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The religious roots of ISIS

posted by The Editors

At Arc of the Universe, Daniel Philpott draws from Rukmini Callimachi’s recent The New York Times article, “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape,” and Graeme Wood’s earlier The Atlantic article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” to emphasize the importance of political theology in understanding ISIS’s actions.

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.

Read his full piece here.

In pointing out the religious motivations for ISIS’s abuse of Yazidi women, Philpott adds to an ongoing debate on the nature and universal applicability of religious freedom claims and protections. Writing at The World Post, Kecia Ali calls attention to the way that focusing on ISIS’s brutality, and the religious claims they make to justify it, occludes both problematic stereotyping and hypocrisy on the part of Americans.

By focusing on religious doctrine as an explanation for rape, Americans ignore the presence of sexual abuse and torture in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and in Assad’s Syria by the regime and other factions in its vicious ongoing war. None of this is to deny the horror of the systematic rapes Callimachi reports or the revolting nature of the theology she describes. It is to point out that there are reasons why the story of enslaved Yazidis is one that captures the front page of the New York Times: it fits into familiar narratives of Muslim barbarity.

In focusing on current abuses in the Middle East, perpetrated by those claiming the mantle of Islam, Americans — whose Constitution continues to permit enslavement as punishment for crime — deflect attention from partial U.S. responsibility for the current crisis in Iraq. Sanctions followed by military invasion and its brutal aftermath laid the groundwork for the situation Callimachi describes. Moral high ground is in short supply. The core idea animating enslavement is that some lives matter more than others. As any American who has been paying attention knows, this idea has not perished from the earth.

Read her full piece here.

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One Response to “The religious roots of ISIS”

  1. avatar Anna Su says:

    I think it is quite clear from many explanations of ISIS’ rise, including the upcoming book of Will McCants, that the US invasion of Iraq was one of the major, if not the main, driving factor behind the group’s distinctiveness millenarianism (compared to Al-Qaeda, for example). To foreground theology and to take it seriously does not mean we have to discard other explanations.

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