On August 14, 2015, The New York Times carried a story by Rukmini Callimachi titled “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape.” I had seen the author on the preceding day in a lengthy interview on Public Television. It is about the systematic sexual slavery imposed on Yazidi women by the Islamist regime in Iraq and Syria. This monstrosity had been reported before, but not with the scope, the bureaucratic organization, and the details described in the NYT story. I found most appalling the theological handbook on the permissible treatment of sex slaves distributed to ISIS fighters about to purchase some, and the account by an underage victim of how her captor repeatedly prayed while raping her. In earlier reports, the availability of sex slaves had been mentioned as a recruiting device used by ISIS in Europe. One could imagine that this might be successful with the psychopaths who lurk on the margins of every society, most of whom could not care less about Islam. What is clear from this report is that at least some of these jihadis really believe that they are fulfilling a divine commandment by raping an infidel child. For them rage is a religious virtue, and any feeling of mercy is to be suppressed as a sinful weakness.Very few people had ever heard of the couple of hundred thousand remaining Yazidis before they broke into the news when ISIS conquered their home territory in the Nineveh province of northern Iraq. Actually they are an interesting case of a small surviving religion. Originally derived from Zoroastrianism, the faith of ancient Iran, the Yazidis believe that the world was created by one God, who set seven angels to rule over it. One of these, Melek Taus (also known as the Peacock Angel), rebelled against God and was cast into hell. This figure is very likely identical to Satan, another product of the Iranian religious imagination and prototype of the Biblical angel who fell from heaven. But in the Yazidi myth the Peacock Angel was reconciled with God and is therefore an object of devotion. This is just about precisely the opposite of the widespread idea (among Muslims as well as Christians in the region) that Yazidis worship the devil—if so, it is a repentant devil returned to God’s favor. In any case, Yazidis (unlike Christians and Jews) were never recognized by Muslims as “People of the Book” and thus accorded some protection (even as second-class citizens). ISIS barely recognizes this fine distinction; it commits genocide against the most ancient Christian communities in the world, and would undoubtedly commit it against Jews if it could find any. But Yazidis were singled out for particularly ferocious persecution.ISIS has managed to become a widespread image of pure evil. How is that image to be related to the perception of Islam as a whole? The Obama Administration studiously omits the term “Islamist”, always uses the vague category of “extremists.” (Does this include homicidal Presbyterians? Enraged Methodists?) This linguistic etiquette affects the curious manner in which the media continue to refer to this group—“IS, also known as ISIS, ISIL, DAESH” (this latest being an Arabic acronym). In other words, anything that doesn’t use the adjective “Islamic.” (Perhaps, instead of referring to Russia, in whose ancient banners Putin wraps himself, we should refer to “the former Soviet Union, a.k.a. Holy Rus, a.k.a. the Third Rome”—or just refer to “the Putin mafia”.)The rhetorical separation of “genuine” Islam from the Islamist monstrosities that dominate the news makes political sense: Western democracies do not want to appear to be waging war against one of the world’s most populous faiths. Also, it makes intellectual sense: The sex slavery manual of ISIS does not represent the moral consensus of Muslims either today or in the past. But to say that ISIS has ”nothing to do with Islam” is like saying that the Crusades or the Inquisition had “nothing to do with Christianity.” (The Crusades were a European real estate venture in the Middle East? Torquemada just wanted to provide fireworks for public entertainment?)This avoidance of reference to Islam dates from 9/11. President George W. Bush wanted to emphasize that we were not at war with Islam, and that we didn’t blame all Muslims for the attack against the World Trade Center and the other targets in the U.S. He said “Islam means peace.” This was said with the best of intentions. It was not good Arabic: The word “Islam” does not mean “peace”; it means “submission”, from the verb aslama/”to submit.” (My Arabic is hardly better than Bush’s. But at that moment he didn’t have good linguists at hand.) The strategy worked remarkably well, at least for a while. The presidential embrace of Islam was followed by a barrage of the same message from an impressive array of American religious leaders (Christian and Jewish), expressions of solidarity with “good” Muslims all over the country, and an upsurge of interest in courses and books about Islam. In the immediate aftermath of the attack there was a single violent incident in which a man was killed—a taxi driver who wore a turban (he was a Sikh!). There is of course the opposite reaction (interestingly more recent than 2011), manifested by enraged preachers burning the Quran and other manifestations of fierce anti-Muslim sentiments. This reaction is much in evidence in populist parties in Europe. Geert Wilders, who founded such a party in the Netherlands, exemplifies the identification of Islam as such with its most violent contemporary excesses. Wilders also compared the Quran with Hitler’s Mein Kampf; he advocated that the former be banned just as the latter has already been banned in the Netherlands. (He is also staunchly pro-Israel.)There has been much talk recently, on both sides of the Atlantic, that ISIS cannot only be opposed militarily, that it must also be opposed on the battlefield of ideas. British Prime Minister David Cameron has urged this forcefully. The psychopaths who flock to ISIS’s black banners will not be swayed by such ideas, especially if developed and preached by Islam experts in Western universities (boots on the ground with academic credentials? Obama, I’m sure, would love that )—or worse, by bureaucrats in the State Department or Whitehall. Yet it is difficult to quarrel with the proposal for a viable ideological response to radical Islamism. But there are two questions about this: Who should present these ideas? And where can they be found? The first question can be answered quite easily: The ideas will have to be presented from within the global Muslim community, preferably by relatively conservative Muslim thinkers (and not those so liberalized that they have no broader following). Also they are unlikely to be in places where heterodox ideas can be physically dangerous. As to the source of these ideas: There are many traditions within Islam of independent interpretation (ijtihad) of the Quran, of hadith (non-scriptural traditions about the Prophet), and (especially important) of Islamic law. In the recent volume 18 of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, published by the Hudson Institute, there is a surprisingly optimistic article by Reza Rumi, about “The Prospects for Reform in Islam.”I am not a Muslim, nor even a non-Muslim scholar of Islam. But I have an idea that the core of a religious tradition can be pronounced while one stands on one leg. I get this idea from Hillel the Elder (first century BCE), one of the fathers of rabbinical Judaism, who was asked (mockingly, I think) whether he could explain Torah while standing on one foot. He said yes, then pronounced the oldest known version of the Golden Rule (contrary to what many Christians think, Jesus did not originate this sentence; he was evidently citing Hillel). Then Hillel added a wonderful postscript: “The rest is commentary.” There is a Muslim saying, “The entire Quran is contained in the Bismillah” (I cannot locate the reference). The Bismillah /“in the name of” begins the first sentence of the first chapter (sura) of the Quran, which is then repeated over and over again at the beginning of every subsequent chapter and at the beginning of every daily prayer by a pious Muslim (which adds up to sixty-eight times every day). The sentence is Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim. The translation from the Arabic is difficult if one wants to avoid using two synonyms for the adjective—I understand that rhm is the so-called “stem” of the words for “mercy” or “compassion”—with rahman denoting a condition, rahim an action. So, if I follow these instructions, I come up with an English version: “In the name of God, who is merciful, who acts mercifully”. I may not know Arabic, but it seems to me that this sentence beautifully sums up the core quality of the God revealed in the Quran. A modest suggestion: There is the point where one may begin a counter-message against the merciless cult of death preached and practiced by ISIS. There is a hadith where these words are put in God’s (or perhaps the Prophet’s) mouth: “My mercy overcomes my anger.” Jalaluddin Rumi (1207–1273), arguably the most profound Muslim mystic, says in a poem: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field—I’ll meet you there.” In a curious way, this foreshadows a sentence by Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995), the French Talmudist and philosopher: “Beyond the law, there is the vast ocean of mercy.” It is as if Rumi’s Persian words anticipated Levinas’ French ones by seven hundred years (or who knows, perhaps the other way around–mystical perceptions transcend all categories!). In this connection, let me suggest that the comparison between Islam and Judaism is especially interesting in terms of the understanding of God’s mercy and his anger (the “wrath of God” in the Hebrew Bible). Both Islam and Judaism are religions of Law. (The word din actually means “law” in both Arabic and Hebrew. From early on rabbinical Judaism applied to legal reasoning the pervasive idea of God’s mercy. Until the destruction of Jewish sovereignty by the Romans in the first century CE the highest Jewish court was the Sanhedrin, which sat in Jerusalem. It was entitled to pass death sentences. But the imposition of such a sentence was made so difficult by various provisions that it was very rarely imposed. A Sanhedrin that passed even one death sentence in 70 years was called “a bloody Sanhedrin.” Then there was no Jewish state for all the centuries until the modern state of Israel; during this time the issue of the death penalty was purely theoretical (like when the rabbis discussed details of worship in the Jerusalem Temple that no longer existed). The modern State of Israel abolished capital punishment from its inception. It never executed an Arab terrorist. The only time a death sentence was pronounced and carried out was in the case of Adolf Eichmann (where even an ardent opponent of capital punishment might be tempted to approve). In any case, there is no reason to think that Islamic law, which began some seven hundred years after the beginning of rabbinical Judaism, could not also re-interpret the harshness of its din.Back to the question of who could be in the vanguard of the reform of Islam that is widely being called for. It is plausible that the Muslim diaspora in Western democracies could play an important role in this. Here are Muslims, many of whom have gone through modern higher education, who are enjoying vigorous protection of their religious freedom, and who are at least relatively free of intimidation by fundamentalist Islamists (at least as compared to the situation in the Islamic heartland). Of course they have every right to protest against any violations of their rights as citizens of a democracy. But it seems to me that they have more important things to do than to go on complaining about “Islamophobia” (as if the annoyance of special scrutiny at airports is somehow the moral equivalent of genocide). It is possible that the other Islam will take shape in America and Western Europe.
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Published on: August 19, 2015
Life in the CaliphateImages of Rage and of Mercy
ISIS has become a widespread image of pure evil. Yet the global Muslim community can counter the jihadists with ideas—chief among them, perhaps, the centrality of mercy.