By Thomas J. Whitley
In my first post for the MRBlog, I looked at the way the language we use to describe a group such as ISIS is often self-serving and used to discredit a completely different set of opponents. I’ve also looked at the debate over whether the US is fighting a “religious war” against ISIS. Describing ISIS as merely a “religious” group misses the political nature of their actions and goals and is often a shortcut to discredit Islam on the whole (or all religions) or to dismiss the group’s motivations as illegitimate. We cannot, though, dismiss the religious element completely. For ISIS depicts themselves in religious terminology and at least some of its members seem to genuinely understand their participation in this way.
One role that this religious language plays is as a tool of propaganda to gain acceptance and to recruit new members. The most recent issue of Dabiq (the official magazine for ISIS) contains a story titled, “Clamping Down on Sexual Deviance” (Dabiq 7:42-43). This brief article tells of the sexual sins that the West enjoys and condones as well as the destruction that has and will continue to come from this (they take as examples STDs, AIDS, and the rise in the rate of children born outside of marriage). The second half of the article, though, tells of how ISIS is being faithful by executing the appropriate punishments on those who are found guilty of sexual sins.
In the midst of this widespread affront to the fitrah (natural human disposition), the Islamic State continues its efforts against these deeds of misguidance – which Western “Civilization” regards as a part of their “values” – by implementing the rulings of Allah on those who practice any form of sexual deviancy or transgression.
Recently in Wilāyat Ar-Raqqah a man “found guilty of engaging in sodomy” was thrown off the top of a building and a woman who had been found guilty of zinā (unlawful sexual relations) was stoned. Pictures are included. The framing of these actions, though, is of maintaining religious purity and of protecting fellow Muslims (issue 4:28-29 contains a 2-page spread of photos of ISIS caring for children, cleaning streets, feeding people, and restoring electricity in a city. The title of the spread is “Services for the Muslims.”).
It is the implementation of Allah’s rulings and the adherence to His guidance, bi idhnillāh, that will protect the Muslims from treading the same rotten course that the West has chosen to pursue.
This framing is made clear at the outset, as the article is prefaced by a verse from Sūrah 2 of the Qur’an:
And do not follow the steps of Shaytān. Indeed, he is to you a clear enemy. He only orders you to evil and immortality. [Al-Baqarah: 168-169]
There is a sense, then, in which the article can be read as an exegesis of this verse with sayings of Muhammad to support its interpretation of the verse and examples of how ISIS is being faithful to the Qur’an and to Allah. They are the ones who are willing to do what it takes to mete out Allah’s punishment here on earth (issue 7:20-24 also contains an article titled “Islam is the Religion of the Sword Not Pacifism” that includes quotes from the Qur’an, sayings of Muhammad and reflection on the text. This is against “apologetic ‘du’āt,’” missionaries, and is a religious justification for their tactics). ISIS, then, is not only setting themselves up as protector of Muslims but also as the theologically pure and true representatives of Islam, over and against the West, to be sure, but also over and against heretical and errant Muslims.
This is a tactic that was also used by early Christian heresiologists such as Irenaeus and Epiphanius. Opponents are not just denounced on theological grounds but also on the grounds of their sexual licentiousness. Epiphanius, for instance, in his Medicine Chest Against Heresies, describes how the Gnostics are not just guilty of bad theology but also of bad behavior by detailing their secretive orgiastic exploits. In the case of Epiphanius in the 4th century and in the case of ISIS today, the point is to show that sexual error and theological error go hand in hand. The man accused of being a “sodomite,” the woman accused of zinā, and a man accused of possessing pornography serve as foils for ISIS. They are sexually deviant while ISIS is pure and chaste. Likewise, their deviancy belies their theological deviancy. For they have not heeded the words of Allah and have given in to the evil one. Muslims the world round, though, can rest easy because ISIS has taken it upon themselves to make sure that these deeds do not go unpunished, that they do not become widespread (like they have in the West), and, in doing so, that Muslims will be protected. One can be cynical and dismiss this as mere propaganda, but that fails to understand the group on its own terms and to appreciate the power that rhetoric and actions like this have as recruiting tools. The influx of fighters to the region and the actions of Europeans who have been inspired by ISIS show the success of these strategies. ISIS has a clear message and they are sharing it with all who will listen.