North Africa, West Asia

The ISIS threat: terror, propaganda and ideology

Mainstream Muslim scholars must engage with reinterpreting passages of the Qur'an that seem to support ISIS' treatment of women. Translated excerpt from Trusselen fra IS: Terror, propaganda og ideologi.

Mah-Rukh Ali
25 November 2015

Demotix/John Rooney. All rights reserved.From where we are positioned, the refugee camp appears enormous. Big, heated tents are situated next to each other in rows. Bread is made in a traditional earth oven, several metres beneath the ground. The dough is stuck to the clay walls and baked with the lid attached to the top of the oven. When the bread is done, it plunges downwards and hits a grate placed inside the oven.

We run into girls on their way to school. A girl wearing a pink sweater and leopard-patterned corduroys plays football with a tin can. Two girls sit behind a tent, one of them combing the other's hair. Next to a man who sells clothing, children in army sweatpants play. They smile and fool about while I take their pictures, and they communicate with signals, which, for a split second, recall the sign gesticulated by ISIS fighters pointing towards the sky and Allah.

The impression I get is similar to that of a visit to a Christian refugee camp in Erbil, a few hours south of the Yezidi camp in Dohuk. Tens of thousands of Christians fled the village of Qaragosh, which was seized by ISIS in August 2014. The residents ran out of water and electricity supplies following the arrival of ISIS in the province capital of Mosul. Still, the 50,000 Christians believed they were safe. Women and men reveal the sense of horror that proliferated as ISIS drew closer to their village. One of the refugees recounts:

“ISIS approached the town and laid out the options: to die, to convert, to flee or to pay a Christian tax to continue to live under their regime. So we left all our possessions, for we had heard what happened to the Yezidis in Sinjar. Some old men did not leave, either because their health did not allow them to, or because the news reached them too late. They stayed behind. I do not know what happened to them.”

This camp, too, is characterised by its placidity. Some girls sit on a bench and do their homework. Another one is seated on the ground. A woman, who wears sweatpants embroidered with characters from the Disney movie Frost, prepares tomatoes and eggs in a frying pan. Nissar Potnus, 58, says:

"They pillaged our homes, robbed them of valuables. They broke into houses and took everything. Even refrigerators. They took our livestock. Everything. My car was left behind. Everything we built over the whole course of our lives is gone. Nonetheless, we fear nothing but the loss of our women. We are aware of what happened to the Mosul women. Many young, Christian women were kidnapped from their families, and the Christian families received life threats when attempting to retrieve the women...Before Daesh arrived, we co-existed peacefully with Muslims. Then, everything changed.”

The family nod their heads in agreement.

“ISIS fighters are sexually frustrated losers.” Those were the words of London mayor Boris Johnson. It is a simplistic and banal statement, although there is no doubt that ISIS wields women and sex as draw cards to recruit western men. This assertion is also reflected in the numerous stories about western men who have travelled to IS occupied areas.

One of them, Raphael Hostey, 22, who travelled to Syria from Manchester in 2013, is part of ISIS’ recruitment team, which assists newly arrived fighters from the west across the border. He was believed to be an ordinary chap from the UK who attended John Moores University in Liverpool prior to his departure to Syria, where he gained the nickname “Al Britani Afro”. Raphael left both his wife and children in Manchester. Now he is accused of “stealing” girls from fellow fighters, and of demanding from prospective female travellers to Syria, with whom he chats online, to remove their hijab and niqab so he can determine which of them are the prettiest.

Where Boris Johnson is right is that ISIS is a state established by men, for men, in order to cater to men obsessed with weapons, murder and torture, and who have an urge to rape and abuse women and children. The regime provides them with a religious legitimacy with no basis in Islam. They misuse religion to fulfil sadistic fantasies involving children and women. They exploit the fact that imams and Muslim theologians lag behind in efforts to answer important questions concerning women and gender equality in a modern world. The imams not only fall short of providing answers on the position of women in society, but also on the issue of homosexuality. Out of fear of discomfort, and due to uncertainty in tackling these kinds of universal debates, they remain silent. It yields mullahs the power to define these issues.

ISIS throws living people off tall buildings in Raqqa, just because they are gay, and does so in the name of Islam. They abuse children and women while appealing to the Qur'an. Western Muslims feel stripped of explanations when these issues are up for debate, because their alleged fellow believers have nothing in common with their religion.

The accounts of sexual abuse also fuel anti-Islamic segments in western societies, which eagerly capitalise on such reports to argue that Islam discriminates against women. Nor is it difficult to find passages in the Quran that support such views. In particular, verse 4:34 serves as an example of discrimination against women:

"Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband's] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance - [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand."

It does little good for imams to write letters to ISIS leader Al Baghdadi, stressing that ISIS’ maltreatment of women, children and minorities is incompatible with Islam, when they fail to provide answers to these questions relevant to our times.

It is their obligation to discuss Qur’anic verses that are perceived as discriminatory to women; why women are allotted only half the inheritance share of men, and why men are allowed to take four wives.

Despite some Islamic jurists’ valuable efforts to interpret verse 4:34 in accordance with modern times, it is of little use as long as these efforts fail to engage mainstream imams.

Those who think innovatively and grasp Islam in contemporary terms, with an entirely different context than that of the time of the Prophet, are often criticised for diluting religion and for taking too secular and alternative a stand. The majority of scholars have refrained from breaking the silence because it is the least challenging option. Yet their silence is widely recognised as tacit approval of the prevailing interpretations.

Excerpted from the book Trusselen fra IS: Terror, propaganda og ideologi by Mah-Rukh Ali (Kagge Publishing, 2015). Translated from the Norwegian by Sian O´Hara.

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