[ by Charles Cameron — some surprising twists here, if you think of IS as entirely lacking compassion or religious and moral consideration ]
I am going to take the religious issues out of their original order to create a smoother reading experience with regard to the theological surprises in Barber’s article.
I have also been perplexed by the question of IS’ methods and behavior and have felt a need to understand the fact that they work according to specific ideals and a strict religious code for behavior, yet often seem to act outside of what such a code would permit. They are not alien creatures but human agents with aspirations of state building who even demonstrate acts of compassion.
Once again, religion turns out to be crucial to a full understanding.
We tend to treat IS — not surprisingly considering their barrage of beheadings videos and other publicized horrors on social media — as utterly unconstrained thugs and brutes. There’s no denying the brutalities, but a more sophisticated reading finds some relevant background in Abu Bakr Naji‘s book, The Management of Savagery, as Will McCants, lately of CTC West Point and now at Brookings, explains.
Booty, both literal and metaphorical:
First, it is worth noting that the taking of captured women as slaves / booty does have religious precedent:
The philosophy underpinning the taking of Yazidi slaves is based in IS’ interpretation of the practices of Muslim figures during the early Islamic conquests, when women were taken as slave concubines—war booty—from societies being conquered.
It’s hideous, it’s “medieval” if you like that term, but it does have arguable religious precedent.
People of the Book vs Polytheists:
Taking the brutality as a given, then, what are we to make of the preferential treatment afforded Christians vis-à-vis Yazidis?
Though they have robbed them of their wealth, IS has not targeted the Christian community in the same way that they have the Yazidis. As “People of the Book,” Christians are seen as having certain rights; Yazidis, however, are viewed by IS as polytheists and are therefore seen as legitimate targets for subjugation and enslavement, if they do not convert to Islam.
Acts of Compassion:
This is perhaps the aspect of Barber’s piece which is most unexpected, and as such deserves our consideration. It is a part of the puzzle, after all is said and done, and our reflexive disgust at the many other brutalities of IS should not blind us to it:
Christians who fled one Iraqi town described to me how IS fighters provided food for their elderly and disabled Christian relatives who were not able to flee, and then later transported them to an area near Kirkuk where they would be able to rejoin their relatives.
Barber poses the question — to himself, to the analytic community, and to all of us:
How are we to reconcile these humane instances of goodwill with the apparent criminality and destruction that is so pervasive with IS?
The answer is not yet in:
Many discussions will continue regarding the similarities and differences between IS’ methods and the actual practice of the early Islamic community. Historical context will be discussed by scholars, and God’s intentions will be parsed out by those with a theological bent.
The situation, therefore:
But regardless of how our contemporaries interpret the past, IS’ attempts to recreate and relive a period in which slaves were taken in war have shattered families that now reel in pain after their children have been snatched away from them.
The imperative to relieve such gross suffering, if it is possible to do so without causing suffering that is even greater in so doing, is the topic of the third and last post in this series, in which I’ll post extracts of Barber’s assessment of the possibility of rescue.
There is hope here, amid all the suffering and hate.