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Can it Be Denied Any Longer that ISIS and Its Cruelties are Religious?


Daniel Philpott - published on 08/21/15

The evidence shows that ISIS is motivated by its theology to commit its atrocities

Last week, The New York Times published a long article by Rukmini Callimachi on ISIS and the systematic cruelty that the group has imposed upon Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, including the sexual enslavement and rape of women and girls and the massacre of men and boys. The article is excellent reportage, giving front-page attention to the similar findings of human rights groups, and deepens the world’s understanding of ISIS and the atrocities that it has been perpetrating.

The story also buttresses some running arguments that we have been making here at ArcU. First, political theology matters. ISIS’ atrocities stem from its members’ religious beliefs. One of the piece’s central themes is that ISIS’ atrocities flow from very specific theological justifications. The title of the article is indeed, “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape.” Theology explains why ISIS has singled out the Yazidis for particularly harsh treatment: the Yazidis’ beliefs are especially heretical. ISIS has pursued no similar campaign towards the women of other religious minorities. Theology explains the kind of treatment to which ISIS has subjected the Yazidis and how it has gone about administering this treatment. ISIS uses its theology to recruit young men whose own beliefs makes them sympathetic to join. It is for reasons of theology that ISIS has abducted 5,270 Yazidis and continues to hold 3144 of them.

It is an important finding in light of an intense debate running among academics, journalists, and other analysts over whether theology explains ISIS’s motivations. Such a debate took place after the publication of Graeme Wood’s piece on ISIS this past February in The Atlantic. And it has taken place in episode after episode involving Islam at least as far back as the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Is it theology that explains the behavior of the attackers or is it economic dislocation, resentment over colonialism and present-day imperialism, weak states, the desire for adventure, and other alternative causes? Of course, most who think that religious beliefs play a strong and independent role, as I do, also believe that these myriad factors are commingled and contributory. It is also the case that members of ISIS will hold their beliefs with greater and lesser intensity. Some are very bad Muslims. But the behavior and tactics of the group cannot be explained apart from the theology that governs it and is promulgated within it. This is what is denied by a striking number of analysts writing today. See only the reaction to Wood’s piece. The critics are dismissive of religion altogether and hold that theology is almost entirely a rationalization, not a driver or a motive.

Some of the critics take to task views like Wood’s and mine for “essentializing” Islam and holding that Islam is the cause of behavior like that of ISIS. That is not my view. With respect to Islam as a whole, ISIS is a tiny sect whose theology is highly particular, not shared, and indeed condemned by most Muslims. Still, it is a theology and it motivates the behavior of its members. Those who deny this, I ask them to read Callimachi’s NYT piece – and let’s have a conversation.

The second argument has to do with religious freedom. Is it a western value, derived from western experience, unlikely to be accepted outside the West, and one that should not be imposed through western power? Or is it a universal principle, attendant upon human dignity, as the international human rights conventions would suggest? Previous ArcU pieces (see here and here) have engaged a group of scholars who are highly critical of religious freedom, which they believe is a product of power and culture that emerged contingently in the West. They published a set of pieces at Immanent Frame (the vast majority, but not all, of which took this point of view) that the University of Chicago has just printed as a book.
One of the things that struck me about ISIS’ behavior as reported by the New York Times piece is that it involves what are obviously and straightforwardly human rights violations – cruelties that anyone from anywhere can recognize as a cruelty without difficulty. They are violations of bodily integrity, sexual integrity, the dignity of women, the right not to be enslaved, and the like.

These cruelties are also quite obviously and straightforwardly violations of religious freedom. Acting on its theology, ISIS is perpetrating horrible deeds upon the Yazidis because of their theology. It is because of what Yazidis believe and how they practice their faith that ISIS enslaves and rapes their women and girls and massacres their men. Why, then, would religious freedom, not be a part of the set of principles and the dimensions of human dignity that are violated by ISIS’ behavior? Why could not anyone affirm that, whatever may be right or wrong about what Yazidis believe, there is not even remote warrant for them to be treated as they are because of what they believe?

Do those who think that religious freedom is a western value also think that the principles and the dignity that are violated when Yazidis are raped, enslaved, and massacred are also culturally contingent? I doubt it, but if they do, then I recommend the NYT piece to them. If they would agree that prohibitions of slavery and rape are properly universal values, then why would they not also agree that religious freedom is a universal value? That Yazidis are violated because they are Yazidis is part and parcel of the cruelty being inflicted upon them. Is it not wrong everywhere that people should be treated as ISIS does the Yazidis on account of their religious beliefs? On what grounds ought we to stress the cruelty of rape, slavery, and massacre – as we should vociferously – but leave out the religious dimension of human dignity?
Daniel Philpott is Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and Director of The Center for Civil and Human Rights. This article was originally published on the blog Arc of the Universe and is reprinted here with permission.

Islamist Militants
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