Archive - August 2015

Can It Any Longer Be Denied that ISIS and Its Cruelties are Religious?
An Islamic Enlightenment? It’s Been Under Way for a While.
Reflecting on Iraqi Christians and Yazidis One Year After Terrible Massacres
Atomic Anniversaries and Nuclear Disarmament

Can It Any Longer Be Denied that ISIS and Its Cruelties are Religious?

Last week, The New York Times published a long article by Rukmini Callimachi on ISIS and the systematic cruelty that the group has imposed upon Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, including the sexual enslavement and rape of women and girls and the massacre of men and boys. The article is excellent reportage, giving front-page attention to the similar findings of human rights groups, and deepens the world’s understanding of ISIS and the atrocities that it has been perpetrating.

The story also buttresses some running arguments that we have been making here at ArcU. First, political theology matters. ISIS’ atrocities stem from its members’ religious beliefs. One of the piece’s central themes is that ISIS’ atrocities flow from very specific theological justifications. The title of the article is indeed, “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape.” Theology explains why ISIS has singled out the Yazidis for particularly harsh treatment: the Yazidis’ beliefs are especially heretical. ISIS has pursued no similar campaign towards the women of other religious minorities. Theology explains the kind of treatment to which ISIS has subjected the Yazidis and how it has gone about administering this treatment. ISIS uses its theology to recruit young men whose own beliefs makes them sympathetic to join.   It is for reasons of theology that ISIS has abducted 5,270 Yazidis and continues to hold 3144 of them.

It is an important finding in light of an intense debate running among academics, journalists, and other analysts over whether theology explains ISIS’s motivations.   Such a debate took place after the publication of Graeme Wood’s piece on ISIS this past February in The Atlantic. And it has taken place in episode after episode involving Islam at least as far back as the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Is it theology that explains the behavior of the attackers or is it economic dislocation, resentment over colonialism and present-day imperialism, weak states, the desire for adventure, and other alternative causes? Of course, most who think that religious beliefs play a strong and independent role, as I do, also believe that these myriad factors are commingled and contributory. It is also the case that members of ISIS will hold their beliefs with greater and lesser intensity. Some are very bad Muslims. But the behavior and tactics of the group cannot be explained apart from the theology that governs it and is promulgated within it. This is what is denied by a striking number of analysts writing today. See only the reaction to Wood’s piece.  The critics are dismissive of religion altogether and hold that theology is almost entirely a rationalization, not a driver or a motive.

Some of the critics take to task views like Wood’s and mine for “essentializing” Islam and holding that Islam is the cause of behavior like that of ISIS. That is not my view. With respect to Islam as a whole, ISIS is a tiny sect whose theology is highly particular, not shared, and indeed condemned by most Muslims. Still, it is a theology and it motivates the behavior of its members. Those who deny this, I ask them to read Callimachi’s NYT piece – and let’s have a conversation.

The second argument has to do with religious freedom. Is it a western value, derived from western experience, unlikely to be accepted outside the West, and one that should not be imposed through western power? Or is it a universal principle, attendant upon human dignity, as the international human rights conventions would suggest? Previous ArcU pieces (see here and here) have engaged a group of scholars who are highly critical of religious freedom, which they believe is a product of power and culture that emerged contingently in the West. They published a set of pieces at Immanent Frame (the vast majority, but not all, of which took this point of view) that the University of Chicago has just printed as a book.

One of the things that struck me about ISIS’ behavior as reported by the New York Times piece is that it involves what are obviously and straightforwardly human rights violations – cruelties that anyone from anywhere can recognize as a cruelty without difficulty.  They are violations of bodily integrity, sexual integrity, the dignity of women, the right not to be enslaved, and the like.

These cruelties are also quite obviously and straightforwardly violations of religious freedom. Acting on its theology, ISIS is perpetrating horrible deeds upon the Yazidis because of their theology. It is because of what Yazidis believe and how they practice their faith that ISIS enslaves and rapes their women and girls and massacres their men. Why, then, would religious freedom, not be a part of the set of principles and the dimensions of human dignity that are violated by ISIS’ behavior? Why could not anyone affirm that, whatever may be right or wrong about what Yazidis believe, there is not even remote warrant for them to be treated as they are because of what they believe?

Do those who think that religious freedom is a western value also think that the principles and the dignity that are violated when Yazidis are raped, enslaved, and massacred are also culturally contingent? I doubt it, but if they do, then I recommend the NYT piece to them. If they would agree that prohibitions of slavery and rape are properly universal values, then why would they not also agree that religious freedom is a universal value? That Yazidis are violated because they are Yazidis is part and parcel of the cruelty being inflicted upon them. Is it not wrong everywhere that people should be treated as ISIS does the Yazidis on account of their religious beliefs? On what grounds ought we to stress the cruelty of rape, slavery, and massacre – as we should vociferously – but leave out the religious dimension of human dignity?

An Islamic Enlightenment? It’s Been Under Way for a While.

Calls for an “Islamic Enlightenment” are frequent.  J. Judd Owen and I just published on some thoughts on these calls.  We argue that, if you look at the early decades of the European Enlightenment — in particular the phenomenon of Enlightened Despotism and the reactions from traditionalists — you’ll see a family resemblance to what the Muslim Middle East has been going through for roughly eighty years.

Reflecting on Iraqi Christians and Yazidis One Year After Terrible Massacres

John Allen has published a typically excellent column on remembering Christians and Yazidis who were massacred one year ago by ISIS and offering reflections on American involvement there.  He writes:

[August 6] marks the one-year anniversary of one of the greatest calamities to fall upon Christians anywhere on the planet in the early 21st century — an ISIS offensive in the Plains of Nineveh in northern Iraq that broke out on Aug. 6-7, 2014, and left thousands of Christians and Yazidis dead.

It also drove an estimated 120,000 Christians into exile either inside the country, in places such as Kirkuk and Erbil, or outside in refugee camps in nations such as Turkey and Jordan.

During the assault, churches and monasteries were destroyed, centuries-old Christian manuscripts were burned, and scores of Christians were killed, often in staggeringly brutal fashion: flogged to death, beheaded, and, in at least a few cases, reportedly crucified. They often died cheek-by-jowl with Yazidis, who practice an ancient syncretistic form of monotheism, in a grim reminder that it’s not just Christians at risk.

He makes a case for the U.S. coming to their aid:

First of all, coming to the aid of Iraqi Christians and other minorities is not merely a humanitarian or confessional imperative. There’s also a clear strategic logic for doing so.

To begin with, if Iraq and Syria are emptied of their Christian populations, then any lingering hope for democracy and development will likely go with them. Two of the premier hotspots on the planet would become even more dangerous.

Not only do Christians operate the most significant private networks of schools, hospitals, and social service centers across the Middle East, but their higher-than-average educational and occupational levels generally make them a force for stability. They also serve as a natural bridge between the Muslim world and the West.

If you want peace in the Middle East, in other words, then make sure Christians have a home there.

In addition, the makeshift camps in which Christian exiles are now crowded have the potential to become breeding grounds for both political resentments and criminal enterprises, to some extent like what happened in Palestinian refugee camps after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Granted, Christians generally stand a much better shot at eventually resettling in the West, but that’s not true of all. The potential for mayhem increases the longer people are forced to remain in the camps, despairing of ever returning home.

Given what’s at stake, one hardly needs to be a Christian, a Yazidi, or even a humanitarian activist to grasp that doing something for these refugees deserves to be an urgent geopolitical priority.

He also points out that what is happening now is a direct consequence of the U.S. war in Iraq in 2003:

For Americans, the one-year anniversary of the assault in the Plains of Nineveh also invites an examination of conscience.

Whatever one makes of the moral legitimacy of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, it’s empirically undeniable that the war ripped the lid off pre-existing sectarian tensions and created a context in which the country’s minority groups, above all its Christians, today find themselves in the firing line.

St. John Paul II’s political prescience was never clearer than when he dispatched the late Cardinal Pio Laghi to meet with US President George W. Bush in a vain effort to head off the invasion, telling Laghi to warn the Americans that Iraq’s minorities, beginning with its Christians, would be its first victims.

Perhaps the whole world has something to gain from making it possible for those 600,000 Iraqi Christians, along with the Yazidis and others, to go home and to live in peace and security. Americans, however, also carry a moral responsibility to work for that outcome, quite apart from matters of self-interest.

In December 2013, Patriarch Louis Sako of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church articulated what his people were feeling at that point, sentiments that can only have intensified after last year’s disaster.

“We feel forgotten and isolated,” Sako said.

“We sometimes wonder, if they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West? Would they do something then?”

That’s a question well worth pondering today, perhaps especially in the United States.






Atomic Anniversaries and Nuclear Disarmament

What kind of peace do we seek? The Roman historian Tacitus, writing near the time of Jesus, described how the Pax Romana was experienced by people, like the Celts and Jews, who had been conquered by the Romans: “They make a desolation and call it peace.”

Seventy years ago, the U.S. made a desolation, and called it peace. The U.S. sought an unconditional peace with Japan, before the Soviets invaded Japan in WWII. Toward this end, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing more than a quarter million people, mostly civilians.

As Christians, this is not the sort of peace we seek. Jesus of Nazareth made it clear that he was not in favor of a desolate peace, a negative peace, based on the threat of military destruction. At the time, Catholic and religious leaders were some of the few voices raised in opposition to atomic weapons. The Holy See argued “the new death instruments” were “catastrophic.” Atomic weapons raised a “sinister shadow on the future of humanity.”

Their concerns were sadly prescient. Army Air force leaders argued for more atomic bombings of Japanese cities. The world’s nuclear arsenal rapidly grew from a handful of U.S. atomic weapons in 1945, to over 66,000 nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War, primarily in the U.S. and Soviet arsenals. Today, many citizens mistakenly believe the nuclear danger largely receded with the end of the Cold War twenty five years ago. Unfortunately, nuclear weapons present huge dangers today, from threats of accident, to hundreds of thefts of fissile materials and/or weapons, to proliferation and use by terrorists and insurgents such as ISIL. This is a real concern, not merely the stuff of action movies. ISIL stole over 80 pounds of uranium from Mosul University in Iraq this past year. While that material is not weapons-grade, it could be used in a dirty bomb that would spread panic and radiation.

Pointing to the disastrous humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, religious communities have joined with secular advocates for deep reductions of nuclear weapons. Former “Cold Warriors” such as President Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schultz, President Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, and President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense William Perry, today all urge deep reductions in nuclear arms.   Pope Francis concurs.

The Japanese continue to advocate for a world free of nuclear weapons. As Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui put it in marking the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings, “Our world still bristles with more than 15,000 nuclear weapons, and policymakers in the nuclear-armed states remain trapped in provincial thinking, repeating by word and deed their nuclear intimidation. We now know about the many incidents and accidents that have taken us to the brink of nuclear war or nuclear explosions. Today, we worry as well about nuclear terrorism. To coexist we must abolish the absolute evil and ultimate inhumanity that are nuclear weapons. Now is the time to start taking action.”

There are other paths to peace, that I discuss in the cover story of America magazine this week.  The Just Peace tool box gives us many proven methods to build lasting, sustainable peace, approaches that do not “make a desolation and call it peace.” We should use just peace and reconciliation approaches to nuclear disarmament.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.