I just heard my good friend and friend of the blog Andrew March on one of my favorite radio programs, PRI’s The World, discussing the theology of ISIS and the means by which it uses its own core theological principles to develop and administer its own brand of Islamic justice in Mosul. Professor March discusses the subject as well with Will McCant here on the Brookings Institute Blog, as does Mohammad Fadel in a separate post. I have no quarrel with any of this material. Indeed, to the contrary I find the discussions thoughtful, cogent, learned and a careful evaluation of ISIS theology and its relationship, at times tendentious, to classical Islamic law.
There is, however, just one thing I do find missing in reports of this sort, exemplified by the following factoid, which seems inharmonious with these sorts of descriptions. There seems to be a fair amount of pornography consumed and traded in and by the Islamic State. In fact, Bashar al-Assad’s most successful spying scheme on the Syrian opposition, including Islamist opponents, seems to have involved hackers pretending to be attractive women offering seductive photos that in fact turn out to contain spyware. This is not unique to ISIS–in fact even Bin Laden himself had a stash of pornography, according to reliable reports. “Terabytes” of porn is recovered from computers of jihadists, according to one article, quoting an assistant professor at Georgetown, Christine Fair.
Anticipating the reactions of scholars such as Professors March and Fadel to this point, I suspect they would say they would not know whether this was true, as it is not their respective area of expertise, nor would it be of terribly much concern to them if if it was. After all, pornography consumption is certainly not a part of jihadist ideology, nor has it ever been. ISIS does not claim that it is permissible to consume pornography, indeed it seems to punish those who watch it with lashings. Therefore, in understanding the theological arguments of ISIS, and their relationship to Islamic law, ISIS pornography consumption is as relevant as Jimmy Swaggart’s relationship with prostitutes is to Christian evangelism, which is to say, not relevant at all.
This is all true, and again, I have no disagreements with the accounts of my friends, but only mean to suggest that they are only one way to approach the matter of ISIS, and indeed other perspectives demand greater attention than they have received. For if we only understand ISIS from the point of view of its own theology, then the image that is produced, and it is a viciously distorted one, is that there is something essential, necessary, fundamental, absolute, and unchanging about that theology, and the commitment of the fighters to it. Hence if we understand the theological underpinnings, and the Islamic claims being made, then we understand ISIS–what it thinks, how it rules, how it is organized, and how its rank and file are motivated. Whether that theology is closely related to classical Islamic law, is the pith and pit of classical Islamic law, is a plausible set of principles emerging therefrom, or is some wild and ridiculous variant can, and of course is, debated, but, under this dominant narrative, the theology, however Islamic it is or not, motivates all that is done in ISIS’ name.
The problem, however, is that this does very little to explain the porn troves of jihadist fighters consistently and continually found from 2001 forward.
Let me in this context relay two other inconvenient facts, related to other parts of the Middle East that I think are relevant. One of these is empirical and the other anecdotal. The first is the well documented and broadly described repeated harassment of women on Arab city streets, whether that is pervasive sexual assault in Cairo’s Tahrir Square or the oral catcalls and assaults that led to a Jordanian professor producing a movie featuring her female students holding placards that wrote out in explicit detail the horrible things being said to them. You will be happy to learn, however, that in the latter case justice was done. The Jordanian professor lost her job as Dean, because, after all, one shouldn’t be parading such profanity about in public. Doing something to stop those who actually initiated the profanity against the student victims I suppose is left to another day.
The second tidbit is the first time I found out that my good Iraqi friend, whom I will call Waleed to protect his identity, is a beer drinker. I saw him once during a walk in Washington DC at a bar, a few blocks from where I had made reservations for this Iraqi academic delegation. Waleed begged me not to let the others know he drank beer, which I was happy to do, except, I asked, why would he take the risk of having a drink so close to the hotel? Might they not find him? No chance of that, he assured me, as they had just gone across the street to a strip club. He had an unencumbered view of the place, and would know when they emerged. (He claimed that he did not enter because he did not believe in disappointing his wife. I of course do not know whether that was true, or whether he thought I’d like that story over the one where he prefers a craft beer to a view of naked women, but I give my friend the benefit of the doubt).
At the time, over a decade ago, having spent only six months in Iraq after more than a decade and a half away from it, I was confused. Why would Waleed care if they saw him drinking in these circumstances? Because, he said, they will say terrible things about me when I return home to southern Iraq. But couldn’t you point out they were in a strip club? His eyes widened further, and he pointed out this would make it worse, as then he’s not only a bad Muslim, but insufficiently masculine as well.
Many years later, having spent much time in Iraq, and bringing Iraqis to the US, with much of it deflecting questions about where the best strip clubs are, and how to get an escort, I have found no correlation between the queries and the religious commitment of the person asking for the most part. (That is not to say all ask by any means, but that secular and religious ask in equal proportion). Nor have I found any correlation between the pornography ordered in the hotel and the religious commitment of the person ordering it, unless of course it is true that the devout managed to rent six nonporn movies a night as was often claimed. The alcohol consumption is also more widespread based on minibar bills than one might otherwise believe, though it is definitely hidden and more correlated to religiosity. Certainly, no religious person dares ask me where the nearest bar is. It is worth a study to be sure to develop empirics on these phenomena.
If you were to ask me now how best I might convey the relationship between alcohol and sex in the Iraqi male mind, I suppose I would suggest it is the same as if Jerry Sandusky were to ask me why I am so indignant at him if just the other day I jaywalked. “Because I crossed the street and you raped kids, you sick bastard,” I suppose I would retort, finding no need to elaborate beyond that. Drinking is really bad, but strippers and prostitutes–well, after all, boys will be boys.
The core problem with this is that it bears zero relationship to Islamic law. If drinking is punishable by 80 lashes because of the threat of debauchery it poses to the good Muslim society, then fornication is a minimum of 100 lashes, and stoning for the married. The precautions that are put in to prevent lasciviciousness beyond severity of punishment–the closing of the means to fornication, as it were–are the rules of segregation and female dress that are so well known throughout the Islamic world, with ample historical pedigree to support them. Sex in Islamic law is certainly not jaywalking. In today’s world, however, with the ubiquity of the internet and the ease of travel to non-Muslim societies, the rules on sex and sexuality appear to have largely transformed, to the extent they were ever faithfully applied in the first place. In theological theory, the idea remains the same–close off the means to fornication and keep the good Muslim society pure, with permissible sex strictly defined and limited. In practice, what with the strippers, the harassment and the porn, the idea seems to be a means to ensure that women do not penetrate the social space, and Muslim women remain in subjugated status. The means to achieve that of course is to ensure that one has a supply of “other” women from which to seek real or virtual gratification–porn stars, escorts, and even women found on the street whom one does not know and can at least pretend are “bad” others. Break the rules with them, as a man, and it is jaywalking, theological doctrines be damned. Break them as a woman, and of course it is worse than even beer on a DC street.
This being so, let me posit an alternative hypothesis on the question of ISIS slave taking, one related more closely to the cultures I have come to learn about and less to the doctrines that purport to motivate them. In sum, they were going to do it anyway. They took territory, they found non-Muslim women, those “other” women were going to be abducted, and they were going to be raped. It certainly was convenient to ISIS that it had classical rules respecting slavery and the sexual “enjoyment” (the fiqh term, not mine) of slaves that it could claim to make use of, but if there weren’t such rules, they’d find some other justification in the jurisprudence. And if there were no justifications that would avoid making them look ridiculous, as is the case with pornography, then, as is the case with pornography, they’d do it anyway and say they weren’t. Perhaps not in as organized and systematic fashion, perhaps in a less widespread fashion, it being harder to traffic people than porn, but perhaps just as widespread, for the trafficking of people is not all that hard, we certainly know well. You do not need the doctrine to explain this, the doctrine is all but mask. You just need to know their cultural biases, their porn practices, their treatment toward and conceptions of women generally.
Does this explain ISIS in toto? Of course not. Just as the theological account cannot explain pornography, so I could not begin to explain Waleed’s embarrassment at being caught with a beer without reference to Islamic law, from Qur’anic verse to broadly accepted interpretations of the Sunni and Shi’i schools. I do not intend to replace doctrinal centralism with some sort of utter disregard of all Islamic doctrine. I do mean to say that if we are going to understand ISIS, let’s not just look at what they say by way of doctrine. Let’s take a closer look at what they do by way of practice as well. Like people everywhere, those two things are hardly the same.