural gas in the region, and to the ongoing competition with China on the one hand and the European Union’s dependency on supplies from the region on the other hand?

All these questions and more are not asked. Oversimplified arguments taking ISIS’s pronouncements at face value is meant to cause a mad rush to the library to read classical Muslim sources on slavery and sexual relations with enslaved women, none of which will give a meaningful answer about why ISIS exists, why now, and why in Iraq and Syria.

Hatem Bazian is a lecturer in the Departments of Near Eastern and Asian American Studies and director of the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project at the Center for Race and Gender at the University of California, Berkeley. He is cofounder of Zaytuna College, the first accredited Muslim liberal arts college in the United States, where he is a professor of Islamic law and theology. In the spring of 2012 he launched and is coeditor of the Islamophobia Studies Journal, a biannual and peer-reviewed publication focusing on the othering of Islam and Muslims.

This article was previously published on Turkey Agenda. 

Feature image via Muslim Matters