When the United States finally intervened against the Islamic State (I.S.) in early August the timing, if not exactly the strategic imperative, was determined at least in part by the scenes of Yazidis being starved to death on the side of Mount Sinjar. The Yazidis were forced to choose between descending the mountain and being murdered by the takfiris or remaining and dying of dehydration. As it turns out they were the lucky ones.
Earlier this month, the United Nations confirmed that as the I.S. swept through the countryside after their conquest of Mosul they rounded up at least 5,000 men and boys, separating them out from the women, and then slaughtered them and dumped the bodies into open pits. The analogies to Srebrenica were not only apt but very nearly exact. I.S., however, added an extra little bit of sadism that not even Ratko Mladic thought of: between 5,000 and 7,000 Yazidi women were taken into slavery, and have then been sold to individual I.S. jihadists or kept at communal harems where the I.S.’s sexually repressed followers do exactly what you would expect them to.
The Islamic State adds to this cruelty by actually allowing the Yazidi women to telephone the outside world and describe their conditions. Psychological operations are a major part of the I.S.’s military strategy. If you want to know why so many Iraqi soldiers ran away in Mosul in June, this video I.S. released a few days before explaining what happens to those who defy them is part of the explanation. One of the Yazidi women in I.S. captivity was quoted saying:
“If you [the West] know where we are, please bomb us … There is no life after this. I’m going to kill myself anyway—others have killed themselves this morning. I’ve been raped 30 times and it’s not even lunchtime. … Please bomb us.”
The behaviour of the Islamic State is no random spasm of malevolence in the midst of a war. On Oct. 12, the new edition of Dabiq, the I.S.’s magazine, was released explaining exactly why it was permissible to treat fellow human beings in this way (spellings simplified):
“Prior to the taking of Sinjar, shari’a students in the Islamic State were tasked to research the Yazidis to determine if they should be treated as an originally mushrik [polytheist] group or one that originated as Muslims and then apostatized … [I]t was determined that this group is one that existed since the pre-Islamic jahiliyyah [ignorance], but became ‘Islamized’ … although they never accepted Islam nor claimed to have adopted it. The apparent origin of the religion is found in the Magianism [Zoroastrianism] of ancient Persia, but reinterpreted with elements of Sabianism, Judaism, and Christianity, and ultimately expressed in the heretical vocabulary of extreme Sufism.
Accordingly, the Islamic State dealt with this group … how mushrikeen should be dealt with. Unlike the Jews and Christians, there was no room for jizya payment. Also, their women could be enslaved unlike female apostates who … can only be given an ultimatum to repent or face the sword. After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the shari’a amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations, after one fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State’s authority to be divided as khums [share of the spoils paid to the Caliph after booty is taken from infidels]. …
The enslaved Yazidi families are now sold by the Islamic State soldiers as the mushrikeen were sold by the Companions [of Muhammad] … before them. Many well-known rulings are observed, including the prohibition of separating a mother from her young children. Many of the mushrik women and children have willingly accepted Islam and now race to practice it with evident sincerity after their exit from the darkness of shirk [polytheism].
Rasulullah [‘the messenger,’ the prophet Muhammad] said, ‘Allah marvels at a people who enter Jannah [paradise] in chains’ … The hadith commentators mentioned that this refers to people entering Islam as slaves and then entering Jannah. …
[A] number of contemporary scholars have mentioned that the desertion of slavery had led to an increase in fahishah (adultery, fornication, etc.), because the shari’a alternative to marriage is not available, so a man who cannot afford marriage to a free woman finds himself surrounded by temptation towards sin. In addition, many Muslim families who have hired maids to work at their homes, face the fitnah of prohibited khalwah (seclusion) and resultant zina [unlawful sexual intercourse] occurring between the man and the maid, whereas if she were his concubine, this relationship would be legal. This again is from the consequences of abandoning jihad and chasing after the dunya [material world].”
Perfectly deranged, of course, but completely internally consistent and obviously not made up on the fly; there is a deep immersion in Salafi-jihadist “literature” that went into the decision to engage in enslavement and mass-rape.
Since the dust-up Sam Harris had with Ben Affleck on the Bill Maher Show the question of religion’s role in the Islamic State’s behaviour, and the connection between actions and ideas, has been quite widely discussed in the press. As so often the most extreme forces have ended up running away with the debate so that on one side there are people saying all Muslims are I.S., and on the other we have those who say Islam is, as Bernard Lewis once put it, like Quakerism but without the aggression.
It is obviously ridiculous to say that all Muslims support the Islamic State. It is not, however, ridiculous to say that the Islamic State are acting on an interpretation of Islam that it is very easy to get to by the text of the Qur’an and the Hadith, as the I.S. are (see above) the first to point out.
The horrific events in Canada over the last week, perpetrated by people claiming loyalty to the Islamic State, have started a new round of people determined to find any reason for the killings but the religious ones given by the killers themselves. Most of this is well-intentioned, wanting to avoid intercommunal tensions with Western Muslim populations and giving the far-Right any running room. (Glenn Greenwald is an exception: he did not even let the victims’ blood dry before telling one and all that Canadians deserved what they got. Canada had, after all, involved herself in fighting the Taliban and helping rebuild Afghanistan.) But it is still analytically wrong and creates a mystery where none exists.
The “root cause” of Islamic militancy is the ideology of Islamic militancy. This does not deny that other factors are at play. Yes, some emotionally unstable people with violent impulses, mostly young men, latch on to Salafi-jihadism to order their world. Such people would have joined Communist “urban guerrilla” terrorist groups in the 1970s. Yes, some elements of the criminal world find that the jihadist version of Islam appeals to them, and yes such people would, even without this ideology, be engaged in criminality. But it is simply wishful thinking, especially in Britain where support for jihadism rises as income surpasses £75,000, to believe that it is only the mentally low-functioning who take up jihad. The attempt to explain I.S.’s Western fighters via mental instability is to exculpate the religious ideology, and the primacy of apologia over analysis in such an explanation shows.
Moreover, as I have pointed out, and others too, while it is wrong for non-Muslims to say what “real” Islam is, to say that the I.S. jihadists are not Muslims is actually to make the problem worse. If any one idea motivates the Zarqawi’ites to savagery above and beyond even al-Qaeda it is their widespread use of takfir (excommunication), which means they justify not only the murder of religious minorities and Westerners but people otherwise universally-considered Muslims. At present, this overuse of takfir is considered illegitimate even by most Salafi-jihadists, who think only scholars should be able to declare takfir and only sparingly. But the only way to deny I.S. their claim to Islam would be to legitimise this tactic of declaring people apostates and heretics; this will not redound to the credit of the liberals and moderates among Muslims.
The question often posed in the religion debate is how you stop people doing bad things without god; this has always seemed to me exactly the wrong way round. A better question is: Once someone gives themselves god’s permission, what won’t they do?
Under theocratic law in Iran, a female cannot be executed if she is a virgin but she can be raped by the Revolutionary Guards and then judicially murdered. The Taliban had a very learned debate about how to execute homosexuals, deciding eventually to collapse a wall on them. In Saudi Arabia, men behead female relatives in public squares with a sword if they find that she has had a romantic relationship outside marriage.
For all this piety, the religious militants are an earthy bunch. Choosiness about revenue streams is evidently not a major concern when you have the mandate of heaven. The Taliban and the Hizballah finance themselves by narcotics. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) finances itself through kidnappings. Of the Islamic State’s multiple income streams, extortion is an important one. In Iran, the regime’s retainers run brothels, giving themselves religious cover with “temporary marriage“.
The religious will inevitably respond that these are human problems. To which the unbeliever can only say: of course. Religious misbehaviour is a problem only for the faithful: they have to explain why their doctrines and hierarchies cause so much misery. The materialist can see exactly how people claiming they’ve got the creator of the universe on their side would lead to corruption and the exploitation by one group of another. Still, it is this claim that is operative in the mind of the believer, and they should answer for it honestly rather than obfuscating by pathologising opponents with imaginary syndromes.