History, Profiles, Reviews, Occasional Meanderings
ISIL, Concubines, and the Ideology of Impunity
A shocking story that the self-styled caliphate that spans the Iraq and Syria borderland has recently launched a “theology of rape” has sent a wave of hysteria across the internet. News that ISIL or Dawlah, as I’d rather call them since the “Dawlah” or state is the focus of their ideology, have captured and raped sex slaves as a matter of doctrine has drawn horror. As usually happens when rando Muslims do something vile, we’ve had Muslims in the West flock to condemn the atrocity while analysts have focused on Dawlah’s ideology. I would argue, however, that Dawlah’s rapine has nearly nothing to do with doctrine or scripture and everything to do with the control mechanics of wartime rape.
A disclaimer: this isn’t an attempt to entirely wipe out ideological lens. Nor is it an attempt that Dawlah are “selective” Muslims who use Islam as they see fit; there are plenty of those, both in extremist militancy and in some governments. Too often people claim that extremism has “nothing to do” with Islam but avoid the fact that it often does tangentially. For example, Al-Qaeda’s list of atrocities aimed at Western civilians in particular is quite clearly a contravention of Islamic legalism; there are more or less broadly-agreed-upon and fairly restrained codes of conduct for jihad (which is not to say they haven’t been violated at different stages in history), but Al-Qaeda contravene them by attempting, in very modern terms and with modern justifications usually predicated on the need to use every tool at their disposal against a more militarily powerful opponent, a total war. But the overall premise that Al-Qaeda give—that the Muslim world needs to be freed from foreign subjugation—is widely shared by a not insignificant number of Muslims, both laymen and scholars; it is the murderous means, of terrorism and civilian-aimed attacks, that Al-Qaeda use that the vast majority of Muslims reject out of hand. So Al-Qaeda proper’s ideology can be said to have at least tenuous links with certain aspects of Islam, even if it ignores inconvenient restrictions and caveats; it is, after all, not alone in that respect and arguably many Muslim governments and militants juggle their conveniences with Islamic jurisdiction to various extents, though rarely to the same extent on so grave a matter as violence.(1)
Another disclaimer: this is not an Islamic scholarly rebuttal; I have no qualifications in Islamic jurisprudence or theology. Rather it is an attempt to analyze Dawlah from a political viewpoint against its own ideological evolution.
By contrast to what can be argued as a “selective” interpretation of Islam on other groups’ part, Dawlah rejects any sort of traditional Islamic legalism whatsoever. This is not simply pick-and-choose from the tradition; rejection of compromise with any party, including the tradition, is an active part of its dogma as it stands. Rather, whatever benefits the Dawlah is seen as legitimate, and whatever inconveniences the Dawlah, including the restraints of Islamic legalism, is brushed aside with contempt (Dawlah’s online ideologues—a heady range including “Ghazi Shami”, “Marwan Tounisi”, and “Shami Witness”—like to refer to this as “coconut” Islam, a pejorative is usually applied to anything that doesn’t endorse their Dawlah outright).
This can be seen as similar to “selective” Islam in the sense that it picks and chooses Islamic jurisdiction based on its conveniences, and indeed there is an arguable if indirect link; Dawlah propaganda claims, after all, that their Dawlah state, as a self-styled caliphate, is the greatest tool to fulfill the needs of the Muslim world. But increasingly with time, the Dawlah has gone from becoming a “tool” to an end unto itself; now, particularly with so much of the Muslim world, including hardline Islamists, pitted against it, the “state’s” ideologues predicate Islam itself upon loyalty to the Dawlah. This goes beyond mere opportunism: it makes the state not a tool, but a determinant, of Islam. Over time its thugs’ warcry of “Baqiyaaaa”—“forever”, claiming that the State will live on till endtimes—has become nearly a dogma in its insistence and vigour. The State no longer simply serves Islam, as was the overall role of historical Islamic caliphates and their offshoots: the State is made out to have embodied Islam in totality; opposition to the State has been turned into “apostasy”, while anything that advances the State—no matter how contrary to Islamic laws—is endorsed.
There are various reasons that can be put forward for this. One of them is somewhat ideological, which is that Dawlah neatly claimed, without any agreement from the wider Muslim ummah whatsoever, the much-vaunted post of “caliphate”; millions of Muslims, and not just old-fashioned ideologues or young hotheads, recall the perceived glory days of Islam. Particularly the age of Prophet Muhammad, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, and the Rashidoun Caliphs who succeeded in the seventh-century, are seen as ages of superb governance, which is an uncontroversial position with Muslims. A subsequent millennium of monarchic caliphates, ending with the Ottoman Sultanate that spanned six centuries, is widely and uncontroversially seen as an imperfect but nonetheless strong, relatively fair and desirable stronghold of Islam that embodied some semblance of Islamic unity, dignity and values. The subsequent divisions, weaknesses, and uncertainty of the Muslim world has also led to a yearning for the return of the caliphs: prior to the twentieth century, the shortest period without a caliphate was a couple of years after the 1258 Mongol conquest of Baghdad, and even that was lamented by chroniclers. Most Muslims nowadays at least yearn for aspects if not the body of the historical caliphate, and some groups—most notably the controversial Hizb-ul-Tahrir party, a pacifist but ambitious party that has some currency in the West—have placed enormous emphasis on its restoration.
Dawlah’s unilateral claim to have restored the caliphate in the summer of 2014 was a gamble at winning over the Muslim world. By and large—largely because of Dawlah’s brutality, particularly its gratuitously thuggish and wildly broadcast executions as well as its attacks on minorities and other sects, but also because of its unilateral self-declaration—this was widely rejected by a large body that included Islamists such as Dawlah’s opponents in Syria, as well as more importantly scholars from various backgrounds. After more than a year Dawlah has managed to attract a bare handful of ideologues, few of them even scholars by any traditional mark, to its banner, and this is a sticking point that has repeatedly hurt them.
The State did attract hundreds of largely identity-stricken youths from the West to fight for the “Caliphate”, and it also has key support from various Iraqi Sunni factions driven to desperation by a decade of insurgency and repression under a spiteful Baghdad regime. Rarely are such fighters persuaded by rigorous scholarship and Islamic legalism; it is more their identity as Muslims and the labels, not substance, of the self-professed “Islamic State” that draws such youths. But its theological and scholarly limits were immediately clear; as Abu Abdulmalek, the top shariah scholar of the Ahrar-ul-Sham Islamist faction in Syria, stated in a Jul 2014 public notice, the Caliphate was meant to be a government that could serve the Muslim Ummah, not a totalist utopia built largely exclusively on the corpses of Muslims. Even fellow “jihadi” scholars, including the controversial Palestinians Abu Qatada Umar Uthman and Abu Muhammad Isam Tahir—Uthman having controversially supported a similarly rejectionist group in Algeria during the 1990s, even earning criticism from other “jihadis” for it, and Tahir having known, though rejected, the original founder of what became ISIL, Abu Musab Zarqawi—rejected the “Dawlah” outright. Its gamble at Islamic legitimacy had failed.
It is for this reason—the absence of support by any notable body of scholars—that I would pose is one reason that Dawlah have not become simply “selective” in their interpretation of Islam but outright rejectionists against anything perceived as traditionalism or “mainstream”. Early on, especially during the summer of 2014, Dawlah had tried to present themselves as at least somewhat legitimate with occasional handouts on film and periodic festivals to whip up both internal morale as well as external legitimacy as “acceptable” Muslims. They had, of course, always choreographed grisly executions of captives—dating back to Abu Musab’s wildest days in 2004—but shortly after declaring their “caliphate” they did briefly try to present themselves as theologically viable candidates. However, it soon became clear that no validation was forthcoming; rare ideologues, like the Australian preacher Musa Cerantonio and the Jamaican-British preacher Abdullah Faisal, were trumpeted from the rooftops in Dawlah propaganda, but no scholars of any weight or authority, even jihadis, had any sympathy. Even when the United States and a gaggle of other, most anxious Gulf, countries bombarded Syria and Iraq, there was little sympathy for Dawlah even as there was some outrage in the Muslim world at the bombardment itself. (2)
Particularly over the winter of 2014-15, therefore, Dawlah abandoned much of their attempts at ideological veneer and it was here that they claimed exclusivist membership of and support of their State as a determinant of Islam, and therefore a shroud of impunity to any member of the State. No longer did Dawlah propaganda try to wheedle Muslims into their arms, but instead tried to justify itself to its existant followers; now, grisly executions were not only broadcast but justified energetically on the grounds that some Muslim in history had once done it, so it could not be illegal even if that Muslim had done it illegally. Even massive disapproval by Muslims was taken as a justification: this only proved, according to Dawlah’s propagandists, that most Muslims were nonbelievers and that Dawlah’s flimsy numbers were a proof of its uniquely virtuous nature. Opposition by Muslims and Islamic law was no longer a source of dismay; it became a propaganda tool to convince millennarian followers that they, and they alone, were on the right path. (This is not to deny the “sincerity”, which is impossible for us to calculate, that IS fighters have; however, their interpretation of Islam is a retroactive and self-serving one, even if subconscious and not intended)
Dawlah’s glossy but substantially hollow magazine, Dabiq—breathlessly followed by Western analysts as a key insight into terrorism ideology—revealed more about their modus operandi in carving out a new ideology, one based entirely around the State. As long as it called itself Islamic and adopted Islamic rhetoric, the State—and, more importantly, its followers, who were given a rationale of utter impunity quite different to the traditional code of conduct for jihad in Islam—could violate as much Islamic doctrine as it needed.
Perhaps the most telling example of this came in a recent Dabiq issue, which urged women—including married women—to “migrate” to the Dawlah and abscond with its “mujahideen”. The pesky matter of that well-known Islamic injunction on adultery as a major sin punishable by death? No matter, Dabiq announced airily; because it deemed non-loyalists of the Dawlah to be non-Muslims, the women’s husbands were “non-Muslims” and that made their marriages illegal (3). This sort of retroactive justification, flying in the face of both Islamic law and procedure, is characteristic of Dawlah’s propaganda: as long as it’s rhetorically done in God’s path, Dawlah can blatantly any of God’s commands and perform feats of self-serving justification after the fact. It is a sort of “reformism” in its own right, similar in attitude ironically to the same sort of state-driven “Muslim reformism” so beloved of certain Western regimes. The ends, as determined by the state, justify any means, even the most unambiguously unIslamic ones.
Insofar as it is influenced in any way by the Islamic tradition, the Dawlah ideology now seeks to aggressively pick out keywords from history, never mind their status under Islam. The case of concubines is an example. Historically, concubines were a feature in many cultures and in wartime, Islam permitted this practice amid captives albeit with injunctions as to their treatment, their status and their rights, much as it had permitted slavery with very tight regulations and caveats not present in other traditions. Against the abolitionist pressure of the 1800s as well as its own push at modernization, the Ottoman Sultanate—not without controversy—abolished the slave trade, though it continued unabated in some parts of the world well into the twentieth century. Much as they had unilaterally declared themselves a caliphate and the arbiters of Islam, Dawlah unilaterally declared the reimposition of the slave trade, and—presumably in part because enough women weren’t absconding from the West to join the thirsty “mujahideen”—also, apparently, of concubines.
This has, of course, aroused shock and horror. Rukmini Callimachi, a dubious NYT reporter (and a writer with a long history of hyperbolic articles that usually exaggerate the threat—and therefore, to potential recruits, appeal—that Dawlah poses, and in my opinion indirectly if unknowingly helped boost its recruitment)(4) took care to emphasize the fact that certain Dawlah fighters prayed before raping their victims, with the implication that their prayers made it ritualistic and therefore somehow bound to Islam. Western Muslims have, understandably but perhaps unnecessarily, reacted with speedy denials about the legitimacy of such acts. Some have declared it a time to introspect and perhaps revise the Islamic tradition.
There are several problems with this. A major problem, as has been noted above, is that Islamic tradition as it stands is not only irrelevant but actively loathed by Dawlah. They rhetorically claim inheritance of Islamic law and values, yet they have not only shunned it but made it a point to do so precisely because, according to their rhetoric, it has failed to give what they—and therefore, since they have appointed themselves Islam’s guard, in their view Islam—want. In this sense, Dawlah are very much revisionists of convenience ironically not dissimilar to the same pro-Western “reformers” pushed by certain Western governments. That makes them far, far different from traditional Islamic scholarship as well as most Islamist groups—from the Ahrar-ul-Sham of Syria and Taliban of Afghanistan to Hamas of Palestine and Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, each of which Dawlah has categorically shunned—who are for the most part, though not spotlessly, sticklers for Islamic procedure to the extent of being labelled “fundamentalists”. There is a reason that for the better part of a century no other Islamist group, however hardline, attempted to revive such institutions as slavery; such a unilateral declaration goes precisely against the consensus-based jurisdiction of traditional Islam, and fits very much into Dawlah’s worldview. Orthodox or traditional scholars are the last people Dawlah are likely to heed.
The second problem is that it assumes Dawlah are driven towards rape by theology and ideology. As has also been noted, Dawlah have a consistent track record of appropriating and revising ideology to fit their attendant conveniences. Much as a mass-decapitation-by-explosives—what one Islamist critic online sarcastically called the minhaj, or methodology, of gore entertainment franchises—was justified because it could serve the Dawlah’s psychological warfare needs, and much as adultery and retroactive takfir against the cheated-on spouse was justified because it could serve Dawlah’s plethora of lusty single fighters, so too has the collection of concubines. Moreover, given Dawlah’s history of nearly always justifying such stances after the fact, it is nearly certain that the “ideological” aspect was taken as an afterthought, to assure thirsty young rapists that their rape was not a crime and could be continued—rather than serving as an original ideological bedrock to commit crime.
This is further strengthened when one considers the historical use of rape as a weapon of war, in particular but hardly exclusively by non-state militias. Mass rape, in particular, assures the psychological breakdown of communities, particularly in villages and small towns. It traumatizes, sometimes beyond recovery, the victim and renders their family and community in a state of shock. Though perhaps the first to justify it by claiming to represent Islam, Dawlah are hardly alone in this. From militias, like Dawlah, alone—never mind state armies which themselves have a terrible record—recent systemic rapists include various militias in Congo’s bloody war, Serbian militias in the 1990s Balkans, shabiha paramilitaries in Syria, the Interehamwe genocidaires of Rwanda, the millennarians in Uganda’s LRA, together with others.
An example perhaps more resonant with Dawlah than any other comes from central Afghanistan during the 1990s, where opposed Hazara Hezb-e-Wahdat and Pakhtoun Ittihad-e-Islami militias systematically raped each other’s civilians as a means of cleansing and terror. The reason it resonates is that, like Dawlah, both groups portrayed an exclusivist self-image as mujahidin and often labelled their opponents as nonbelievers. Not as systematically extreme as Dawlah—indeed, they eventually coalesced around the Northern Front to fight the Taliban advance and now ironically act as members of the Afghanistan regime under the occupation—their opportunistic exclusivism and communalism was a smaller, temporary version of what Dawlah has now made infamous.
Nor is this an exclusively Muslim issue, far from it. Serb militias in the Balkans, fighting for the unity of Yugoslavia against purported foreign subversion; Russian soldiers in Chechnya, fighting to retrieve their country’s glory after the humiliation of 1990; Kivu militants in the Congo, purporting to defend Tutsi rights after the Rwanda genocide; Indian soldiers in Kashmir, fighting to crush a vilified insurgency; Colombian soldiers and paramilitaries against socialist guerrillas; each have used mass rape systemically and justified it as necessary for whatever cause they claim to support. With arms and assured impunity, extremists can act like animals. In Congo, for instance, the notorious militia commander Bosco Ntaganda assured his (largely underage) fighters that their weapons and status as “soldiers” was enough for them to do anything, including mass murder, rape and displacement, a near-identical method to Dabiq’s howls. The common factor linking such groups is the heady intoxication of self-proclaimed impunity—a very different tune to the constant introspection and discipline of any orthodox Islamic stance, and most Islamist political groups.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State is not a fundamentalist symptom of a hijacked tradition that requires ideological reform of Islam; indeed, it is quite the opposite: a brazenly modern, rejectionist and post-traditionist militia that has made a point of rejecting orthodox Islamic views even as it appropriates their title. To focus on ideology on what is a brash but not unfamiliar militia group of thugs is to miss the point and, therefore, bungle the diagnosis.
1) I would add that the Nusrah Front in Syria has been Al-Qaeda’s first “guerrilla militia” affiliate to attempt to govern any sort of territory, rather than the transnational terrorism that made their name, and if it succeeds there Al-Qaeda may transform in some respects to a conventional sort of warfare without dropping their hostility outright; this seems, however, unlikely to happen with the major stakes in Syria and Nusrah’s rare propensity for making unnecessary enemies. UPDATE NOTE: It has been pointed out that AQ’s eventual gameplan was indeed to control territory much as Nusrah does. But it was the pre-“militia” role that AQ espoused–attacks, for instance, against civilian centres such as most infamously the WTC and also the East Africa embassies–that were mostly condemned by Muslims, including those who may have sympathized with AQ’s stated anticolonial aims. It is also probably for this reason, combined with Nusrah’s military value and mixed-to-positive reputation within Syria’s opposition, that it has been seen as less controversial than AQ proper or other AQ affiliates
2) Dawlah’s links with the old Iraq Baath party, while occasionally oversimplified and exaggerated, also can have done little to help.
3) The “adultery” case reminds me of a bizarre incident from the 1980s in eastern Afghanistan, referenced in David Edwards’ Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad. It refers to a hardline young woman who warned her husband not to join the Khalqi communist army of the time, and that she would consider him a disbeliever and their marriage would be annulled automatically. The husband paid no heed and went to the army. Claiming her marriage invalid, the woman then absconded with an unmarried youth. By Islamic law, of course, despite her claims (and presumable conviction) to Islamic righteousness, her marriage was still intact; joining the communist army did not annull one’s Islam. The region, then under mujahidin control and officially Islamic law, therefore executed the woman even as she taunted them for cowardice and lack of faith. The woman’s lover managed to slip away. This story was narrated to Edwards by Samiullah Wakil, a mujahid field officer who sympathized with the woman.
4) It is also worth noting that Callimachi has supported the same self-styled Muslim reformists, such as Asra Nomani, who gleefully exploit Dawlah’s opportunistic revisionism to push their own, more conveniently pro-Western, opportunistic revisionism